Money Trumps Science at Medical School

A huge gift boosts alternative therapies at a med school, sparking outrage – ByUsha Lee McFarling – September 20, 2017

It’s becoming perfectly clear that money trumps (pun intended) science these days.

When billionaires Susan and Henry Samueli this week announced a $200 million donation to the University of California, Irvine to launch a new health program dedicated to integrative medicine, they drew a standing ovation and glowing coverage.

But for those who have been watching the steady creep of unproven therapies into mainstream medicine, the announcement didn’t go over quite as well. 

“This is ultimately a very bad thing,” said Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University and longtime critic of alternative therapies.  “It’s putting emphasis and the imprimatur of a university on things that have been discarded as medical fraud for 50 years.”

University of Alberta health law professor Tim Caulfield, who has made his name debunking celebrity health fads, has raised red flags about the adoption of alternative therapies — from “energy healing” to homeopathic bee venom to intravenous mineral infusions — at top medical centers including Duke, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Francisco. The new school at UC Irvine “is more of the same, and I find it very frustrating,” he said. “I worry this legitimizes practices that aren’t valid.”

But two physicians at UC Irvine who will lead the new initiative — both with solid pedigrees in traditional medicine and years of experience conducting research funded by the National Institutes of Health — pushed back against those depictions.

They argue that medical schools are too slow to adopt new approaches, including alternative therapies that show clinical promise — and that UCI can do so in a way that is solidly grounded in science.

The donation — one of the largest ever to a public university in the U.S. — will create the Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences, which will draw together resources from UCI’s medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and public health programs.

The new school will absorb UCI’s existing Center for Integrative Medicine, which offers alternative treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, and Chinese herbs along with traditional treatments

That center’s director, Dr. Shaista Malik, was trained very traditionally

But her frustration with patients who refused to take their medications even after suffering heart attacks steered her toward a more holistic approach.

At her center, Malik said, she can refer patients to mindfulness classes, stress management, and yoga.

“I’ve seen huge changes in patients’ abilities to adhere to their regimens,” she said.

She’s also been looking at whether nutritional supplements might help keep some patients on lower doses of conventional medications, such as statins, that can have troubling side effects.

#In the sense that “alternative medicine” promotes holistic treatments, this makes sense. Conventional medicine has for too long ignored that fact that the body is more than just a collection of interlocking parts.

#The belief that it’s possible to change solely one isolated part of the body without ripples of consequences throughout the system is terribly outdated, but too many corporate physicians still adhere to it and put on blinders to focus only on their area of expertise.

UCI is the first conventional medical school in the nation, Malik said, to offer a residency program to naturopaths, who are often scorned by mainstream physicians. The first class started last fall, rotating through with family physicians.

Naturopathy is considered quack medicine by medical doctors – or at least it was, until donated money made it suddenly valid.

Piles of money speak far louder than stuffy scientific studies.

The center does offer Chinese herbal treatments, but Malik said they were used very rarely and, being unproven, would likely be phased out.

Acupuncture, which has been shown in some studies to lower blood pressure, would likely remain an active area of interest, she said.

UCI defines integrative healthcare as a combination of conventional medicine and alternative medicine as well as a focus on lifestyle, wellness and “the whole person.”

#If both alternative medicine and conventional are used together, how will it be possible to know which one is effective?

For instance, if Chinese herbs are added to the conventional prescriptions a patient is already taking, does anyone really know how they will interact and how they will affect the patient?

In addition to researching alternative therapies, the new program will use high-tech tools like genomic analysis and blood tests to try to tailor treatments and preventive care to individual patients, Federoff said.

Malik and Federoff said they know their approach raises questions among many of their medical colleagues. But they say the fact that so many patients seek nontraditional care means something about conventional medicine isn’t working.

No, it means that advertisements for quick cures are working.

Medical schools, they say, should pay attention to what patients are seeking and study those treatments — either to embrace them or to decisively debunk them.

I thought “those treatments” had been debunked already.

We shouldn’t pay too much attention to what “patients want” because patients are guided by ubiquitous advertisements for miracle cures and celebrity “influencers”, like Dr. Oz.

It’s like a teacher letting the students tell him what he should teach them. Can you imagine what a 13-yr-old would want to learn? Can you imagine what a patient who’s been listening to Dr. Oz would want?

But critics aren’t buying it.

They point out that there is no biological mechanism behind many common alternative therapies.

And they argue that it is a waste of time and money to study therapies that simply are not plausible, such as homeopathic pills, which are made from substances so heavily diluted that they’re basically water.

The way Novella sees it, the very term “integrative” medicine makes little sense.

“You have to ask what are they integrating? Are they integrating things that don’t work? If it worked, we wouldn’t need to integrate it — it would already be part of the system,” Novella said.

This may be too wide a generalization. Many treatments don’t work standalone but require other actions as well.

A broken bone can be set, but if it isn’t splinted to prevent movement, it will only break again.  Injections of insulin work for diabetics, but without dietary modifications, their blood sugar levels would still rise uncontrollably.

While the UCI physicians leading the new program used Monday’s announcement to stress their commitment to science-based approaches, the Samuelis made a point of discussing their embrace of alternative treatments, such as taking Chinese herbs to fight off infections.

You have true believers with a lot of money trying to put their thumb on the scale to influence medicine,” Novella said. “No university is going to turn away $200 million.”

But he said that is exactly what UCI should have done.

No biology department would accept money for a center for creationism, he said, nor would an astronomy department accept funding for an astrology school.

This represents a massive failure of academia,” he said. “This should be the final line that doesn’t get crossed.”

In America in the 21st Century, money draws the lines, not science.

2 thoughts on “Money Trumps Science at Medical School

  1. Janet Komanchuk

    I have experienced great benefit from integrative medicine. For years I depended on traditional physicians to help with what was finally diagnosed as fibromyalgia. One medication led to another. One specialist followed another. Still the pains and countless symptoms increased until I was no longer able to work and barely able to function. I am grateful for the physical and emotional help I received from the “alternative” treatments which brought about my remission.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Thank you so much for speaking up, Janet! I’m very interested in which treatments worked for you, how much & how long you were treated, and how long it took to notice significant improvements (and what those were).

      My problem is that I used to “believe in” alternative medicine therapies and had since the 1970’s. But when I needed them so badly to work, they just didn’t.
      (And they say chronic pain relief from opioids is only the placebo effect; if believing something will work has such a powerful influence, why didn’t alternative medicine methods work for me, even if only through the placebo effect?)

      Instead , my beliefs were shattered and now I don’t know what to think anymore. I looked to science for answers, only to discover how biased most studies are – the researchers already believe they know the outcome (effective or not) and then merely set about proving it.

      I’d greatly appreciate hearing from someone for whom alternative medicine truly helped, so I hope you can tell me more.

      You can use my contact page to reply privately:

      Or I can email you directly (WordPress shows me commenters’ email addresses) and we can continue our discussion via email.

      Hope to hear from you soon,



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