Michael Hiltzik Columnist
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Facing criticism, UC Irvine scrubs 'homeopathy' from its roster of offered treatments

As of late last week, visitors to the website of UC Irvine Health, that institution’s clinical arm, could learn that among its services to patients was “homeopathy.”

That was a problem, because homeopathy is a discredited and thoroughly debunked “alternative medicine.” Even Howard Federoff, UCI’s vice chancellor for health affairs, agreed that the scientific basis for homeopathy was “lacking.” The issue is important because the donors of a $200-million gift to UCI’s medical schools, the billionaire couple Susan and Henry Samueli, are sworn believers in homeopathy and supporters of a raft of other “integrative” health treatments. As I reported, some medical authorities have raised questions about whether the Samuelis’ beliefs and their rare generosity will undermine UCI’s explicit commitment to science-based medicine.

So it’s interesting that after I raised questions about the treatment’s listing on the website, it mysteriously disappeared. As of this writing, a UCI spokesman hasn’t gotten back to me with word on when it was removed, or whether its removal means that homeopathy no longer will be offered to patients, or merely that UCI is keeping it quiet. The listing was present as recently as last Wednesday, when I asked Federoff about it in connection with my column about the Samueli gift, which appeared online Friday; its presence can be seen on an archived version of the website dated Sept. 19.

As it happens, UCI didn’t succeed in scrubbing all mentions of this quack remedy from its website. At the moment, it appears on the web page of Dayna Kowata, a naturopath and acupuncturist associated with UCI’s Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine. Kowata’s page says homeopathy is Kowata’s “preferred mode of treatment.” (Thanks to naturopathy debunker Britt Marie Hermes for the catch.)

The on-again-off-again appearance of homeopathy on UCI’s website and among its clinical offerings underscores the difficulties the university may face in navigating the inconsistencies between the world view of its biggest donors and its explicit commitment to rigorous scientific standards in its medical teaching, research, and clinical treatment. The Samuelis, after all, will have their names on UCI’s main on-campus medical building, and their gift will endow up to 15 faculty members, all of whom will have to demonstrate some “expertise in integrative health.”

We reported over the weekend that “integrative health” is interpreted by many in the medical profession as code for introducing unproven and debunked nostrums into a curriculum that should be based exclusively on scientific evidence. Although Federoff says science will govern at UCI, that hasn’t necessarily been the case at the Susan Samieli Center, which was established in 2001 with a $5.7-million donation from the couple and will be converted into the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute and absorbed into the university’s entire medical complex under the terms of the gift.

Federoff and the Samuelis have spoken similarly about the need to subject unproven “alternative” and “complementary” treatments to scientific testing, to supplant the anecdotal stories typically advanced on their behalf with evidence that passes scientific muster. Even established critics of these treatments in the medical establishment agree that some do warrant clinical testing. But that points to the question of why they’re offered today by established medical institutions, such as UCI, before credible clinical testing has been done.

Susan Samueli has spoken frequently about her belief in homeopathy, and her husband has described himself as a “complete believer that these alternative therapies have a lot of efficacy.” Homeopathy is based on treating diseases with substances that replicate their symptoms, but at such diluted levels that no trace of the substances remain in doses chemically indistinguishable from water. The problem is that among all “alternative” and “integrative” treatments, homeopathy is one on which the scientific evidence is in. The evidence is it doesn’t work.

Yet homeopathic treatments have been offered under UCI’s aegis as recently as last week, and conceivably since the Susan Samueli Center was established. Is UCI entirely comfortable with that situation? If it is, why would it scrub the reference to homeopathy from its website?

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