Over the last several days, Dr. RW, Orac, and Joseph (Corpus Callosum) have been discussing the virtues, or lack thereof, of a national medical student association espousing the coverage of integrative, complementary and alternative medicine (ICAM) modalities in the medical curriculum.
Our SciBling, Joseph, raised the interesting point that CAM education might improve the one aspect of medicine that administrators and health insurance companies are trying to drive from medicine: the doctor-patient relationship. I would say that none of the MD bloggers disagree that time constraints in the practice setting are interfering with the doctor-patient relationship. But Orac disagrees strongly that the introduction of CAM coursework is the proper way to enhance this time-honored aspect of medicine. I’m the only non-MD in this discussion thus far who has any interest in the alternative medicine discussion, so here are my thoughts – and they extend far beyond what is taught in medical schools but, rather, what is occurring in clinics on medical school campuses.
Most certainly, formerly conventional medical patients cite loss of time/communication with their physicians as one of the primary reasons for pursuing alternative therapies. In some practice settings, physicians and medical systems have recognized this; I was recently quite pleased to have almost an hour of history and consultation time with my pulmonologist when working up the management of my allergic asthma. As I understand though, my experience was an exception.
So, someone like me who feels a doctor doesn’t have time for them might approach any one of the growing number of integrative medicine centers within our nation’s top academic medical centers (or a similar practice setting in the community). Will such a person be met by a trained MD or some questionably-credentialled “professional?” This point is the single greatest threat to the use of CAM within conventional medicine. Will they be told that their asthma is the result of unprocessed grief, or problem with the flow of their Qi, or that a simple mindfulness-based meditation program can help resolve their asthma?
So, I am torn – an asthma patient like me should be evaluated with the best pulmonary function testing and given state-of-the-art pharmacotherapy, but I have no problem with also being prescribed several cups of thyme tea daily. My greatest concern is that the less effective modalities will be prescribed by those practitioners least likely, or not licensed, to prescribe prescription medicines. So, my concerns extend beyond whether medical students learn any alternative medicine in their curricula. My concerns are that the inclusion of CAM coursework in medical schools brings into the academic medical system practitioners who, alone, lack the qualifications for comprehensive care of serious and potentially fatal diseases.
If my colleague, Orac, really wants to get into a lather, let’s all take a look at the Consortium of Academic of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine. Take a gander at the member institutions. Examine the mission of this consortium. And who is behind this movement? Something called the Bravewell Collaborative, a collection of individuals at academic institutions, many of whom are million-dollar-earning authors of wellness books. (Clarification: The Bravewell Collaboration is based on an operating foundation of philanthropists who espouse their Declaration for a New Medicine and offer to donate at least $150,000 over a three year period; each year; the Bravewell Leadership Award is then given to a membership-associated academic leader – clever, eh?). Even their page on evidence-based integrative medicine includes not one single link to a peer-reviewed research manuscript (although there are plenty of links to white papers and television programs.).
Yes, friends, modern integrative medicine is a public relations and marketing campaign.
Further, this organization is just one example that confirms my suspicion that integrative medicine is intended to be only for the rich and famous.
If it does exist for the benefit of patients, it does so at the expense of those patients’ dollars lining the pockets of these “visionaries.”
With very, very few exceptions, most of the leaders of this field are pseudoexperts - a term that is not mine but, rather, that of Dr Edzard Ernst, a physician who has dedicated his career to the study of complementary and alternative medicine at the University of Exeter, UK. Dr Ernst edits a review journal on CAM that is widely-distributed in Europe, but less so in the US, called Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies (FACT). So even-handed is Ernst that the journal has earned the grudging endorsement of Quackwatch’s, Dr Stephen Barrett.
Here’s how Dr Ernst views the academic CAM vultures:
I have to admit, I occasionally get irritated by some of the so-called CAM ‘experts’ that so vociferously dominate our field, but more often these people amuse me. Virtually all fields of medicine are driven by healthcare professionals and scientists, but CAM is different – it is an area that is driven by consumers. It also is an area where, relative to mainstream medicine, scientific knowledge is still in its early infancy. These important differences have many far-reaching implications, and one of them is that almost everyone seems to be an ‘expert’ in CAM…
…in order to qualify as an expert, one has to have a reasonably long history of dealing with the subject. In CAM, such common sense is often suspended. Here people seem to become ‘experts’ virtually overnight….
…As already mentioned, with pseudoexperts there is no real history of having studied CAM in any depth. They have therefore little or nothing to show for themselves by way of publications. Search for their name in Medline, for instance, and you will find no more than two or three citations (in all likelihood, however, you will find none). As they lack factual knowledge of CAM, pseudeoexperts normally don’t bother with the all-important fine detail; they often pretend to be visionaries capable of ‘seeing the bigger picture’. As soon as you put them on the spot, however, you find that their ‘vision’ fades into shallow speculation…
Mind you, this characterization comes from a strong proponent of complementary and alternative medicine.
The personality of the pseudoexpert merits detailed psychological analysis. It helps, I think, not to be too intelligent. This makes it easier for the pseudoexpert to fall victim to his or her own powers of persuasion. The result is often an almost religious belief of the pseudoexpert in the correctness of his or her assertions. One cannot readily disprove a religion and those pseudoexperts who mistake CAM for a religion cannot even conceive the possibility of being wrong. Not all pseudoexperts, however, are true believers nor are all of them stupid. Some are highly motivated by strong self-interest. These are the ones who tend to be addicted to the limelight of public interest. If you read the Sunday papers and follow how some health writers promote certain treatments, you probably understand what I mean. One does not need to do an awful lot of research to find that some of these pseudoexperts are motivated by financial rewards. [emphasis mine]. For others the attraction lies in the prospect of fame or power. Attractive positions and distinctions wait for those who loudly and unscientifically promote what the government of the day or other VIPs want to hear.
In time, I predict that a major US academic medical center will be sued for malpractice as a result of the practices of CAM renegades in their midst. Until then, I recommend vigilance, both by medical students and medical faculty. Again, Ernst:
The proliferation of CAM pseudoexperts is perhaps not surprising and in many instances it is a highly entertaining phenomenon. Yet it is also regrettable for several reasons. Pseudoexperts misdirect decision makers. They can also produce more tangible harm, e.g. by misleading patients into using the wrong type of CAM or the right type wrongly. Finally they jeopardise the potential that CAM has in certain areas. And this is a lasting disservice to our field.