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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.”

  • Why can’t we also have a centre of research into these alternative systems, following all the guidelines that conventional medicine follow? The results of these research whether positive or negative should be widely publicised both in the scientific community and the general public.

    • The problem is that the research already exists, is already ongoing, has already been widely publicized, and most of these “alternative” remedies have been shown to be nothing but snake oil, but the true believers refuse to accept the results. For example, homeopathy requires the belief that water “has a memory” of a substance it once contained. It is pure nonsense to any rational human being. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in an age of irrationality and belief in magic cures. I’m 100 percent in favor of what you said, doing the research, because yes, once in a while there is something that is consistently shown to work, like St. John’s Wort, I believe, for treating depression. But people also need to be a lot more skeptical of substances or treatments that are offered with a wonderful marketing plan or because some celebrity claims they work.

  • Unfortunately, too many of the ‘unproven therapies’ are simply ones that the drug companies and doctors can’t use to make money. While I cannot accept ‘energy therapy’ as valid, other than electroshock, proper diet and exercise can improve health, and some natural medications have valid scientific uses. To simply say a treatment is wrong because it is unproven is not part of the scientific method, but does seem to be a common part of our modern medical method. When I go to a doctor, I want to find out how to fix my problem, not mask it with drugs. The problem I’ve had in recent decades has been to find a doctor that believes the same thing. Unfortunately, after I describe my ills, the first thing my doctor does is reach for his prescription pad.

  • Skeptics of homeopathic medicine should be ashamed of themselves. Their skepticism is based on ignorance of homeopathy and its research base. There are now several dozen studies in peer-review journals that confirm that homeopathic medicines have an effect on genetic expression. Are skeptics going to say that genes are only influenced by belief?

    The World Health Organization has deemed that France has the best health care in the world, and yet, did you know that 95% of French pediatricians, dermatologists, and general practitioners use some homeopathic medicines in their practice?

    Did you know that the largest review of scientific research ever conducted by a government was in Switzerland…and their report found a significant body of clinical research, basic science reserach, and epidemiological studies show clinical benefits and biological action?

    It is interesting that skeptics of homeopathy are themselves showing an anti-scientific attitude by making their assertions based more on ignorance than evidence.

    • Skeptics of homeopathy love being anonymous. I wonder why.

      The review of the “800 studies” was totally junk research that set the bar of efficacy so high that conventional medical treatment would not pass that bar either. That review required studies of 150 subjects repeated by three independent groups of researchers. The BMJ deems 20 subjects to be a reasonable minimum…and the ONLY reason that this “report” chose 150 subjects was to make their pre-determined conclusion that homeopathy “doesn’t work.” Smell a rat yet?

      You want references? Here are some…

      — Lüdtke R, Rutten ALB. The conclusions on the effectiveness of homeopathy highly depend on the set of analyzed trials. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. October 2008. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2008.06/015. This article published in a highly respected journal that evaluates research provides a compelling critique of the Shang review and shows that positive or negative conclusions are dependent upon the various ways you evaluate the body of evidence. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18834714

      Taylor, MA, Reilly, D, Llewellyn-Jones, RH, et al., Randomised controlled trial of homoeopathy versus placebo in perennial allergic rhinitis with overview of four trial Series, BMJ, August 19, 2000, 321:471-476. (This review of FOUR studies on the homeopathic treatment of people with respiratory allergies)

      Ullman, D, Frass, M. A Review of Homeopathic Research in the Treatment of Respiratory Allergies. Alternative Medicine Review. 2010:15,1:48-58. .
      This review provides strong and compelling evidence for homeopathy in the treatment of respiratory allergies. http://www.altmedrev.com/publications/15/1/48.pdf

      Jacobs J, Jonas WB, Jimenez-Perez M, Crothers D, Homeopathy for Childhood Diarrhea: Combined Results and Metaanalysis from Three Randomized, Controlled Clinical Trials, Pediatr Infect Dis J, 2003;22:229-34. This metaanalysis of 242 children showed a highly significant result in the duration of childhood diarrhea (P=0.008). A 4th trial testing a “homeopathic formula” had a negative result.

      Linde L, Clausius N, Ramirez G, et al., “Are the Clinical Effects of Homoeopathy Placebo Effects? A Meta-analysis of Placebo-Controlled Trials,” Lancet, September 20, 1997, 350:834-843. (Although a later review by some of these authors found a reduced significance, the authors never asserted that the significance was no longer present.)

      Frass, M, Dielacher, C, Linkesch, M, et al. Influence of potassium dichromate on tracheal secretions in critically ill patients, Chest, March, 2005;127:936-941. Published in the leading journal on respiratory medicine, this study shows remarkable results in treating the #4 reason that people in the USA die. Conducted at the University of Vienna Hospital.

      Bell IR, Lewis II DA, Brooks AJ, et al. Improved clinical status in fibromyalgia patients treated with individualized homeopathic remedies versus placebo, Rheumatology. 2004:1111-5. Published in the leading journal on its subject, this study showed clinically relevant improvements from homeopathy as well as influences on objective EEG readings.

  • The best doctors will tell you time and again that prevention is better than any cure. Those same doctors know that the foundation of health and longevity is almost entirely made of nutrition. “Wrong diet and exercise medicine is of no use right diet and exercise medicine is of no need.” To many patients are being treated with medications in pill form. A family practice should be focused on maintaining existing good health through sound nutritional recommendations. If more physicians were genuinely concerned for there patients long term well being strict nutritional regimens would be the fist and likely the only prescription doctors would give. In America our doctors wait until we get sick and then pump the medicine in because pharmaceutical companies have influenced the field of medical training for a very long time, too long. To them illnesses are profits. The faces of those who suffer and die because of greed are never seen by the wealthy people who gain from their misfortune. So, is there a place in modern medicine for alternative treatments? Most certainly! Doctors who experience the benefits of practices like yoga, aroma therapy, acupuncture and and hi quality organic food sources during their formal education will be better able to provide sound advice to there patients but that’s a long way off. For now the middle class and the poor will continue to get sick and die while the pigs in big pharm get fatter.

  • That something that isn’t right about “conventional” medicine has to do with the propensity to push prescriptions with nasty side effects on patients as well as the tendency for doctors to avoid hearing what their patients are telling them or even not asking them the right questions! Traditional healing methods drawn from Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and other modalities do work better in many cases and with fewer side effects. If I had listened to my gynecologist years ago I would have been subjected to a total hysterectomy, most likely followed years later by surgical revisions to put my bladder back where it belongs (as has happened to so many women with hormonal imbalances). I found new doctors who listened to me, complementary practitioners (acupuncturists, massage therapists, Ayurvedic herbalists, yoga therapists) who taught me how to manage the “roots” of my imbalance, and today I am a healthy, strong, and non medicated 60 year old with all my organs intact. Ignoring the increasing numbers of research studies into what traditional practices work and for what conditions is irresponsible; we need MORE research, especially case reports on the effects with specific patients – after all, the typical study is looking at a very reductionist data set while case reports and series look at effects on PEOPLE, individuals with issues, rather than issues in search of a one-size-fits-all “cure”.

  • People who criticize these different therapies forget that science has not understood consciousness (check out some writings by Dr. David Chalmers and many others to get an idea about this issue). Not being aware of this is what leads to statements like “these therapies are not plausible because there are no biological mechanisms”(mentioned in this article). People who just assume this are not thinking outside the box and are also affected by the psychological phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance” (i.e., being reluctant to accept evidence that run contrary to their established ideas). They also assume that the mind is packed inside the brain, and prefer to ignore many mind-related phenomena. I recently came across a study that demonstrated mindfulness practices bring about changes in objectively measurable biomarkers: Hoge, E. et al. (2017). The effect of mindfulness meditation training on biological acute stress responses in generalized anxiety disorder. Psychiatry Research.

  • Bravo to Dr. Novella for speaking clearly and correctly about this topic. The analogies of creationism and astrology departments in schools of biology and astronomy is exactly right.
    Shame on UCI.

    • Are you aware that Americans are the sickest people on the planet? Are you aware that America spends the most on health care yet we are still the sickest on the planet?

      Dr. Novella should be looking at ALL other forms of treatment because what he sells is NOT working.

      WAKE UP, PEOPLE.

  • Don’t want to get into argument but I stand by my comment and can prove it with proof if the situation require, I have treated and cured many patients of diabetes, asthma with Reiki.

  • Mr. Henry deserves to be applauded for his open mind approach, Hope his efforts brings good for public benefits. being a Reiki practitioner myself I know
    how revolutionary this may become especially for cancer treatment as large portion of Reiki is remained untapped. There are certain yet unknown aspect if explored can benefit mankind in a huge way. This I can claim by my own personal experience of curing terminally cancer patients.

    • Reiki is nonsense. People DIE because of seeking this kind of snake oil “treatment” instead of actual medicine. You should be ashamed of yourself for making such claims of “curing” people.

  • I’m a physician. I agree that medicine is rife with greed, particularly insurance, big pharma, and hospitals. However, that doesn’t mean we should embrace unproven quackery. If you think adding homeopathy or Chinese herbs to medical school curriculum is motivated by “wanting to heal the whole person”, you are deluded. Marketing people have studied what sells to the average patient, and enough people are interested in alternative therapies that it is a profitable business move to offer them. That is all. Studying nutrition educating patients about the benefits of nutrition, exercise, and stress relief are important, but most of integrative medicine is shameless pandering to patients that are mislead by people who should know better.

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