The Economist paints a grim picture of the outlook for non-alternative aka sane medicine.
By one recent count four in ten American adults use some form of alternative therapy. If Dr Weil’s flourishing business and other programmes are any indication, these will grow even further. For six decades double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trials have helped doctors to sort science from opinion and to sift evidence from anecdote. Now those lines are blurring.
Powerful supporters have helped the cause. King George VI helped to ensure that homeopathy would be part of Britain’s newly created National Health Service (his grandson, Prince Charles, is also a fan). Royal Copeland, an American senator and homeopath, saw to it that the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 authorised homeopathic products. Sixty years on another senator, Tom Harkin, helped to set up the National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the world’s leading medical-research outfit, the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The $1.5 billion that taxpayers have devoted to NCCAM has brought meagre returns. In 2009 Mr Harkin said it had “fallen short” and bemoaned its focus on “disproving things” rather than approving them. But it has spawned a new generation of research outfits. The University of Maryland’s Centre for Integrative Medicine has received $25m from the NIH for research. Separately it offers treatments such as reiki, in which a healer floats his hands over the patient’s body.
In 2003, with NIH funding, Georgetown University created a master’s degree in alternative therapies. The University of Arizona offers training in them for medical students and a two-year distance-learning course for doctors and nurses. The Consortium of Academic Health Centres for Integrative Medicine now has 50 members.
It reminds me of the Templeton Foundation – a matter of creeping legitimation.
The future for the alternative-therapy industry looks particularly bright in America. NCCAM continues to pay for research. Josephine Briggs, its director, says she is neither for nor against alternative treatments; she just wants to test which ones work and which do not (she is also interested in the effect of medical rituals). But Steven Novella, a vocal critic at Yale University, argues that the centre’s very existence fuels the cause. “People say, ‘The government is researching that, so it has got to be legitimate’,” he complains.
See? Templeton, exactly. “People say, ‘Serious academics are researching that, so it has got to be legitimate’.” Creeping legitimation.