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Unlike alternative therapists, we admit it when we're wrong

At least medicine admits when it has made a mistake and learns from it – unlike carved-in-stone alternative therapies, says Copperfield

At least medicine admits when it has made a mistake and learns from it – unlike carved-in-stone alternative therapies, says Copperfield



I was having a stand-up fight the other night. Actually, as we were in a restaurant it was more of a sit-down fight, but you get the picture. As for the point I was trying to make, let's see if I do better with you than I did over the petits-fours.

One of the things that makes science interesting and credible is that it continually reviews its teachings.

That's where it scores over, for instance, acupuncture where practices have been handed down unchanged from generation to generation.

I made the mistake of quoting medicine's recent U-turn about the prescription of prophylactic antibiotics to patients with heart murmurs before dental work.

When I was a kid, with a murmur as it happened, the worst thing about a trip to the dentist was the mega-unit of intra-muscular penicillin V that I was given as routine.

By the time the boffins decided that 500mg of amoxicillin given by mouth would suffice, it was too late for me – but I did do a happy little dance for the sake of the kids with noisy aortic valves who'd be spared an assault with an 18G needle every time they opened wide and said ‘ahh'.

Now it seems that the whole thing was a waste of time. The odds of becoming bacteraemic and acquiring endocarditis from dental work are so slim that the potential side-effects of the antibiotic prescriptions outweigh any benefit.

Wrong - and proud of it

Aha! So was I admitting that medics had got it wrong all along then?

Actually, yes I was – and what's more, I was proud of it. We were wrong about that in the same way we were wrong about lignocaine infusions after heart attacks and thalidomide in pregnancy.

What's more we will be proved wrong about some other cornerstone of modern medical practice before too long. And we'll learn from that, too, whatever it turns out to be. Then we'll move on.

But of course, alternative medicine is never wrong and its effects never need reviewing. Homeopathy is just ‘right', acupuncture is just ‘right', ayurvedic diets are just ‘right'.

And as we were debating the point in a restaurant in France, kinesiology – a method of treatment that seems to involve beating dix-sept kinds of merde out of small Gallic children until they decide to grow out of their childhood asthma – was just ‘right' too. Always has been, always will be.

I was on the point of using a hefty wine list to research the effects of some cranial kinesiology in the treatment of delusional ideas regarding healthcare when the maitre d' arrived. Saved by the bill.

So what have we learned, other than that manuals of kinesiology should be filed in the True Crime section of your local bookshop and that the risk-benefit ratio of prescribing antibiotics before scaling and extractions is greater than one?

Well, that medicine isn't a static science whose tenets are carved in stone to remain unchanged through the centuries. It's fluid in the way that superstitions about crystals and serial dilutions could never be. And that's why this year's must-have medicine will always be a better bet than this year's must-have placebo.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex

I was on the point of using a hefty wine list to research the effects of cranial kinesiology in the treatment of delusional ideas

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