Posts Tagged complementary and alternative medicine

Does thinking make it so? CAM placebo fantasy versus scientific reality

Last week, I discussed a rather execrable study. Actually, the study itself wasn’t so execrable, at least not in its design, which was a fairly straightforward three-arm randomized clinical trial. Rather it was the interpretation of the study’s results that was execrable. In brief, the authors tested an “energy healing” modality known as “energy chelation” versus a placebo (sham “energy chelation”) and found, as is so often the case in studies of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM) that both modalities did better than no treatment on the primary outcomes but that the “real” treatment (if one can call energy chelation “real treatment”) produced outcomes that were statistically indistinguishable from the “sham” treatment. Not surprisingly, the next move on the part of the researchers was to do a bunch of comparisons, and, as is so often the case (particularly when one fails to correct statistically for multiple comparisons), they found a couple of secondary endpoints with barely statistically significant differences and trumpeted them as meaning that their “energy chelation therapy” has “significant promise for reducing fatigue.” They then argued that the study was also ” designed to examine nonspecific and placebo elements that may drive responses.”

Which brings us to the “power” of placebo.

As I was contemplating what I wanted to discuss this week, I thought about the study that Drs. Coyne, Johansen, and I objected to, but then I also thought about Dr. Crislip’s post last week and post I did about a month ago in which I noticed how lately CAM apologists seem to be—shall we say?—retooling their message in the wake of negative trial after negative trial of their implausible treatments. Gone (mostly) are claims of powerful specific effects and efficacy from treatments such as various “energy healing” modalities, acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like themselves, to be replaced by claims that physicians should embrace CAM because it’s “harnessing the power of placebo” to produce “powerful mind-body healing.” It’s a powerful message that has sucked in people who normally would be considered skeptics, such as Michael Specter, who, as I described, apparently bought into the message sufficiently that when Ted Kaptchuk was making the media round right before the holidays he happily published a fairly credulous interview with him entitled, The Power of Nothing: Could Studying the Placebo Effect Change the Way We Think About Medicine? (My answer: Very likely no.) Even Ira Flatow of Science Friday fell hard for Kaptchuk’s message, declaring at the beginning of the interview that Kaptchuk’s irritable bowel syndrome study is evidence that “placebos work even when patients are in on the secret.” (It’s not.)

That skeptics and scientists find the idea that the mind has the power to heal the body, often referred to as “self-healing” or “mind-body healing,” so seductive should probably not be surprising. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to cure themselves simply by willing it to be so? It’s a concept that, like so many concepts in CAM, goes far back into ancient times and stretches forward to today in ideas like The Secret, which goes quite a bit beyond the whole idea of “mind-body healing” or healing yourself because you wish it to be so, and declares that you can have virtually anything you want simply by thinking the right thoughts. In fact, to me it appears that the “powerful placebo” is being drafted in the service of supporting what are, at their core, mystical beliefs far more than science. I’d like to elaborate on that idea a bit more than I did last time I discussed this isssue, where I concluded by writing:

In the end, all too much of the rebranding of CAM as placebo and the selling of placebos as some sort of powerful “mind-body healing” strikes me as being much like The Secret, in which wishing makes it so.

Let’s take a look at just how far this goes.

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Religion

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What is Science?

Consider these statements:

…there is an evidence base for biofield therapies. (citing the Cochrane Review of Touch Therapies)

The larger issue is what constitutes “pseudoscience” and what information is worthy of dissemination to the public. Should the data from our well conducted, rigorous, randomized controlled trial [of 'biofield healing'] be dismissed because the mechanisms are unknown or because some scientists do not believe in the specific therapy?…Premature rejection of findings from rigorous randomized controlled trials are as big a threat to science as the continuation of falsehoods based on belief. Thus, as clinicians and scientists, our highest duty to patients should be to investigate promising solutions with high benefit/risk ratios, not to act as gatekeepers of information based on personal opinion.

–Jain et al, quoted here

Touch therapies may have a modest effect in pain relief. More studies on HT and Reiki in relieving pain are needed. More studies including children are also required to evaluate the effect of touch on children.

Touch Therapies are so-called as it is believed that the practitioners have touched the clients’ energy field.

It is believed this effect occurs by exerting energy to restore, energize, and balance the energy field disturbances using hands-on or hands-off techniques (Eden 1993). The underlying concept is that sickness and disease arise from imbalances in the vital energy field. However, the existence of the energy field of the human body has not been proven scientifically and thus the effect of such therapies, which are believed to exert an effect on one’s energy field, is controversial and lies in doubt.

—Cochrane Review of Touch Therapies, quoted here


Science is advanced by an open mind that seeks knowledge, while acknowledging its current limits. Science does not make assertions about what cannot be true, simply because evidence that it is true has not yet been generated. Science does not mistake absence of evidence for evidence of absence. Science itself is fluid.

—David Katz

When people became interested in alternative medicines, they asked me to help out at Harvard Medical School. I realized that in order to survive there, one had to become a scientist. So I became a scientist.

—Ted Kaptchuk, quoted here.

 …It seems that the decision concerning acceptance of evidence (either in medicine or religion) ultimately reflects the beliefs of the person that exist before all arguments and observation.

 —Ted Kaptchuk, quoted here.

Together they betray a misunderstanding of science that is common not only to “CAM” apologists, but to many academic medical researchers. Let me explain. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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NIH Director Francis Collins doesn’t understand the problem with CAM

As the sole cancer surgeon among our stable of Science-Based Medicine (SBM) bloggers, I’m probably the most irritated at the infiltration of pseudoscience into academia (or, as we sometimes like to call it, quackademic medicine) in the realm of cancer. Part of the reason, of course, is that cancer is so common and that the consequences of adding pseudoscience to cancer therapy are among the most devastating. Witness, for instance, the use of Gonzalez therapy to treat pancreatic cancer, a form of quackery that harms patients and resulted in incredibly unethical and disastrous clinical trial of Gonzalez quackery versus chemotherapy whose results were entirely predictable, given the lack of prior plausibility of the treatment: Gonzalez protocol patients did worse, with no evidence that the therapy impacted the natural history of the disease and the Gonzalez patients scoring lower on quality of life measures. Or look at what happens when patients with breast cancer choose quackery over science-based therapy.

I realize that “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, what quackademics like to call it now, “integrative medicine” (IM) is meant to refer to “integrating” alternative therapies into SBM or “complementing” SBM with a touch of the ol’ woo, but I could never manage to understand how “integrating” quackery with SBM would do anything but weaken the scientific foundation of medicine. Moreover, weakening those foundations would have more consequences than just “humanizing” medicine; weaker scientific standards would allow not just ancient quackery like traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) into academia, but it would also provide an opening for drug and device companies to promote their wares under less rigorous requirements for evidence. There’s also perhaps a touch of personal embarrassment involved. After all, oncology and cancer surgery tend to be specialties that are the most steeped in science. If I had to rank specialties for how science-based they are, I’d certainly put oncology near the top, which is why I tend to come down so hard on “integrative oncology” and, even worse, “naturopathic oncology.”

Consequently, I was doubly disturbed several months ago when I learned that the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, had agreed to be the keynote speaker at the Eight International Society for Integrative Oncology Conference in Cleveland, OH. I say “doubly” disturbed because it disturbed me that Francis Collins would agree to speak at such a function and, perhaps even more, because the host institution was Case Western Reserve University, the institution where I both completed my surgery residency and my PhD in Physiology and Biophysics. Sadly, it now appears that my old stomping grounds at University Hospitals has been thoroughly infiltrated with quackademic medicine, as evidenced by this clinical trial of reiki for psoriasis that’s making the rounds of news services and the offering of acupuncture, reiki, and even reflexology at various UH facilities through the University Hospitals Connor Integrative Medicine Network. Let me tell you, there was none of this pseudoscience going on when I finished my residency there in 1996. Seeing it there now provokes a reaction in me not unlike Sylvester Junior’s reaction when his father Sylvester embarrasses him, particularly when I noted that the director of the CWRU Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Stanton L. Gerson, was to give one of the keynote talks, entitled, “The Future of Integrative Oncology.” (Hint for those of you not familiar with classic Looney Tunes cartoons: A paper bag is involved.) I guess that by expressing my extreme disappointment and embarrassment that the institution where I learned to become a surgeon has during the last 15 years gone woo, I’ve probably just killed any opportunity I might have to work at the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center ever again. Oh, well, add it to the list, along with Beth Israel and my alma mater the University of Michigan.)

Back when I first learned about it, I thought about blogging the meeting, but without much concrete to go on, given the copious other SBM-related topics to blog about, all I could do was to write a critical open letter to Dr. Collins about his decision to accept the offer to be the keynote speaker at the Society for Integrative Oncology (SIO). Then yesterday I saw popping up in my e-mail a notice from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), along with a link to a story in its publication The ASCO Post entitled NIH Director Calls for Rigorous Evaluation of Integrative Medicine to Provide Evidence of Efficacy.

Et tu, Dr. Collins?

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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The New England Journal of Medicine Sinks a Bit Lower

I suppose it was bound to happen, but it still rankles. Here is the back cover of last week’s issue of the decreasingly prestigious New England Journal of Medicine:


Here’s the front cover:

It’s the 200th Anniversary issue, no less. Some might protest that ‘probiotics’—live bacteria of ‘good’ varieties, as far as the gut is concerned—aren’t all that implausible, and that there is some trial evidence that they help for some conditions. That’s true, but as is typically the case even for the somewhat plausible end of the “CAM” spectrum, the hype greatly surpasses the evidence. The abstract of the most recent systematic review that I could find for probiotic treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS: symptoms and signs that best match the claims in the advertisement above) concluded:


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, History, Legal, Medical Ethics, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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Integrative Medicine: “Patient-Centered Care” is the new Medical Paternalism

Integrative Pitchmen

Several of us have written about how contemporary quacks have artfully pitched their wares to a higherbrow market than their predecessors were accustomed to, back in the day. Through clever packaging,* quacks today can reasonably hope to become professors at prestigious medical schools, to control and receive substantial grant money from the NIH, to preside over reviews for the Cochrane Collaboration, to be featured as guests and even as hosts on mainstream television networks and on PBS, to issue opinions in the name of the National Academy of Sciences, to be patronized by powerful politicians, and even to be chosen by U.S. presidents to chair influential government commissions.

The most successful pitch so far, and the one that the fattest quack-cats of all have apparently decided to bet the farm on, is “integrative medicine” (IM). Good call: the term avoids any direct mention of the only thing that distinguishes it from plain medicine. Its proponents, unsurprisingly, have increasingly come to understand that when they are asked to explain what IM is, it is prudent to leave some things to the imagination. They’re more likely to get a warm reception if they lead people to believe that IM has to do with reaching goals that almost everyone agrees are worthy: compassionate, affordable health care for all, for example.

In that vein, the two most consistent IM pitches in recent years—seen repeatedly in statements found in links from this post—are that IM is “preventive medicine” and that it involves “patient-centered care.” I demolished the “preventive” claim a couple of years ago, as did Drs. Lipson, Gorski, and probably others. Today I’ll explain why the “patient-centered care” claim is worse than fatuous.


Posted in: Health Fraud, History, Medical Ethics, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.3: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (concluded)

A Loose End

In the last post I wondered if Ted Kaptchuk, when he wrote the article titled “Effect of interpretive bias on clinical research,” had understood this implication of Bayes’s Theorem: that interpretations of most scientific investigations are exercises in inverse probability, and thus cannot logically be done without consideration of knowledge external to the investigation in question. I argued that if Kaptchuk had

…understood the point when he wrote his treatise, he was dishonest in not explaining it and in not citing at least one pertinent article, such as Steven Goodman’s (which I’m willing to bet he had read). If he didn’t understand the point he should have withheld his paper.

In researching more of Kaptchuk’s opinions I’ve discovered that he had certainly read Goodman’s article, but that he either didn’t understand it or preferred to obscure its implications in deference to his ongoing project in belittling scientific knowledge. In a letter to the editor of the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2001, Kaptchuk opined that even if “more trials of distant healing with increased methodologic rigor” were positive, it still would not “be persuasive for the medical community”:

The situation resembles the predicament with homeopathy trials, another seemingly implausible intervention, where the evidence of multiple positive randomized, controlled trials will not convince the medical community of its validity. Additional positive trials of distant healing are only likely to further expose the fact that the underpinning of modern medicine is an unstable balance between British empiricism (in the tradition of Hume) and continental rationalism (in the tradition of Kant).

…It seems that the decision concerning acceptance of evidence (either in medicine or religion) ultimately reflects the beliefs of the person that exist before all arguments and observation. [Kaptchuk cites the second of the two Goodman articles that I referred to above, discussed here]


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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.2: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (cont. again)

“Strong Medicine”: Ted Kaptchuk and the Powerful Placebo

At the beginning of the first edition of The Web that has no Weaver, published in 1983, author Ted Kaptchuk portended his eventual academic interest in the placebo:

A story is told in China about a peasant who had worked as a maintenance man in a newly established Western missionary hospital. When he retired to his remote home village, he took with him some hypodermic needles and lots of antibiotics. He put up a shingle, and whenever someone came to him with a fever, he injected the patient with the wonder drugs. A remarkable percentage of these people got well, despite the fact that this practitioner of Western medicine knew next to nothing about what he was doing. In the West today, much of what passes for Chinese medicine is not very different from the so-called Western medicine practiced by this Chinese peasant. Out of a complex medical system, only the bare essentials of acupuncture technique have reached the West. Patients often get well from such treatment because acupuncture, like Western antibiotics, is strong medicine.

Other than to wonder if Kaptchuk had watched too many cowboy ‘n’ Native American movies as a kid, when I first read that passage I barely blinked. Although the Chinese peasant may have occasionally treated someone infected with a bacterium susceptible to his antibiotic, most people will get well no matter what you do, because most illnesses are self-limited. Most people feel better even sooner if they think that someone with special expertise is taking care of them. If you want to call those phenomena the “placebo effect,” in the colloquial sense of the term, fine. That, I supposed, was what Kaptchuk meant by “strong medicine.”

Turns out I was mistaken. Let’s briefly follow Kaptchuk’s career path after 1983. In the 2000 edition of The Web, he wrote:


Posted in: Acupuncture, Basic Science, Book & movie reviews, Chiropractic, Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia, Science and Medicine

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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.1: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD (cont.)

Rave Reviews

In 1983, Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the recent “albuterol vs. placebo” article, and soon to become the long-time Second-in-Command of the Harvard Medical School “CAM” program, published The Web that Has No Weaver:

The book received rave reviews:

A major advance toward the synthesis of Western and Eastern theory. It will stimulate all practitioners to expand their understanding of the causes and treatment of disease.

–Paul Epstein, MD, Harvard Medical School

A lucid and penetrating exposition of the theory and practice of Chinese medicine. While the book’s rich detail makes it of great use to practicing healers, it is in its entirety very simply written, enjoyable reading for the layman…it brings a demystifying balance…Instructive, profound, and important!

Professor Martin Schwartz, University of California, Berkeley

…demystifies Oriental medicine in a remarkably rational analysis…

—Science Digest, Nov. 1982

…an encyclopedia of how to tell from the Eastern perspective ‘what is wrong.’

Larry Dossey

Dr. Kaptchuk has become a lyricist for the art of healing…

—Houston Chronicle

Although the book is explicitly detailed, it is readable and does not require previous knowledge of Chinese thought…

—Library Journal

The 2nd edition was published in 2000, to more acclaim:

…opens the great door of understanding to the profoundness of Chinese medicine.

—People’s Daily, Beijing, China

…weaves a picture…that is eminently understandable from a Westerner’s point of view…adds a valuable analysis of the current scientific understanding of how the therapies work and their effectiveness.

Brian Berman

Ted Kaptchuk’s book was inspirational in the development of my acupuncture practice and gave me a deep understanding of traditional Chinese medicine…

Dr. George T. Lewith

…a gift for all who share an interest in deep understanding of healing. This new edition is essential reading…

Michael Lerner, President, Commonweal

Even Edzard Ernst, still in his foggy period, called the 2nd edition “a brilliant synthesis of traditional and scientific knowledge…compulsory reading…”


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Dummy Medicine, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 2.0: Harvard Medical School and the Curious Case of Ted Kaptchuk, OMD


The recent albuterol vs. placebo trial reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found that experimental subjects with asthma experienced substantial, measured improvements in lung function after inhaling albuterol, but not after inhaling placebo, undergoing sham acupuncture, or “no treatment.” It also found that the same subjects reported having felt substantially improved after either albuterol or each of the two sham treatments, but not after “no treatment.” Anthropologist Daniel Moerman, in an accompanying editorial, wrote, “the authors conclude that the patient reports were ‘unreliable,’ since they reported improvement when there was none”—precisely as any rational clinician or biomedical scientist would have concluded.

In Part 1 of this blog we saw that Moerman took issue with that conclusion. He argued, with just a bit of hedging, that the subjects’ perceptions of improvement were more important than objective measures of their lung function. I wondered how the NEJM editors had chosen someone whose bibliography predicted such an anti-medical opinion. I doubted that Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Drazen, an expert in the pathophysiology of asthma, had ever heard of Moerman. I suggested, in a way that probably appeared facetious, that Ted Kaptchuk, the senior author of the asthma report, might have recommended him. (more…)

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Dummy Medicines, Dummy Doctors, and a Dummy Degree, Part 1: a Curious Editorial Choice for the New England Journal of Medicine


This post concerns the recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) titled “Active Albuterol or Placebo, Sham Acupuncture, or No Intervention in Asthma.” It was ably reviewed by Dr. Gorski on Monday, so I will merely summarize its findings: of the three interventions used—inhaled albuterol (a bronchodilator), a placebo inhaler designed to mimic albuterol, or ‘sham acupuncture’—only albuterol resulted in a clinically important improvement of bronchial airflow; for that outcome the two sham treatments were equivalent to “no intervention.” For all three interventions, however, self-reported improvements were substantial and were much greater than self-reported improvements after “no intervention.” In other words, dummy treatments made the subjects (report that they) feel better, whereas real medicine not only made them feel better but actually made them better.

Before proceeding, let me offer a couple of caveats. First, the word ”doctors” in the flippant title of this post refers mainly to two individuals: Daniel Moerman, PhD, the anthropologist who wrote the accompanying editorial, and Ted Kaptchuk, the Senior Author of the trial report. It does not refer to any of the other authors of the report. Second, I have no quarrel with the trial itself, which was quite good, or with the NEJM having published it, or even with most of the language in the article, save for the “spin” that Dr. Gorski has already discussed.

My quarrels are the same as those expressed by Drs. Gorski and Novella, and by all of us on the Placebo Panel at TAM. This post and the next will develop some of those points by considering the roles and opinions of Moerman and Kaptchuk, respectively.

A True Story

Late one night during the 1960s a friend and I, already in a cannabis-induced fog, wandered into a house that had been rented by one of his friends. There were about 8-10 ‘freaks’ there (the term was laudatory at the time); I didn’t know any of them. The air was thick with smoke of at least two varieties. After an uncertain interval I became aware of a guy who was having trouble breathing. He was sitting bolt upright in a chair, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, making wheezing sounds. He took short noisy breaths in, followed by what seemed to be very long breaths out, as though he was breathing through a straw. You could hear the wheezing in both directions. Others had also noticed that he was in distress; they tried to be helpful (“hey, man, ya want some water or somethin’?”), but he just shook his head. He couldn’t talk. My friend, who had asthma himself, announced that this guy was having an asthma attack and asked if he or anyone else had any asthma medicine. No one did.


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