Suzanne Fields (back to story)

October 7, 2002

Medicine men at NIH

Somebody is as busy as a bee, wasting your money on moonshine.

Congress is spending it on "scientific" research to explore alternative mind-body healing techniques. These can include "aromatherapy," how perfume from the petals of flowers can affect mood and energy; "ayurveda," a 5,000 year old practice from India that uses body, mind and spirit to treat disease; and "Reiki," Japanese for the laying on of hands to balance a patient's "vital energy" and heal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual problems.

It all began because Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa thinks bee pollen helped his allergies. The counterculture lives (and high on the hog). Armed with a budget of more than $100 million, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, one of the 27 institutes of the National Institutes of Health, is having a high old time.

NCCAM explains on its Web site (nccam.nih.gov) that it has a mission to "explore complementary and alternative healing practices in the context of rigorous science," train researchers in the field and disseminate authoritative information to the public and professionals. But it does not explain how rigorous science can be applied to these studies. Complementary alternative medicines that publicly funded research can investigate extend to guided imagery, art, music and dance therapy, pet therapy and native American healing. (Pentecostal faith healers need not apply.)

Sen. Harkin, the sugar daddy in this exercise, seems to have been stung by more than a bee. He was inspired to set up NCCAM when he concluded that his allergies were relieved by bee pollen, but after he was cured the Federal Trade Commission fined the distributor of the bee pollen $200,000 for false advertising. This did not persuade Harkin to close the federal cash spigot. At his behest, Congress first directed $2 million in discretionary funds to a small Office of Alternative Medicine.

But green money, as we know, grows like kudzu and acronyms in Washington, and OAM became NCCAM, and this year it has a $100 million dollar budget. That makes a lot of beeswax, even in Washington.

Dr. Saul Green, a onetime professor of biochemistry at Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute, analyzed the NCCAM research and concluded that after nine years and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of studying, "the NCCAM awards have not produced useful information." Nothing of value has been shown to work or not to work, "to the satisfaction of the medical science community," despite the senator's promise that the federal largesse was meant to determine the value of these alternative medicines.

Dr. Wallace Sampson, emeritus clinical professor of medicine at Stanford University and editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, a magazine devoted to examining medical claims, is less given to understatement. He argues that "anti-science advocates" use New Age mumbo jumbo to attack the essential integrity of modern medicine.

"Using obscure language and misleading claims, they promote a medical philosophy that would propel medicine centuries back(ward)," he writes. "They would supplant objectivity and reason with personal feelings, hunches and sophistry."

More damaging than the prospect that someone besides the senator will take the absurd seriously, the appropriation of taxpayer cash siphons money away from researching the real thing.

The range of alternative medicine is mind-boggling and extends to alternative cancer treatments that manipulate diet and call for coffee enemas (whether caffeinated or decaf is not specified). The NCCAM , by funding research into crackpot theories, bestows a federal imprimatur to suspect therapies without protecting the public from the quacks. "NCCAM has not declared any method to be ineffective," says Dr. Sampson, "thus giving grounds for continuing congressional appropriations."

Rigorous scientific trials are expensive and from five to 20 trials are required to prove any method or product effective or ineffective. It would take billions to find the efficacy - or nonsense - behind mind-body healing procedures.

Like so much that goes on with tax dollars, this kind of waste mostly operates below the media radar. Occasional feature stories appear in newspapers, magazines and on television, retailing anecdotal evidence of the fads and fashions in medical alternatives, but going through reports and conclusions of research grants is exceedingly tedious work, and it's seldom done unless someone suspects fraud. In these NCCAM grants, sloppy thinking and ideological missions are more correctly the culprits.

NCCAM will do research on "chelation therapy" for heart disease, a method that has been disproved and is potentially dangerous. An award for $1 million will examine psychic healing and $1.5 million will be used to study homeopathy, or home-based medicine. This may be petty cash on the Potomac, but taxpayers are allergic to it, and more than bee pollen will be required for a cure.

Contact Suzanne Fields | Read her biography

2002 Tribune Media Services