This is part of the background information by Sylvia Engdahl for her novel Stewards of the Flame. If you don't see a menu on the left, please click here and then on "Heresy in medicine." Firefox users please note: Because of changes in Firefox 22 and above that make its rendering of font sizes incompatible with previous versions and other browsers, if your Windows text size is set higher than 100% you may need to zoom the text on this page and others of this site to 80% or 90%, or even smaller, to see the text and images proportioned as they were designed to be.

Heresy in Medicine Rarely Appears in Print

The dogmatic medical establishment in Stewards of the Flame is assumed to be monolithic, with no deviance from the official view on any health issue except on the part of the protagonists -- several of whom are doctors -- who reject it in its entirety. In our own much larger and more heterogeneous society, where supposedly freedom of opinion prevails, there is much less uniformity of opinion, right? Wrong! Yes, there is controversy about the details of effective treatment, but very little on the major issues. Doctors are free to express differing views and a few of them do, but for the most part nobody listens, at least nobody who counts as far as determining what is likely to happen to the average patient is concerned.

There is, to be sure, wide attention given to complementary medicine (which is used along with conventional medicine) and alternative medicine (which is used in place of it). A recent survey showed that 36 percent of adult Americans use some form of one or the other. These are considered heretical by the medical establishment, which has succeeded in getting them excluded by law from the recognition and financial benefits accorded to medical practitioners by the government. However, they are not what I mean here by the word. I don't include them in my discussion because I personally don't think they have any healing effect apart from activating the self-healing powers of the mind in people who believe literally in the metaphorical explanations they offer for their success. That, of course, is no small achievement, and I certainly support people's right to have access to such practices without government interference. But I give no credence to them myself.

The difficulty is that it is very hard to find material that's critical of conventional medicine that doesn't also promote alternative medicine of one kind or another. There are many books and innumerable Web pages that challenge prevailing views of orthodox treatment, but they turn out to argue for herbal remedies, nutritional supplements, and so forth -- in many cases they are actually selling them, which is a case of the pot calling the kettle black when they complain about the pharmaceutical companies' motives for promoting prescription drugs. Few if any writers are willing to declare that "standard" medicine often does more harm than good without offering some alternate cure. In the case of the books, this is understandable, because ordinarily publishers don't issue such books; they don't sell well. The public wants to be told how to preserve, or regain, health. Doctors want to treat people; they couldn't go on practicing if they lost faith in treatment's effectiveness. I myself -- and I think many other individuals who avoid the health care system -- believe that it is better to do nothing about a health problem than to do the wrong thing. This is definitely a minority view, and is rarely expressed.

I go to doctors only when I have a serious illness for which there is an effective treatment. This has happened several times in the past and I have received excellent care; I don't doubt the skill and dedication of those who provided it. Recently (since writing the book) I have developed a condition for which there is some medication that's the lesser of evils, and other medication and procedures that in my opinion are not, and which I have therefore refused, resulting in an endless succession of arguments with various doctors who assume I am either stupid or uninformed. Admittedly, I can't talk as well as I write and to them, especially when I'm wearing a hospital gown, I look like a typical old lady in her mid-70s who's not accustomed to researching scientific issues, so I try not to take this patronizing attitude personally. It's frustrating, however, to deal with a system in which the average physician is not even aware of any position but the one adopted as "standard" -- either is afraid of being sued for not adhering to it, or hasn't had time to investigate the few published challenges by qualified medical professionals that do exist.

A lot is being published nowadays about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry -- or Big Pharma, as it's often called -- and the fact that it promotes drugs that aren't safe, let alone needed, as well as creating a perception of "diseases" that aren't really illnesses at all. I include this criticism under "heresy" because most people, and in fact most doctors, have fallen for these tactics so completely that the wonders of modern medication have not been doubted until recently, and still aren't doubted by the majority. The general public remains under the impression that the scandals that have arisen with respect to specific drugs such as Celebrex and Vioxx are rare exceptions. Alas, this is not the case, and even drugs that haven't been proven harmful have adverse effects on patients who take them unnecessarily. A few years back we learned that hormone replacement therapy -- for decades recommended routinely to older women -- was in fact detrimental to health. Mark my words, the same thing is going to happen with statin drugs sooner or later. It is unwise, to say the least, to urge the entire population to take drugs whose long-term effects haven't been tested simply to combat the alleged risk factors they're intended to reduce. Some dangerous drugs are necessary to treat conditions that are worse. A mere "risk factor" does not justify such medication. But the pharmaceutical industry makes money only on drugs taken by large numbers of people; need I say more?

I haven't included heresy in psychiatry on this page, as it's covered inder "Harmful Psychiatric Treatment." And information about the mind's influence on health -- once widely considered heresy though it's now accepted by researchers, if not by most conventional doctors -- also has its own page. With these ruled out, along with alternative medicine, there is not a lot of heresy left, apart from criticism of the medical establishment in general (which I have been collecting over some years). There should be more.

Links to expressions of heresy in medicine

The Perils of Prevention. New York Times, March 16. 2003. "A troubling trend has taken root when it comes to doctors actively treating patients with drugs or procedures to prevent disease.... It is the general faith in the power of medical intervention to thwart not only certain discrete diseases, like hypertension, but also most chronic or potentially life-threatening conditions."

The Fight against Disease Mongering: Generating Knowledge for Action. PLoS Medicine, April 11, 2006. By Ray Moynihan, author of Selling Sickness. "Disease mongering is the selling of sickness that widens the boundaries of illness and grows the markets for those who sell and deliver treatments.... Drug companies are by no means the only players in this drama. Through the work of investigative journalists, we have learned how informal alliances of pharmaceutical corporations, public relations companies, doctors' groups, and patient advocates promote these ideas to the public and policymakers."

International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, a growing group of scientists, physicians, other academicians and science writers from various countries who contest the theory that cholesterol is responsible for heart disease. "For decades, enormous human and financial resources have been wasted on the cholesterol campaign, more promising research areas have been neglected, producers and manufacturers of animal food all over the world have suffered economically, and millions of healthy people have been frightened and badgered into eating a tedious and flavorless diet or into taking potentially dangerous drugs for the rest of their lives. As the scientific evidence in support of the cholesterol campaign is non-existent, we consider it important to stop it as soon as possible."

The Benefits of High Cholesterol. Excerpt from The Cholesterol Myths by Dr. Uffe Ravnskov, a respected Danish researcher who has published extensively in medical journals. "High cholesterol is associated with longevity in old people. It is difficult to explain away the fact that during the period of life in which most cardiovascular disease occurs and from which most people die ... high cholesterol occurs most often in people with the lowest mortality....To the public and the scientific community I say, 'Wake up!'"

Finding More Cancer Isn't the Answer. Washington Post, April 10, 2007. By Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, author of Should I Be Tested for Cancer? "Cancer epidemiologists have a name for the detection of cancer in people who would otherwise never develop symptoms (or die) from the cancer. They call it over-diagnosis....The problem with over-diagnosis is that it leads to over-treatment.... All our cancer treatments have harms."

Video: Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, author of The Great Cholesterol Con

Video: Dr. John Abramson, Money Talks - Profits Before Patient Safety

The Fall and Rise Of Kilmer McCully. New York Times, August 10, 1997. Dr. McCully's heretical view that elevated homocysteine causes coronary artery disease cost him his job, but later he was vindicated when the theory became popular. Now, 10 years after this article was written, recent studies have shown that although homocysteine does appear to be associated with heart disease, taking vitamins doesn't prevent it; however, that does not change the points made about the difficulty of pursuing unfashionable research.

The Obesity Myth, an excerpt from the book by attorney Paul Campos. "The current barrage of claims about the supposedly devastating medical and economic consequences of ‘excess’ weight is a product of greed, junk science, and outright bigotry. It is a witch-hunt masquerading as a public health initiative."

Obesity Myths, detailed information from the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom about why obesity is not an "epidemic" and does not do as much harm as is being claimed.

Personal site of investigative journalist Thomas J. Moore, author of Prescription for Disaster and other exposés about health issues.

Medical Nemesis, an excerpt from the classic book by Ivan Illich on the medicalization of society.

Medication Sense. Site maintained by Dr. Jay Cohen, author of Overdose, with information and news about the dangers of prescription drugs. "Dr. Cohen is a strong advocate of patients' rights of informed consent when receiving medications. This right includes a right to receive information about all side effects and about the lowest, safest, effective doses of medications -- information that most patients and many doctors do not receive today."

International Coalition For Drug Awareness, a private, nonprofit group of physicians, researchers, journalists and concerned citizens focused on "the world's most pervasive and subtle drug problem -- prescription drugs." This site has the full-length film Prescription for Disaster (unrelated to the book by that name), an in-depth investigation into the symbiotic relationships between the pharmaceutical industry, the FDA, lobbyists, lawmakers, medical schools, and researchers, and the impact this has on consumers and their health care.

Books critical of today's standard medical practice

All of these are by doctors, scientific researchers, or investigative journalists; I have excluded books by practitioners of alternative medicine, which often make valid criticisms of conventional medicine but which promote forms of health care that are in themselves questionable and therefore confuse the issue.

Worried Sick: Our Troubled Quest for Wellness, Arthur J. Barsky, M.D., Little Brown, 1988, 0316082554.

How We Do Harm: A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick in America, Otis Webb Barwley, St. Martin's, 2012, 0312672977.

Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, Sharon Brownlee, Bloomsbury, 2007, 1582345805.

False Hopes: Overcoming the Obstacles to a Sustainable, Affordable Medicine, Daniel Callahan, Rutgers University Press, 1999, 0813526744.

Taming the Beloved Beast: How Medical Technology Costs Are Destroying Our Health Care System, Daniel Callahan, Princeton University Press, 2009, 069114236X.

What Kind of Life: The Limits of Medical Progress, Daniel Callahan, Touchstone Books 1991, 0671732900.

The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to Your Health, Paul Campos, Gotham Books, 2004, 1592400663.

The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders, Peter Conrad, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007, 080188585X.

Hope or Hype: The Obsession with Medical Advances and the High Cost of False Promises, Richard A. Deyo, M.D., & D. L. Patrick, AMACOM, 2005, 0814408451.

Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, M. Fitzpatrick, Routledge, 2001, 0415235723.

The Treatment Trap: How the Overuse of Medical Care Is Wrecking Your Health and What You Can Do to Prevent It, Rosemary Gibson and Janardan SIngh, Ivan R. Dee, 1566638429.

Lipitor: Thief of Memory, Duane Graveline, M.D., Duane Graveline, 2006, 1424301629.

Last Well Person: How to Stay Well Despite the Health-care System, Nortin M. Hadler, M.D., McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004, 0773527958.

Rethinking Aging: Growing Old and Living Well in an Overtreated Society, Norton M. Hadler, University of North Carolina Press, 2011, 0807835064,

Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America, Nortin M. Hadler, M.D., University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 0807831875.

Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, The Expropriation of Health, Ivan Illich, Marion Boyars, 1999 (1976), 0714529931.

Malignant Medical Myths: Why Medical Treatment Causes 200,000 Deaths in the USA each Year, and How to Protect Yours, Joel M. Kauffman, Infinity, 2006, 0741429098.

The Great Cholesterol Con: The Truth About What Really Causes Heart Disease and How to Avoid It, Malcolm Kendrick, M.D., John Blake, 2007, 1844543609.

What Your Doctor Won't or Can't Tell You: The Failures of American Medicine -- and How to Avoid Becoming a Statistic, Evan Levine, M.D., Berkley, 2005, 0425200086.

The Heart Revolution: The Extraordinary Discovery That Finally Laid the Cholesterol Myth to Rest, Kilmer S. McCully, M.D., Harper Paperbacks, 2000, 0060929731.

What Doctors Don't Tell You: The Truth About The Dangers Of Modern Medicine, Lynne McTaggart, Avon, 1998, 0380807610.

Confessions of a Medical Heretic, Robert S. Mendelsohn, M.D., McGraw Hill, 1990 (1980), 0809241315.

Dissent in Medicine: Nine Doctors Speak Out, Robert S. Mendelsohn, M.D., ed., Contemporary Books, 1985, 0809252651.

Lifespan: New Perspectives on Extending Human Longevity, Thomas J. Moore, Touchstone Books, 1994, 0671886223.

Heart Failure: A Critical Inquiry into American Medicine and the Revolution in Heart Care, Thomas J. Moore, Touchstone Books, 1990, 0671724444.

Questioning Chemotherapy, Ralph W. Moss, Equinox Press, 1995, 188102525X.

The Cancer Industry: The Classic Exposé on the Cancer Establishment, Ralph W. Moss, Equinox Press, 1996, 1881025098.

Fat Politics: The Real Story behind America's Obesity Epidemic, J. Eric Oliver, Oxford University Press, 2006, 0195169360.

Disease-Mongers: How Doctors, Drug Companies, and Insurers Are Making You Feel Sick, Lynn Payer, Wiley 1994, 0471007374.

Medicine and Culture: Varieties of Treatment in the United States, England, West Germany, and France, Lynn Payer, Penguin, 1989, 0140124047.

Diseasing of America: How We Allowed Recovery Zealots and the Treatment Industry to Convince Us We Are Out of Control, Stanton Peele, Lexington Books, 1995, 0028740149.

The Cholesterol Myths: Exposing the Fallacy that Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease, Uffe Ravnskov, M.D., NewTrends Publishing, 2000, 0967089700.

The Secrets of Medical Decision Making: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim of the Health Care Machine, Oleg I. Resnik, M.D., Loving Healing Press, 2005, 1932690174.

Medical Care Can Be Dangerous to Your Health: A Guide to the Risks and Benefits, Eugene D. Robin, M.D., Harper & Row, 1986, 0060970294. (Hardcover edition, 1984, is titled Matters of Life and Death: Risks and Benefits of Modern Medicine.)

A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System Is Failing the Elderly, John Sloan, Greystone Books, 2009, 1553654552.

For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health, Jacob Sullum, Touchstone, 1999, 0684871157.

The Theology of Medicine: The Political-Philosophical Foundation of Medical Ethics, Thomas Szasz, Syracuse University Press, 1988, 0815602251.

Pharmacracy: Medicine and Politics in America, Thomas Szasz, Praeger, 2001, 0275971961.

The Medicalization of Everyday Life: Selected Essays, Thomas Szasz, Syracuse University Press, 2007, 0815608675.

Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health, Gilbert Welch, Beacon Press, 2012, 0807022004.

Should I Be Tested for Cancer?: Maybe Not and Here's Why, H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., University of California Press, 2004, 0520248368.

Is Heart Surgery Necessary?: What Your Doctor Won't Tell You, Julian Whitaker, M.D., Regnery, 1998, 0895264730.

Books dealing mainly with the pharmaceutical industry

Overdosed America: The Broken Promise of American Medicine, John Abramson, M.D., Harper Perennial, 2005, 0060568534.

The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It, Marcia Angell, M.D., Random House, 2005, 0375760946.

Powerful Medicines: The Benefits, Risks, and Costs of Prescription Drugs, Jerry Avorn, M.D., Knopf, 2004, 0375414835.

Inventing Disease and Pushing Pills: Pharmaceutical Companies and the Medicalisation of Normal Life, Jorg Blech, Routledge, 2006, 0415390710.

Before You Take that Pill: Why the Drug Industry May Be Bad for Your Health , J. Douglas Bremner, M.D. Avery, 2008, 583332952.

Hooked: Ethics, the Medical Profession, and the Pharmaceutical Industry, Howard Brody, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, 0742552195.

Overdose: The Case Against the Drug Companies, Jay S. Cohen, M.D., Tarcher/Penguin, 2004, 158542370X.

Generation Rx: How Prescription Drugs Are Altering American Lives, Minds, and Bodies, Greg Critser, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, 0618393137.

Let Them Eat Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship between the Pharmaceutical Industry and Depression, David Healy, New York University Press, 2004, 0814736971.

On The Take: How Medicine's Complicity with Big Business Can Endanger Your Health, Jerome P. Kassirer, M.D., Oxford University Press, 2005, 0195176847.

Big Pharma: Exposing the Global Healthcare Agenda, Jacky Law, Carroll & Graf, 2006, 0786717831.

Prescription for Disaster: The Hidden Dangers in Your Medicine Cabinet, Thomas J. Moore, Dell 1999, i0440234840.

Selling Sickness: How the World's Biggest Pharmaceutical Companies Are Turning Us All into Patients, Ray Moynihan and Alan Cassels, Nation Books, 2006, 156025856X.

Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs, Melody Petersen, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008, 0374228272.

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