Enlarge / Homeopathic remedies in a pharmacy. (credit: Getty | Peter Macdiarmid )
Unproven alternative treatments are clearly risky. Some carry the risk of direct harms, such as improperly diluted homeopathic tablets, blinding stem cell injections, contaminated supplements, or tainted placenta pills. And others, such as magic healing crystals and useless detoxes, may risk indirect harm by taking the place of evidence-based treatments.
However obvious the risks, measuring them has been tricky. For one thing, patients aren’t always eager to provide data, let alone admit to their doctors that they’ve ditched conventional therapies. But, by digging into the National Cancer database, researchers at Yale have finally quantified one type of risk for cancer patients—the risk of death. And the results are grim.
Those who skipped or delayed conventional treatment to use alternative ones had as much as a 5.7-fold increased risk of dying within five years than those who stuck with conventional medicine, the researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Though the study was small and had several gaps—including not knowing the types of alternative treatments patients had tried—the researchers hope that it spurs discussion and “greater scrutiny of the use of [alternative medicine] for the initial treatment of cancer.”
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