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Skeptical Doctors of Quackwatch Takes on Alternative Medicine

1,187 words
27 April 1998
Omaha World-Herald

Dr. Stephen Barrett bought a little green box that plugs into the wall and pumps out miracles. When a sick person grips an electrode, the gizmo figures out which organ is failing and which homeopathic potion will fix it.

That is, at least, the general idea.

“I’ve wanted a device like this for 10 years,” said Barrett, chortling as he showed off the machine in his basement office. “It’s a total fake.”

The Vegatest I, built in Canada but banned for import into the United States, is the latest and one of the kookiest additions to the massive archive of alternative medicine that Barrett has spent the past three decades stuffing into the cellar of his suburban home.

Barrett, a 65-year-old retired psychiatrist, is part of a small posse of traditionalist doctors fighting the relentless march of alternative medicine into the mainstream. Once seen as essential warriors against medical fraud, they now find themselves struggling for attention as one new therapy after another – whether it’s eating an herb to ward off a cold or taking shark cartilage to survive cancer – gains popular acceptance.

These skeptics, who operate out of offices and homes and universities across the country, argue that nothing should be marketed as a treatment or cure until it has withstood the rigors of conventional clinical research.

While they believe that taking a vitamin under a doctor’s orders can be a good thing, they also believe Americans have been duped into megadosing and medicating themselves.

Many physicians hail the skeptics as heroes. But increasing numbers of doctors are adopting alternative therapies that may not offer a cure but may make the patient feel a little better about being sick.

In an attempt to keep a voice in the debate, Barrett and his colleagues in the past year have begun publishing a medical journal devoted to the skeptical study of offbeat medicine and have unleashed a World Wide Web site – dubbed Quackwatch – that is a clearinghouse of criticism of popular but unproven therapies. They also are involved in several lawsuits against people they accuse of making misleading medical claims.

Inside a maze of file cabinets in Barrett’s basement is much of the ammunition for Quackwatch. This is the research Barrett used for 44 books, hundreds of articles, and scores of complaints and court cases in his crusade against what he considers the misleading marketing of everything from aromatherapy to Zen macrobiotics. He’s even gone after granola.

Homeopathy? “There’s nothing stupider on the planet.”

Acupuncture? “The majority of acupuncturists are loony.”

Herbal remedies? Don’t get him started.

“Most of the people who prescribe them are screwballs,” he said. “Most of the products don’t have the ingredients listed so you can see what’s in them. Most of the books that are written for the general public are not reliable.”

Yet those books usually sell better than his own. His fight has been made harder by alternative medicine’s recently acquired aura of legitimacy.

In the past six years, Congress has compelled the National Institutes of Health to add an Office of Alternative Medicine and lifted regulations on alternative medicinal products as long as they are labeled as foods and dietary supplements. The American Cancer Society has approved some of what it classifies as “complementary” medicine. Medical schools have added alternative medicine curricula and more insurers are reimbursing fees for unconventional remedies such as acupuncture.

Perhaps even more significantly, the Internet has turned into a cyber-souk of New Age healers, old-fashioned hucksters, practicing MDs and giant mail-order businesses all shilling elixirs and remedies through eye-catching Web sites.

“I think we’ve got a serious challenge. The Internet has made it very easy to distribute inaccurate health information,” said Dr. John Renner, a University of Missouri professor of family medicine and one of the 100-plus doctors on the Quackwatch board.

Barrett hopes Quackwatch establishes itself as a scientific antidote to what he calls the virtual medicine being practiced in cyberspace. He said Quackwatch (http://www.quackwatch.com) plans to evaluate other Web sites, field consumer complaints and even dispense medical advice.

The American Medical Association’s stand on alternative medicine is essentially Barrett’s credo: “There is little evidence to confirm the safety or efficacy of most alternative therapies.”

Yet others caution against throwing out – or blindly accepting – anything that doesn’t fit conventional criteria.

“I think (the debunkers) provide a valuable service,” said Barrie R. Cassileth, a psychologist and medical sociologist who has just published a book on alternative medicine, “The Alternative Medicine Handbook: The Complete Reference Guide to Alternative and Complementary Therapies” (W.W. Norton), and previously co-authored a book with Barrett, “Dubious Cancer Treatment” (American Cancer Society, Florida division, 1991).

“However, they address fraudulent activities, quackery and so on that would generally be classified as alternative medicine. Unfortunately, included under that rubric are many positive therapies which are usually called complementary treatment.”

But Barrett said “complementary” medicine is another word for “baloney.”

“There’s no such thing as complementary medicine,” he said. “Most of the people who are doing it are practicing low-quality, substandard medicine.”

Cassileth, a member of the American Cancer Society’s complementary medicine committee, disagreed. She endorses herbal teas for digestive problems, ginger for nausea and acupuncture for some types of pain. Meditation, yoga and the use of certain aromas to promote relaxation “are well-documented and extremely helpful in reducing stress generally, and particularly among patients with serious illnesses,” she said.

Despite their differences, Cassileth said she sympathizes with the skeptics.

“It must be incredibly frustrating for them,” she said. “There’s almost a mindless acceptance out there. People assume that alternative medicine is automatically natural and safe, and that’s wrong.”

Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics, said the debunkers are missing an important point. The reason the mainstream is co-opting alternative therapies is not because they’ve been scientifically proven to work, but because patients – the customers – like the attention they get from a more holistic approach to health care.

“It may be that there isn’t good evidence about these things like ginseng and garlic,” Caplan said. “But what alternative and complementary (practitioners) understand is that it’s important to listen to the patient. … While I am a complete supporter of efforts to attack elements of alternative medicine that are ‘quacky,’ what really isn’t discussed by those out there debunking is why it is so attractive.”

The debunkers insist that alternative medicine isn’t as popular as the media make it out to be, and that if it is popular, it’s because of the marketing acumen of people promoting unproven panaceas.

A central organization of these skeptics is the National Council Against Health Fraud, which consists of “a bunch of people who fight health fraud as a hobby,” said the group’s president, William T. Jarvis, a consumer health education specialist at Loma Linda University in California.

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