Noooo! Not quackademic medicine at my old stomping grounds!


No, wait a minute. I mean: Nooooooo!

No place is safe from the invasion of quackademic medicine. No place. As you will soon see.

As you know, I’ve documented the infiltration of pseudoscientific and outright antiscientific woo into institutions that really should know better, namely academic medical institutions. Specifically, over a year ago, I created the Academic Woo Aggregator, a list of medical schools and academic medical centers that have embraced “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as it’s more commonly known these days, “integrative medicine” (IM). Of course, the latter name is nothing more than yet another attempt to “rebrand” CAM as being sufficiently equal to scientific medicine that it is worth “integrating” into science- and evidence-based practice, even though no one can seem to provide either a compelling evidentiary argument for integrating such pseudoscience into “conventional” medicine. Be that as it may, institutions where I’ve worked have remained (mostly) untouched by this problem–fortunately. That means I have been blissfully fortunate in not having had to deal with the infiltration of psuedoscience into my workplace. I hope it stays that way, but I don’t have any illusions that I’m immune. When that day comes, I’m going to have to throw down the gauntlet.

May that day be far off.

In the meantime, though, I’ve discovered something that has disturbed me greatly. Woo has invaded my old stomping grounds:

The door closes. Shoes come off. Rolled-up towels go under the knees, soft pillows under the head. The clatter and conversations of the hospital fade away against a backdrop of delicate, harplike music and the sound of bubbling water.

The room is otherwise still and quiet as reiki practitioners, one at either end of each table, lightly lay their hands on their clients’ bodies: the neck, the collarbones, the forehead, the solar plexus, the instep.

A half-hour later, the clients of Hands to Heart Reiki Clinic emerge into the bright fluorescence of the MetroHealth Medical Center hallway feeling refreshed, relaxed and, for some, pain-free.

“Oh my gosh, that was wonderful,” client Fran Gonzalez tells the clinic worker who is writing down a post-therapy pain assessment.

The hospital’s clinic offers unconventional therapy for those who have found conventional medicine only goes so far.

Nooooooooo! (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

MetroHealth Medical Center used to be Cuyahoga County Hospital. It was one of the three hospitals that made up the Case Western Reserve University general surgery residency program, which is where I did my general surgery training. I spent about 1/4 to 1/3 of my time during residency rotating there, and I also moonlighted there as a helicopter physician for Metro LifeFlight in the early 1990s while I was doing my Ph.D. work. Back in the day, it ran a hard-core, science-based, take-no-prisoners trauma program that kept me in the hospital well over 100 hours a week. There was no woo, no New Age-y nonsense. No reiki. There, I learned from some of the best surgeons I’ve ever seen, as well as the best surgical intensivist I’ve ever worked with. I’m not saying the place was perfect, but education there was based on science and evidence wherever possible. Of course, the call schedule was utterly brutal, but that’s just the way it was then.

Now look what MetroHealth’s become:

A group of MetroHealth nurses interested in integrative therapy — which merges conventional medicine and complementary practices — created the clinic about three years ago to provide free reiki sessions for the hospital’s outpatients.

Reiki’s effectiveness remains scientifically unproven, but the MetroHealth clients are happy — and the clinic is operating nearly at capacity. Close to a dozen people, some regulars, some walk-ins, come to the MetroHealth Medical Center’s Cancer Care Pavilion once a month to lie on the three, sheet-draped tables in a darkened room that normally is used for chemotherapy.

Janelle Goetz relaxes as reiki practitioner Anita Haynes places her hands over Goetz’s body during a recent reiki session at MetroHealth. A group of nurses who received a grant from the hospital auxiliary took reiki classes and have now set up a once-a-month clinic at MetroHealth.

Dr. Mikao Usui developed reiki in Japan in 1917; Hawayo Takata brought the practice to the United States in 1938. Reiki is based on the idea that an unseen life-force energy, which is the basis of life, flows through everyone. Reiki practitioners believe they can tap into that energy, which flows through their hands into their clients. The stronger the life force, the better the person will feel.

I really hate credulous articles like this, where barely is heard a skeptical word, and I hate that my old stomping grounds have allowed quackademic medicine to infiltrate. As blog bud PalMD tells us, reiki is a steaming, stinking, fetid load of rotting dingo’s kidneys, scientifically speaking, or, as PalMD put it, “absurdist ridiculosity.” In fact, reiki is far more akin to faith healing and the laying on of hands popular in some Christian traditions and sects than to anything scientific. Indeed, take a look at what reiki is, as described by believer:

Reiki is a Japanese word meaning “Universal Life-Force-Energy”. The “Ki” part is the same word as Chi or Qi, the Chinese word for the energy which underlies everything. Reiki is a system for channeling that energy to someone for the purpose of healing.

If you read the story of Mikao Usui, what becomes apparent is that his story resembles that of–believe it or not–Jesus. Indeed, after a long search for how Jesus healed, Usui claims to have gone up a mountain in order to fast and meditate for 21 days, with this result:

He went to the mountain and settled in with 21 stones with which to count the days. On the 21st day nothing had come as yet, and he turned over the last stone saying “Well, this is it, either I get the answer today or I do not”. At that moment on the horizon he could see a ball of light coming towards him. The first instinct was to get out of the way, but he realized this might just be what he was waiting for, so allowed it to hit him right in the face. As it struck him he was taken on a journey and shown bubbles of all the colors of the rainbow in which were the symbols of Reiki, the very same symbols in the writings he was studying but had been unable to understand. Now as he looked at them again, there was total understanding.

After returning from this experience he began back down the mountain and was, from this moment on, able to heal. This first day alone he healed an injured toe, his own starvation, an ailing tooth and the Abbots sickness, which was keeping him bedridden. These are known as the first four miracles.

Note the similarity to the story of Jesus going up the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights of fasting in preparation for his ministry.

After this, Usui taught others, who taught others, and reiki spread–much like a religion, actually, which is what it resembles more than anything else. It postulates the existence of a universal life energy and claims that healers can, through the use of concentration and various sacred symbols and magical gestures (there really is no other way to describe the “sacred words” of reiki) redirect the flow of that life energy or even replenish it, all for healing effect. Often this involves tracing sacred letters in the air or over the client’s body. First degree Reiki practitioners use a series of 12 specific hand positions placed gently on the body, either touching or not touching. These hand positions, with concentration, supposedly result in the flow of reiki energy through the practitioner to the person being “healed, with the practitioner being a “conduit” for the reiki energy.

This is one reiki master demonstrating some of the basics of how it’s done:

Moreover, many reiki practitioners even claim that, because reiki involves energy healing, they don’t even have to be in the same location as those being healed. That’s right, reiki masters claim that they can “heal” at a distance. This “distance healing” involves the use of special symbols which are claimed to involve opening up to the experience of the energy and “listening to one’s inner voice.” That is what second level reiki masters claim to be able to do. The pinnacle of reiki is the third level reiki master, who trains for a year or more working as an apprentice with another reiki master, during which time he or she learns to “embody the energy,” such that he or she can ultimately teach reiki to others.

Of course, there is no evidence that reiki “works.” First off, there is no evidence that the “life energy” field postulated by reiki believers has never been detected, and it’s not as though it hasn’t been sought. Second, there is no evidence that reiki masters can either detect or manipulate any such fields. Third, virtually every rigorous trial of reiki has failed to show an effect greater than that of a placebo, aside from the number that might be expected to be “positive” by random chance alone. The bottom line is that whatever benefits appear to derive from reiki are almost certainly placebo effects.

Never mind all that. Here’s what disturbs me:

They sought and received approval from the hospital’s cancer board medical director to open the Hands to Heart clinic. They developed a policy for energy therapies, which the medical staff accepted and sanctioned. They also established credentialing guidelines for the volunteers who wish to practice at the clinic.

Since then, the initial group — who have taken the classes required to become reiki masters — have themselves trained nearly 100 people from the community and established a reiki circle, where MetroHealth employees trained in reiki practice on each other.

Rosanne Radziewicz, one of the three founders, says reiki has found acceptance among the hospital’s nurses as a complementary therapy. But the doctors are “a bit of a more challenging group to get,” she said, because there are no medical studies that prove reiki’s effectiveness.

How do you “credential” faith healing? How do you “credential” quackery?

At least I’m glad to hear that the doctors are a “more challenging” group. Some of the surgeons I used to work with are still there, even 13 years after I finished my residency. I can only imagine what they think of this nonsense; that is, if they think about it at all. My guess is that they privately (and correctly) think it’s a load of B.S., but the fact that this was allowed to proceed tells me that they probably have a bit of the “shruggie” attitude in that they don’t care enough to stop it. Obviously, they’re not challenging enough, because this reiki clinic exists and its believers are planning on metastasizing to the hospital itself:

The results at MetroHealth have been encouraging, Radziewicz says, judging by the pre- and post-session pain ratings from clients. With the support of MetroHealth, plans are in the works to take reiki sessions to patients staying in the hospital.

“We have a lot of work to do to bring people back down into what I call holism — to heal in different ways,” Radziewicz says. “It has to come slowly.”

“Wholism” is a sham, too, by the way. As used by CAM advocates, it’s very much like the word “integrative.” It’s a way of claiming to be somehow taking care of the “whole” person when in fact, unlike scientific medicine, CAM has no basis in science or physiology, and can only offer illusion. One of the nurses claims that it helped her “reconnect” with her nursing instincts because nurses touch their patients all the time, but not in a “the compassionate way that sick people need.” (I daresay that my wife, who is a nurse, would beg to differ.) Reiki, to this nurse, blithely says: “Reiki can fill that need.”

I would retort that you don’t need to invoke religious, pre-scientific, New Age nonsense in order to “fill the need” of ill patients for compassionate touch. I would also point out that single arm, uncontrolled “before and after” patient pain surveys are pretty useless for determining whether reiki as practiced at MetroHealth Medical Center does one whiff of good for chronic pain. The placebo effect alone would guarantee that scores would improve. What would be needed is a randomized controlled trial.

Seeing quackademic medicine infiltrate my old stomping grounds is profoundly depressing to me. Thinking of why MetroHealth might have acquiesced to this blight upon its reputation, I think I have an idea. Over the last few years, MetroHealth has been managing to attract more upscale patients, patients with actual insurance. My guess is that it’s now trying to attract more with the honey of a bit of woo.

In any case, I have no choice now but to add MetroHealth to my Academic Woo Aggregator the first chance I get.