Summer school for woo

Imagine you’re a medical student in a dreaded “allopathic” medical school other than Georgetown. Imagine further that you’re finding the grind of learning science- and evidence-based medicine a bit tiresome. After all, there’s so much to learn: principles of biochemistry, physiology, anatomy (and not with acupuncture points), and neuroscience. You’re reading multiple chapters a night, staying up all night cramming your mind full of minutiae of various signaling pathways and eponyms for anatomic structures. All those facts, all that evidence, it’s all so…hard! It’s all so soulless. Where’s the love?

Fortunately, there’s something you can do during the brief vacation you get between the first and second years, or maybe you can turn it into a clinical rotation if you’re in your third or fourth year. Thanks to the infiltration of woo into medical schools, there are options for you. You could, if you like, join up with the American Medical Student Association’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine Leadership and Training Program, for example. You’d better be quick, though, as the deadline’s March 24. If you miss the deadline, you could find yourself on the outside looking in for this:

The CAM Leadership Training Program (LTP) is the experience of a lifetime. 20 medical students from across the country will gather on the campus of the Omega Institute for a five-day, intensive retreat dedicated to complementary and alternative medicine and leadership skills training. Our expectation is that these 20 students will go on to become the future generation of leaders in CAM education in their medical schools and beyond. The 2008 LTP is supported by the Samueli Institute for Information Biology, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies and individual donors.

Yes, it’s a great idea to get ’em while they’re young, isn’t it? Indeed, this program seems to be an outgrowth of a grant that AMSA obtained from NCCAM. If you want to see your tax dollars at work influencing the younger generation of physicians while still in their embryonic state to embrace non-evidence-based woo, this program is it:

During the LTP, students will learn from expert facilitators about a number of CAM topics, such as acupuncture, evidence-based research and mind-body medicine. Stress reduction, wellness, and nutrition will also be emphasized throughout the week as students will enjoy healthy meals and will have opportunities to take classes in meditation, yoga, and movement. To enhance leadership skills, LTP facilitators will host sessions on public speaking, teamwork, grant writing and other activities designed to make YOU a more effective advocate for CAM.

That’s right: An advocate for CAM. The explicitly stated purpose is to produce medical students who will go back to their home medical schools after this retreat and agitate for CAM:

In addition, each participant will plan a project to increase CAM awareness at his or her school. The LTP facilitators will host sessions throughout the week to help you make your project a success!

What I want to know is this: Why is AMSA so concerned about bringing woo into medicine and apparently not so concerned about evidence-based medicine? Searching its website for the term “evidence-based medicine” turned up mainly links either to CAM promotion or to its PharmFree Program. This is, of course, ironic given the way that AMSA makes such a big deal of mentioning evidence-based approaches when it comes to dealing with the claims of big pharma while strongly promoting non-evidence-based approaches.

But, you say, you’re not a member of AMSA and the whole touchy-feely, let’s sing “Kumbaya” at the CAM boot camp thing doesn’t float your boat either. That’s OK. that training ground for naturopaths, Bastyr University, has a less intense, more leisurely program just for you: a complementary and alternative medicine program for allopathic medical students. For a mere $1,250 tuition, you can earn three credits while you learn the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, “alternative” nutrition, and naturopathy. You’ll get to explore qi gong and learn to manipulate that undetectable “life force” disorders in the flow of which woo-meisters everywhere like to invoke as the cause of disease and claim to be able to manipulate for therapeutic intent. You’ll get to hang out in the Whole Foods Cooking Lab. (We can only hope that at least there’s some tasty food involved.)

Of course, the students loved it. This is not surprising, because it’s unlikely that students not already predisposed to like woo would pay $1,250 plus travel and living expenses to take a summer course like this. Consequently, we’re treated to glowing testimonials–the stock and trade of so-called “complementary and alternative” medicine.

The more I learn about how woo is infiltrating medical education, the more apparent to me it becomes that there is a serious effort to influence medical students to become more credulous towards modalities that are not based on science. NCCAM is only part of the problem, albeit a large one, given that it funds many of these “educational” (read “indoctination”-al) programs as part of its mission. It’s helped in this by multiple foundations dedicated to the use and promotion of such modalities, as well as the increasing openness or outright surrender to argumentum ad populum. It’s not going away, and it’s getting worse. There are times when I despair, but then I wonder if we’re starting to see a reaction to this phenomenon, given the recent popular book by R. Robert Bausell entitled Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine. I’m also seeing hopeful signs that my colleagues dedicated to science- and evidence-based medicine are starting to wake up, as I do my little part here on this blog and elsewhere.

A guy can always hope, can’t he?