Video: Doctors encourage 'wellness' alternatives

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/6/2008 8:32:56 AM ET 2008-05-06T12:32:56

A few weeks ago a good friend with advanced pancreatic cancer was dragged against his will by his wife, also a dear friend, to a physician who described himself as a "complementary medicine specialist.” This doctor said he had kept many people alive who were suffering this stage and type of cancer for years with a combination of herbs. 

If this claim were true, it should be published quickly and then tested rigorously. Neither is happening. For advanced pancreatic cancer, the prognosis is grim, with success measured in a few extra months of life. This doctor is clearly a fraud.

Quackery in medicine undoubtedly pre-dates Hippocrates. But my friend's story stays in my mind as "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" presents a series  this week on alternative and complementary medicine called "The Mind-Body Connection," including a look high-end medical spas and "mindful eating."

People are often disillusioned with the conventional medical system. For example, those without insurance — as well as anyone who has it and has endured repeatedly denied claims — understandably search for alternatives to traditional medicine. Alternative medicine includes not just herbs and supplements, but meditation, acupuncture, extensive enemas, magnets, leeches, chelation, massage, music — a list that goes on almost endlessly. Indeed, alternative and complementary medicine — treatments not taught in traditional science-based medical schools — continue to grow in popularity.

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In the first part of the series, we covered a Duke University School of Medicine program that looks and feels more like a high-end spa than a medical clinic. The second-part on Tuesday explores "mindful eating," a set of practices taught at Duke and several other centers that strives to help people eat healthfully in appropriate quantities. In the final segment, we focus on Dr. Shin Lin, a world renowned biophysicist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies the blood flow and energy fields created in the body by Tai Chi, his life-long passion.

Backed by billionaires
The most recent shift in the alternative medicine field has been the infusion of huge grants from foundations to some of the nation's most prestigious medical schools such as Duke University School of Medicine to establish centers for "Complementary and Alternative Medicine" (CAM). These centers — funded by billionaires who believe in alternative medicine —focus on wellness instead of disease and have helped raise alternative medicine's profile in the medical community and among consumers.

John Mack, the chief executive of Morgan Stanley gave the money to set up the Duke facility. His wife Christy, the daughter of a physician, has long been a proponent of integrating alternative and mainstream medicine. Billionaire Henry Samueli, founder of Broadband Corporation and owner of the Anaheim Ducks, along with his wife Susan fundedthe center at the University of California, Irvine. Another big donor to alternative medicine is Bernard Osher, a highly successful California banker who has funded centers at the University of California, San Francisco and Harvard University.

At all of these centers, the administration of the conventional medical school takes the money but usually remains wary of the research and patient care of the alternative medicine departments. The CAM doctors running the facilities say they are trying to combine the best of the alternative approaches with regular medicine. It is a daunting challenge. 

Some of these treatments can be effective. Others are harmless at worst, while some can be horribly dangerous. As I have written before , many practitioners of alternative medicine either see no need for their claims to be tested with scientific studies, or simply ignore results if they don't like they way come out. They often see regular medicine as a conspiracy aligned against them.

If these new centers, despite all the money they receive, would stand up to the charlatans like the doctor who saw my friend, they would show a fine example of courage. Even if they only set an example of using what is proven, or at the very least not harmful, they will be providing medicine and the public an enormous service.

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