Faith healing everywhere in medical academia

When I’m trying to demonstrate the utter implausibility and mystical pseudoscience behind so much of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), which is now more commonly referred to (by its advocates, at least) as “integrative medicine,” I like to point to two examples in particular of modalities that are so utterly ridiculous in concept that anyone can understand what I’m talking about. For example, as much as I might deconstruct the nonsense that is acupuncture, discussing how “meridians” don’t exist, the “life force” known as qi whose flow acupuncture needles are claimed to redirect, and how clinical studies clearly demonstrate that acupuncture is no more than an elaborate, theatrical placebo, believers can still retort that needles are being stuck into the body and so maybe something’s going on there. It’s nonsensical, of course, to skeptics who have taken a close look at the science (or, more specifically, the lack thereof) behind acupuncture, but it sounds plausible to the average person who hasn’t looked into it. That’s why it takes some explanation.

It’s also why homeopathy makes such a great example. Like many of my fellow supporters of science-based medicine, I’ve found that most people, including fellow physicians, medical students, surgical residents, nursing students, and nurses, don’t really know what homeopathy is. They thin it’s nothing more than herbal medicines. They don’t know the two principles of homeopathy, such as the law of similars, which states that, to relieve a symptom, you use a substance that causes that symptom in healthy people, and the law of infinitesimals, which states that diluting something (with vigorous shaking—or, as homeopaths call it, succussion—between each dilution step) makes the remedy stronger. Most physicians have no idea that most homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point where they are incredibly unlikely to contain anything other than water. When I explain that to them, it’s almost as though I see lightbulbs turning on over their heads. They suddenly get it.

So it is with reiki, as well, which is my other favorite CAM treatment to use to explain the magical mystical thinking behind so much of CAM. Also, given that even the most die-hard practitioners of quackademic medicine seem to be abandoning homeopathy, apparently realizing just how pseudoscientific it is to the point where even the mighty power of cognitive dissonance couldn’t keep them thinking that there’s anything to it. Somehow, unfortunately, the same doesn’t appear to apply to reiki, as reiki is still offered in quite a few academic medical centers ostensibly devoted to science-based medicine. For example, it wasn’t too long ago that I discussed the full extent of quackademic medicine offered at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, including, prominently, reiki and, a couple of years ago, at Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson University Hospitals and the University of Maryland.

Yes, I knew it was bad. Unfortunately, it’s even worse than I thought, as yesterday, I came across a list of hospitals that offer reiki. It led me to see what some of these hospitals say about reiki. I’ve already picked some choice quotes from the University of Arizona (and, let me tell you, there’s more where that came from that might well be the topic of a future post) and Jefferson University Hospital. But what about some others. For example, what about Johns Hopkins? Here’s its reiki page::

Reiki is a very specific form of energy healing, in which hands are placed just off the body or lightly touching the body, as in “laying on of hands.” Reiki can also be done “long-distance,” as a form of prayer. According to many versions of its origin, Dr Mikao Usui, a Japanese seeker of spiritual truths, brought the Reiki method of healing into human awareness in 1922 after a deep spiritual experience. He is said to have begun teaching others after a serious earthquake hit Japan and he felt urged to spread his knowledge.

In a Reiki session, the practitioner is seeking to transmit Universal Life Energy to the client. The intention is to create deep relaxation, to help speed healing, reduce pain, and decrease other symptoms you may be experiencing.

Since there is no regulation of Reiki practitioners in most places, you may have to do some investigating to find a qualified professional. Please contact us if you are interested in learning more about our qualified Reiki practitioners or would like to make an appointment.

That’s right. Johns Hopkins apparently buys into the whole concept of a “universal source” and “universal life energy.” This is how I explain just how obviously quackery reiki is. The way I get students and other doctors to “get it” is to point out that reiki is, at its basis, faith healing. Substitute God for the “universal life energy” or “universal source,” and the analogy is obvious. The reiki practitioner is supposed to channel the healing power of the universal source to the patient, just as Christian faith healers claim to be able to channel the healing power of Jesus into those they claim to be able to heal. Lovely, isn’t it? We have Johns Hopkins advertising “qualified reiki practitioners,” thus putting the imprimatur of one of the great medical universities in the world on the purest quackery based in mystical thinking. It even seems to buy into the idea that reiki energy can be transmitted at a distance, thus constituting “distant healing.”

It pains me to do this next one, given that my partner in crime and fellow skeptic Steve Novella is based at Yale, but it must be done, given that Yale is on the list. Perusing the page on CAM therapies for the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, I was distressed to see this:

Reiki is a Japanese word meaning “Universal Life Energy.” The practice of Reiki is a non-intrusive method of hands-on healing. During a Reiki session, healing energy lulls you into a deeply relaxed state. It is this deep relaxation that increases energy as the body rests and becomes revitalized during the session. Our Reiki practitioners are trained and certified by master-level Reiki teachers.

Yes, Yale offers reiki to its patients as well, at least at its cancer center—oh, and in its intensive care units, too. I hope Steve isn’t too depressed, though. I decided to look at my alma mater, where I did both my undergraduate and medical school training, and, as painful as it was to look at, I saw that U. of M. offers reiki, too, although through its massage therapy program where the massage therapists are touted as being “trained in complementary healing therapies.” Oh, joy.

Let’s see. Where else? Harvard? Yes, Harvard offers reiki. Brigham and Women’s Hospital? Yes, Brigham and Women’s offers reiki through a volunteer program, as does the Dana Farber Cancer Center. Massachusetts General Hospital? Yup, it offers not only reiki, but a veritable cornucopia of quackery through its cancer center, including acupuncture, reflexology (yes, reflexology, or, as I like to call it, a glorified foot massage with delusions of grandeur), and reiki.

It goes on and on. For example, Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center offers reiki courses and workshops, as well as reiki itself—and reflexology, too! M.D. Anderson also offers reiki and reflexology, as well. I also came across a rather disturbing description of how reiki found its way into M.D. Anderson. It’s disturbing in that it demonstrates how quackery can infiltrate even the best cancer center, all without any real evidence to support it. Indeed, I hadn’t realized how long that M.D. Anderson’s been into woo—almost 20 years now! Particularly laughable is the claim that the original idea for an “integrative wellness” center would be “assured that all programs would conform to the stringent standards of M.D. Anderson.” The point, of course, is that introducing quackery into the science-based offerings of M.D. Anderson is, by its very definition, lowering the standards of the cancer center. Of course, this is a case of the cancer center’s standards being lowered to include quackademic medicine, not of quackademic medicine conforming to the original high standards of M.D. Anderson.

The ultimate result was that in 1998 M.D. Anderson’s “complementary therapy clinic,” known as Place…of wellness (what is it with M. D. Anderson and annoying lettering conventions, anyway?) opened. Then:

In 2001, extensive patient interest in energy work led to the introduction of three more classes at Place…of wellness. Reiki Master Mike Powers began teaching a one-hour introduction to Reiki once a month, and two nurses began teaching Introduction to Healing Touch classes. Place…of wellness did not offer individual energy sessions at that time, but they knew that many patients were seeking practitioners on their own.

Which led to:

On March 3, 2003 Place…of wellness began to offer treatments in several modalities of energy therapy in a program they call Relaxation Touch Therapy. Participants are required to attend a one-hour introduction to Reiki or Healing Touch lecture in order to understand what to expect from energy work prior to requesting a session. Unless they request a specific energy modality, the volunteer on call that day is asked to provide a session in what ever modality she practices.

The ten volunteers who provide the sessions may be Reiki, Healing Touch, Jin Shin Jyutsu or Sat Nam Rasayan practitioners. They must all be certified in the modality they practice. Only those volunteers holding a license in a field that includes touch in its scope of practice, like massage therapists and RN’s, are permitted to do hands-on sessions. The other volunteers work off-body, in the patient’s etheric field.

Yes, eleven years ago practitioners began manipulating patients’ “etheric fields” at M.D. Anderson. Although Jeri Mills, MD, the doctor writing about this program, was disappointed at the slow progress of the reiki program, remember that she was writing only a few months after the founding of the program.

This entire exercise has depressed me mightily again. It does, however, tell me that I really should update my Academic Woo Aggregator, which has not been updated in quite some time. I only fear that the task will cause me to curl up in a fetal position and whimper at the extent that quackery has infiltrated bastions of academic medicine. If faith healing—which, let’s face it, is all that reiki is—can find its way into so many academic medicine centers, I almost fear that all hope is lost.