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The difference between being well and feeling well

Marco Arment discovered an old article in The Atlantic pronouncing the triumph of New-Age medicine. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but the introduction reminded me of what I thought was its biggest fault in reasoning:

… But now many doctors admit that alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well, and at a much lower cost, than mainstream care—and they’re trying to learn from it.

Alternative medicine does not make patients well. It makes them feel well. The difference is huge.

Here are two graphs from an excellent free-to-access NEJM article that compared four methods of treating asthma: conventional medicine, placebo, sham acupuncture, and doing nothing. Adding real acupuncture to the interventions would have made the study perfect. Some other time, perhaps. The first one shows how well the patients in each group felt after 2-4 weeks of treatment.

Ah ha! Conventional medicine was no better than sham (sham!) acupuncture, and both beat placebo inhalers. Alternative medicine wins! Or did conventional medicine lose? At the very least it’s a draw.

Not so fast. The second graphs shows the amount of objective improvement, measured in FEV1—the volume of air you exhale during the first second of breathing out:

If this were the common cold, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. But asthma is not the common cold. People die of it every day, not because they didn’t feel well—though being unable to breathe is doubtlessly uncomfortable—but because their airways were too tight to get any air out of the lungs.

This is why alternative medicine can be dangerous in the wrong hands, with the wrong patient. Improving quality of life is important, but so is curing disease.

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