Panel discusses history, future of alternative therapies

4 min read

The history of alternative and complementary medical treatments can inform the medicine of today.

That was the message of “Sectarian (to Unorthodox to Alternative) to Complementary Medicine: What Historical Perspectives can Tell Modern Medicine,” an afternoon of talks sponsored by the Countway Library’s Center for the History of Medicine on March 26.

The talks were enhanced by a series of displays at the library on natural medicines, the history of homeopathy and Chinese and botanical medicine. But it was the discussion of homeopathy that took the program’s center stage.

Developed in the 1700s, homeopathy attempts to cure a patient’s illness using a small dose of a drug that produces similar symptoms in a healthy person. The drug creates a simulated form of the disease that the body then can combat.

Early homeopathy research led to pioneering empirical medical trials, said Ted Kaptchuk, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) Osher Center, whose talk led off the discussion.

In its efforts to be taken seriously by the mainstream medical community, homeopaths, he said, were held to more rigorous standards. This scrutiny, he concluded, was productive, as it led to attempts at increased clarity and methodological rigor.

Kaptchuk pointed to a study done in 1879-1880, sponsored by the Milwaukee Academy of Medicine, that used the double-blind method, in which neither the researcher nor the patient knows if the patient is receiving the medicine or a placebo — to test a homeopathic remedy.

“[Homeopaths] understood you have to control for bias. Can you believe this?” said Kaptchuk, noting that such double-blind experiments didn’t become standard practice in mainstream medical circles until well after World War II.

Anne Kirschmann, a lecturer in the history department at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and author of “A Vital Force: Women in American Homeopathy” (Rutgers University Press, 2003), examined the role homeopathy played for women in the 19th century. She noted that the homeopathic community was more inclusive of women than traditional medical institutions, and that its progressive attitude linked it closely with many social movements, including the push for women’s rights and other social reforms.

But over the years, a split between the licensed practitioners of homeopathy and the practice’s lay community — those who wanted more involvement in homeopathic theory and practice without submitting to the rigors of its academic training — took shape. Some say the divide conferred a new ambiguity on the technique’s status.

“Whether modern homeopathy can survive as a belief system remains to be seen,” said John S. Haller Jr., a professor of history and medical humanities at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. “Having moved so far into the world of the nonprofessional healer and having thereby distanced itself from most licensure requirements tied to training, testing, and certification, homeopathy can no longer be seen as anything more than a faith-based system dependent upon anecdotes, beliefs, theories, preconceived notions, testimonials, and opinions. Ultimately this may be what its laity wanted all along.”

Donald Levy, HMS assistant clinical professor of medicine and director of the Osher Clinical Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, brought the discussion into the everyday. He talked about the benefits of using a holistic approach in the treating of chronic illnesses.

As a primary care physician for 25 years, Levy said he found modern medicine effective for emergency care and certain mechanical repairs like broken bones and worn-out heart valves, but that it was less helpful with recurring problems like headaches, chronic pain, and allergies.

“The modern magic buttons weren’t always the best thing for chronic illness,” he said. “I ran out of options early.”

Levy turned to an integrated approach, one that incorporated lifestyle changes and therapies that enhanced “the innate ability of the body to heal with minimally invasive procedures.” Effective therapies included acupuncture, chiropractic care, and various forms of massage and body awareness training, as well as techniques for stress reduction.

Levy also cited the benefits of dietary supplements that could be taken independently or as a complement to other medications. He said, for example, that a combination of a high dose of vitamin B2 (riboflavin), a magnesium supplement, and a preparation of the herb butterbur can be effective in preventing migraine headaches. A rational approach to such therapy, he noted, also considered a patient’s specific health issues, lifestyle factors, and family history, as well as the growing scientific literature in the area.

Integrating the traditional with the alternative, Levy said, was “part of the big picture, part of the big thinking,” and can yield gratifying results.

He also noted that recent trends toward self-care and preventive care are increasingly becoming part of mainstream medicine.