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Teaching Alternative Treatments in Medical School

Physicians Debate Whether 'Complementary' Remedies Such as Acupuncture, Herbs Should Be Incorporated Into Doctors' Education

May 31, 1999|From WASHINGTON POST

Two prominent physicians squared off at the University of Arizona last month to debate this question: "Is Integrative Medicine the Medicine of the Future?" The event occurred at the Arizona Health Sciences Center, the academic base of Andrew Weil, director of the university's Program in Integrative Medicine.

A proponent of expanding medical education to encompass techniques and treatments often referred to as alternative medicine, Weil is an author whose works include "Spontaneous Healing" and "Eight Weeks to Optimum Health."

Arguing against the incorporation of Weil's agenda into the country's medical schools was Arnold S. Relman, editor in chief emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine and a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School. In December, Relman published an article in the New Republic in which he criticized "alternative practitioners" such as Weil for promoting methods that "are often based on notions totally at odds with science, common sense and modern conceptions of the structure and function of the human body."

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Below are excerpts from that debate.

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Relman: Integrating alternative medicine with mainstream medicine, as things stand now, would not be an advance but a return to the past--an interruption of the remarkable progress achieved by science-based medicine over the past century. I can't see how such integration, even if it were possible, would improve medical care or further the cause of human health.

Future advances in clinical practice will depend on the application of new developments in science. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any progress at all in the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of disease without continued, even closer cooperation between modern science and evidence-based medical practice.

With the promise of so many new breakthroughs in the offing, why on Earth should we now want to drive a wedge between medicine and science? Alternative medicine stands apart from modern science, challenging many of its assumptions and methods and depending for its verification largely on personal belief and subjective experience. This allows the practitioners of alternative medicine to believe in the power of mind and thought to change physical matter and heal organic diseases--a concept that basically contradicts the laws of physics and the modern scientific view of nature.

Furthermore, considering all the dubious and disparate theories and practices gathered under the banner of alternative medicine, I don't see how our medical schools could make sense of such a hodgepodge, much less unify it with conventional medicine, which is so fundamentally different. It simply can't be done.

Most alternative systems of treatment are based on irrational or fanciful thinking and false or unproven factual claims. Their theories often violate basic scientific principles and are at odds not only with each other but with modern knowledge of the structure and function of the human body as now taught in our medical schools. They could not be woven into the fabric of the medical curriculum without confusion, contradiction and an undermining of the scientific foundation upon which modern medicine rests.

Here is just a very small but representative sample of the many unproven and often highly unlikely claims made by practitioners of alternative medicine led, most notably, by Dr. Weil.

1. Improper breathing is a common cause of ill health, and breathing exercises will cure disease and promote good health.

2. Massive doses of intravenous vitamin C speed the healing of surgical wounds.

3. Guided imagery, meditation or hypnotherapy will reduce the frequency of recurring attacks of herpes simplex.

4. Topical application of human urine is effective treatment for athlete's foot.

5. Two tablespoons of ground flax seed daily reduces the risk of breast cancer.

6. Cutting down on sugar intake decreases the frequency of urinary tract infections in nondiabetic women.

7. Therapeutic touch and other forms of so-called energy medicine can heal disease through the manual transmission or adjustment of types of "energy" that are simply too subtle to be detectable by instruments.

8. Belief alone without any physical intervention can cure organic disease as proven by visits to miracle shrines, faith healers and Christian Science practitioners.

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