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OS 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.

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.”

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  • All you anti-western medicine and big pharma, when you get pneumonia try some acupuncture or homeopathy. Have a heart attack, how about chiropractic? Diabetes ketoacidosis, try some naturapathic herbs. It is all Bullshit, but if you are true believers than avoid scientifically based therapy because it is all based on greed. One would think that in the 21st Century snake oil salesmen would have gone the way of the buggy whip salesmen.

    • Molly: No one said that Western medicine is totally useless. For some problems (e.g. infections, diabetes), Western medicines work well. For other issues, Western medicines only lead to additional complications (e.g. psychiatric medicines), and there is also evidence that many of them are merely placebos.

  • Doctors can’t have it both ways. On one hand they decry alternative and holistic medicine then on the other hand recommend it to their chronic pain and mental health patients when they run out of medical options.

    The argument may be that the patient might see a placebo effect, but in effect the doctor (or hospital/clinic etc…) is endorsing these as medical treatments. With such a large population of chronic pain and mental health patients doctors get stuck in a corner making a large portion of the population (and by proxy their family and friends) believe that these treatments are recommended by doctors.

    Case in point: NJ Emergency Room introduces “Prantic Healing:” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/14/health/pain-treatment-er-alternative-opioids.html?mcubz=0&_r=0 By having this service offered by a nurse in your emergency room, the hospital is endorsing “Prantic Healing” as a legitimate medical practice. I’m sure there are no “disclaimers” distributed or posted on the walls stating the “Non-medical treatments may be performed here.” Along with all the requisite legal disclaimers.

  • Although some people ridicule these different therapies – there are several examples in the history of science where things referred to as ‘irrational’ or ‘bullshit’ turned out to have very legitimate explanations. For example – we shouldn’t forget the incident where Ignaz Semmelweis (an obstetrician) was laughed at and put in a mental institution because he demonstrated that death rates during childbirth dropped when doctors washed their hands before examining patients. This was before people knew about germs – they thought that washing hands was some kind of a stupid ritual! We need to remember that there is a lot that science does not understand right now – science may never understand certain things (such as how and why these therapies work).

    • Yes indeed you are correct there are millions of gullible people walking on earth under gravity’s forces including myself and we all experience it differently.
      However, there are billions of oblivious people affected by undetectable “Virus, Bactirium” industrial introduced microorganisms, and other natural occurring nano, micro particle size contaminants capable of ruining our health.
      Perhaps, you have read or listen in the news, water is currently carrying traceable antibiotics and other prescribed medicine such as viagra even after being subjected to extreme plant purification processes. There exist considerable environmental pollutants aggravating our entire hydro/aero- eco systems landscape.
      So I would not just call it memory, I would call it discriminate memory for it can actually identify contaminant, genus type, size, ChemistryRef form, concentration qualitatively & quantitatively.

  • The gullibility of people is unbelievable. If you just think rationally, the homeopathy belief in “water memory” would mean it could give you cholera or Dengue if it once had those organisms in it. How does this magic memory work? Does it forget fecal matter that floated in it? Does it have selective memory? Are you really stupid enough to believe this Bullshit? Naturopaths, chiropractors, etc. are snake oil salesmen with a slick story. Subluxation is bunk; they made it up. Just take a couple of M& M’s for placebos. It is safer.

    • Yes indeed you are correct there are millions of gullible people walking on earth under gravity’s forces including myself and we all experience it differently.
      However, there are billions of oblivious people affected by undetectable “Virus, Bactirium” industrial introduced microorganisms, and other natural occurring nano, micro particle size contaminants capable of ruining our health.
      Perhaps, you have read or listen in the news, water is currently carrying traceable antibiotics and other prescribed medicine such as viagra even after being subjected to extreme plant purification processes. There exist considerable environmental pollutants aggravating our entire hydro/aero- eco systems landscape.
      So I would not just call it memory, I would call it discriminate memory for it can actually identify contaminant, genus type, size, ChemistryRef form, concentration qualitatively & quantitatively.

    • GVRANGE: Yes, there are contaminants that are measurable in water. That means they haven’t been removed from the water, and are still contaminating it, such as the example you gave of antibiotics. But homeopathy uses water from which measurable ingredients *have been removed,* or are at such a huge dilution that there is no possible way they can have an effect. So it’s apples and oranges. Water either has or doesn’t have a substance present in it. It doesn’t “remember” something that it no longer contains.

  • Sounds like sour grapes, Dr. Novella.

    Mainstream medicine is killing us. We haven’t won the war on cancer. We are addicted to narcotics. We are depressed. We are fat even though we eat the recommended SAD. We have high blood pressure, diabetes, tumors, allergies, Alzheimer’s, chronic inflammation… the list of modern ailments is endless. Our children are sick. They have learning issues, behavior issues which our schools are not equipped to handle- and those are just the ones on the high-functioning end of the spectrum. Childhood cancers are no longer rare, diabetes, allergies, anaphylaxis; this is the new *normal* we keep hearing. This new *normal* has reached the tipping point: a generation of children is disabled beyond help. We must not fail the next.

    Dr. Novella and his colleagues who refuse to look outside the box are part of the problem. If they were in charge of any other industry that failed like modern medicine has failed they would have been fired long ago.

    Dr. Novella, you and your close-minded peers are on notice. History will not be kind to those who refuse to admit they were wrong.

    • There is good reason to believe that the hard liners who favour Western Medicine so strongly are doing the job of keeping the health field clear of competitors to Big Pharma.

      Use of the word “quack” in particular is pretty much the calling cry of the close minded, individuals who seek to beg the question by applying words that effectively tell us no more than the bigotry of the people who use them.

      Many treasured ideas in Medicine are now looking questionable- Cholesterol lowering and prostate screening for instance.

      Equally western medicine does not address the majority of patient’s presenting complaints. I should know- I am a GP myself. (We are always happy to get patients with a straightforward diagnosis that can be plugged into one of our precious treatment algorithms- but for most patients, especially the ones who keep coming back, that just doesn’t apply).

      Equally, just because we don’t understand the mechanism for something does not mean it does not work. I was highly interested to see the size of traditional Chinese Medicine Hospitals in China– it is not alternative over there, they do not use our model of diagnosis and physiology all the time- but they are excellent diagnosticians (IE picked up a metabolic problem in me with one look at the palm of my hand), and their medication is effective too.

      It is time we all started being a little less precious about our recent, expensive and dangerous form of medicine (Iatrogenic harms are the third largest cause of death in the USA) and welcomed them in to our universities. Wt least that will encourage a greater conversation between disciplines, and help formal scientifc study of these disciplines develop.

  • Homeopathy has been a standard practice for millennia. Drugs have been developed from plants and other natural substances from the beginning of medical practice.
    It’s controlling formulation, preservation, dose delivery +..chemistries..that has transformed medical use of pharmaceuticals.
    I think therapies are a great way and approach to achieve a better understanding on how our bodies are affected by single botanical/substance rather than complex processed chemistries. That would enable better definition of when, why, where pharmaceuticals are the only treatment, combined option or last alternative.
    A few Medical Schools have embraced alternative medicine during the last 20 years, it’s not a new concept.
    Many Medical schools compete fearsly for government funded grants and research contracts.
    UC Irvine is a lucky Medical School obtaining such great gift donation funding deal!

    • Great comment Dan! Thanks.
      Actually both Homeopathy and Naturopathy are a couple of hundred years old.
      I should have referred to “Ancient Medicine Practices” AMP or “Traditional Chinese Medicine” TCM. However, India and many other ancient cultures world wide practiced differently.
      A Sri Lanka Physician qualified also in alternative medicines diagnostics, presented to several Medical School University faculty teams in Washington DC about his practices and demonstrated them on a few attendees. I was invited by a physician friend and had a chance to be diagnosed that evening 2002. Today, I wish I could have a second chance at it.
      I had an allergist test confirm same later but I still did not paid attention.
      He was right and I only medically confirmed in spring of 2017 after 14 years or so. I could have changed my diet 14 years ago and stop & prevent further outcome : related inflammation/allergy.

  • So they bribe a medical school to change its medical curriculum, and the med school accepts it? And the bribe is being paid by someone with a correspondence-school health education ? Jeez, how can we tell the real doctors from the frauds, when MD is meaningless?

    • It is typical of skeptics to be so embarrassingly ignorant about homeopathy, its research, and its worldwide status. Like I mentioned above, 95% (!) of French pediatricians, dermatologists, and general practitioners incorporate homeopathic medicines into their practice. Here’s the reference: Piolot M, Fagot JP, Rivière S, Fagot-Campagna A, Debeugny G, Couzigou P, Alla F. Homeopathy in France in 2011-2012 according to reimbursements in the French national health insurance database (SNIIRAM). Family Practice. 2015 Apr 28. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25921648

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