Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicine – Brief Article

Harold Orlans

Alternative medicine–treatment that is not scientifically based, is outside normal medical practice, and is not reimbursed by insurance–is now taught in over 70 medical schools. Examples of its growing influence: leading alternative medicine advocate and practitioner Andrew Weil (right) addressed the Association of American Medical Colleges’ council of deans early in 2000; Harvard Medical School has established a Division for Complementary and Alternative Medicine; other medical schools have adopted or are adopting similar programs.

Arnold Relman, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, says, “It is becoming politically incorrect for… [alternative medicine] critics to express their skepticism too strongly in public.” At the insistence of the U.S. Congress, the National Institutes of Health spent $70 million at major medical centers last year for scientific research on these (by definition) nonscientific therapies.

Dying of pancreatic cancer in 1978, anthropologist Margaret Mend–a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science–received therapeutic massage from a Chilean faith healer. Massage is still used as a cancer therapy; it and spirituality, diet, and personal relationships ”are important issues for conventional medicine to consider,” states Lewis Mehl-Madrona of the Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center, New York. Acu-puncture, hypnosis, dietary supplements, and high vitamin doses are other popular alternative treatments. It is estimated that 42 percent of Americans spend $27 billion a year on such remedies.

In a letter to Science, Luis Benitez Bribiesca of the National Medical Center, Mexico City, observes that alternative medicine is burgeoning in many countries. Normal medical care, he notes, is expensive, whereas “alternative medicine is cheaper”; medical tests can be “bothersome or painful,” whereas alternative treatments are usually “innocuous”; prescribed drugs can have unpleasant side effects that alternative remedies lack; patients are processed impersonally in hospitals, but are treated as individuals by alternative practitioners.

In 1992, Senator Tom Harkin, ranking Democrat on NIH’ s budget subcommittee, pushed an Office of Alternative Medicine on NIH. Despite resistance from prominent scientists, OAM’s budget grew, and it was upgraded to a National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Its advisory board has approved a proposal to investigate such therapies as magnets, energy healing, and homeopathy.

Therapies undergoing clinical trials at the Universities of Maryland, Pittsburgh, and Utah, Duke University, and other medical centers include acupuncture for knee arthritis, shark cartilage for lung cancer, enzymes and coffee enemas for pancreatic cancer, and the herb St. John’s Wort for depression.

Wallace Sampson, editor of The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, terms the NIH center “a source for aberrant and biased science….The present situation is a scientific disgrace.” (Science, June 2 & July 14, 2000)

Harold Orlans has conducted many studies of higher education and research policy for private and government bodies in Washington, DC. He retains the copyright for this column.

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