Thursday, March 27, 2014

Belief in Medical Conspiracy Theories Is More Common Than You Think

When most of us think of conspiracy theories, we think of aliens, JFK, the CIA, and other nefarious government agents acting in secret, but a surprising number of conspiracy theories involve modern medicine. Few of us think of these as conspiracies per se, because they are typically presented a conflict between science and pseudoscience. Nonetheless, the list of said conspiracies includes many that may be familiar to readers, such as:
  • The FDA is suppressing important information about natural cures for cancer.
  • Medical doctors still want to vaccinate children despite knowing that vaccines cause autism.
  • Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer, but aren't doing anything because powerful companies won't let them.
  • Public water fluoridation is a way for companies to dump hazardous chemicals into public water.
These theories are derided day in and day out in some online sources, but despite the amount of time spent combatting them, little is understood about why people believe them. The result is that they are addressed as nonsense at best and very dangerous ideas at worst. It's my contention that this approach is failing to change opinions, and in fact is galvanizing opposition. A change is needed.

As a naturopathic doctor, I can understand why the fight against conspiracies can be so vehement. Science simply doesn't support these theories, there's evidence to back up this position, and there are the real-world consequences of some of these conspiracy beliefs. At the same time, the aggressive stance against these ideas is not productive. It creates an adversarial relationship between patient and physician or citizen and government, and that itself has negative effects. It is far more important, I believe, to understand the opinions and why people hold them, so as better to address the concerns. People who subscribe to these theories are not fools, they are attempting to grapple with major problems and make sense of them, and should be addressed as having legitimate concerns.

Enter into this discussion a letter to the editor that was published in the Journal of the America Medical Association Internal Medicine. The two authors, from the University of Chicago's Department of Political Science, found that, in a population of 1351 adults, nearly half subscribed to one so-called 'medical conspiracy theory' or another, and a full 18% subscribed to three or more. This is a surprisingly large number. They also correlated these beliefs with other behaviors and found that those who believed the highest number of conspiracy theories were also much more likely to shop at farm stand, buy organic foods and use herbal medicines. These we might view as health-promoting behaviors. On the contrary, however, they were also less likely to get flu shots, use sunscreen, or get an annual checkup.

What is interesting is the author's conclusion that those who believe the theories were not necessarily less health-conscious, a position they reinforced in an interview with NPR. Conspiracy theorists, they argued, were grappling with all of the same health problems as everyone else, but using different sources for health information. Rather than trusting conventional sources for medical information, these individuals were more likely to listen to friends and family in questions about healthcare, along with 'celebrity doctors' such as Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Mehmet Oz. It's not that these individuals were unconcerned with health; it's that they were pursuing alternate sources, which they held to be more reliable.

Now, as you might expect, I'm going to bring this back to naturopathic medicine. The United States needs to make healthcare a priority for all of its citizens. I've often argued that NDs offer an additional route into the healthcare system for those who are mistrustful of the conventional medical system or otherwise feel alienated by it. This includes racial and ethnic minorities, as well as those who, for their own reasons, are mistrustful of the system. These findings suggest that this group, who are actively seeking healthcare answers but less involved in the conventional healthcare system, is far larger than could have been anticipated. If this research is correct, those who would be classified as 'high conspiracists', because they believe in 3 or more of these medical conspiracy theories, constitute 18% of the US population, or just over 57 million people. This is a very large number. The US needs to actively engage these people, recognize the fact that they want a different way to address healthcare, and consider that they may be more willing to work with an ND as a primary health care provider.

We've made major steps towards expanding healthcare to all Americans, but we're not there yet. Health insurance coverage isn't the end of the story. We also need to sell the system, and actively engage populations who have not been involved in healthcare in the past. For some, the barrier has been strictly economic, and the conventional system will meet their needs entirely. For others, there's a different barrier in place, and it's personal, cultural and maybe religious. This population needs service as well, and providing healthcare options is an important step towards reaching them.