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LOS ANGELES — When billionaires Susan and Henry Samueli this week announced a $200 million donation to the University of California, Irvine to launch a new health program dedicated to integrative medicine, they drew a standing ovation and glowing coverage.

But for those who have been watching the steady creep of unproven therapies into mainstream medicine, the announcement didn’t go over quite as well.

“This is ultimately a very bad thing,” said Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University and longtime critic of alternative therapies.  “It’s putting emphasis and the imprimatur of a university on things that have been discarded as medical fraud for 50 years.”

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University of Alberta health law professor Tim Caulfield, who has made his name debunking celebrity health fads, has raised red flags about the adoption of alternative therapies — from “energy healing” to homeopathic bee venom to intravenous mineral infusions — at top medical centers including Duke, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Francisco. The new school at UC Irvine “is more of the same, and I find it very frustrating,” he said. “I worry this legitimizes practices that aren’t valid.”

But two physicians at UC Irvine who will lead the new initiative — both with solid pedigrees in traditional medicine and years of experience conducting  research funded by the National Institutes of Health — pushed back against those depictions.

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They argue that medical schools are too slow to adopt  new approaches, including alternative therapies that show clinical promise — and that UCI can do so in a way that is solidly grounded in science.

“We take patient safety as our highest calling and we will never deploy any approach — integrative or not — that put patients at risk,” said Dr. Howard Federoff, a board-certified internist and Ph.D who serves as CEO of UC Irvine’s health system and runs a lab working to develop a blood test for Alzheimer’s disease. “Any non-proven or non-evidence based approach? We will not deploy it.”

The donation — one of the largest ever to a public university in the U.S. — will create the Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences, which will draw together resources from UCI’s medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and public health programs. UCI plans to build a new facility, buy lab equipment, and endow up to 15 new faculty chairs. Federoff said he hopes the result will be a “national showcase” that other medical schools will study.

The new school will absorb UCI’s existing Center for Integrative Medicine, which offers alternative treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, and Chinese herbs along with traditional treatments. That center’s director, Dr. Shaista Malik, was trained very traditionally — she has both a master’s and PhD in public health from UCLA, a medical degree from UCI, and is a practicing cardiologist. But her frustration with patients who refused to take their medications even after suffering heart attacks steered her toward a more holistic approach.

“This represents a massive failure of academia. This should be the final line that doesn’t get crossed.”

Dr. Steven Novella, Yale neurologist

At her center, Malik said, she can refer patients to mindfulness classes, stress management, and yoga. “I’ve seen huge changes in patients’ abilities to adhere to their regimens,” she said. She’s also been looking at whether nutritional supplements might help keep some patients on lower doses of conventional medications, such as statins, that can have troubling side effects.

Malik’s center, which treats patients with conditions ranging from acne to infertility to stroke, offers a view into how difficult it can be to walk a line between alternative therapies and evidence-based medicine — and how UCI has been in the forefront of trying to marry the two.

UCI is the first conventional medical school in the nation, Malik said, to offer a residency program to naturopaths, who are often scorned by mainstream physicians. The first class started last fall, rotating through with family physicians. Naturopaths at the center are used for their expertise in nutrition and dietary supplements and are supervised by MDs, she said.

The center does offer Chinese herbal treatments, but Malik said they were used very rarely and, being unproven, would likely be phased out. Acupuncture, which has been shown in some studies to lower blood pressure, would likely remain an active area of interest, she said.

UCI defines integrative healthcare as a combination of conventional medicine and alternative medicine as well as a focus on lifestyle, wellness and “the whole person.”  In addition to researching alternative therapies, the new program will use high-tech tools like genomic analysis and blood tests to try to tailor treatments and preventive care to individual patients, Federoff said.

By paying more attention to patients’ full range of needs — rather than just treating their disease — the UCI physicians leading the effort say they hope to transform medicine.

Malik and Federoff said they know their approach raises questions among many of their medical colleagues. But they say the fact that so many patients seek nontraditional care means something about conventional medicine isn’t working.

Medical schools, they say, should pay attention to what patients are seeking and study those treatments — either to embrace them or to decisively debunk them.

“Things that are considered cutting edge by patients need to be tested in an academic environment, because we have the bandwidth,” Malik said.

“Things that are considered cutting edge by patients need to be tested in an academic environment, because we have the bandwidth.”

Dr. Shaista Malik, UCI cardiologist

But critics aren’t buying it.

They point out that there is no biological mechanism behind many common alternative therapies. And they argue that it is a waste of time and money to study therapies that simply are not plausible, such as homeopathic pills, which are made from substances so heavily diluted that they’re basically water.

The way Novella sees it, the very term “integrative” medicine makes little sense.

“You have to ask what are they integrating? Are they integrating things that don’t work? If it worked, we wouldn’t need to integrate it — it would already be part of the system,” Novella said.

The donation comes from Orange County billionaires Henry and Susan Samueli, who own the Anaheim Ducks hockey team. Henry Samueli is an engineer who co-founded semiconductor giant Broadcom. The Samuelis, both UC graduates, have been generous donors to the UC system; engineering schools at both UC Irvine and UCLA carry the Samueli name.

Susan Samueli, a math major, started her career as systems analyst but grew increasingly fascinated with alternative medicine therapies and went on to earn a degree from the American Holistic College of Nutrition, an unaccredited correspondence school in Alabama, and a diploma from the British Institute of Homeopathy, a correspondence school based in New Jersey.

Susan and Henry Samueli
Henry and Susan Samueli announcing their donation earlier this week. Steve Zylius/UCI

The couple has been promoting and funding research into alternative medicine for years. In 2001, for instance, they founded the Samueli Institute for Information Biology in Alexandria, Va., which has studied the efficacy of prayer and tested homeopathy as a way to protect soldiers from biological attack. Critics at the time called the therapies under study “nonsense,” “faith healing,” and “spa therapy for rich people.”

While the UCI physicians leading the new program used Monday’s announcement to stress their commitment to science-based approaches, the Samuelis made a point of discussing their embrace of alternative treatments, such as taking Chinese herbs to fight off infections.

“You have true believers with a lot of money trying to put their thumb on the scale to influence medicine,” Novella said. “No university is going to turn away $200 million.”

But he said that is exactly what UCI should have done. No biology department would accept money for a center for creationism, he said, nor would an astronomy department accept funding for an astrology school.

“This represents a massive failure of academia,” he said. “This should be the final line that doesn’t get crossed.”

  • I see a few intelligent skeptics here in the comments. The rest of you gullible fools, feel free to waste your money. Sorry for the name-calling, but I would like to take you all by the shoulders and shake some sense into you. (Yes, I have tried “alternative” remedies, and yes, I have been to an “ayurvedic” doctor, who could have actually killed me with the medical advice he gave me, if I had followed it.)

    Also, before you go on about “it’s all about the greed,” sure it is, but if you think alternative medicine is different, ROFL! Please read:
    https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/quackademic-medicine-at-uc-irvine/

    What really makes me vomit is that as so many of us are going into more senior years, this complete and utter hogwash may be all that is available when it comes to treatment. “Oh, don’t worry, dear. You don’t need all that nasty chemotherapy. That’s for all those nasty greedy one-percenters. Just have some fake stem cell treatment while we perform some fake reiki on you, and drive you insane with recordings of harp music [shudder] (while also becoming one-percenters off of your gullibility).”

  • As a veteran of conventional, alternative and integrative medical care, what patients care about is what works for them. When conventional medicine can’t come up with answers or effective treatments, patients reach out and broaden their horizons, based on direct experiences of other patients with similar issues, and they try out additional approaches to healing. They stay with those that work, and discard those that don’t.

    To say there is no biological basis for some of these treatments is shortsighted. Given wave-particle duality, biology and chemistry are not the full picture. Energy and electricity, magnetism and polarity help complete the picture. We have more to learn about what makes the body hurt, and heal.

    Given the skyrocketing costs of conventional medical care and pharmaceuticals in the pipeline, and the growing incidence and burden of chronic diseases, we can only hope that promising alternative and integrative medical treatments are tested, taught, and put to good use. Along with advances in effective, affordable conventional medical care.

    • I have seen alternative therapies, particularly cancer treatments, that are far more expensive than traditional medicine. And they did NOT work. I’m talking about $35,000 per month. So the whole money argument does not hold water. There are people who practice alternative therapies, etc that make millions. If that is the way to decide if a treatment is effective or not then there is very little that is effective since someone is making money off both types of treatment. That being said if there are new or undiscovered methods of treatment that are cheaper or easier on the patient then that is a good thing. I don’t like treatments that have been scientifically proven to be ineffective to be marketed as if they are effective. Then you just have people making money from widespread lies.

  • It’s a shame that the negative comments have little basis. I would invite you to stay current on the research before stating mistruths. We teach our students to be critical thinkers and look at the literature for evidence-informed practice – you should too. Please enroll in one of our many research and evidence-informed practice classes to educate yourselves before saying such uninformed opinions. Keep current!

  • The Sublime & the Ridiculous.
    The general population is incapable of describing how and why Homeopathy works much like they are incapable of understanding the long proven Quantum Theory. The people in the West have been well propagandized with allopathic drugs and surgery as the only healthcare system that matters or works. They ridicule everything else. The last thing big pharma wants you to know is that the placebo effect in clinical trials is often the winner. They’ve been caught manipulating the success results of cancer treatments to make themselves look better. If you survived cancer treatment and then died on the 6th year, they will only count to 5 years to claim success. They’ve lobbied to outlaw even things like the now accepted Chiropractics and Acupuncture and I will remind you that the same arrogant bunch used to bleed people in the old days. How can the medical establishment claim superiority when they don’t even study or understand proper nutrition. I hate to think of what they have to say about Rife and other energy medicines or devices like the SCENAR! That will probably really push them over the edge! The real disease is greed.

    • I agree with you. I know of many people who travelled to far away places to get Ayurveda treatment for their knee problems, spine problems, etc. when the only option that mainstream treatments offered them was surgery. With Ayurveda treatment, often the regular application of a specific medicinal oil was all that was needed for their healing.
      It is also such a dire situation regarding mainstream psychiatric medicines – this issue is well addressed by the website: madinamerica.com

  • I applaud this due to many reasons – among them are:

    – There appears to be a lot of evidence that Pharmaceutical companies engage in a great deal of selective reporting, medical ghostwriting, data mischaracterisation and academic malfeasance during their trials and publications.

    – Meta analyses have shown that active drugs and placebos have similar effect sizes (see: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0062599 ) – which means most mainstream medicines are merely placebos.

    – The argument that “there are no biological mechanism behind them and therefore they are simply not plausible” is not a valid argument at all. Remember that at an ‘ultimate level of analyses,’ we are mental and spiritual – please check out the following articles:

    Henry, R. C. (2005). “The Mental Universe” Nature, 436, 29.

    Karunamuni, N., and Weerasekera, R. (2017). Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom. Current Psychology. doi:10.1007/s12144-017-9631-7

  • Many years ago the founder of McDonnell aircraft (later merged a couple of times and now owned by Boeing) left millions of dollars to Washington University in St. Louis to be dedicated to investigating ESP and similar phenomena. Wash U went to court and successfully got the ok to ignore the donor’s wishes. I hope this does not happen here.

  • I feel that conventional medicine and alternative medicine should be combined.
    I feel that most patients can benefit from both.
    It all depends on the patient’s mindset and their body chemistry.
    There are many doctors who have studied abroad that practice in the United States.
    They have seen different methods of healing that have worked for many years while they were studying abroad.
    I feel that we should be open minded instead of being so cold and mechanical.
    Science does not have all the answers to everything in life and never will.

    • Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it can show when something is fraudulent or ineffective. If all this “alternative” snake oil was effective, it would simply become part of mainstream medicine, as with aspirin. Also, just because something is “from abroad” and therefore more exotic, or supposedly more “ancient,” does not make it genuine. If it works, it can be proven. By all means do the research, especially on herbal remedies. But if it is utter garbage and promoted strictly by con artists, like homeopathy and reiki, it should certainly not be taught in medical schools. Being open-minded is one thing; being a gullible fool is another.

  • As a nurse practitioner w 40 years of boots on the ground in community health I am all for it. Sitting in a patient’s home you see and experience things from a whole different perspective than in the clinic or hospital bed. Docs spend 15 minutes at most and almost always write a script that may or not be filled for reasons beyond a doc’s safe in the hospital bubble can even imagine.

    • True, the behavior of doctors has a lot to do with people turning to alternatives. However, how are utter nonsense like reiki, and utter fraud like homeopathy, and utter wastes of time like acupuncture, going to improve anything? Too bad they didn’t take that 200 million and spend it on a program to teach doctors how to interact with their patients as human beings.

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