© Oonagh Tager/Creative Commons license
The following is excerpted from Doctors Are More Harmful Than Germs: How Surgery Can Be Hazardous to Your Health -- And What to Do About It, published by North Atlantic Books.

Hippocrates and Paracelsus, whom doctors hail as pioneers in the field, both practiced medicine more closely aligned with homeopathy than with modern, scientific medicine. Samuel Hahnemann, considered the father of homeopathy, tested his medicines on volunteers. (This was the first "evidence-based" medicine.) Hahnemann's research into each remedy's effectiveness helped to spread the popularity of homeopathy around the world.1 By 1900, homeopathy was a relatively old medical tradition. In the United States at that time, 43 percent of medical schools taught homeopathy, including one of the best schools in the world. Homeopathic formulations could be purchased through the Sears catalog by individuals who wished to care for their own health.2

However, the profession suffered greatly from infighting, complacency, the rise of the pharmaceutical industry, and opposition from modern, scientific medicine.3 The American Medical Association formed in 1847 to "improve the ethics" of medical practitioners and to put out of business those engaged in "traffic in secret remedies and patent medicine." 4 Homeopathy gained the unforgivable label of "quackery," its science and methods called into question by the new doctors directly competing with homeopaths for business. There were two other important reasons for the disdain of homeopathy by doctors: the idea that a person's illness was uniquely individual, and the fact that its remedies were inexpensive.

As the fledgling pharmaceutical industry grew in the early twentieth century, it supported AMA physicians and their education with money. Physicians and institutions responded with supportive research for the drug companies. Initially, no drug could be advertised in the AMA magazine unless the organization had approved it for therapeutic use. These actions laid the groundwork for a tight collaboration between doctors and drug makers, and it spelled the death knell for homeopathy as a mainstream, acceptable practice in the United States.5

The Politics of Modern Medicine

The entire modern medical system was built on the premise of naming the symptoms so that a drug could wage war against them. We have wars on people, wars on drugs, and wars on disease. We are told to fight our bodies, our feelings, our creativity -- we are told these things oppose natural order. We are told that our own body works against itself by developing autoimmune disorders. Why on earth would our body try to harm itself? This world, this earth, exists to fulfill all of our needs. Nature is not meant to kill us.

The short story about homeopathy could just as easily be applied to the fields of chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture, nutrition, massage therapy, naturopathy, and many, many more specialties. Chiropractors won a landmark decision in 1987 when an antitrust lawsuit was settled in their favor. In her published opinion, the district court judge stated that the AMA had conducted "a nationwide conspiracy to eliminate a licensed profession." This campaign included the encouragement of medical doctors to slander chiropractors as quacks, as well as to withhold treatment from patients who pursued chiropractic treatment. Noting the long-term damage to the reputation of chiropractic, the judge stated, "it is ethical for a medical physician to professionally associate with a chiropractor." 6

What is common among the professions listed above is that they cost far less than drugs, surgery, imaging, and laboratory tests. The AMA, through its state medical boards, in conjunction with the FDA and other local, state, and federal agencies, keeps a close eye on these practitioners in case they might claim to "cure," "diagnose," "treat," or "prescribe." Each profession noted has, at one time or another, experienced relentless legal pursuit. Any non-drug sold in this country must follow strict rules about labeling to avoid suggesting any "medical" or "health" benefit. Many manufacturers have been sued over such claims. Coca-Cola was sued in 2009 over alleged claims that its VitaminWater product has health benefits.7 Many would call these lawsuits spurious -- just as many people would say that quacks are everywhere.

These actions continue despite the fact that each state sets the laws and guidelines regarding what constitutes a health profession and who may practice it, from education to licensing and continuing education requirements. Very few states allow these practitioners to work within the modern health insurance system. Membership in the AMA is open only to medical doctors -- those with MD after their name -- and, since 1970, osteopaths.

Remember French biologist Antoine Béchamp? His revelations were marginalized because they conflicted with those of a more politically astute researcher: bacteriologist Louis Pasteur. Pasteur and Béchamp's political fight at the end of the nineteenth century set the stage for many of the factors that drive the politics of modern medicine.

The Need for Change is Evident

It's kind of funny to me, in a way, that I keep reading opinions by doctors like Dr. David Newman, who practices in a New York hospital emergency room. "We need doctors and patients to conceive of medicine and health in a totally different way than they have been taught in the last twenty to thirty years," he states, noting that, "In American culture, prescriptions and procedures have become surrogates for real health care and real dialogue." 8 Although Dr. Newman was making his point to support comparative effectiveness research, the truth of his remarks goes deeper. If you're a patient, it's easy to experience "real health care and real dialogue" -- see any other type of health practitioner!

Every person has a story to tell about his or her health. A current health problem has never arisen out of the blue, without warning. Disease and chronic conditions are not "sneak attacks." The story of a person's health is key to understanding not just how it arose, but how to address it. No single diagnosis is completely identical to another. Everyone's journey is different. But, most doctors don't listen, and if they do, what they hear is debatable: over three-quarters of doctors don't believe what their patients have to say. 9 Medical professionals end up recording their own impressions of what a person is feeling, and the result is that they "systematically downgrade the severity of patients' symptoms," says oncologist Dr. Ethan Basch.10

One woman came to me with one of the worst cases of rheumatoid arthritis that I've seen. Another woman cannot sit down or bend over as a result of internal surgical scars. Both saw their doctors for heavy uterine bleeding. Both were referred for hysterectomies to deal with the problem. Both also had their ovaries, appendixes, and gall bladders removed, since the doctors were going to open them up for the surgery anyway.

They were advised to remove the additional organs "for prevention."

A male client went to see his doctor for a PSA test. It was abnormal, so they did a biopsy, which showed cancer. His doctor told him that if he removed the prostate gland right away, the guy was "guaranteed" to never experience full-blown prostate cancer. The guy refused the operation, and his doctor said, "Okay, come back and see me in three months." Surgery was critical to saving the guy's life right now, but if he objected, he could wait and see?

Another woman was in her eighties when she had cosmetic dental surgery. Her dentist kept her in the chair for seven hours, and she began to pass out. He continued to work until they had to call an air ambulance to take her to the hospital. While she was being carried to the helicopter, the dentist ran alongside exclaiming, "Your mouth looks beautiful!" Why should you care about these people? Because they are illustrating an all-too-prevalent attitude of arrogance that exists within the medical profession. "There is a sensibility among some old-school clinicians that they have a better sense of their patients' experience than patients do themselves," observed Dr. Basch. 11 The problem is not so much that there are jerks in medicine. There are jerks in every occupation. But in medicine the "attitude problem" can -- and does -- affect patient care. Dr. Peter J. Pronovost, who advocates for better attitudes in the name of safety, explains that until changes were made at Johns Hopkins, where he works, "When confrontations occurred, the problem was rarely framed in terms of what was best for the patient. It was: 'I'm right. I'm more senior than you. Don't tell me what to do.'" Dr. Pronovost discovered something interesting when he began to look into the way medical professionals interacted with each other: "in every hospital in America, patients die because of hierarchy." 12

Attitude is an ethical issue for the medical community. At least one scholar has suggested that a doctor be required to change his or her attitude when it is likely to have a poor effect on his or her ability to practice medicine.13 To the parents of a little girl at Dr. Pronovost's hospital, that effect was devastating. "The mother and the nurses had recognized that the little girl was in trouble. But some of the doctors charged with her care wouldn't listen," he says. "So you had a child die of dehydration, a third world disease, at one of the best hospitals in the world. The word 'error' was never spoken. But it was crystal clear." 14

With modern, scientific medicine, doing good and not causing harm to the human being only seems to happen without fail in the presence of adequate regulations. I ask you, why is that?


1. Steven Cartwright, "Origins and History of Homeopathy"

2. P. Joseph Lisa, The Assault on Medical Freedom

3. Steven Cartwright, "origins and History of Homeopathy"

4. American Medical Association, "AMA History"

5. Nicolas Rasmussen, "The Drug Industry and Clinical Research in Interwar America"

6. Chester A. Wilk et. Al v. American Medical Association, 76 C. 3777 (E.D. Illinois 1987)

7. Martinne Geller and Lisa Richwine, "U.S. Group Sues Coke Over Vitamin Water Health Claims."

8. Tara Parker-Pope, "A Hurdle for Health Reform."

9. Beth Comstock, "Treating the Patient-Doctor Disconnect."

10. Denise Grady, "In Reporting Symptoms, Don't Patients Know Best?"

11. Ibid

12. Claudia Dreifus, "Doctor Leads Quest for Safer Ways to Care for Patients."

13. Demian Whiting, "Should Doctors Ever be Professionally Required to Change their Attitudes?"

14. Dreifus, "Doctor Leads Quest for Safer Ways to Care for Patients."

Image by Oonagh Tager, courtesy of Creative Commons license.