When policy around how herbal remedies, alternative medicines, supplements and all sorts of other practices outside the mainstream of medical practice is discussed the concept of “Health Freedom” inevitably comes up. It’s not always couched in that term but the idea is that people should be free to choose whatever method of healthcare that they wish.

Sounds good right? Who wants to impinge in someone’s freedom to make their own decisions? Isn’t that what living in a free country is all about? Personal autonomy, the right to take action unfettered by how someone else thinks I should run my life. That’s how I want to live, why should I want to take that away from others?

Well, I don’t. But the notion of freedom has always come with a caveat (several actually), that is – it is inherently restricted by ignorance. Is someone who is uninformed about the actual state of affairs truly free?

That’s what those who speak out about alternative medicine are actually trying to achieve. We aren’t attempting to “defend our turf” or “squelch the competition” we are attempting to inform the public about the true underpinnings of these therapies and point out they they are either unsupported by science or have in fact been disproved.

As has been noted before, a majority of New Zealanders are unaware that Homeopathic medicines do not contain any active ingredient and yet many people think they are scientifically proven.

Education was also the intent of the co-ordinated Sciblogs rebuttal to the poorly conceived and executed series on alternative therapies printed by the Herald earlier this year. (see here, here, here and here)

Policies that are aimed at restricting access to herbal or alternative medicine usually are doing so from the aspect of quality control. Does the remedy or practice have good evidence of efficacy, is it safe? These are the questions that we should be asking about every medical practice, not just those in the “alternative” (or complementary, or integrative, pick your marketing phrase of choice) camp.

Unfortunately is is not in the interests of those pushing alternative modalities to undergo strict evidence based testing so the issue is re-packaged from a quality control issue to a “freedom” issue.

Similar tactics are seen in arenas outside the medical realm. In biology the evolution vs creationism/intelligent design “debate” is framed as “Academic Freedom” as is the debate around climate change. This is not a coincidence. Whether or not these decisions are made consciously or not there has been convergence on the “Freedom” aspect of these cases for a reason, people respond to it. We are jealous of our freedom, and rightly so, freedom forms the basis of our society.

But as I alluded above, freedom is not an absolute and unalloyed good under all circumstances. It comes up against restrictions in all sorts of ways, some epistemological (as in the case of whether a choice is really free if the person is not aware of all the factors affecting that choice) and some are practical (as in should we allow freedom to include the freedom to sell harmful products?).

Conclusion

The natural/alternative remedies debate is not, at it’s heart, about freedom at all. Rather it is about education and quality control. We should subject all medical practices to the same rigorous examination regarding safety and efficacy. Long term “after market” monitoring should also factor into this equation to catch those practices that looked good in the necessarily limited testing that they are subjected to prior to being rolled out to the general public but may still have safety problems.

In this way we should be able to serve the public’s health interests and avoid false choices about freedom.

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