5 alternative medical treatments that “work”?

Some readers have been sending me links to this article on CNN.com entitled 5 Alternative Medicine Treatments That Work. Unfortunately, Your Friday Dose of Woo took up the time that normally would have gone into given this article the lovingly Respectfully Insolent™ treatment that this utterly credulous article so richly deserves and that you, my faithful readers, demand. Fortunately Mark over at denialism.com has taken the time to fisk this one in detail. Does that mean Orac has nothing more to say on this article?

You know the answer to that one. Mark just made it so that I can restrain my usual logorrheic tendencies and be succinct (or at least as succinct as I can be).

Just a look at the first paragraph should tell you all you need to know about the level of scientific reasoning this article demonstrates:

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — Dr. Andrew Weil wasn’t sure exactly how he hurt his knee; all he knew was that it was painful. But instead of turning to cortisone shots or heavy doses of pain medication, Weil turned to the ancient Chinese medicine practice of acupuncture. “It worked — my knee felt much better,” says Weil.

Americans spend billions of dollars each year on alternative medicine, everything from chiropractic care to hypnosis.

Weil says alternative medicine can work wonders — acupuncture, certain herbs, guided imagery.

Any article that approvingly cites celebrity alternative medicine advocate Dr. Weil as an authority in this area without some skepticism is going to be depressingly credulous, and this one is no exception. I’m not going to go down the list of the five that supposedly work, except to mention that for all but one of them the evidence is extremely weak and mixed, as I’ve pointed out for acupuncture. Mark has discussed this well. My only question about this is: Who on earth is this “panel of experts” that the article keeps citing? The ones who are named appear to be all directors of centers of “integrative medicine” (translation: centers for diluting evidence-based medicine with non-evidence-based medicine) or to hold similar positions. Not a skeptical, scientific faculty member is to be found.

The part of the article that I’m going to focus like a laser beam on is this:

So how do you know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to alternative medicine? Just a decade ago, there weren’t many well-done, independent studies on herbs, acupuncture, massage or hypnosis, so patients didn’t have many facts to guide them.

But in 1999, eight academic medical centers, including Harvard, Duke and Stanford, banded together with the purpose of encouraging research and education on alternative medicine. Eight years later, the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine has 38 member universities, and has gathered evidence about what practices have solid science behind them.

Here, from experts at five of those universities, are five alternative medicine practices that are among the most promising because they have solid science behind them.

I’ve lamented time and time again the infiltration of woo into medical school curriculae (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Indeed, it’s even showing up in the mandatory medical curriculum in at least one medical school, in the major medical student association (which credulously and actively promotes woo), and in the NIH, even to the point where some schools are credulously teaching about homeopathy.

Articles like the CNN.com article are one consequence of this infiltration of woo into academic medicine. Although these departments and institutes dedicated to “complementary and alternative medicine” (a.k.a. CAM) or “integrative medicine” (a.k.a. combining woo with non-woo) all claim to champion an “evidence-based” approach to CAM, in reality this claim does not really stand up to scrutiny. For example, four out of the five CAM boosters quoted in this article vastly oversold the benefits of the therapy discussed based on the evidence. Indeed, the number one modality stated in the article to have a solid evidence base behind it (acupuncture) and was represented as being highly effective against pain and nausea, when it is not at all clear that acupuncture is that effective against either, as I’ve pointed out before.

The bottom line is that the infiltration of woo into academic medicine is a threat to evidence-based medicine because it lends the prestige of scientific medicine to modalities that are not evidence-based, thereby promoting the belief that they are on an equal footing, even though the vast majority of them are not. In so doing, it blurs the line between science and non-science, between scientifically supported treatments and quackery. Moreover, the faculty of the institutes, divisions, and departments dedicated to CAM in medical schools are, by and large, not made up of skeptics, but of true believers, be they M.D.s or not, who apply a veneer of skepticism and science to their studies and curriculae and then give interviews to credulous reporters like Elizabeth Cohen to publish on CNN.com. Remember, there really is no such thing as “alternative medicine.” There is evidence-based medicine, and there is non-evidence-based medicine, the latter of which describes the vast majority of so-called “alternative medicine” modalities. When “alternative” medicine passes scientific muster through basic and translational experimentation and clinical trials, it is no longer “alternative.” It is just medicine.