Another one bites the dust to quackademic medicine

One of the most depressing things I regularly write about is, of course, the antivaccine movement. However, nearly as depressing to me is to watch the steady march of what I view as medical pseudoscience or even outright quackery into what should be bastions of science-based medicine, namely academic medical centers. As I’ve discussed many times before, it’s gotten to the point where a medical school, in order to remain accredited, has to teach a certain amount of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or, as it’s increasingly called, “integrative medicine” (or, as I like to call it, “integrating” quackery with science-based medicine). Of course, there are huge differences between how medical schools implement this requirement, with some trying to remain as science- and evidence-based as possible and others wholeheartedly embracing what I like to refer to as “quackademic medicine.” Medical schools that, sadly, fall into the latter category number among some of our best, including Cornell University (which is where Dr. Mehmet Oz himself is in charge of the Integrative Medicine program of the Weill Cornell Medical College and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center embraces quackademic medicine), Harvard University (Ted Kaptchuk), Yale University (David Katz), and UCSF, among others.

Still, periodically, I see credulous articles touting how this medical school or other has embraced quackery. This is yet another such article, which, although a few weeks old, popped up in my Google Alerts. It was entitled Exploring medical and healing options: Alternative medicine goes mainstream in the US. It’s a profoundly depressing article. You’ll see why in a minute. It starts out with a patient anecdote, which is typical for credulous stories of this type:

Kim Ricci is lying on her back on a table with hair-thin needles stuck in the hollows of her ears, five on each side. Several more puncture her wrists.

Ricci, 50, says she was surprised when her doctor suggested she get acupuncture to relieve the pain and discomfort she was experiencing after her breast-cancer surgery.

She was even more surprised when the therapy worked.

In other words, keep those acupuncture needles away from my lymphadematous arm!

The article notes, as I noted recently, that the University of Florida has embraced quackademic medicine. In particular, apparently the UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health has started an integrative medicine program last year, and at the University of Florida “course in alternative medicine is about to become part of the curriculum.” Worse:

At the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine, students are learning how to make unconventional therapies part of conventional treatment plans.

“It heartens me to see more doctors starting to treat the whole person rather than just cutting them and giving them medicine,” said Diane Robinson, a neuropsychologist and the program director of integrative medicine at the cancer center.

Ugh. There it is, the “whole person” trope. As I’ve said many many times before, that’s a false dichotomy. Treating the “whole person” does not—I repeat, does not—require embracing quackery, pseudoscience, and mysticism. Yet, that’s exactly what promoters of such quackademic medicine would like you to believe, that you can’t treat the whole patient without accepting quackery. Yet, that’s the argument that Diane Robinson makes. Thus far, it would appear that UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health offers the usual woo, but nothing more quacky than acupuncture (which is, depressingly, quacky enough) and healing touch.

They also offer something I haven’t seen before, something that falls under the category of “mostly harmless,” but what’s not harmless is the rationale for it:

Modeled after the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral near Paris, France, the labyrinth is located on the fourth floor terrace of UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health. We were the 2nd hospital in the country to begin offering a labyrinth for its patient/families, staff and local community. The labyrinth is an ancient healing tool used as a walking meditation or embodied prayer. Ninety-eight percent of walkers report feeling more peaceful after walking this simple path.

Walking the labyrinth can have a calming and restorative effect on blood pressure and stress levels.

I’m sure that it very well might be calming to walk the labyrinth, but this sort of language has no place in an ostensibly science-based cancer center. It’s as though UF is trying to become the University of Arizona.

Particularly pernicious is how supporters of “integrative medicine” have co-opted “diversity” and respect for other cultures in such a way as to justify anything that can be considered CAM or “integrative medicine”:

At UCF’s College of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Barkley, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion, said, “We teach our medical students to incorporate complementary methods into their care plans along with more traditional approaches. It’s important they understand other perspectives, alternatives and cultures.”

Personally, I find this attitude condescending to other cultures. Just because someone doesn’t come from a white, “Western” culture does not mean that person is more susceptible to quackery. Worse, Dr. Barkley seems not to understand what does and doesn’t constitute good evidence, because later in the article, she’s quotes thusly:

This is exactly how Orlando Health’s Robinson wants doctors and patients to use alternative therapies, she said, adding that good scientific evidence is emerging to support many alternative methods.

Acupuncture, for instance, has been shown to bring pain relief in animal studies, which would rule out a placebo effect.

Massage, yoga and mindfulness are also “very well supported by science for relieving pain, tension and stress,” she said. However, other areas, including light, energy or magnet therapies, are “very questionable.”

“Some treatments are not studied and not tested,” said UCF’s Barkley, who cautions medical students to note the line between evidence-based treatments and quackery.

Ugh. That’s a trope that really irritates me. It irritates me when Barrie Cassileth uses it. It irritates me when Lisa Barkley uses it. I realize that both Barrie Cassileth and Lisa Barkley think themselves to be science-based. They think that the modalities that they like to “integrate” with science-based medicine are somehow “different” from all that “quackery” that they disparage, but at their heart, they aren’t. That’s the problem. Much of that “science-based” CAM is based on exactly the same pseudoscience, the same pre-scientific beliefs, the same religious mysticism as the “evidence-based” CAM that they tout.

They just won’t admit it. And so the infiltration of quackademic medicine into academic medical centers and medical schools continues apace.