September 26, 2002Kimball Atwood, M.D. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
I have now had time to look into the allegations in your letter of June 14th which, incidentally, I shared with Dr. David Eisenberg and he with several others. I have sought consultation about our exchanges and the gist of my response follows.
Some of your concerns and allegations are very helpful and constructive. Perceptions are particularly important in controversial fields where there is limited objective proof. Your cautions and interpretations in this area have been very useful to us.
Some of what you said is just plain wrong. This includes the allegation the Harvard has “a stake” in the area and therefore would not look into your allegations objectively. Relatedly, Dr. Howard Koh has written us a construction of the events in the Massachusetts Special Commission that is strikingly different from yours. And Dr. Anthony Komoroff has pointed out that many of your comments about the InteliHealth treatment of CAM are now grossly out of date as the material inherited from another provider has been reviewed by HMS faculty and modified. [Indeed, you have referred in other correspondence to modifications you have noticed.] Dr. Komaroff also commented on the misleading way your citation the treatment of homeopathy was disconnected from the rest of the paragraph.
Some of what you said is a matter of taste or interpretation, where even well intentioned people may disagree. In this particular area I have weighed your arguments carefully and, in places, learned from them.
But I think the biggest difference may be in a misperception about what our purposes are. The Council of Academic Deans of Harvard Medical School approved beginning a Division of Research and Education in Complementary and Alternative Therapies with exactly the focus described. Our goal is to do peer-reviewed basic and clinical research on the claimed, but unproven, efficacies of complementary and alternative approaches to therapeutics. The recent scientific sessions and requests for proposal held by the Division are clear testament to this intent. In addition, in common with the Association of American Medical Colleges and most of the allopathic schools of medicine, we intend to teach our students something about CAM and in particular how to assess its claims rigorously. We do not, repeat NOT, have any intention of making our students CAM practitioners. They have enough to do learning what we have always focused on.
Daniel D. Federman, M.D.
cc: David M. Eisenberg, M.D.
Archive for Science and Medicine
After my fairly recent awakening from shruggieness (i.e. a condition in which one is largely unaware of or uninterested in CAM) I decided to discuss my concerns about pseudoscience with my friends. One particular friend is a nationally recognized physician who believes in the importance of accurate health information and the promotion of science. However, he sees no urgent need to warn people against snake oil, and so long as it’s correctly labeled he doesn’t seem to mind it co-existing with scientific alternatives.
My friend and I had dinner a few weeks ago, and our conversation was both animated and disappointing. I somehow felt inadequate in conveying my objections (both ethical and scientific) to the promotion of pseudoscience. My best explanations were met with cheerful rebuttals, and while not intellectually convincing to me, those retorts satisfied my friend just fine. I guess the bottom line was that he was more interested in maintaining his position than reconsidering it… and so it left me feeling rather frustrated and a little sad.
In this space we’ve read about the efforts of “alternative” practitioners such as naturopaths to gain the moniker “primary care provider”. I’ve been wondering a bit about this. I’m a primary care physician. Specialists in internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine provide the bulk of primary care in the U.S. They attend a 4-year medical school, complete a 3-4 year residency, take their specialty board, and then work as experts in the screening, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of common diseases.
So, what I’d like to do is give you a typical scenario from an internal medicine or family medicine practice. It’s a simple one, one you might see on Step II of the USMLE boards or on a shelf exam for an internal medicine rotation. I’d like to offer alternative practioners, especially naturopaths, an opportunity to show how they would approach the clinical scenario so that we can see what kind of primary care they provide.
Yes, every patient and every situation is different, but there are some general ways to approach health and disease based on the evidence.
I’m a primary care physician. What I, other internists, pediatricians, and family medicine docs do is prevent and treat common diseases. When we get to diseases that require more specialized care, we refer to our specialist colleagues. There is a movement afoot to broaden the role of naturopaths to make them primary care doctors. The big difference between naturopaths and real primary care physicians (PCPs) is that naturopaths haven’t gone to medical school, completed a post-graduate residency program, and taken their specialty boards. Why is this important? If a naturopath wants to be a PCP, then they must provide the same services as other PCPs. They do not. What, you don’t believe me? The thing is, naturopaths have an incorrect understanding of human biology and do not understand how this is applied in a science-based fashion to prevent and treat human disease.
Naturopathic “physicians” claim that “the human body has an innate healing ability” and that they “teach their patients to use diet, exercise, lifestyle changes and cutting edge natural therapies to enhance their bodies’ ability to ward off and combat disease.”
I must admit that I don’t get it. As a primary care physician (the real kind) I talk to my patients every day about diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes. I’m not sure what “natural therapies” are—all of the medications that I prescribe are “natural”. What is the opposite of natural? Unnatural? Supernatural?
Kimball Atwood is obviously trying to throw mud at Harvard and at homeopathy, but when you throw mud, you get dirty…
(Sigh) So little time, so much misinformation. Hence the Dull-Man Law:
In any discussion involving science or medicine, being Dana Ullman loses you the argument immediately…and gets you laughed out of the room.
This will be the last time that I don’t invoke that law, because it is the perfect opportunity to explain why it is such a useful shortcut. The occasion is the current series about my alma mater, Harvard Medical School (HMS), and its regrettable dalliances with quackery.† The series consists mostly of correspondence that occurred between Dean Daniel Federman and me in 2002. Some of it refers to homeopathy.*
Mr. Ullman, a self-styled expert on homeopathy who lacks any medical training, is a darling of the ‘integrative medicine’ movement, as explained here. He has posted several comments objecting to my assertions in the HMS series. Other commenters have skillfully refuted some of his arguments. Some have been left unchallenged, however, and a naive reader might therefore assume that they are valid. They are not, but explaining why takes time and a modest acquaintance with the topic. Other than to clarify the issues for the uninitiated, then, such time would be wasted. Henceforth, let it not be so: From now on, this post can be cited by anyone wanting to avoid the drudgery of refuting Mr. Ullman’s claims. (more…)
Dr. Michael Dixon, the medical director of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, wrote an editorial for BBC news that is a densely packed rant of tiresome straw men often trotted out by the defenders of so-called “integrative” medicine. (The reason for the quotes in the headline, by the way, is because I stole that line from George Will who used in on This Week recently – it was too perfect not to co-opt.) Dixon was responding to an excellent commentary by Edzard Ernst, in which he characterized integrative medicine as a”shabby smokescreen for unproven treatments.”
Dixon was writing right out of the playbook of “integrative” propaganda, so it is worthwhile to expose his numerous logical fallacies and mischaracterizations of fact.
The Holism Gambit
Integrated health is not a new concept – the best doctors and their clinical colleagues have practised it for years.
It means treating patients as whole human beings – paying attention to body, mind and soul – instead of regarding them as nothing more than a set of symptoms to be got out the door as quickly as possible.
If Dixon wishes to be taken seriously by scientific practitioners he should make more of an effort to more fairly characterize mainstream medical practice. Of course, I must acknowledge up front, that there are mediocre and even bad doctors. There are also good doctors struggling within failing systems. And there are also many excellent doctors with effective practices. However, Dixon makes it seem as if the absolute worst of mainstream medicine is standard and typical. This is insulting, dismissive, and frankly ignorant of the facts on the ground. I find it interesting that defenders of integrative medicine are frequently whining about the dismissive attitudes of scientific practitioners of whom they are dismissive.
In Parts I and II of this series* we saw that from 2000 to 2002, key members of the Harvard Medical School “CAM” program, including the Director, had promoted quackery to the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We also saw other explicit or tacit promotions by Harvard institutions and professors, and embarrassing examples of such promotions on InteliHealth, a consumer health website ostensibly committed to “providing credible information from the most trusted sources, including Harvard Medical School….”
Those points were made in an essay that I sent in the spring of 2002 to Daniel Federman, the Senior Dean for Alumni Relations and Clinical Teaching at Harvard Medical School (HMS). I also sent Dr. Federman a treatise on homeopathy, including several examples of credulous Harvard professors and misrepresentations aimed at students, patients, and the public. Much of the content of that treatise has been covered by the series on homeopathy† with which I began my stint here on SBM, so here I’ll post only the parts relevant to promotions by academic physicians, including those at Harvard. There is a bit of redundancy involving InteliHealth, but please bear with me if you’ve made it this far; the discussion will be meatier than the short summary in Part II.
In Part I of this series† we saw that in 2001 Dr. David Eisenberg, the Director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education (CAMRE), and Atty Michael Cohen, the CAMRE’s Director of Legal Programs, had contributed to a report commissioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that would, if accepted as valid by the legislature, provide state protection for a group of quacks to practice ‘medicine.’ We also saw that Dr. Eisenberg had accepted funds from this very group, without having disclosed that information to the relevant state Commission. We saw examples of the quackery that the group espouses, including methods advocated by Thomas Kruzel, the Chief Medical Officer of the school that had contributed money to Dr. Eisenberg’s Harvard “Complementary and Integrative Medicine” course.
We continue now with the essay that I sent in the spring of 2002 to Dr. Dan Federman, the Senior Dean for Alumni Relations and Clinical Teaching at Harvard Medical School (HMS). As before, I’ve provided hyperlinks to many of the citations that I included in my original essay; some, however, are no longer available.
The American Association of Health Freedom
Kruzel and Harvard’s Michael Cohen are listed as key figures—Kruzel the Secretary, Mr. Cohen the only lawyer on the Advisory Board—in a lobbying organization known as the American Association of Health Freedom (AAHF). Formerly known as the American Preventive Medical Association (APMA), it was founded by Julian Whitaker, MD, a former orthopedic surgical resident who decided that “natural therapies” offered a more lucrative career path. Its purpose, as suggested by the standard euphemism, is to convince government of the validity of dubious medical claims through political influence rather than science. The AAHF lobbies heavily for the passage of the annually defeated federal “Access to Medical Treatment” act, which would allow quacks to prey freely on unwary consumers.
One of the most common refrains from advocates of quackery and “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) is the charge of being “close-minded,” that they reject out of hand any idea that does not fit within their world view. Of course, this is a canard, given that science, including science-based medicine, thrives on the open and free exchange of ideas, and it is not “close-mindedness” that (usually) leads to the rejection of dubious claims. Rather, it is the knowledge that, for many of such claims to be true, huge swaths of our current scientific understanding would have to be in error to such an extent that a major paradigm shift in various basic science would be necessary. While such paradigm shifts occasionally occur, they do not occur without the confluence of huge amounts of evidence, often coming from different fields and directions. In other words, to show that a paradigm is wrong or seriously incomplete requires evidence even more compelling than the evidence supporting the paradigm.
This video, via The World’s Fair, explains why when woo-meisters wrap themselves in the mantle of “open-mindedness” it’s almost always a crock:
I’ll have to keep this video around for my medical students to help them counter the inevitable charge of “close-mindedness” by CAM advocates. In fact, the part at the end, with the blond guy letting all sorts of rubbish into his brain because he has no critical thinking filter while demanding that others accept his views without evidence reminds me very much of a male version of Jenny McCarthy, full of the arrogance of ignorance. If the cartoon weren’t of such a good-looking young man, I’d say it was J.B. Handley, although the video does get the cartoonishness right.
Several years ago I stumbled upon disturbing information regarding my alma mater, the Harvard Medical School (HMS).† Its professed commitment to investigate implausible medical claims had somehow metamorphosed into the advocacy of such claims. I’ve previously mentioned some of this on SBM (here and here). A couple of pertinent essays appeared in the public domain in 2002 and 2003, but the full story was much more involved than those pieces revealed. In the wake of recent posts on SBM about medical schools exposing students to uncritical portrayals of pseudomedicine, it seems appropriate to tell more of it. I’ve also decided to name names, which is something that I would have been reticent to do a few years ago. The basis for that decision will become clear over the next few posts, I trust. This topic will require at least three posts.
My discovery that HMS had begun promoting pseudoscientific medical claims was occasioned by my experience on the Massachusetts Special Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medical Practitioners, which met from the fall of 2001 to the winter of 2003. Another member of that commission was David Eisenberg, the Director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education (CAMRE) and of the new Osher Center for Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies. Dr. Eisenberg is best known for his 1993 article reporting the use of ‘unconventional therapies’ by Americans. He had been appointed to the commission by the MA Commissioner of Public Health at the time, Dr. Howard Koh–whom President Obama has recently nominated to be Assistant Secretary of HHS. I assumed then, and still do, that Dr. Koh presumed Dr. Eisenberg to be an objective expert on “CAM,” since that was the persona presented by HMS and by Dr. Eisenberg himself. I had my doubts, but before then I’d not bothered to look into the matter.
It was during commission meetings, when I had the opportunity to hear what Dr. Eisenberg and his surrogate had to say or not to say and when I examined some of their writings and funding sources, that I began to realize how far his project was deviating from what I imagined to be the agenda of HMS. Some of what I saw amounted to frank dishonesty: failure to disclose obvious conflicts of interest to the Commission, for example. I also discovered public promotions of dubious “CAM” practices and practitioners by the CAMRE, in spite of its formal purpose being that of investigating “CAM” practices in an attempt to find out if any might be useful. I was concerned enough to look at other “CAM” information offered in the name of Harvard, and I found more worrisome examples.
I also attended the Feb., 2001 Harvard Complementary and Integrative Medicine Course, directed by Dr. Eisenberg (here is a link to the similar 2002 course brochure). A few of the talks were reasonable, if banal. I did my best to give them the benefit of the doubt, because I still could not accept that HMS would seriously consider homeopathy, ‘life-force,’ and ‘subluxations’ as being worthy of study, much less advocacy. After attending a semi-rigorous talk on raw herbs as medicines (the presenter discussed some studies but not the looming question of why whole herbs might be preferable to purified molecules), I ran into Eisenberg and did my best to be polite and encouraging. I shouldn’t have, because most of the content of the course was misleading and pseudoscientific. Overall, its tone was more like a political rally or a religious revival than a scientific conference.
At that course I ran into Russell Phillips, who had been in my group of interns at the Beth Israel Hospital (Boston) in 1979. I’d seen him around from time to time over the years, and I’d known that he’d stayed on at the BI after his residency. I was surprised, however, to learn that he was now the Director of the Harvard CAMRE Fellowship program. I was even more surprised to learn, during a short conversation with him, that he was innocent of the chiropractic ‘subluxation theory’ and that he’d never heard of Quackwatch. It seemed to me that there was either a surprising naivete among this crowd or an attempt by some to shun unpleasant information.