FHT Statement on media reports that complementary/ alternative therapy is linked to reduced survival rates in patients with cancer

Published: 23 July 2018

On 20 July 2018, the Daily Mail, DailyMail.com and BBC published news items based on the findings of an original investigation published in JAMA Oncology, titled: ‘Complementary medicine, refusal of conventional cancer therapy, and survival among patients with curable cancers’ (please click the relevant hyperlinks to read those items available online).

While the Daily Mail, DailyMail.com and BBC news items varied significantly in terms of headline, content and angle, the following points are taken directly from the study published in JAMA Oncology: 

  1. The study highlighted that patients with cancer who used complementary medicine were more likely to refuse at least one component of conventional cancer treatment and therefore had a higher risk of death compared to those who had conventional cancer treatment alone.
  2. Complementary medicine (CM) was defined by the researchers as ‘Other-unproven: cancer treatments administered by non-medical personnel’.
  3. Conventional cancer treatment (CCT) was defined as surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and hormone therapy.
  4. The authors of the study highlighted that a limitation of the investigation was ‘the absence of information regarding the type and total of CM modalities used’ and that therefore they could not ‘comment on any specific type of CM and its association with survival’.

In addition, in the BBC news item, the reporter stated that the lead author of the study said the therapies used ‘were more likely to be alternative medicines – treatments that lack clear scientific evidence and are often used in place of conventional care – rather than complementary therapies like yoga or massage, which are usually used alongside standards treatments’.

FHT comment:
In light of the study published in JAMA Oncology, the findings of which have been reported quite differently via a number of news channels, the FHT would like to stress that complementary therapies should only be used as a ‘complement’ to medical care, as the title suggests, and never in place of medical care. This is also a requirement of FHT members, as per the FHT Code of Conduct and Professional Practice :

‘[FHT] Members must never discourage clients from continuing with orthodox medical treatment or care, or suggest the treatments they provide are an alternative to orthodox medical treatment.’ (Section 1.4.1.2)

It is unfortunate that there is no single, universal definition for the terms ‘complementary therapy’, ‘complementary medicine’, ‘alternative medicine’ and ‘complementary and alternative medicine’, which are titles that are often used interchangeably, and particularly by the media. The FHT specifically uses the phrase ‘complementary therapy’ when referring to relevant therapies it covers for membership and insurance, to try and minimise the potential risk of someone using a therapy as an ‘alternative’ to conventional medical care. The FHT will continue to advocate that any therapy it recognises for membership and insurance purposes should only be used as complement to conventional medicine, and not as an alternative.