When SBS Guide rings neurosurgeon Dr Charlie Teo, he’s at home, “chilled” and ready for our call. Of course, things got slightly more awkward from there - as they're wont to do when you’re talking to a typically frank doctor about body parts and embarrassing maladies.
But that’s a key part of being a judge on Medicine or Myth?, tasked with deciding which Australian home remedies warrant a clinical trial to test if they really work.
Here, the neurosurgeon who has proved controversial for his radical surgery for brain cancer pulls no punches on complementary medicine and its possible curtailment, the home remedies that surprised him, and the science and emotion of the show...
How open do you think the medical community is to these kinds of alternative and natural medicines? Because it would be easy to be skeptical and write them off as old wives’ tales.
It’s even worse than that. I thought the medical community was a little bit conservative but really not malicious and not overtly contrary, but I guess my eyes have been opened more recently.
Firstly, because [the Medical Board of Australia] is trying to bring in legislation that really basically condemns any medical practitioner who accepts anything that’s not evidence based. I’m not really privy to the politics of that but I do know that emails have been going around saying if we allow this ruling to come in, then anyone who recommends anything alternative is going to be open to being sued. [The Board feels] so strongly about it that they’re trying to legislate that you cannot recommend or advise or support anyone having complementary alternative treatment.
Secondly, when I started the cannabis trial for brain cancer, I thought that the medical community, or my detractors, would actually be quite supportive of it because how can you condemn something without actually doing a trial on it first? So that’s all we’re doing, we’re just trying to bring some science into cannabis.
And instead, oh my God, the backlash has been terrible. People have been calling me up saying, ‘You’ve got to stop this, how can you do it? This is so wrong,’ being really, really overtly, viciously critical of me running a scientific trial.
Watching the show, you really have to have an open mind to these alternative treatments. It was interesting to see your reaction and the other judges’ reactions kind of change as you became more accustomed to the home remedies.
I’ve always been kind of open-minded, but I must say that I’ve got a little bit of prejudice against things that in my mind have no scientific basis. But you know, that’s very arrogant to think that because it’s basically presupposing that you know everything about science [laughs] and there’s nothing you don’t know.
But we all have our flaws and a lot of doctors and a lot of scientists, just because they can’t explain it think that it has no cred and no legitimacy. The whole program basically taught me – not so much taught me because I knew it anyway – but reinforced the fact that you must keep an open mind to anything, all facts. Not dissimilar to the fact that you’ve got to question all things, like fake news.
Some of the cures just seem absolutely bizarre. What’s going through your head when see them and hear about them? The earwax for cold sores for example, or using your own urine for eye infections.
[Laughs] Without blowing my own trumpet and without being a little bit too smug, I must say that every time I heard them, I tried in my mind to think of any possible way there could be some scientific credibility to it. So earwax, for example, it grossed me out a little bit, but then I kept thinking, ‘Why do we have earwax? Maybe the reason is to protect our ears from viruses and bacteria, therefore maybe it’s got some sort of antiviral in it that could actually treat a cold sore’.
And that tapping one, did you see the tapping one?
[Contributor Lou Coles demonstrated tapping on Dr Teo for his back pain. Also known as Emotional Freedom Technique, it’s a kind of “psychological acupuncture” used to treat stress, anxiety and pain relief. Based on traditional Chinese medicine, acupressure points on the body are gently tapped with the tip of the fingers while repeating an acceptance statement of the problem.]
[I’d] never heard of tapping, and she seemed a little bit crazy to me, all the incantations that she has to recite as she’s doing it. That was the one where I thought, ‘F**k, this is absolutely bizarre. If I come out and support this in any way, it means I’m gonna look like a bloody idiot’. And then she did it on me, and I promise you I did feel some sort of relief.
So then you’ve got to re-evaluate and you’ve got to shift the goal post in your own mind and start thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’m not as clever as I thought I was. Here I am, a neurosurgeon, but I can’t think of any explanation as to how that could work’. I just love the program and I hope that the public is going to love it because it really does show you that there’s more [to medicine than meets] the eye.
Then there was the lady who inserted garlic in her vagina to treat thrush. It’s hard to fathom some of these remedies, isn’t it?
I think garlic is pretty well accepted in the public forum as being medicinal. The vagina is just a mucosa, it has these sex connotations, but really, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work there like it works everywhere else.
The word ‘maverick’ has often been attached to you during your career, but do you have to be a bit of a maverick to think outside the box with these alternative treatments to try and find a cure for really serious maladies?
Absolutely not. I think doctors should accept them open-minded and then apply scientific vigour to the concept to try and see if there’s any sort of validity in it – double-blinded trials, placebo-controlled trials etc. etc. That’s our job. Our job is not to reject the home remedy, our job is to try and show the public, or the lay public, that there’s evidence behind it.
What’s really interesting is that it’s not just that these home remedies have helped the people on Medicine or Myth? but that there’s the potential for some of them to help so many. They could be life-changing couldn’t they?
Absolutely, absolutely. Many of the remedies had something to do with altering the microbiome, whether it’s in your gut or on your skin flora, but altering your microbiome with probiotics and things like that. Scientists, thank God, are starting to realise the importance of the microbiome and its relationship with our bodies, and that really came out as well.
I imagine for most people it would be too cost-prohibitive to actually scientifically test these things to see if they could be more widely effective. The show gives some of them the chance to do that.
Absolutely. That’s what I really liked about the show because all these doctors are so critical, they say ‘Oh, you’ve gotta run a trial, you’ve gotta run a trial’. Well, hang on, OK here we are, we’re gonna run it, so if that’s all you needed to be convinced, you better be convinced. But I bet you that a lot of doctors and a lot of naysayers will look at that and go ‘Ah, I still don’t believe it’. [laughs]
Because the thing is, what happens after the initial trial? Did some of the contributors talk to you and say, ‘This is going to be our next move’, or were they content with the result that they got?
Both. Some of them were very content and it was personal affirmation and others go, ‘I want to take this to the next level and commercialise it because I’ve always thought that this would be a commercially viable product. Now that you’ve validated it, I’m gonna go to the next step.’
You talked on the show about being out of your comfort zone with some of the issues and home remedies. And you and your fellow judges act as guinea pigs sometimes – Dr Ginni Mansberg sniffing an armpit for body odour, and you trying Juju for boosting libido. What was it like trying the home remedies?
A lot of people don’t realise that these things are real, they do have a very, very strong effect on the body, and if done the wrong way or taken in overdoses, then they can have a very adverse effect on you. So to drink some of those things or eat some of those things or try some of those things that I really didn’t know what I was getting into, was actually a little bit confronting. I don’t know if it came through on the program, but I balked a little bit at some of them.
What really strikes me about the show is that so many of these remedies are really personal for these people, and there’s sort of an altruistic element as well. But for some, their maladies have really affected them and their self-esteem.
Yeah, and you can see some of them feeling almost like a huge weight’s been taken off their shoulders if someone shows them that it’s actually true or that they believe them. They almost take it personally, and that was the human nature to the show.
The scientific nature of the show is what appeals to me. I love that bit of it, running a trial, keeping an open mind. But the thing that really came out of the show that surprised me a little bit, was the tears and the joy and the relief when they [said] ‘Oh, thank God you believe me’ or ‘Thank God there’s some credibility behind it’. It was really quite enjoyable to see that.
Disclaimer from The Medical Board of Australia: The Board is not trying to bring in legislation, but is rather consulting on a proposal to strengthen current guidance for medical practitioners who provide complementary and unconventional medicine and emerging treatments. These would articulate the Board’s expectations of medical practitioners. The Board is not proposing to prevent the practice of complementary medicine. More information about the consultation is available here: https://www.medicalboard.gov.au/News/Current-Consultations.aspx
Disclaimer: This article contains general information only and does not recommend or endorse any particular treatment. It is not intended to replace the advice provided by your own doctor or medical or health professional.
Watch Medicine or Myth? Mondays at 8:30 pm on SBS. Missed the first episode? Stream it at SBS On Demand: