4th-Grader’s Study Rebuts Touch Therapy


Using little more than a towel and a piece of cardboard, a 9-year-old girl conducted a “brilliant” study debunking therapeutic touch, an increasingly popular alternative treatment practiced by about 40,000 nurses and caregivers in the United States.

Along the way, Emily Rosa, now 11, has apparently become the youngest researcher to publish a scientific paper in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Assn. She co-authored the final report--which appears today--with her parents and a physician who specializes in uncovering medical fraud.

In a test that started out as her fourth-grade science project, Emily recruited 21 practitioners of therapeutic touch and found that they could not reliably detect another person’s “energy field” after all, contrary to one of the practice’s central tenets.


“I think of me as a kid who did a simple science experiment,” said Emily, an avid Spice Girls fan and budding flamenco dancer who lives with her mother, a registered nurse, and father, a mathematician-inventor, in this semirural town north of Denver.

“Age is irrelevant,” the journal’s editor, Dr. George D. Lundberg, said of the investigator’s youth. “It’s the quality of the science that matters. Mozart did some of his best work when he was 5 and Shirley Temple got an Oscar when she was [6].”

Given the new findings, Lundberg urged in an editorial that patients should “save their money and refuse to pay for this procedure until or unless additional honest experimentation demonstrates an actual effect.”

Proponents of therapeutic touch disputed the study’s importance, criticizing its premise and setup. They also complain that the study is hardly dispassionate, because Emily’s mother, Linda Rosa, a registered nurse, is an avowed critic who has spent years amassing evidence and lobbying against the procedure’s acceptance. Indeed, she once wrote an article on the practice titled “Reach Out and Dupe Someone.”

Still, the study represents a strong challenge to a practice that has grown tremendously since it was proposed in the 1970s as a modern version of the ancient laying on of hands. Practitioners claim to promote healing by holding or moving their hands a few inches above a patient’s body, which is said to realign “energy fields” disrupted by illness.

Professional organizations such as the National League for Nursing and the American Nurses’ Assn. have promoted therapeutic touch or energy healing, and about 80 hospitals in North America reportedly offer the treatment. The North American Nursing Diagnosis Assn. recognizes “energy field disturbance” as a health problem.

Healing Touch International, a Colorado group, says that the treatment can help with a range of illnesses and symptoms, including AIDS, multiple sclerosis, cancer and arthritis. In a much-publicized program at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, therapeutic touch practitioners accompany patients during open-heart surgery.

Scientific evidence supporting the practice or the theories behind it has been elusive, despite many articles over the years reporting successful cases. In 1994, the U.S. Department of Defense provided more than $350,000 for a University of Alabama study of whether therapeutic touch can ease pain in burn patients. That study’s results are due this summer.

Emily and her co-authors say that she may have been able to overcome practitioners’ reluctance to subject themselves to testing “because the person conducting the test was a child who displayed no skepticism.”

She zeroed in on the central idea that practitioners can sense another person’s “energy field” with their hands. Indeed, they have described patients’ energy variously as feeling cold, hot, sticky, tingling, or throbbing, among other things.

In the study, each therapist sat across from Emily at a table, laying his or her arms out flat, palms up. A cardboard partition with cutout armholes placed over their forearms blocked their view of their hands and of Emily. A towel draped over their arms also prevented peeking.

The test consisted of Emily placing one of her hands a few inches above a therapist’s right or left hand, as determined by the flip of a coin. If the therapist could sense which hand better than 50% of the time, that would support the theory. Fourteen practitioners got 10 tries each, while seven got 20 tries.

Overall, the average correct score was 44%, which is less than what would be expected by chance alone. “They were correct about half the time--about what you’d expect from guessing,” Emily said. “Of course, they came up with excuses. One said the room was too cold. Another complained that the air conditioning blew the force field away.”

Taken together, the lack of supportive studies plus these new findings “suggest that [therapeutic touch] claims are groundless and that further use of [the technique] by health professionals is unjustified,” Emily and her co-authors wrote.

Cynthia Hutchinson, a therapeutic touch instructor in Boulder, Colo., with a doctorate in nursing science, voiced a suspicion of the AMA common to many practitioners of alternative medicine. It is “a political organization and many physicians who belong to it feel threatened by human aura therapy because it means their power and money are being taken away.”

Sander Greenland, a biostatistics expert at USC and UCLA who is an authority on the design of scientific studies, said the experiment was basically sound. It would have been more rigorous if Emily had been blindfolded while conducting the test, to rule out any chance that she could influence the outcome, he said. And as a general principle, he said, one study is seldom sufficient to validate or negate a treatment.

“I would certainly give Emily an A-plus for her project,” he said. “I hope some day she shows up in my classes.”

To be sure, the study does not address the thousands of patients who say that they have benefited from therapeutic touch. Critics say that such benefits stem from patients’ wishful thinking or the comfort and pleasure of interacting with practitioners, who tend to have a warm and caring manner.

Emily did not originally intend to publish her project in a medical journal. That happened only after a self-described “quack-buster,” retired Pennsylvania psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Barrett, learned about her project from a TV show and joined the research team as co-author.

“This is going to look real good on your resume, Emily,” her mother said the other day as they sat in the their living room, which features a piano, a computer, a chart of the chemical elements, and a pet tarantula.

“What’s a resume?” she said.

Sahagun reported from Loveland, Monmaney from Los Angeles.