W

hen unproven “natural” therapies take root at top academic medical centers, it worries many doctors and scientists.

Proponents, however, point out that modern medicine can’t cure every patient — and they say it’s important to keep alternative therapies in mind, even if they haven’t been tested in rigorous clinical trials.

“If we restrict ourselves to drugs, we’d be telling so many people that we can’t do anything for you. That there is no hope for you,” said Dr. Linda Lee, a gastroenterologist and head of the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center. “And that’s the saddest thing.”

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A STAT examination found that many of the nation’s top hospitals promote alternative therapies, from homeopathic bee venom to energy healing. And dozens of prestigious medical schools teach aspiring doctors about integrative medicine, including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Columbia, and the University of California system. Practitioners trained in spiritual and natural medicine often serve on the faculty at medical schools or are brought in as guest lecturers.

One key reason: If the past is any guide, patients are going to keep using dietary supplements, herbal remedies, and other alternative therapies no matter what their doctors say. And it’s important for physicians to understand those treatments — and be able to make sure they don’t interact poorly with any traditional pharmaceuticals they may prescribe.

At University of Florida Health Shands Hospital, for instance, oncologist Dr. Jessica Schmit recalls a cancer patient who came in for a consultation. The patient was taking “a host of herbal supplements that she had purchased on the internet,” Schmit recalled. The team at the hospital’s integrative medicine center reviewed them and told the patient to discontinue most, because they would interact poorly with the chemotherapy she was about to start.

But the center didn’t scoff at the patient’s desire for alternative care; the wellness staff at the hospital includes a hypnotherapist, an acupuncturist, a tai chi practitioner, a yoga therapist, and a specialist in the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine.

After immersing himself in the debate about alternative medicine, Dr. Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics in the infectious disease division at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said he’s come to believe that there is a role for spiritual and natural therapies. Practitioners of such fields tend to spend more time talking with patients, he notes, and aren’t as quick to try to solve problems by writing a prescription.

But Offit — who wrote a book on the subject a few years back — also argues that not every trendy idea should be embraced by academic hospitals. It’s crucial, he said, to try to understand whether alternative therapies actually work, and if so, why.

“If an alternative medicine works, then it’s medicine. If it doesn’t work, then it’s not an alternative. In any case, it’s all subject to scientific study,” Offit said. “We no longer have to shrug our shoulders and look to the gods for an explanation.”

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  • Like many patients, I have recovered my health by combining conventional and alternative therapies. I highly recommend it. It helps to read, research, ask questions, share experiences with other patients, and work with gifted and experienced physicians and practitioners.

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