Steve Jobs’ treatment decisions reflect popular shift towards alternative medicine

Popular backlash against institutionalized medicine has led the way for a fresh interest in alternative healing methods.
Popular backlash against institutionalized medicine has led the way for a fresh interest in alternative healing methods.

By Alexander Shikhman, MD, PhD, FACR

The occasion of Steve Jobs’ passing earlier this month after a prolonged bout with pancreatic cancer landed nearly every facet of the revolutionary CEO’s life and work in the media spotlight. However, as noted in a recent piece from


magazine, the theme of alternative healing and its purported impact on Jobs’ illness seemed to provoke particular interest in the weeks following his death. Some journalists claim that Jobs’ decision to pursue alternative therapy over traditional medical advice may have shortened his life; others insist that natural healing methods served simply to improve his quality of life as he struggled with terminal illness. But beneath the debate lies a compelling societal trend that goes far beyond Jobs’ individual case – a trend towards hands-on, individualized and integrative care in the face of an increasingly expensive, high-tech and alienating mainstream medical system.

According to TIME, the field of “complementary and alternative medicine” (so dubbed by the National Institute of Health and other leading research institutions) has evolved into a $34 billion industry that serves the health care needs of over 40% of the American populace each year. When it comes to patients with chronic health problems, moreover, that number jumps to a whopping 60-70%. As Mayo Clinic complementary and integrative medicine program director Brent Bauer puts it, alternative therapy’s rising popularity may be due in part to the fact that, unlike traditional medical care, alternative care is generally not covered by insurance – and thus open to greater face time, patient focus and hands-on care than that available at many cash and time-strapped mainstream facilities. Combine what Bauer calls the “enormous power” of this human interest capacity with the popular backlash against the so-called “pill culture” of the late 20


century, and it’s no surprise that so many Americans are seeking alternatives to conventional medical methodology.

However, for most people struggling with a serious illness, the most important question of all is: does alternative medicine really work? The answer is different for different ailments and individuals; but generally speaking, complementary and alternative therapies are most effective against long-term, chronic ailments, while mainstream medical technology, surgery and treatment protocol is often the best choice for acute or immediately life-threatening conditions. As noted in last month’s


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