Alternative Healing Archive

You'll find articles about this subject in each of the items listed, even if the term does not necessarily occur within the headlines or descriptive text.

Science accuses BBC of medical quackery

Some of Britain’s leading scientists have accused the BBC of “quackery” by misleading viewers in an attempt to exaggerate the power of alternative medicine.

The criticisms centre on Alternative Medicine, a series broadcast on BBC2 in January, in which some of the most memorable scenes included open-heart surgery apparently carried out using acupuncture as an anaesthetic.

In another episode, brain images of patients undergoing acupuncture were claimed to show that the procedure had an effect on the parts of the brain that experience pain.

This weekend scientists turned on the programme’s producers, accusing them of distorting science in an attempt to present an unjustifiably positive image of complementary therapies. “They are peddling quack science,” said David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London.

The most serious accusation concerns the BBC’s presentation of the anaesthetic powers of acupuncture. A heart patient underwent surgery in a Chinese hospital with a number of acupuncture needles stuck into her body.

Critics say that the needles could be credited with little real effect because the patient was also receiving three powerful conventional sedatives — midazolam, droperidol and fentanyl — along with large volumes of local anaesthetic injected into her chest.

Simon Singh, a scientist who has produced BBC Tomorrow’s World and Horizon programmes, condemned the exercise as a memorable bit of television which was “emotionally powerful but scientifically meaningless”.

The series was viewed by 3.8m people and presented by Kathy Sykes, professor of public understanding of science at Bristol University. During the acupuncture episode, Sykes said: “We’ve got to be scientific and rigorous and plan it really carefully,” adding later: “The bit of the brain that helps us decide whether something is painful, we think perhaps is being affected by acupuncture.”

The key critics include two scientific advisers to the series: Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University; and George Lewith, director of the centre for the study of complementary medicine at Southampton University.

Lewith, an expert on the effects of acupuncture, said in an interview yesterday: “The experiment was not groundbreaking; its results were sensationalised. It was oversold and over-interpreted. Proper scientific qualifications that might suggest alternative interpretations of the data appear to have been edited out of the programme.”

It was made in conjunction with an Open University alternative medicine course, prompting scientists to complain that a wave of “anti-science” is affecting not only the BBC but many universities as well.

Ernst yesterday released the contents of a letter that he has written to Martin Wilson, the series producer, criticising him for promoting “US-style anti-science”.

He said he felt “abused” by the programme makers: “It was as if they had instructions from higher up that this had to be a happy story about complementary medicine without any complexity, and they used me to give a veneer of respectability.”

Ernst also said: “The BBC decided to do disturbingly simple story lines with disturbingly happy endings.”

Two other programmes in the series — discussing faith healing and herbalism — were also criticised.

“It was the programme on herbal medicines which really got me going most,” said Colquhoun. “It is as if evidence-based medicine and reason started to go out of fashion in the 1970s and 1980s and mysticism came in. We have to bring reason back.”

Colquhoun also warned that an unproven herbal treatment for Aids called sutherlandia is being promoted on the internet after it was featured in a programme discussing alternative herbal medicines.

He added that a gathering of members of the Royal Society, Britain’s most prestigious scientific body, is to be convened next month to promote the merits of conventional science.

The scientists will call on Lord Rees, the society’s president, to take a leading role. They will raise concerns that more than 50 universities now offer three-year bachelor of science degrees in alternative medicine.

“This is no longer a fringe game played by new age people,” said Colquhoun. “It is beginning to erode intellectual standards at real universities.”

Despite the criticisms, the BBC is understood to be in the process of commissioning a further series.

A spokesman said yesterday: “We take these allegations very seriously and we strongly refute them. We used two scientific consultants for the series, Professor Ernst and Jack Tinker, dean emeritus of the Royal Society of Medicine, both of whom signed off the programme scripts. It seems extremely unusual that Professor Ernst should make these comments so long after the series has aired.”

The spokesman said Tinker had indicated he remained happy with the tone and content of the films, stating: “Fellow medics at the Royal Society, including one eminent professor, said it was the best medical series they had seen on television.”

Mind Medicine: What Proof?

A research review published in 2002 in an Australian medical journal linked transcendental meditation (TM) to decreased hypertension. The authors concluded that the technique was promising for prevention and treatment of heart disease.

A similar review published last year in the Journal of Hypertension found insufficient evidence to conclude whether TM lowers blood pressure.

Inconsistent results like these leave people understandably baffled about the value of so-called mind-body treatments, a branch of alternative and complementary therapy that includes meditation, hypnosis, imagery and mindfulness-based stress reduction. Each of these techniques assumes that altering one’s mental state can affect bodily health. Enthusiastic testimonials and gripping media reports notwithstanding, the research record on mind-body medicine remains thin and inconclusive.

Still, these techniques are used, both with and without standard medical treatments, by millions of people seeking relief from conditions ranging from stress to heart disease. Many users report benefits; risks are low. The chart below examines the uses and research findings for several mind-body approaches. Scientific investigation continues.

mind medicine chart

How to Locate the (Few) Credible Web Sources on Mind-Body Medicine

Among the most credible Web resources for mind-body medicine are the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine ( http://nccam.nih.gov/ ) and the Mayo Clinic’s primer. Other high-quality sources of information include:

Meditation
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/meditation/HQ01070 , which explains how and why meditation can be useful, and http://nccam.nih.gov/health/meditation .

Imagery
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fitness/SM00001 , which includes tips for using this technique.

Hypnosis
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hypnosis/SA00084 ; choosing a therapist, more details. Also see http://nccam.nih.gov/ (search “hypnosis”) .

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
http://dukehealth1.org/int_med/stress.asp ; Duke University’s Center for Integrative Medicine offers such information as a list of conditions this approach may be useful in treating. Mindfulness researcher and evangelist Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School has information, including research summaries, at http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/ .

When seeking information on alternative therapies, you’re likely to encounter material of suspect quality. For a reality check, visit http://www.quackwatch.com/ , a site that applies scientific standards to alternative care.

PBS will air “The New Medicine,” a two-hour documentary on the latest uses and research into mind-body treatments, on March 29 at 9 p.m. Information: http://www.thenewmedicine.org/ .