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A tale of quackademic medicine at the University of Arizona Cancer Center

Quackademic medicine.

I love that term, because it succinctly describes the infiltration of pseudoscientific medicine into medical academia. As I’ve said many times, I wish I had been the one to coin the phrase, but I wasn’t. To the best of my ability to determine, I first picked it up from Dr. R. W. Donnell back in 2008 and haven’t been able to find an earlier use of the term. As much as I try to give credit where credit is due, I have, however, appropriated the term “quackademic medicine” (not to mention its variants, like “quackademia”), used it, and tried my best to popularize it among supporters of science-based medicine. Indeed, one of my earliest posts on this blog was about how quackery has infiltrated the hallowed halls of medical academia, complete with links to medical schools that have “integrative medicine” programs and even medical schools that promoted the purely magic-based medical modalities known as reiki and homeopathy. It’s been a recurrent topic on this blog ever since, leading to a number posts on the unethical clinical trials of treatments with zero or minimal pre-trial plausibility, the degradation of the scientific basis of medicine, and the acceptance of magical thinking as a means of treating patients in all too many medical centers.

One strong candidate for quackademic ground zero, if there can be such a thing for the phenomenon like quackademic medicine, which is creeping up like so much kudzu in the cracks of the edifice of science-based medicine (SBM), is the University of Arizona. U. of A. is, of course, the home of one of the originators of the concept of quackademic medicine and one of its most famous and tireless promoters, Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil, as you might recall, has even been the driving force for creating a highly dubious “board certification” in integrative medicine. Sadly, apparently this new board certification has been so popular among physicians wanting to “integrate” a little quackery into their practices, that its first examination has been delayed from May to November 2014, so that the American Board of Physician Specialties can figure out how to accommodate the unexpectedly large number of applicants.

So what happens when a patient arrives at U. of A. for treatment? I found out last week when I received an e-mail, which led to a fairly long e-mail exchange, with a man whose son was diagnosed with leukemia and is being treated at the University of Arizona Cancer Center (UACC). Although this man gave me permission to use his name, I am going to decline to do so because there is a child involved, although anyone involved in his case at U. of A. will likely quickly be able to identify who the man is. It turns out that he is a professor at U. of A. in a humanities department (which is why I’ll refer to him henceforth as the Professor), and, even though he is not a scientist, he clearly knows how to think (which would not be surprising if you knew what department he was in). In his e-mail, he told me how appalled he was at the sorts of treatments being offered to his son:
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Medical Academia, Religion

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I Visited a Chickasaw Healer and All I Got Was an Elk Sinew and Buffalo Horn Bracelet

Which headline is real?

  • I Visited a Alchemist. As American alternative chemistry grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional transmutation of metals.
  • I Visited an Astrologer. As American alternative astronomy grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional stargazing.
  • I Visited a Bloodletter. As American alternative medicine grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional treatment.
  • I Visited a Chickasaw Healer. As American alternative medicine grows in popularity, I decided to experience an even older style of nontraditional treatment.

Difficult? They are similar in that alchemy, astrology, bloodletting and (as we will see) Chickasaw healing are not based on reality. Bloodletting, as best I can determine, is not offered in the US, at least based on the notion of an imbalance of the 4 humors. I have no doubts that a reader will find a practitioner, likely with Hepatitis B and C, somewhere in the US. Probably in Sunnydale.

It was the final option, from The Atlantic. Given their medical reporting in the past, I would not be surprised if any of the above headlines originated in that magazine. This gets to an issue I have with all media. There are two things about which I have expertise: infectious diseases and SCAM. So often the media get both wrong, although I probably notice more when they get it wrong in the areas of my expertise. If they get it so wrong in areas about which I know something, how can I trust the veracity of reporting in all the areas where I have no knowledge? (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Science and the Media

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Full of Energy

Want to know what a craniosacral treatment is actually like? How about reiki? What about Eden energy medicine – do you even know what that is? Read on, because this past Sunday afternoon I experienced all three.

But first, the why and where. The local Healing Arts Alliance of the Big Bend (which is what they call the area of Florida I live in) held an information session for the public at our local library’s meeting room. Practitioners of about 10 different “healing arts” sat at a circle of folding tables chatting with visitors and handing out information. One even brought her diagnostic machine, which measures a person’s aura. (More on this later.) Some offered free samples of their treatments. It was a great opportunity for science-based medicine field work and I aimed to take full advantage.

The Alliance handed out a free booklet at the door listing local health care practitioners who:

. . . share a commitment to the whole person, patient-centered approach to health and wellness.

But, as the booklet explains,

[w]e do not endorse any specific method or system. Our member/practitioners are committed to a nonjudgmental collaboration and cooperative relationship . . .

This philosophy is indeed fortunate. If any of these practitioners endorsed a specific method, such as, say, the scientific method, it could lead to the judgment that what some of the others are saying is gobbledygook.

The booklet contains a helpful “Glossary of Holistic Health Terms,” which further serves to make the point that nonjudgmental collaboration is absolutely necessary to the cause. A few examples:

BioMat: This device delivers the highest vibrational resonance deep into all the tissues of the body using negative ions, amethyst, and Far-Infrared light to open the channels for intelligent cellular communication leading to DNA repair and total body wellness. Negative ions, found in abundance in nature, heighten alertness and mental energy, and decrease drowsiness. Amethyst enhances strength, stability and vigor. Far-Infrared light assists blood flow, helps release toxins and enlivens metabolism. Elevating temperature eliminates bacteria, heals and relaxes muscles, boosts immune system [sic], and promotes cardio fitness and healthy arteries.

Total body wellness is hard to beat. The one true cure, indeed! (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy

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Integrative Medicine’s Collateral Damage

Integrative medicine combines the practice of medicine with alternative medicine. Proponents tend to take a paragraph or two to say this, but that is what remains when boiled down to its essence. By putting this more concise definition together with Tim Minchin’s often-quoted observation about alternative medicine, you get: integrative medicine is the practice of medicine combined with medicine that either has not been proved to work or proved not to work. If it is proved to work, it is medicine.

I couldn’t find an official start date for integrative medicine, but it seems to have been around for about 15-20 years. (Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, an early adapter, opened in 1997.) Yet despite some lofty pronouncements about transforming patient care, there is still no good evidence that integrative medicine improves patient outcomes. It seems unlikely that such evidence is forthcoming. It is illogical to assume that adding therapies that do not work, or are proven not to work, would benefit a patient except by inducing the ethically problematic placebo response.

Whatever its goals initially, integrative medicine now appears to serve two purposes. First, it attracts funding from wealthy patrons (Samueli, Bravewell) and the government (the military, NCCAM). Second, it is a marketing device used by hospitals, academic medical centers and individual practitioners. As an added bonus, alternative medicine is usually fee-for-service because very little of it is covered by insurance. And whatever its charms as a money-making device, given the lack of proven health benefit it is fair to ask: is integrative medicine worth it? To answer that question, let us look at what might be called the supply side of integrative medicine practitioners’ delivery of alternative medicine. Here we run into some unpleasant facts proponents seem unwilling to acknowledge: integrative medicine’s collateral damage. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Vaccines

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Licensing Naturopaths: the triumph of politics over science

Naturopaths shouldn’t get too excited about having a special week in their honor. The U.S. House of Representatives gave watermelons a whole month. As between naturopathy and watermelons for my good health, I’ll go with the watermelons any day. You’ll soon understand why.

Today is not my usual blogging day. But when David Gorksi announced SBM’s celebration of Naturopathic Medicine Week, I volunteered an extra post to answer the question I am sure is on everyone’s mind: How in the heck do they get away with this stuff?

The answer lies in the creation of Naturopathic Medicine Week itself: politics. Just as Sen. Barbara Mikulski turned her credulous acceptance of naturopathy into a Senate Resolution and slipped it by her Senate colleagues, clueless legislators around the country are sponsoring bills to license naturopaths, in some cases as primary care physicians. And it’s not as if these legislators don’t know they are incorporating quackery into primary care. Practices such as naturopathic “organ repositioning” (an anatomical impossibility) and Mark Crislip noted, what little data there is suggests that naturopathic primary care is associated with worse outcomes. But evidence is not necessary in the political realm. And now the political process has given naturopaths an additional incentive for licensure. They argue that the Affordable Care Act mandates reimbursement for their services. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements, Homeopathy, Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Cranial Manipulation and Tooth Fairy Science

Tooth Fairy Science is science that studies a phenomenon that doesn’t exist. You can do studies on the Tooth Fairy; for instance, comparing how much money she leaves to kids in different socioeconomic groups. You can do studies on the memory of homeopathic water. You can do studies on the therapeutic effects of smoothing out wrinkles in the imaginary human energy field with therapeutic touch. Or you can do studies of craniosacral therapy. “Therapeutic Effects of Cranial Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine: A Systematic Review,” by Jakel and Hauenschild, was published 2011 in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Medical Association. It is a perfect example of Tooth Fairy Science.

In the 1930s, William G. Sutherland, DO looked at a disarticulated skull and noticed that the sutures were beveled, like the gills of a fish. He concluded that this indicated articular mobility for a respiratory mechanism. He invented cranial osteopathic manipulation to allegedly move the bones of the skull relative to each other for therapeutic benefit.

In the 1970s, John E. Upledger developed this idea further, inventing craniosacral therapy (CST). It postulates rhythmic fluctuations of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), mobility of the cranial bones and dural membranes, and involuntary motion of the sacrum. The CST practitioner palpates the skull, senses pulsations transmitted to the skull by the CSF, gently moves the skull bones relative to each other, and thereby releases restrictions to the flow of CSF, which somehow restores health in an astounding variety of human illnesses. (more…)

Posted in: Energy Medicine

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Integrative Medicine Invades the U.S. Military: Part Two

An unfortunate side effect (if you will) of states licensing of “CAM” practitioners is their ensuing insinuation of themselves into the nooks and crannies of the American health care system. Sometimes this is voluntary, such as their inclusion as providers of health care services in medical practices and other institutional settings in the form of integrative and quackademic medicine. Where voluntary action is not forthcoming, CAM practitioners and integrative medicine proponents are not shy about petitioning the state legislatures and Congress to wave the wand of legislative alchemy. “Poof!” and they appear. One example of this is the legislative mandates that their goods and services be covered by private insurance. Another is including CAM providers in publicly-funded health insurance, such as Medicare. And next year we will see the effects of the non-discrimination provisions of the Affordable Care Act begin to unfold.

Two bills currently before the U.S. Congress invoke the magic of legislative alchemy by expanding the availability of CAM to military veterans and funding CAM research at the expense of legitimate research. One deals with chiropractic, the other with CAM in general. As we saw last week, one of this country’s foremost supporters of integrative medicine, Wayne Jonas, M.D., recently testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in favor of these bills. I think any fair review of his testimony would find it unpersuasive and I hope the Committee will agree.

VA chiropractors

Chiropractors have already forced their way into the Veterans Administration (VA) medical system. For our readers not familiar with the fragmented American health care system, in addition to having a combination of public and private health insurance, or, in some cases, no health insurance at all, we have an entirely separate system of medical care solely for the military that includes its own hospitals and out-patient clinics. Military veterans have had access for some time to chiropractors at a limited number of these VA hospitals and clinics. According to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), the “military’s medical bureaucracy continues to try to impose new barriers to chiropractic care.” This meant the ACA had to get its supporters in Congress to pass several bills to speed up implementation of the 1995 law requiring the current limited chiropractic benefit. The subtext I read in all of this is that the Veterans’ Administration, or at least those in charge of medical care, was not particularly thrilled with having chiropractors working in their facilities and has dragged its feet in implementing the law.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Energy Medicine, Legal, Politics and Regulation

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Integrative Medicine Invades the U.S. Military: Part One

Integrative medicine proponents claim superiority over physicians practicing “conventional” medicine. (Which I will refer to as “medicine” so as not to buy into integrative medicine’s implied claim that medicine can be practiced with two separate standards.) While conceding that medicine is good for treating conditions like broken arms and heart attacks, physicians who purport to practice integrative medicine argue it ignores “the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle.” Their vision of a new, improved practice of medicine “emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.””

But, as we know, the practice of medicine already takes into account “the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle,” is “informed by evidence” and uses “all appropriate therapies.” This includes recommendations regarding diet, exercise, relaxation and vitamin and dietary supplement use, which are often erroneously labeled “CAM.” Medicine appears to be well aware of problems in the current model of health care delivery and is actively seeking ways to improve it. If integrative medical practitioners and their proponents were simply directing their time, energy and resources toward facilitating a better model for delivering health care I suppose no one would have any problem.

But they aren’t. They are claiming rights to an entirely new specialty in medicine. Proponents do this by advancing two dubious arguments. First, integrative medicine alone can deliver on this “whole person” model of care. Second, inclusion of alternative medicine is essential to good patient care.

From a consumer protection standpoint, I find integrative medicine troubling. Proponents are unfairly misrepresenting medical practice as inferior and offering themselves as the solution when there is no evidence that they can deliver on these claims. Unfortunately, despite this lack of evidence, integrative medicine has seized the imagination of public policy makers and legislative bodies. It is included in the Affordable Care Act and continues to metastasize throughout the military health care system, which together will soon control delivery of the vast majority of health care in this country.
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Legal, Politics and Regulation

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Visiting a Victorian Duckpond

Ever heard of George Augustus Scott? Probably not. Although he was once touted as “Man of the Century,” he was actually a charlatan who sold electric hairbrushes. (No, an electric hairbrush isn’t a device that will brush your hair for you; it’s a hairbrush that supposedly produces a “permanent electric current” to cure everything from baldness to headaches.) He went on to sell magnetic corsets, electric rings for rheumatism, and sarsaparilla, advertised as the “GREATEST MEDICAL DISCOVERY of the AGE.” (You probably haven’t heard about that greatest discovery either.)

He and his many comrades in crime are profiled in a new book, The Medical Electricians: Dr. Scott and his Victorian Cohorts in Quackery by Robert K. Waits. You will find more quacks in this book than in any duck pond. It provides historical insights and reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun; similar charlatans continue to sell similar quack devices today, facilitated by the Internet and other media.

Electricity and magnetism sounded exciting to Victorian ears, but their properties were poorly understood. Great hopes were raised for medical applications. The opinions of experts varied. Priestly reported experiments from Italy and Germany in 1747-8 showing that a patient who held a vial of medicine while being electrified would get the same benefit as if he took the medicine by mouth. Benjamin Franklin, on the other hand, was persuaded that these reports were not true. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Energy Medicine, History

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People Encouraging Turtle Agony*

Lest anyone think I am a heartless bastard, I would like it to be known that I do not like to see any creature suffer or die. I am the kind of person who, when finding a spider in the house, is likely to catch it and toss it outside. I always think, “I can’t squish the end result of 6 billion years of evolution”. Except mosquitoes. Those I squish with glee. Infection vectors can die die die die.

I like animals and hate to see them suffer unnecessarily. Like sticking them with needles. Frontal lobes are nice to have. They can let you know that pain is coming and provide preparation and compensation. Once I had a steel bar smack me on the head, opening up a six-inch cut to the bone. No, my brain was not affected, thank you very much. Everything predates the head trauma. When the ER doc numbed the scalp for sutures, he missed the last half-inch and I felt the needle. Knowing what was going on I steeled myself and let him do the last two sutures with no lidocaine, since the needle hurt only a little worse than the lidocaine injection. I have had many other unpleasant medical procedures in my 56 years but knowing what was coming and understanding why makes it easier to tolerate a needle popping into the knee joint or an abdominal drain being pulled.

Animals, and young humans, lack the ability to comprehend the what and why of pain inflicted as part of medicine. Adults can make a conscious decision to be endure pain and fool themselves into thinking it is of benefit. No pain, no gain. Animals can make no such choice.

For example consider sea turtles, who, apparently, are subjected to all sorts of nonsense at the New England Aquarium including acupuncture and laser therapy. As is obvious, I am no veterinarian, the only animal of which I have any understanding of anatomy and physiology is a human, but even with that background it is remarkable what is reported from New England. I used to say the ‘B’ students went into journalism; given the credulous reporting perhaps the standards have been lowered. They certainly have for marine biologists and veterinarians, who are evidently shortchanged in their education. (more…)

Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Energy Medicine, Science and Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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