The case against funding studies on alternative medical therapies

As if Dr. Paul Offit hasn’t made enough enemies already by insisting (correctly) that parents put their kids’ health at risk when they refuse to get them vaccinated, now the infectious disease expert appears to be picking a fight with those who believe in alternative therapies like prayer healing and acupuncture.

In an essay to be published in Wednesday’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn., Offit questions the way the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine doles out its $130-million annual budget.

The center, part of the esteemed National Institutes of Health, traces its roots to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who helped establish the Office of Alternative Medicine in 1992. According to this story from the Chicago Tribune, Harkin was moved to establish federal funding for nontraditional therapies after he saw firsthand how acupuncture and acupressure eased the pain of his brother, who had terminal thyroid cancer.

Over the years, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Office of Alternative Medicine have invested a total of $1.6 billion in research into therapies that are outside the medical mainstream. Offit, for one, is not impressed by the results. Here’s his description of what taxpayers got for their money:


“NCCAM officials have spent $375,000 to find that inhaling lemon and lavender scents does not promote wound healing; $750,000 to find that prayer does not cure AIDS or hasten recovery from breast-reconstruction surgery; $390,000 to find that ancient Indian remedies do not control type 2 diabetes; $700,000 to find that magnets do not treat arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or migraine headaches; and $406,000 to find that coffee enemas do not cure pancreatic cancer.”

It’s not that studies that prove the negative are always unhelpful. A case in point that’s close to his heart is the litany of research proving that neither the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine nor the preservative thimerosal cause autismin young children. In those cases, Offit writes, these “negative” study results allowed doctors to reassure fearful parents.

And when supporters of alternative medicine say that “one century’s folk medicine can be the next century’s mainstream medicine,” they have a point, Offit adds. More than 2,000 years before aspirin was isolated from willow plants, none other than Hippocrates was using the leaves to alleviate aches and pains. There are similar stories for drugs to treat heart failure, malaria and other ailments. “Indeed, most drugs on today’s hospital formularies were originally derived from plants,” Offit writes.

But there’s simply no point in funding research that people are likely to ignore, he says. Despite studies debunking the health benefits of megavitamins, St. John’s wort, ginkgo biloba, echinacea and other supposed remedies, sales of these unregulated supplements remain strong – totaling $28 billion in 2010, according to the essay.

“For complimentary and alternative medicine, it seems that some people believe what they want to believe, arguing that it does not matter what the data show; they know what works for them,” Offit writes. Under these circumstances, he concludes, “it would make sense for NCCAM to either refrain from funding studies of therapies that border on mysticism such as distance healing, purgings, and prayer.”

You can read Offit’s Viewpoint article here. The JAMA website also has an audio interview with Offit here.

Return to the Booster Shots blog.