Alternative vs. Conventional: Social Duality of Medicine

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We’ve heard the endless debates about medicinal treatment on forums1, 2, 3 and social media4, 5, 6, where two schools of thought share articles and argue on the benefits, vices, applications, and dangers of alternative medicine and conventional medicine. It seems it is all a matter of opinion and thus, a choice for the individual. But is it that simple and harmless? Does one person’s opinion on medicine matter enough to debate on – where the opposition merely tries to persuade to their own opinion – or is the opinion more important to society as a whole and not just internet banter? Before we continue, let’s analyse the definitions of alternative and conventional medicine:

Alternative medicine (homoeopathy, herbalism, naturopathy, etc) is an alternative approach to conventional means of treatment. Its efficacy is largely determined by anecdotes in unlicensed practitioners, and evidence-based and peer reviewed studies for licensed practitioners and academics7. It is a system that refuses the use of pharmaceutical medicine (drugs) or treatments of conventional medicine.

Conventional medicine is an evidence-based medical practice that utilises scientific methods to diagnose, prevent, and treat conditions. It is a system that uses pharmaceutical drugs and surgery in its treatment of the conditions. The process for study in conventional medicine includes thorough knowledge of pharmaceutical sciences8, double-blind randomised clinical trials where placebos are administered along with the treatment for control or against existing treatments9, and peer review10 of all studies.

With that clarified, let’s move on. How does society, in general, perceive alternative and conventional medicine? To answer this, let’s take a look at how the industries are marketed. Both alternative and conventional products need to find their market and sell; both need to make money and are in the business of money. Medical products market to investors who provide the money to fund research, trials, studies, equipment, materials, subjects, publishing, and all other expenses acquired in the pursuit of science. Products are advertised to the general public, practitioners, pharmacists, and insurance companies11, 12. It’s basic capitalist economics.

Marketing Effects on Society

A driving marketing campaign of alternative medicine is the slander of pharmaceuticals. Smear campaigns are spread through articles13, documentaries14, social media posts15, and by the practitioners of the system16 against conventional medicine by claiming a monopoly, toxic side-effects, high mortality rates, and interpretations of medical studies in accredited scientific journals. The method of their argument uses facts as a foundation then continues to misconstrue or neglect aspects that contradict or do not compliment their arguments, blaming the medical industry for issues in policy (such as health care costs). However, many alternative medicine campaigns focus on the product itself instead of comparing its treatment to pharmaceuticals for the same condition or creating a duality of the two medicines, to its credit.

Conventional medicine uses fear campaigns in public health reports17, 18 and commercials19 as well, because it can be effective. Fear is one of the major primary emotions in humans, and if used properly, can steer the audience to the desired reaction20. These campaigns intend to be public service announcements, including sources and scientific information the population should be aware of. Condemning of alternative medicine appears in the form of articles21, lectures22, and social media23 where the science of the medicine and ethical issues surrounding it come under scrutiny by scientists, practitioners, and advocates.

This affects social perspective toward an ideological bias against either industry.

Duality Of Medicine

The general consensus in conventional medicine is that alternative medicine is unregulated, untested, or poorly tested for safety and efficacy24, 25. The view of alternative medicine is that of an unfounded belief, pursued by charlatans who aim to break down the medical industry for profit26 (alternative medicine, of which only 33% of the adult population has used, is approximately a $30 billion industry as of 2012 in the USA27). While in alternative medicine, practitioners and advocates stand fast that the conventional medicine industry drives only for profit (conventional medicine is approximately a $3.2 trillion industry as of 2015 in the USA28) and does not care about the patient29. A common belief in alternative medicine is that conventional medicine is “synthetic”, in regards to production, making it less effective and unwanted by the body’s natural processes.

Another factor in the influence of social perspective toward either industry is the connotations the public makes with regards to corporate entities within them. A common belief of corporate funding in research, that of corporate influence and tampering of research results, attributes to the main cause of distrust of corporate-partnered studies30. This duality creates a division in society which influences how an individual embraces new developments or improvements, in studies on products.

Research funded by a corporate company will invoke more negative reaction to it as opposed to non-profit organisation or state funded, which in turn receives more negative reaction than independent research31. Negative reactions to research due to sources of funding can sway an individual for or against either alternative or conventional medicine which may have a lasting effect on health and lifestyle choices, for the better or worse.

Social Impact

Humans are social beings, and community is paramount to our survival, health, psychology, and lifestyle. What an individual chooses to do or not do is rarely without consequence on the rest of their community. One person can influence the decisions of tens, hundreds, thousands, into the millions and billions, and their choices, directly and indirectly, affect the people they influence along with the rest of the population.

Therefore, as argued in this essay, personal decision of health care is not one without consequence, and people should be made aware of the implications of their choice, not only for their own health but the health of the community and the effects certain choices can have, be it positive or negative in consequence. An effort within the medical industries to improve on the issues in duality would lessen social divide and negative consequence of choice, one such suggestion I will leave you with is that proposed by Dr Ben Goldacre in his lecture on “Battling Bad Science“.


[1] 2016. Science, Critical Thinking And Skepticism.

[2] 2015. CNN.

[3] 2007. James Randi: Homeopathy, Quackery and Fraud. TED Talk. James Randi.

[4] 2012.

[5] 2012.

[6] 2012.

[7] N.d. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine. SAGE Publications Inc.

[8] N.d. Introduction to Pharmaceutical Science. American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists (AAPS).

[9] N.d. Learn About Clinical Studies. Clinical

[10] N.d. Science: Peer Review. Understanding Science.

[11] 2007. Pharmaceutical Economics and Policy. Stuart O. Schweitzer. Oxford University Press, USA.

[12] 2002. Just What the Patient Ordered? Direct-to-Consumer Advertising and the Demand for Pharmaceutical Products. Marta Wosinska.

[13] N.d. Conventional Medicine Is the Leading Cause of Death. Josh Axe.

[14] 2010. Cancer: The Forbidden Cures. Massimo Mazzucco.

[15] 2017.

[16] 2002. Vaccines: Are They Really Safe and Effective? Neil Z. Miller. New Atlantean Press.

[17] 2016. Dangerous Ingredients Found In Dietary Supplements. Dana Jacobson. CBS.

[18] 2016. Harmful Ingredients in Your Dietary Supplements. National Science Foundation (NSF).

[19] 2012. Every 15 Cigarettes You Smoke Cause a Mutation That Can Become Cancer. NHS Smokefree.

[20] 2003. The Psychology of Fear Appeals Re-Visited. Barry John Elliott.

[21] 2014. Naturopathy vs. Science: Facts Edition. Scott Gavura. Science-Based Medicine.

[22] 2015. Lecture 6: Naturopathy and Herbal Medicines. Harriet A. Hall. James Randi Foundation.

[23] 2016. John Cmar MD on Twitter: “Alternative Medicine 2016: What Have We Learnt?

[24] 2000. General Guidelines for Methodologies on Research and Evaluation of Traditional Medicine. World Health Organization (WHO).

[25] 2010. Current Issues Regarding Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) in the United States. C. Lee Ventola.

[26] 2015. The Alternative Medicine Racket: How the Feds Fund Quacks. Todd Krainin.

[27] 2016. National Health Statistics Reports, Number 95. Richard L. Nahin et al.

[28] 2017. NHE Fact Sheet. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

[29] 2010. Differences Between Conventional and Alternative Medical Care. Joseph Mercola.

[30] 2009. Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice. Bernard Lo, Marilyn J. Field. National Academies Press.

[31] 2017. Perceived Conflict of Interest in Health Science Partnerships. John C. Besley et al.