Let's reclaim our title as the health-smart gender

It’s hard to know exactly how often alternative medicine is used in Australia, but most studies have found it is very ...

It’s hard to know exactly how often alternative medicine is used in Australia, but most studies have found it is very common, and that women are more likely to use it. Photo: Getty

Like most of us ladies, I don’t hold much truck with sexism. So it’s with great hesitance that I write this, well, somewhat sexist statement.

Women are sillier than men when it comes to choosing what to put into/on their bodies.

WHAT? GET OFF THIS WEBSITE RIGHT NOW, I hear you scream. I know, I know, men go to the doctor less, they eat terribly and are bigger piss-heads.

But when it comes to complementary and alternative medicine, they are making smarter choices.

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Complementary and alternative medicine (or CAM, as the researchy types like to call it) is very broad term so I can’t cover it all here, but, to generalise, it is all the treatments that haven’t been adopted yet by mainstream medicine. These guys argue that “all the CAM group subscribe, in one way or another, to the principle of “vitalism” — that all living organisms are sustained by a vital force that is both different from and greater than physical and chemical forces.”

In my experience they tend also to involve some kind of whacky travelling medicine-man type guru-founder, as well.

Chiropractic has father and son team DD Palmer and BJ Palmer. Palmer senior claimed to have cured everything from flu, to epilepsy, heart trouble and even blindness using spinal manipulation.

Osteopathy has Andrew Taylor Still, a physician and butter-churn improver.

Homeopathy has Samuel Hahnemann, a German language translator and doctor who as well as inventing homeopathy had a real thing against coffee, and the use of herbs and spices in cooking.

Admittedly, some chiropractors (and osteopaths) have modernised their theories, combining massage and other techniques and restricting themselves to only treating conditions like back pain (although for which there is still relatively little evidence they will be effective). But others are anti-vaccination nut-jobs who think minute dislocations in the spine so small they can’t even show up on x-rays control all illness in our body.

And homeopathy? Don’t get me started. Let’s just say anything founded in the belief that things become more potent by diluting them, and that you can always cure something by exposing the person to it, does not get my vote for a winning theory.

It’s hard to know exactly how often alternative medicine is used in Australia, but most studies have found it is very common, and that women are more likely to use it.

One way of quantifying the differences is by looking at government-funded alternative medicine use, which is pretty rare except for in cases where people have chronic medical conditions.

Looking at the Medicare database I found last year we paid for more than 100,000 chiropractic treatments for women, compared to about 61 000 for men. And when it comes to osteopathy we paid for more than 56,500 treatments for women, compared to more than 23,700 for men.

There is also a disturbing trend of parents taking their children for chiropractic treatment.

The co-founder of Friends of Science in Medicine and a professor at the University of NSW, John Dwyer, says it’s not known why women use more alternative medicine than men.

He says it could be part of a general pattern of women being more likely to look after their health and access medical treatment.

Some people argue culturally women are more attracted to ideas that promote gentle, holistic “natural” treatments than men.

And once someone has tried an alternative treatment and feels it works, it is hard to convince them otherwise.

But “the path to scientific hell is paved with anecdotes,” says Dwyer. When these anecdotes come up against 57 different studies in the past decade that have shown acupuncture, for example, is nothing more than a “superb placebo”, Dwyer says it’s time to ditch the alternative treatments.

It’s not just the money and time we waste, but in some cases people are delaying getting mainstream treatment for themselves or their children, stalling or even preventing recovery entirely.

“Most people are just wasting their money when it comes to things like soluble vitamins, which just go straight [through you and] down the toilet,” he says. “But in serious illness like cancer or autism the delay can be quite disastrous”.

I don’t quite know why caring more about our health would be leading us ladies to use treatments that that we don’t know will help is, and in some cases could do harm. Could it be the fact that from our teenage years up girls tend to lose confidence in their ability to do science (pdf)and on average achieve lower marks in science tests?

Whatever the cause I say we should reclaim our title as the health-smart gender, and start asking more questions and making better choices when it comes to complementary and alternative medicine.