“Hippocratic oaf” (Alternative medicine at elite institutions)


My concern about Reiki being offered in a local hospital morphed into mortification as I looked into how widespread such practices are. It turns out that unscientific treatments are being offered at the highest levels of U.S. medicine, including Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic.

In some states, a degree from a naturopathic college, which has no defined standard of care, helps toward board certification. Energy healing, homeopathy, and acupuncture are inconsistent with biology, chemistry, and physics, and might be rejected by themselves, but are allowed in the back door of hospitals and universities as integrative care.

That’s how otherwise reputable institutions end up endorsing Reiki and therapeutic touch, and why 23 U.S. medical schools offer integrative medicine residencies. At Yale, physician David Katz practices integrative medicine with this logic: “With internal medicine, once I’ve tried everything the textbooks tell me, I’m done. But with integrative medicine, I always have something to try. I never run out of options.” But there is nothing to suggest the likes of homeopathy, Joy Touch, and Gerson Therapy will treat or heal a patient. You could try standing on your head to cure Whooping Cough or subscribing to Golf Digest to relieve gout, but it won’t work, and neither will therapeutic touch or reflexology.

Katz attempts to couch his position as one of flexibility. He told Wired, “It’s close-minded to say the only stuff that could work is the stuff we already know works.” This is a strawman, as no one is saying that. Of course other techniques and medicine could work, which is why research continues.

But there should be evidence a treatment is effective before trying it. Another doctor at an elite institution embracing unscientific ideas is Adam Perlman, director of Duke’s Integrative Medicine program. In the same Wired article, he said, “I don’t just want to focus on getting people on the right medication. Just because you’ve gotten blood pressure in a normal range doesn’t mean you’ve optimized someone’s vitality.” “Optimized someone’s vitality” is the kind of gobbledygook I heard at the psychic and paranormal fair and it is shameful, dangerous, and a violation of the Hippocratic Oath for a medical expert to dispense such advice. Desperate patients and parents will cling to what Perlman and Katz offer and possibly reject proven treatments or gain a false hope that leads to ruin.

It was reassuring to learn that Yale’s medical school also includes Dr. Steven Novella, who takes a dim view of his colleagues endorsing techniques other than medicine. He knows this can lead to cases like a patient of his who had ALS. Unable to accept the diagnosis, the patient found a naturopath who put him on a treatment of natural supplements. Of course, this did as much good for the patient as would have reading Golf Digest while standing on his head.

The types of folks who treat ALS with herbal supplements often speak in hushed tones of secret cures being repressed by universities, hospitals, and the pharmaceutical industry. This is absurd for two reasons. One, these entities are portrayed as being only in it for the money, while simultaneously rejecting a treatment what would make them billions. If these ideas worked, there would be research, not repression. Second, despite dehumanizing terms like Big Pharma, institutions are run by people who get sick and who have loved ones. If they suppressed a leukemia cure, that’s a cure that would be unavailable to them if they got the disease.

Novella compares a university medical center embracing energy healing to its astronomy department hiring an astrologer. British epidemiologist Ben Goldacre concurs, saying it’s like using flaws in the airline industry to justify buying a flying carpet.

Novella reports that the ALS patient came back to him, but only after wasting one of his few remaining years. He also had to deal with the extra angst of knowing he had spent a year being taken advantage of while at his most vulnerable. As another example, Novella said, “No acupuncturists are up front about the reality of what they do. They’ve got Chinese medical charts with qi and meridians on the walls. And they instill in the patient hostility to science-based medicine and our notion of health and disease.”

But because of marketing and scientific ignorance/stupidity, alternative medicine practitioners can get away with promoting homeopathy as a cure for Parkinson’s or touting Chelation Therapy as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. And these kind of tragedies happen all the time. Studies from Norway, Japan, and South Korea reveal higher mortality rates and lower quality of life for cancer patients who pursue complementary and alternative medicine. Even worse is Homeopaths Without Borders. These vultures go to Third World countries in the wake of disaster, selling worthless cures that further victimize the displaced.

Alternative medicine proponents often include an appeal to nature, accompanied by a false historical narrative about how much better it was when people lived in harmony with it. But as Slate science and health editor Laura Helmuth put it: “People died young, and they died painfully of tuberculosis, tonsillitis, fever, childbirth, and worms. History…dispels romantic notions that people used to live in harmony with the land or be more in touch with their bodies. Life was miserable and full of contagious disease, spoiled food, malnutrition, exposure, and injuries.”

Persons dealing with serious conditions want quick, easy, and total solutions. Mainstream medicine cannot deliver this and won’t claim to. Alternative medicine, meanwhile, makes the claim but not the delivery. That’s why ideas like the ones expressed in this post can engender so much rage. These are terrifying truths that threaten false hope. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America runs ads with patients talking about how other doctors gave them no chance, whereas the Center delivered hope. However, that hope includes naturopathy, an umbrella term that encompasses energy healing, herbs, and spirituality. Hope, yes. Successful alternative cancer treatment, no.


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