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frontier medicine

While the public is distracted by terror attacks, wars, and personal and business scandals, modern medicine's integrity is being eroded by New Age mysticism, cult-like schemes, ideologies, and classical quackery, all misrepresented as "alternative medicine." --Wallace Sampson, M.D.

Once relegated to the realm of shamans and mystics, energy medicine has been deemed a form of "frontier medicine" by the NCCAM....*

Frontier medicine refers to complementary and alternative medical practices "for which there is no plausible biomedical explanation." That is how the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) described it in a grant program initiated in June of 2000. The NCCAM is a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Because "there is a relative paucity of data that convincingly demonstrates" anything positive about CAM practices,* the NIH decided that the reason must be that scientists need more money to do the research that will provide the needed plausibility. Proving the benefits of such things as therapeutic touch or homeopathy would have the positive effect of making millions of people who spend billions of dollars on CAM look wise. The fact is that the NIH has invested more than $200 million dollars over the past dozen years and has yet to come up with any evidence of a plausibly effective alternative therapy.*

One of the first scientists to take the offer of grant money from the NCCAM was Gary Schwartz who, in partnership with the University of Arizona, set up the Center for Frontier Medicine in Biofield Science (CFMBS). They got $1.8 million from the NIH for their efforts. Schwartz is a kind of alchemist who has a knack for making junk science appear to be sound science to those who don't investigate his work too closely. Those who investigate his work carefully have exposed the dross beneath the glitter. According to their grant proposal, the CFMBS

facilitates and integrates research on the effects of low energy fields. The research is focused on developing standardized bioassays (cellular biology) and psychophysiological and biophysical markers of biofield effects, and on the application of the markers developed to measure outcomes in the recovery of surgical patients.*

Apparently, that's clear enough for this type of government sponsored work.

The NIH specified in its call for proposals in frontier medicine that such studies involve the following:

  • Bioelectromagnetic Therapy (e.g., diagnostic and therapeutic application of electromagnetic (EM) fields including pulsed EM fields, magnetic fields, Direct Current (DC) fields, artificial light therapy, etc. Note: This category does not include the study of electromagnetic fields as risk factors for disease);
  • Biofield (e.g., energy healing, etc. Note: This category involves systems that use "subtle energy" fields in and around the body for medical purposes. Examples include Therapeutic Touch, Reiki, Huna, laying-on-of-hands, external Qi-Gong, etc.);
  • Homeopathy; or
  • Therapeutic Prayer; Spiritual Healing; Distance Healing; or other examples of prayer and/or spirituality as direct clinical interventions.

Of these areas, only electromagnetic therapy has shown any potential for plausible effective treatment of human disorders of any kind. Energy healing, homeopathy, and distance healing by prayer or other magic have already been shown to be untestable or ineffective or explicable in terms of such things as the placebo effect or stress reduction.

Frontier medicine, for the most part, studies alleged energies, fields, forces, or powers that can't be detected by modern science or technology. In other words, frontier medicine is not about medicine on the frontier but about medicine at the edges of the hinterlands where magical thinking is dominant.

One example of frontier medicine sponsored by the NIH is a grant given to Karen Prestwood, M.D., of the University of Connecticut Center on Aging to study the effects of therapeutic touch on bone metabolism in postmenopausal women with wrist fractures. Dr. Prestwood's grant was also to investigate the effect of healing touch on immune function in advanced cervical cancer.*

Another example of frontier medicine is Beverly Rubiks's study of the effect of therapeutic touch on the growth and movement of bacterial cells in a laboratory culture. Other examples are Gary Schwartz's investigation of the effects of Johrei (an alleged "divine energy") and yoga on brain and heart mechanisms and Allan Hamilton's study of the effects of Johrei on recovery from hernia and coronary artery bypass surgery. Another example is the distant healing study of Elisabeth Targ et al.

Frontier medicine is indeed on the frontier, but it is on the frontier that most of the rest of medicine left behind when it turned away from magic and superstition centuries ago.

See also alternative medicine, complementary medicine, energy, hidden persuaders, integrative medicine, and holistic medicine.

further reading

books and articles

Bausell, R. Barker. (2007). Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Oxford University Press.

Satel, Sally M.D. and James Taranto. (1996). "The battle over alternative therapies," Sacramento Bee, January 3. First published in The New Republic.


Why the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) Should Be Defunded by Wallace I. Sampson, M.D.

The Ongoing Problem with the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine by Kimball C. Atwood IV, M.D.

As a fourth study says it's no better than a placebo, is this the end for homeopathy? by Sarah Boseley, Guardian, August 26, 2005

The End of Homeopathy? by Leon Jaroff, Time Oct. 4, 2005

Kumbayah Medicine: Why is the government paying for research into wacky alternative treatments? Forbes, October 18, 2002, by Sally Satel

Last updated 17-Dec-2013

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