New York Times Column Discusses Alternative Medicine

November 17, 2009

I was not around to witness the famous Wendy’s commercial in which three elderly women search frantically for the beef in a “big bun” hamburger; unable to locate it they ask, “Where’s the beef?” I have, however, seen the commercial several times since its introduction and I often find myself asking that very question on a wide variety of issues, and once again today.


A few days ago, the New York Times reported in the Patient Money column of their Health section on complementary and alternative medicine, also known as CAM. While the columnist does not necessarily advocate the use of these treatments for medical problems, she does discuss the many barriers that potential patients face in obtaining coverage for them. The column goes into detail about what treatments insurers will generally cover, how to get an insurer that does not cover a specific treatment to pay for CAM, and what treatments to consider. However, the column does not answer one vital question: Where’s the beef?


The reason for this is simple. We call a treatment “complementary and alternative medicine” because no one has yet provided conclusive medical evidence that it has any beneficial health effects. Otherwise, we would simply call it “medicine.” Since no one can so far demonstrate that CAM treatments have any effect other than placebo, they leave us wondering whether or not there is indeed a hamburger in the center of that very fancy bun.


That said, I’m not saying that these treatments conclusively don’t work, either. Indeed some services such as chiropractic services and acupuncture have become almost accepted as legitimate medical techniques over the past few years, so much so that some states now license individuals to practice them. However we should not confuse treatments that seem to work based on experiences with ones that have a conclusive track record with proven medical research to back it up.


All I’m asking for is a little reassurance that if my insurance plan is going to cover a treatment and raise my premiums to cover the treatment of others that medical science can show to us that the treatment has some measurable effect in ameliorating either the condition or the discomfort associated with it. Everyone wants to be healthy, and some people will go to great lengths to do so but that does not mean that insurers should pay for unproven medical techniques, dubious or otherwise.


In this case, the New York Times is asking the wrong questions. The question should not be “Will my plan cover this?” or “What alternative treatment should I get?” but instead, “Where’s the beef?”

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