Wasting Big Bucks On Alternative Medicine

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It's been nearly a decade since Iowa Senator Tom Harkin foisted a New Age entity known as the OAM (Office of Alternative Medicine) upon the National Institutes of Health. In the years since, the Congress has steadily increased its financial support, first for the OAM and then for its successor, the NCCAM (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine), which this year is feasting on an annual budget that has grown to $105 million. All the while, most of the medical community has watched aghast as the agency I call Harkin's Folly murkily pursues its goals.

The ostensible mandate for the OAM was to evaluate and determine the effectiveness of, yes, alternative medicine. But Dr. Bernadine Healy, then the NIH director, and many of the outstanding medical experts she supervised, vigorously opposed the new office. They felt that such evaluations could be best and more objectively handled by the existing NIH structure. To no avail. For one thing, Senator Harkin headed the committee that allocated funds to the NIH, and no one at the agency was willing to incur his wrath. But there was a bigger problem. The otherwise sensible Senator from Iowa believed, and still believes, in the curative powers of bee pollen and other fanciful "remedies."

It was no accident, then, that the OAM, the NCCAM and their advisory committees have been loaded with New Age gurus like Andrew Weil, assorted mystics, quacks — like the one that treated Harkin's allergies with bee pollen — as well as various hangers-on who apparently think that "placebo" refers to one of the Three Tenors. Indeed, a recent director of the Center, Wayne Jonas, proudly listed in his resume the authorship of a book called "Healing with Homeopathy." Is it fair of me to say that Jonas, and many of those on OAM advisory committees, did not bring to the table an abundance of objectivity?

Enter Saul Green, a former professor of biochemistry at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute, among whose achievements are the identification and purification of the tumor necrosis factor, a protein that kills cancer cells. Undertaking a study of OAM grants and reports to date, he reveals in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine that approximately $110 million has already been given away as grants to people who were doing complementary or alternative medical research. "Most of those grants," Green says, "seemed to be going to the same people over and over again." Even more troubling, he found that few results of the studies have been published, and that those in print "are invariably statements to the effect that the results are interesting but further research is necessary because they didn't have enough money to do the research properly."

In the past nine years, Green concludes, "no negative result has been published by the OAM or NCCAM, nor have any of the methods studied been shown to work to the satisfaction of the medical science community." In other words, we have no validation and, more significant, no invalidation of these often questionable "medicines" and techniques.

This is simply scandalous. Some rather simple, straightforward, double-blind tests could be immediately applied to establish the efficacy, if any, of such alternative and complimentary treatments as coffee enemas for cancer, remote prayers for AIDS and other "medicines" and techniques the NCCAM is laboriously and fruitlessly investigating.

It would be relatively easy, for example, to determine if either legitimate scientists or homeopathic practitioners could differentiate between homeopathic solutions and distilled water (which is essentially what many homeopathic solutions are). And treating influenza sufferers, some with a popular homeopathic flu medicine, others with water, all in unmarked containers with contents unknown to either patient or the investigator, would certainly determine the dubious worth of the homeopathic potion. Scientific invalidation of this and other forms of homeopathy, especially by a federal agency, might convince millions of Americans that they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually on worthless remedies.

Then there's "therapeutic touch," endorsed by Andrew Weil, among others, and studied inconclusively under grants from the OAM and the NCCAM. Using this technique, nurses do not actually touch patients, but manually manipulate distortions in the "human energy field" that supposedly surrounds us all, in order to treat bodily disorders. This practice continues in spite of a report published a few years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Society, in which 11-year-old Emily Rosa and her mother conducted homemade but rigorous tests effectively demonstrating that therapeutic touch practitioners could not even sense that non-existent field, let alone manipulate it.

I have a great idea: let's shut down the embarrassing operations of the NCCAM, thus saving millions of tax dollars, and turn the Center's investigations over to the Rosa family, which, unlike Harkin's Folly, has a proven record of success.