Top U.S. hospitals promote unproven medicine with a side of mysticism
They’re among the nation’s premier medical centers, at the leading edge of scientific research.
Yet hospitals affiliated with Yale, Duke, Johns Hopkins, and other top medical research centers also aggressively promote alternative therapies with little or no scientific backing. They offer “energy healing” to help treat multiple sclerosis, acupuncture for infertility, and homeopathic bee venom for fibromyalgia. A public forum hosted by the University of Florida’s hospital even promises to explain how herbal therapy can reverse Alzheimer’s. (It can’t.)
This embrace of alternative medicine has been building for years. But a STAT examination of 15 academic research centers across the U.S. underscores just how deeply these therapies have become embedded in prestigious hospitals and medical schools.
Some hospitals have built luxurious, spa-like wellness centers to draw patients for spiritual healing, homeopathy, and more. And they’re promoting such treatments for a wide array of conditions, including depression, heart disease, cancer, and chronic pain. Duke even markets a pediatric program that suggests on its website that alternative medicine, including “detoxification programs” and “botanical medicines,” can help children with conditions ranging from autism to asthma to ADHD.
“We’ve become witch doctors,” said Dr. Steven Novella, a professor of neurology at the Yale School of Medicine and a longtime critic of alternative medicine.
STAT’s examination found a booming market for such therapies: The clinic at the University of California, San Francisco, is growing so fast, it’s bursting out of its space.
Just in the past year, the teaching hospital connected to the University of Florida began offering cancer patients consultations in homeopathy and traditional Chinese herbal medicine. Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia launched an institute whose offerings include intravenous vitamin and mineral therapies. And the University of Arizona, a pioneer in the field, received a $1 million gift to boost practitioner training in natural and spiritual healing techniques.
Even as they count on these programs to bring in patients and revenue, several hospitals were reluctant to talk to STAT about why they’re lending their distinguished names to unproven therapies.
Duke Health declined repeated requests for interviews about its rapidly growing integrative medicine center, which charges patients $1,800 a year just for a basic membership, with acupuncture and other treatments billed separately.
MedStar Georgetown quietly edited its website, citing changes to its clinical offerings, after a reporter asked why it listed the energy healing practice of reiki as a therapy for blood cancer. Cleveland Clinic struggled to find anyone on its staff to defend the hospital’s energy medicine program, ultimately issuing a statement that it’s “responding to the needs of our patients and patient demand.”
And the director of an alternative medicine program at another prestigious hospital declined to speak on the record — out of fear, he said, that his remarks would be construed as “fake news” and stir a backlash.
The rise of alternative therapies has sparked tension in some hospitals, with doctors openly accusing their peers of peddling snake oil and undermining the credibility of their institutions.
By promoting such therapies, Novella said, physicians are forfeiting “any claim that we had to being a science-based profession.”
As for patients? They’re “being snookered,” he said.
Online promotions with little room for nuance
The counterargument: Modern medicine clearly can’t cure everyone. It fails a great many patients. So why not encourage them to try an ancient Indian remedy or a spiritual healing technique that’s unlikely to cause harm — and may provide some relief, if only from the placebo effect?
“Yes, as scientists, we want to be rigid. But me, as a physician, I want to find what’s best for a patient. Who am I to say that’s hogwash?” said Dr. Linda Lee.
A gastroenterologist, Lee runs the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, which offers acupuncture, massage therapy, and reiki — a therapy that the center’s website describes as laying on hands “to transmit Universal Life Energy” to the patient.
Lee and others who promote alternative therapies are careful to say that they can supplement — but can’t replace — conventional treatments. And they make a point of coordinating care with other doctors so that, for instance, patients don’t get prescribed herbal supplements that might interact badly with their chemotherapy.
“Here at UF, we do not have alternative medicine. We do not have complementary medicine. We have integrative medicine,” said Dr. Irene Estores, medical director of the integrative medicine program at the University of Florida Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla.
But while those cautions may come through in the clinic, the hospitals also promote alternative medicine online — often, without any nuance.
Duke’s Integrative Medicine store, for instance, sells “Po Chai Pills” that are touted on the hospital’s website as a cure for everything from belching to hangovers to headaches. The site explains that taking a pill “harmonizes the stomach, stems counterflow ascent of stomach qi, dispels damp, dispels pathogenic factors, subdues yang, relieves pain.” None of that makes sense in modern biomedical terms.
Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s website touts homeopathic bee venom as useful to relieve symptoms for arthritis, nerve pain, and other conditions. The site does tell patients that the biological mechanism for the treatment is “unexplained” but asserts that studies “have been published in medical journals showing homeopathic medicines may provide clinical benefit.”
Asked about the therapy, Dr. Daniel Monti, who directs the integrative health center, acknowledged that the data is “largely anecdotal,” and said the hospital offers the treatment only rarely, “when there are few other options.” But those caveats don’t come through on the website.
Novella gets alarmed when he sees top-tier hospitals backing therapies with scant evidence behind them. “Patients only want [alternative medicine] because they’re being told they should want it. They see a prestigious hospital is offering it, so they think it’s legitimate,” said Novella.
“The perpetuation of these practices is a victory of marketing over truth,” said Steven Salzberg, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins who lectures in the medical school. If a hospital is “offering treatment that’s based on fantasy, it undermines the credibility of the institution.”
The debate burst into the public view earlier this year when the medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute — which markets a variety of alternative therapies — published an article raising discredited theories linking vaccines to autism.
Cleveland Clinic’s chief executive, Dr. Toby Cosgrove, disavowed the article. And the clinic told STAT last week that it will take down its online wellness store and stop selling homeopathy kits.
But Cosgrove has stood up for the general principle of offering alternative treatments.
“The old way of combating chronic disease hasn’t worked,” Cosgrove wrote in a column posted on the hospital’s website. “… We have heard from our patients that they want more than conventional medicine can offer.”
A booming market for ‘natural’ therapies
There’s no question that patients want alternative medicine. It’s a $37 billion-a-year business.
The typical American adult spent about $800 out of pocket in 2012 on dietary supplements and visits to alternative providers, such as naturopaths and acupuncturists, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hospitals have taken note. A national consortium to promote integrative health now counts more than 70 academic centers and health systems as members, up from eight in 1999. Each year, four or five new programs join, said Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple, the chair of the consortium’s policy working group.
In most cases, insurers won’t cover alternative therapies — there’s simply not enough evidence that they actually work — so patients pay out of pocket: $85 for acupuncture, $100 for reiki, $38 for pills made from thyme and oregano oils that promise to “harmonize digestive and respiratory function.”
To be sure, not all such integrative medicine clinics are big profit centers. Many are funded by philanthropists, and some hospitals say their programs operate at a loss — but are nonetheless essential to woo patients in a highly competitive marketplace. If they failed to offer “natural” therapies, some hospital executives fear they would lose a chance to attract patients who need more lucrative care, such as orthopedic surgeries or cancer treatments.
The integrative medicine center at Thomas Jefferson, for instance, is part of an “enterprise strategy for growth and development,” Monti said.
“The people running the hospitals are doctors, but they also have MBAs. They talk of patients as customers. Customers have demands. Your job is to sell them what they want,” said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University’s medical school. Too often, he said, the attitude is, “We’re damn well going to do it if the guys down the street are doing it.”
While most hospitals declined to give specific revenue figures, STAT found indications of rapid growth.
“We’re literally bursting. We have to convert office space to clinic exam rooms,” said Shelley Adler, who runs the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. It offers a wide range of services, including Chinese herbal medicine, massage therapy, and Ayurveda, an ancient healing system from India based on the belief that health results from a balance between the mind, body, and spirit.
The center is on pace to get more than 10,300 patient visits this fiscal year, up 37 percent from 2012. It’s expanding its clinical staff by a third.
Duke University’s integrative medicine clinic, a stunning space with arching wood ceilings and an indoor garden, has seen strong growth: Total visits jumped 50 percent in 2015, to more than 14,000, Dr. Adam Perlman, the executive director, told IntegrativePractitioner.com. (He declined to talk to STAT.)
The center’s membership count also jumped, up 25 percent to 885, Perlman said. If all members paid the list price, that would bring in more than $1 million a year just for primary care.
At the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Integrative Medicine, meanwhile, “our volume pretty much has increased steadily, even when we’ve had recessions and financial downturns,” said Dr. Ronald Glick, the medical director. The center now treats about 8,000 patients a year.
Many hospitals have also expanded into more general “wellness” offerings, with classes in healthy cooking, tai chi, meditation, and art therapy. UCSF offers a $375 class on “cultivating emotional balance” (and a free class on “laughter yoga”). Mayo Clinic sells a $2,900 “signature experience,” which includes consultations with a wellness coach.
And the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital offers specialized stress management services to help patients deal with conditions including cancer, infertility, and menopause. John Henry, the owner of STAT, has contributed funding to the Benson-Henry Institute.
Wellness programs — which are designed to ease stress and encourage healthy behaviors — are seen by many clinicians and hospitals as key to slowing America’s epidemic of chronic disease. They don’t tend to draw sharp criticism, except for their cost.
It’s the alternative therapies promoted as a way to treat disease that raise eyebrows.
‘Energy healing’ takes root
Despite their deep wells of medical expertise, many top hospitals are offering to help treat serious medical problems with reiki — a practice based on the belief that lightly touching patients can unleash a cosmic energy flow that will heal them naturally.
STAT found that it is widely used by academic medical centers, including Johns Hopkins, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Partners HealthCare in Boston.
So, where’s the evidence supporting it?
There is none, according to a division of the National Institutes of Health that funds research into alternative medicines. It says the practice has not been shown to be useful for “any health-related purpose” — and adds that there is no scientific evidence that the “natural healing energy” it’s based on even exists.
Asked about the Cleveland Clinic’s promotion of reiki, Dr. Richard Lang, the recently named interim director of the clinic’s Wellness Institute, said he hadn’t had a chance to think about it. “I don’t know that I could give you a plus or minus on that,” he said. Lang served as a vice chair of the wellness institute for nearly a decade before taking the top post.
Pressed for a more substantive answer, the clinic sent a statement saying it offers energy medicine as a complementary therapy, not as a replacement solution. But its website only briefly alludes to a patient’s broader “care team” in describing a “full range of emotional and physical issues” that can be treated with energy therapies, including autoimmune diseases, migraines, hormonal imbalances, and “cancer treatment support and recovery.”
Academic medical centers often boast that they’re more rigorous in evaluating alternative therapies — and weeding out scams — than a for-profit wellness center might be.
“The important thing about practicing in an academic center is that we must hold ourselves to certain standards,” said Estores, the medical director at the University of Florida’s integrative medicine clinic.
At the University of Pittsburgh, Glick echoed that sentiment: “We’re an academic institution … [so] we’re offering services that have greater evidence basis [and] scientific explanation.”
But that evidence isn’t always rigorous.
The University of Florida, for instance, is using Facebook to advertise a herbal medicine workshop for providers and the public that promises to answer questions including, “How can we stabilize or reverse Alzheimer’s disease?”
Asked about the evidence for that statement, Susan Marynowski, the herbalist presenting the workshop, cited several papers and a book chapter that she said showed herbs, in conjunction with lifestyle adjustments, could reverse Alzheimer’s-associated memory loss. However, at least two papers were small collections of case studies published in a journal with a reputation for less-than-rigorous review. (Marynowski said she knew the studies’ size and design limited the strength of their conclusions, but that she was not aware of the journal’s reputation.)
At Pittsburgh, the integrative medical center does take care to note on its website that alternative therapies “generally have not been subjected to the same level of research as standard medical approaches.”
But the site then goes on to promote dozens of treatments for everything from ADHD to whiplash, saying they have “appeared to be beneficial in this and other complementary medicine clinics.” (Glick noted that the body of research had grown since he wrote the caveat on the website in 2003.)
‘It’s not black and white’
Perhaps the most prevalent alternative treatment STAT found on offer is acupuncture. It’s promoted for more than a dozen conditions, including high blood pressure, sinus problems, infertility, migraines, and digestive irregularities.
A 3,000-year-old Chinese therapy, acupuncture is based on the belief that by stimulating certain points on the body, most often with needles, practitioners can unlock a natural healing energy that flows through the body’s “meridians.” Research suggests it helps with certain pain conditions and might help prevent migraine headaches — but it also suggests that the placebo effect may play an important role.
Its value in treating other conditions is uncertain, according to the NIH’s center on integrative medicine.
Several major insurers, including Aetna, Anthem, and regional Blue Cross Blue Shield affiliates, cover acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain and nausea. But the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services won’t pay for acupuncture, dismissing the scientific evidence as insufficient.
Still, it’s important for physicians to keep an open mind, said Lang, the interim director of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
He said, for example, that he used to avoid referring patients for acupuncture, until he saw the benefit it provided to some of them. “I have seen it work in some chronic pain situations,” said Lang. “It can be very helpful. If it doesn’t work, I don’t know that you’ve lost anything. If it does, you do get to a better place.”
And while the evidence of its efficacy is not ironclad, neither is the evidence for various pharmaceutical therapies that are routinely provided by hospitals and covered by insurance. Some of those solutions, such as opioids to treat pain, have resulted in addiction and harm to patients.
Advocates of alternative medicine say it’s difficult to test some alternative therapies through rigorous clinical trials, primarily because treatment techniques vary from patient to patient. (The federal government does, however, spend roughly $120 million a year to fund research through the NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.)
They note, too, that traditional doctors sometimes stray from proven treatments, for instance when they prescribe medicines off-label for conditions the drugs have not been approved to treat.
“We do use things that aren’t necessarily 100 percent evidence-based, but I would argue that’s also true within all of medicine,” said Dr. Jill Schneiderhan, co-director of the University of Michigan’s integrative family medicine program. “I feel like it’s not black and white.”