Cutting-edge medical technology is coming to town | Illustration courtesy John Leech (1817 – 1864)
On EDGE | Opinion
Among the list of presenters and exhibitors at the NWT Wellness Conference are energy healers, acupuncturists, homeopaths and “cold laser” therapists. If any of these sound familiar, it’s because they were in the news recently in connection with the death of a young girl from Manitoba who, with the support of her parents, opted for alternative therapies over chemotherapy.
There are two reasons why this bothers me and why it should bother you. Reason number one is that the government is providing a platform for purveyors of disproven and discredited therapy systems to promote themselves on an equal footing with people providing legitimate health advice.
Preying on the suffering
There is absolutely no evidence that cold laser therapy, energy healing (be it in the form of Reiki, Qigong or “Quantum touch”), homeopathy, or even acupuncture, provide any medical benefits whatsoever. Yet at the wellness conference you’ll find a booth selling cold laser therapy kits next to the NWT Regional Health and Safety Committee booth, the Health Canada booth and the Yellowknife Health and Social Services Authority booth. What does this say about the value the organizers and sponsors place on distinguishing legitimate, scientifically proven medicine from quack therapies?
Reason number two is that these quacks prey on people who are suffering. A cancer diagnosis does peculiar things to the mind, and can often cause those afflicted by it to clutch at straws. Procedures with names ending in ectomy and/or weeks of chemotherapy are frightening prospects for the best of us and, when faced with them, alternatives start to look very appealing. I’m sure the same is true for sufferers of chronic pain. Many sufferers would take a chance at relief for any price.
Best case scenario: screw-up or laziness
If the worst that could happen is someone losing their money, I probably wouldn’t be so bothered by the conference’s willingness to host such dubious practitioners, but as we know from recent events, the worst that, can and does happen is death. I’d like to think that the inclusion of disproven therapies in a government-sponsored event is just a screw-up or laziness rather than something more systemic, but this isn’t the first time that the Department of Health has publicly promoted counter-scientific advice. You’ve probably all seen the posters advertising the difference between traditional tobacco and commercial tobacco. From a scientific point of view there is none. No doubt there’s a great deal of spiritual importance attached to tobacco as a healing agent, and many people believe that there are unquantifiable benefits to taking part in a tobacco ceremony, but these beliefs are grounded in mysticism and esoteric spirituality, not science. With this campaign the government is suggesting that these two ways of knowing, science and mysticism, are equally valid for making medical decisions. Results show us that they are not.
When it comes to alternative therapies, people must be free to make their own decisions, but we trust our government to give us the best advice available to make those decisions. In my view you’d have to be out of your mind to try these alternative therapies, but then if you were facing leukemia like Makayla Sault and her parents in Manitoba, you might well go out of your mind. We should be challenging people who peddle nonsense for profit at the expense of the weak. Instead, Yellowknife is welcoming them.