Guest Opinion: Physicians shouldn’t condescend to those preferring alternative medicine

While homeopathic methods have been scientifically disproven, sympathy for patients is still necessary.


The divide between homeopathic and allopathic medicine dates back to the 1800s and, albeit shrinking, is still very much present today.

As much as public interest in alternative medicine seems to have grown outside of clinic doors, the irritation and dismissive avoidance of the matter among health-care providers seems to have intensified behind them.

As a friend and family member to several people who struggle with chronic conditions and have an interest in alternative medicine, I have seen them time after time return from appointments feeling dismissed, disappointed, and ever-more distrustful of the allopathic medical community.

I am also, however, a part of that medical community as a medical student myself, and so I have seen and experienced firsthand the frustration toward patients who come to clinic with persistent skepticism of allopathic medicine and a strong preference for alternative treatment.

Standing between these two very different head spaces, I would like to make the argument that thoroughly addressing and welcoming patients’ concerns and preferences around this issue is an integral component of a physician’s work; considering the virtues at risk, the discussion of these issues is not something to be swept aside.

To judge the legitimacy of a treatment modality solely based on its categorization between allopathic and alternative medicine is to make an emotional decision more so than a rational one, and therefore to put our scientific integrity at risk. If this sounds extreme, consider where allopathic medicine draws its authority — from consistent and rigorous application of the scientific method. 

To dismiss or take into practice any treatment method without first adequately studying it is unscientific and in direct opposition with three of the four virtues that we hold at the center of medical ethics: beneficence, nonmaleficence, patient autonomy. 

Beneficence — the virtue of maximizing benefit to the patient — is put at risk when we overlook any potentially helpful intervention. 

Nonmaleficence — the virtue of minimizing harm to the patient — is put at risk when shutting down the conversation around alternative medicine leads to an unfavorable interaction between pharmacologic agents and herbal supplements that a patient may be taking. 

Patient autonomy — the virtue of facilitating the patient’s ability to make informed decisions about their own health care and protecting their right to do so — is put at risk when we deny the patient access to informed conversations and resources about the potential benefits and risks of pursuing alternative treatments.

Ultimately, concerns and preferences around the issue of alternative vs. allopathic treatments will inevitably find their way into clinics regardless of whether or not a given alternative treatment has been adequately studied. It may manifest as patients’ hesitance to be compliant with allopathic recommendations, a reluctance to be completely honest in conversations about their daily practices and preferences of care for fear of being condescended to, an evident distrust of the physician, or a stern insistence that only alternative treatment methods be considered.

In keeping with the movement towards “wholistic” medicine, these concerns and questions are just as much deserving of the physician’s acknowledgement as anything else a patient brings into the clinic room that has a significant impact on their well-being.

I would urge all practicing and future physicians to take this into consideration. Addressing these issues may be irritating, but it’s an important part of our work and the Hippocratic Oath that we took to get here.

Kelsey Adler, M.D. Candidate, UI Carver College of Medicine

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