I have regularly decried the use of unproven medical treatments, especially by institutions that should know better. But as disturbing as the likes of hospital Reiki are, there is some solace in their being kept in the wing for Supplementary, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine (SCAM). As far as I know, there is no ER that will treat a ruptured kidney or compound fracture with applied kinesiology or therapeutic touch. But we are now one step closer to those nightmares with the introduction of essential oils in ambulances.
The guilty party is Tri-State Ambulance of La Crosse, Wis., which uses the lubricants to try and treat minor pain, nausea, and anxiety. Skeptic leader Dr. Steven Novella called this “a fundamental failure of medical education.” Worse, this is not an outlier, but is representative of the infiltration of unproven and unworkable products and procedures into health care. This takes place even at elite institutions, such as Yale, Duke, Georgetown, and the Mayo Clinic.
This creates parasitic relationships in which bogus treatments get undeserved status because of their association with honored names and legitimate medicine. Meanwhile, genuine treatments get referenced in the same pamphlets and home pages that praise acupuncture, iridology, and Joy Touch.
Novella wrote that treatments should be based on “clear and valid procedures for reliably answering basic questions about safety, efficacy, and fundamental issues of biology and mechanism of action.”
Compare that with WNPR’s description of aromatherapy in Tri-State’s emergency vehicles: “A few drops of essential oils are placed on a cotton ball, which is taped to the patient’s chest. Tri-State Medical Director Chris Eberlein said the smell is not overwhelming, but it does create a better environment for healing.”
“Better environment for healing” is a medically vacuous phrase used to cover for a lack of efficiency. Words like this are rampant in alternative medicine, where vague descriptors, undefined terms, and unspecified benefits are touted in lieu of double blind studies and use of the Scientific Method.
Continuing his defense of unproven treatments, Eberlein said ambulances can often be unpleasant environments for those along for the unexpected ride. That could be, although that’s probably due more to the patient’s condition than surroundings. But the level of comfort is unrelated to whether jasmine juice will tame an arthritic attack.
In the WNPR piece, Eberlein recalled that paramedics gave fentanyl to patients who ended up not needing prescription medication. Overreliance on narcotics for pain relief is a legitimate issue. But it is a non sequitur to say paramedics should therefore give their patients treatments not backed by the metadata of double blind testing. Give them Advil, for crying out loud.
Along those lines, there is some good news regarding the ambulance company’s policy. It will still give narcotics to those who need it, so essential oils will not be used to soothe substantial pain. As dangerous as alt-med can be, it’s much worse when used in isolation. Treating cancer with targeted immunotherapy and wheatgrass is no big deal, whereas using solely the latter would likely be fatal.
The service is using six oils, with no explanation for how these were selected or offering any evidence for their efficiency. Indeed, essential oils enthusiasts rely heavily on anecdotes and post hoc reasoning. This results in spectacles such as a dozen users citing a dozen different oils to combat insomnia.
When studies are highlighted, they are often of those done in vitro. However, Novella wrote that these are usually distinct from studies that will have practical use: “These studies rarely translate to a clinical application. When you directly expose cells in a culture to a compound, what happens in that setting may say nothing about what happens when the same substance is taken by a living organism. Little or none of the compound may get absorbed or find its way to the target tissue.”
Despite my railings, it is possible some oils could someday show medical promise. Most of them are derived from plants, which are the source for about half the medicines used today. As one example, certain willow bark ingredients can eventually become aspirin. At some point, someone discovered that willow bark had recuperative properties and this could be considered the first step in the Scientific Method: Observation. Through double blind studies, testing for falsifiability, attempting to replicate, and so on, scientists eventually located the active ingredient in willow bark, extracted it, determined the safe dose, and inserted it into a pill, lotion, or syrup.
So if someone online or in your circle of friends reports that lavender works for their rosacea, it just may do that. But that’s why following up with the testing described in the previous paragraph is paramount. If it does work, such double blind studies will validate that and they would also help researchers determine the effective amount and prevent overdose.
Foraging through a forest in quest of some willow bark to chomp on in hopes of treating a headache would likely still be somewhat effective. But there are better methods and medicines available. Those methods and medicines are also available to Tri-State Ambulance, which is why they should be offering Excedrin instead of eucalyptus.