Junk Medicine and Health Care Reform: Where Was the Scientific Community?

October 26, 2010

When Congress decided to tackle health care reform in 2009 and early 2010, many hoped that government would take the opportunity to ensure that the resources we devote to medicine are spent more intelligently - say, by promoting and funding only medical therapies that are shown to improve health, or at least those therapies we can reasonably expect to be effective.  Instead, the health care reform bill proved to be a bonanza for purveyors of junk treatments that have no grounding in evidence or basic scientific fact.

Congressional allies of the so-called "complementary and alternative medicine" industry successfully introduced language in health care reform legislation requiring insurers to cover any state-licensed health care providers – including, of course, complementary and alternative medicine practitioners.   Language prohibiting “discrimination” against any state-licensed practitioners survived in the Affordable Care Act President Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010. 

As a result, the hard-earned money you spend on health insurance will fund a variety of unproven -- and even disproven -- alleged treatments.  To take but one example, therapeutic touch (TT), during which practitioners purport to heal a patient by massaging his or her "biomagnetic field" using only their hands. TT, of course, is absolute nonsense.  The healing magnetic field TT practitioners purport to use is far too weak to affect the body's biochemical processes, and is more than 100 times weaker than the Earth's magnetic field.  TT is but one of a host of junk treatments that insurers will be forced to cover under the health care reform act.

Where was the scientific community when health care reform was hijacked by pseudoscience?  Sadly, the criticism offered by the nation's scientific academies and societies was muted, if any comments were offered at all. 

Scientists are often and understandably reluctant to speak out about policy issues when doing so requires them to enter the sullied, unforgiving, and frequently irrational realm of political debate.  When they choose to sit silently on the sidelines, however, society suffers.

Although many of their colleagues shied away from commenting on the alt med debate, a few courageous scientists bravely challenged government funding of alt med nonsense. Although I could name additional scientists, I will mention three here.

Dr. Wallace Sampson, a well-known critic of alternative medicine and fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry , commented during the health care reform debate that Therapeutic Touch "is a scientific absurdity. This is bold foolishness, elected representatives legislating into policy their own personal delusions."  

Dr. Steven Salzberg, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, urged government to save over $240 million per year by eliminating funding for the two government centers that support alternative medicine research - the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM).  By Dr. Salzberg's count, "not a single 'alternative' therapy supported by NCCAM has proven beneficial to health."

And Dr. Eugenie V. Mielczarek, emeritus professor of physics at George Mason University, authored a Center for Inquiry report criticizing efforts to use health care reform legislation as a vehicle for guaranteeing taxpayer funding of alt med therapies.  Dr. Mielczarek urged that in "reining in the ballooning cost of medical care, every dollar of health care funding is needed to provide tested, proven medical treatment to those who require it. It is inexcusable to squander scarce resources by funding unsubstantiated, non-evidence-based medical techniques that have no basis in theory or experiment."  (Also see Dr. Mielczarek's posting on Science-Based Medicine on  physics and alt med therapies.)

Drs. Sampson, Salzberg and Mielczarek deserve praise for their courage and their candor.  Yet, to my knowledge their efforts received little, if any backing from the major scientific academies and professional organizations.  It is high time that scientific societies support the efforts of scientists like Wallace Sampson, Steven Salzberg and Eugenie Mielczarek.  They should serve not as lone voices of reason, but as models and spokespersons for the scientific community they represent.