A commercial for acupuncture masquerading as news

I didn’t think I’d be writing about acupuncture again so soon after deconstructing another “bait and switch” acupuncture study less than a week ago. True, the quackery that is acupuncture and the seemingly unending varieties of low quality studies published to make it seem as though there is anything more than nonspecific placebo effects invoked by sticking needles into the skin against an even more unending variety of diseases, conditions, and complaints. Basically, according to its adherents, acupuncture can treat almost anything. Particularly galling to me as a cancer surgeon is the emerging specialty of “integrative” oncology, which gleefully “integrates” many forms of quackery with science-based oncology, so much so that major cancer meetings feature it and there is even a Society of Integrative Oncology, which promulgates allegedly “evidence-based” guidelines for breast cancer “complementary” treatment. It’s not for nothing that I published a critique of this growing “integration” of pseudoscience with science-based medicine.

All of this explains why I was particularly irritated when, while watching local Detroit news, I saw this story:

Yes, it’s a human interest story about a woman named Jennifer Tesler with breast cancer and how she used acupuncture to help with the symptoms associated with chemotherapy. It might as well be a commercial for the “holistic health center” where Ms. Tesler received her acupuncture treatment. There was another odd thing about this story. Normally, when I see commercials for woo masquerading as news reports, they are usually for local quacks. And so this seemed to be at first, as though Ms. Tesler was a Detroit area woman. However, as the story proceeds, we learned that Ms. Tesler must live in the Atlanta area, as she sought out acupuncture at the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine from a physician named Dr. Taz Bhatia, who is advertised on her website as a “Physician, Best-Selling Author, International Lecturer, Acupuncturist, Certified Nutritionist, Prevention/Wellness Expert, Mom and Wife.” Before we get to “Dr. Taz,” let’s go back to the news report that looked like a local news report but wasn’t. Indeed, if I hadn’t been paying attention, I might very well have missed that Dr. Taz is based in Atlanta, not Detroit.

First, we meet Ms. Tasler relating the story of how sick she felt after her chemotherapy, so much so that there were times when she felt that she couldn’t even get up. I know what she’s talking about. I’ve heard stories from my own patients. Some women seem able to fly through chemotherapy with relatively few side effects, but some women react very badly, suffering severe side effects from breast cancer chemotherapy, including nausea, hair loss, peripheral neuropathy, and more. Although anti-emetics (anti-nausea) medication has improved considerably since my career started, for some women they are not enough. Not surprisingly, acupuncturists claim they can help these symptoms, despite a paucity of evidence that I’ve documented both here and in my Nature Reviews Cancer paper. In any case, after suffering extreme nausea, she believes acupuncture helped her:

TESLER: “I was really sick. My children spent many nights sleeping on the bathroom floor with me the whole night because I just couldn’t get up.”

NARRATOR: She found doing acupuncture before each chemo treatment was the key to relieving the symptoms that made it unbearable.

Enter Dr. Taz:

DR. BHATIA: “We don’t want to throw away all the beauty of conventional medicine. But at the same time, we don’t need to throw away thousands of years of older systems of medicine that had techniques and strategies that helped make people better. So, a marriage of the two is perfect and it really makes for great care.”

NARRATOR: Doctor Taz breaks healing into three phases:

In phase one, acupuncture helps to manage side-effects during chemotherapy, like the nausea. Then it helps balance the nervous system and reduce the pain and issues that arise post-treatment. In phase three, acupuncture minimizes stress and inflammation to keep cancer at bay.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. There is no evidence whatsoever of even mildly reasonable quality that acupuncture can do anything to keep cancer at bay. The reason, of course, is that that’s a hard outcome. Either the cancer has recurred or it hasn’t. Given that acupuncture is a theatrical placebo, It’s not at all surprising that it has no effect on outcomes like cancer recurrence and survival.

I also noted that while Dr. Bhatia was talking the images shown were of her looking at graphs on a computer screen, the implication being that she’s looking at some sort of modern, scientific test and discussing it with a patient. The message, of course, is that Dr. Bhatia is no quack. Oh, no! She’s a doctor using the very best of modern, science-based medicine, but she combines it with “thousands of years of older systems of medicine.” Of course, I cannot help but point out yet again, as I do whenever I see acupuncturists using the fallacy known as the appeal to antiquity that implies that because something is ancient and has been used a long time there must be something to it, that acupuncture as we know it is not ancient. In reality, it evolved from primitive bloodletting, not unlike the bloodletting practiced in the West. Think about it this way. Advocates frequently claim that acupuncture is thousands of years old, but the technology to make such exceedingly thin needles didn’t exist. In fact, the entire history of acupuncture, including its supposedly ancient origins, was retconned by no less a figure than Chairman Mao Zedong himself after World War II. Indeed, arguably Mao was the very first advocate of “integrative medicine,” having proposed the “integration” of traditional Chinese medicine with “Western medicine” decades before our own homegrown doctors enamored of pseudoscience thought of it.

But who is Dr. Taz Bhatia, and how did this minute and a half infomercial for her “holistic” practice in Atlanta come to be? I can’t answer the second question, but I can make educated guesses. A quick Googling of Jennifer Tesler, along with breast cancer and acupuncture, quickly revealed the source of this story: CNN, with Martha Shade reporting. The story appears to have been distributed for use by local news stations that have time to fill. It makes sense in that light that Ms. Tesler apparently lives in the Atlanta area. It makes even more sense in light of this:

With an established agenda of improving women’s and children’s health, Dr. Taz expanded her reach through media in 2003. Since then, she has served as a medical expert for CNN Headline News, a Dr. Oz Sharecare expert, columnist and contributing editor for Prevention Magazine and been featured on numerous media outlets, including TODAY, Access Hollywood, Good Morning America, The Weather Channel, EXTRA!, Live with Kelly and Michael and the Meredith Vieira Show. As an associate professor at Emory University and former spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Taz MD continues to bring attention to the frequently ignored health issues of women and children.

So she’s a quackademic and a Dr. Oz wannabe every bit as steeped in pseudoscience as the Master who periodically freelances for CNN. I wonder who pitched the story idea to Ms. Shade. Be that as it may, she comes to the job with a “conversion” story that reminds me, more than anything else, of those of The Food Babe and Mike Adams, both of whom related a story of being chronically ill at a young age and both of whom claim to have reversed it by a radical lifestyle change, chock full of woo, of course:

So what services does Dr. Bhatia offer to bring her patients to “whole health”? It’s a veritable cornucopia of quackery. Homeopathy? Check. Acupuncture? Check. (Obviously.) IV vitamin therapy? Check. Oh, and of course Dr. Bhatia offers thermograms. She even offers mobile thermograms. Never mind that thermography remains an unvalidated test for the early detection of breast cancer, much less for all the other conditions for which Dr. Bhatia recommends it, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, back injuries, digestive disorders, “and more…”

I also think I know what those graphs on the computer screen that Dr. Bhatia was explaining to her patient was in the news story, Biopulsar-Ayurvedic Bioenergetic Screening:

Real time energetic information throughout the body can be measured through the Biopulsar system. The Biopulsar scan is non-invasive, and measures the pulse frequency of your organ systems via reflex zones (similar to acupuncture points).

These measurements help us visually see each organ’s vitality or life force on a screen. Biopulsar measures the vitality of 49 organs and glands, including the complete brain. The technology incorporates the sciences of thermography, EEG, EKG, neuroscience, reflex zone therapy and pulse diagnostics. This is a revolutionary energy diagnostic system that gives us a snapshot of a patient’s present condition combined with his or her history.

The Biopulsar also gives us the ability to look at the organ systems and apply concepts from multiple systems of medicine, including conventional, Ayurvedic, Chinese, and naturopathic medicine. We use this tool to provide you with an Ayurvedic diagnosis. Repeated scans can be used for biofeedback to determine the effectiveness of medications, dietary interventions, or supplements.

Hmmm. This reminds me very much of Bill Nelson‘s EPFX/Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface (EPFX/QXCI). It really, really does. If you don’t believe me, go back and read for yourself what this interface involves. True, the computer interface of Dr. Bhatia’s software doesn’t look as eye-meltingly psychedelically painful as that of the EPFX/QXCI. (Maybe new programmers worked on the application.) It’s also under a different name. In any case, whether it’s a competing product or an “evolution” of the EPFX/QXCI, the Biopulsar-Ayurvedic Bioenergetic Screening sure does strongly remind me of the EPFX/QXCI.

Quacks sure do love their bioresonance, don’t they?

The depressing thing about this story goes beyond the sheer credulousness of a CNN reporter and the local news team at WDIV Detroit. What’s depressing is that Dr. Bhatia is not only apparently a respected physician but an advisor to CNN and multiple media outlets. For every Dr. Oz who is nationally syndicated and can reach several million viewers a day, there are all sorts of Dr. Bhatias out there, spreading the same message.