Message to Congress: Stop Wasting Taxpayer Dollars on Junk Medical Research

June 23, 2010

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In an environment of growing health care costs and increasing federal deficits, one would hope the U.S. government would want to spend its limited resources intelligently - say, by promoting and funding only those medical therapies that have a proven track record of actually improving health, or at least those therapies we can reasonably expect to work.

Unfortunately for taxpayers and health care consumers, the government often chooses to spend it resources unintelligently.  Over the past year, the Center for Inquiry has voiced strong criticisms of government funding of so-called "alternative medicine" research.  We have bemoaned legislative proposals to require the government to pay for prayer-based "treatment."  Most recently, we released a paper exposing and criticizing government funding of acupuncture treatments through taxpayer-supported "integrative medical clinics."  Last year we published a report criticizing efforts to use health care reform legislation as a vehicle for guaranteeing taxpayer funding of "therapeutic touch" and other alt med therapies.  That report contained the following recommendations:

Government should spend no taxpayer dollars in support of any alleged medical treatments or healing protocols . . . that have no grounding in experiment or in our understanding of basic scientific fact. . . .

Congress should greatly reduce or eliminate funding for the NIH National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), as a decade of study has shown that most alternative cures work no better than placebos.

 Thankfully, CFI is not alone in calling for an end to taxpayer funding of alternative medicine.  In an insightful blog posting on Forbes.com , Dr. Steven Salzberg, director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology and the Horvitz Professor of Computer Science at the University of Maryland, College Park, outlines a way to cut the budget of the National Institutes of Health while improving biomedical research.  His proposal: 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).

It turns out that NCCAM's 2010 budget is $128.8 million - more than 60 times greater than its $2 million budget in 1992. Yet according to Dr. Salzberg, "not a single 'alternative' therapy supported by NCCAM has proven beneficial to health." OCCAM's budget was $121 million in 2008, and is presumably higher in 2010. Together, these funds amount to $240 million of your taxpayer dollars.  And that's not counting the money these programs received from the government's stimulus packages.

$240 million spent on alt med research equals $240 million that is unavailable for supporting real biomedical research.  Instead, this money supports studies of pseudoscientific treatments we already know to be ineffective.  As an example, Dr. Salzberg cites "Reiki," a form of therapeutic touch criticized in CFI's report :

NCCAM has spent $3.1 million supporting studies of Reiki, an "energy healing" method. Energy healing is based on the unsupported claim that the human body is surrounded by an energy field, and that Reiki practitioners can manipulate this field to improve someone's health. Not surprisingly, the $3.1 million has so far failed to produce any evidence that Reiki works. But because there was never any evidence in the first place, we should never have spent precious research dollars looking into it.

 Equally disturbing are NCCAM's attempts to "educate" the public about alt med through its website.  NCCAM's description of "homeopathy" is as follows: 

Homeopathy is used for wellness and prevention and to treat many diseases and conditions. . . .

[M]ost analyses have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition; although, some studies have reported positive findings.

Dr. Salzberg offers an alternative, more accurate statement: "Some poorly designed, poorly controlled studies with small patient groups, published in low-quality journals, have reported positive findings."  And although many people use homeopathic remedies, this doesn't mean that they are effective.  In fact, they aren't.

Eliminating NCCAM and OCCAM's funding won't achieve all of the cost savings President Obama has requested of the National Institutes of Health, but it is a good, intelligent start.  It's time to stop squandering precious resources on unproven - and often disproven - medical treatments.

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