A trio of woo at the UMDNJ School of Nursing in Newark

Quackademic medicine has struck again. Worse, it’s struck at one of my old stomping grounds. OK, not exactly, but rather close to a past home.

Let me back up a minute.

I know someone who attended nursing school at UMDNJ. It’s actually a very good nursing school, but, alas, it has a serious woo streak in it. Yesterday, because of that connection, I was shown a pamphlet that had arrived in the mail. It was a the Continuing Education Catalog for the UMDNJ School of Nursing. At first glance, it looked pretty unremarkable. There were the usual courses in subjects like trauma nursing, clinical skills and health assessment, EKG interpretation, pediatric assessment, and other common nursing topics. So far, nothing unusual; it was pretty standard stuff.

Then I saw what was so disturbing:

Nursing in Herbal Medicine
Friday, November 6 , 2009
5 contact hours
9:00 AM – 3:00 PM

Over 60 million Americans self-prescribed herbs in 1997. Are your patients telling you about any of them? As practitioners, you need to know what herbs your patients are taking, and if they are beneficial, harmful, or just waste money. Understand what herbal medicine is, and the differences between the holistic paradigm and the Western medical approach to healthcare. Review relative safety data on herbs vs. pharmaceuticals, and areas of known and theoretical interaction. Know how herbal medicine can interface safely with patient care. Learn the specifics of the top 10 herbs in America, and where to find useful and accurate resources. This information is presented in an interactive, 5-hour dynamic workshop with one of the few professional nurse-herbalists in clinical practice today.

I know that on the surface this particular course doesn’t sound all that horrible. After all, a lot of people are taking herbal medicines, and it is important to know something about them, particularly interactions herbal concoctions might have with pharmaceuticals that patients may be taking. If that’s all the course is, then I’d have no problem with it. After all, herbal medicines are simply part of pharmacology, specifically the branch of pharmacology known as pharmacognosy. But, unfortunately, the passage above lets us in on the true orientation of this course, in particular this sentence: ” Understand what herbal medicine is, and the differences between the holistic paradigm and the Western medical approach to healthcare.”

There’s that false dichotomy again! If there are any nurses in New Jersey reading this who want to save themselves up to $80 for the registration for this course, I’ll tell you right now what the difference between the “holistic paradigm” and “Western medicine.” It’s easy. The latter is based on science; the former is not.

There, that was simple. Let’s move on to the next course:

Holistic Nursing
Saturday, December 3 , 2009
5 contact hours
9:00 AM – 3:00 PM

Natural therapies, also known as complementary and alternative therapies, have long been a part of nursing practice. Florence Nightingale wrote in her most famous writing, Notes on Nursing,(1859) that nursing should touch patients and create healthy environments that facilitate healing. She wrote “nurses should be concerned with giving the patient proper food, air, light and rest.” As a part of this legacy nursing practice includes massage and holistic therapies, yet many of us know very little about natural therapies.

How can meditation, massage, therapeutic touch and herbal therapies help ease physical conditions like pain and hypertension? How can one learn these treatment modalities and incorporate them into daily practice? Is it possible for nurses to have a private practice in natural therapies that truly benefits patients? If you have asked yourself any of those questions this course is for you!

Therapeutic touch (often abbreviated TT)? That is pure woo. It’s a form of so-called “energy healing,” wherein (or so proponents claim) the practitioner can somehow manipulate the patient’s an “energy field” near the patient’s skin to achieve a healing effect. It’s also a misnomer, as you don’t have to touch a patient to do TT. In fact, TT is such a load of horse hockey that an eleven year old girl named Emily Rosa was able to design an experiment that showed quite well that it’s a load of horse hockey. Unfortunately, UMDNJ is not the only nursing school that teaches and promotes TT. In fact, I doubt it’s even a major force promoting such quackery in nursing. That “honor” would belong to NYU’s nursing school.

But even that is not the worst of it at UMDNJ. I wish it were, but it isn’t. If UMDNJ were just teaching TT, it would not move up to a unique realm of woo, given how many other nursing schools are also promoting it. Unfortunately, UMDNJ had to go a woo too far:

Reiki : Certification in Level 1 Attunement
Thursday, October 22, 2009 New Date!
7 contact hours
8:00 AM – 5:00 PM

in collaboration with ICAM (Institute for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at UMDNJ).

This one-day course will certify you in Reiki level one attunement. A manual will be provided

History of Reiki:

Reiki is a simple, natural and safe method of energy healing and self-improvement which aims to treat the whole person, including body, emotions, mind and spirit . It also works in conjunction with all other medical or therapeutic techniques. A very simple technique to learn, the ability to use Reiki is not taught in the usual sense, but is transferred to the student during a Reiki class. This ability is passed on during an “attunement” given by a Reiki master and allows the student to tap into an unlimited supply of “life force energy” to improve our own and our patients’ health and enhance quality of life.

Gee, that’s only two weeks away!

My first thought when reading the above description was: Why not just go all the way to the dark side of woo and start teaching homeopathy? Seriously. Reiki is just as improbable as homeopathy, if not more so. In fact, it’s the purest faith healing. The only difference between a reiki master and Benny Hinn is that Benny Hinn has an entourage to keep the sickest people away from the stage. Well, that, and reiki is not based on Christianity but Eastern mysticism. Other than that, reiki is basically faith healing. Don’t believe me? Then head on over to a major reiki website and read the history of Dr. Mikao Usui, the founder of reiki. It turns out that Dr. Usui’s quest to learn how to heal was inspired by Jesus himself. As a student Dr. Usui asked his master if he believed that Jesus had healing powers. His master answered yes. Dr. Usui then asked him him how Jesus healed, and his master was forced to admit that he did not know. According to reiki practitioners, this question of how Jesus performed healing miracles led Dr. Usui on a spiritual quest that lasted decades decades to learn how to heal as Jesus did. Dr. Usui’s quest ultimately culminated in 1922, when, like Jesus, Dr. Usui engaged in fasting and praying on a mountain in the wilderness. I’ll cite the relevant passage again, even though I’ve cited it before, because it is so instructive for making the point that reiki is pure faith healing:

After a few more years of study, he felt he had come to an understanding and that to go further required serious meditation. He went to a nearby mountain declaring his intention to fast and meditate for 21 days and that if he did not come back they should come and get his body.

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.

Basically, what reiki masters do is to make symbols in the air and sometimes touch the patient. Indeed, reiki and TT are very much alike, the main difference being that reiki is more woo-ful in that it appeals directly to Eastern mysticism, involves the drawing in air of symbols over the patient, and sometimes involves touching the patient. TT involves holding hands right above the patient without actually touching the patient and thinking real hard about “redirecting life energy flows.” Both are equally magical thinking, but reiki looks cooler when it’s done, much more like a magician at a stage show. Be that as it may, at least herbal medicines often have real medicine in them. it may be “dirty” medicine, full of contaminants, but there are actual medicines in the herbs. TT and reiki, on the other hand, rely on thinking every bit as magical, if not more so, than the thinking behind homeopathy.

And it’s being taught at UMDNJ for continuing nursing education.