Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Non-traditional medicine is no fad

Posted 1/12/2005 8:57 PM

Non-traditional medicine is no fad

By Marilyn Elias, USA TODAY

So-called alternative medicine is in the mainstream: More than one-third of adults use it, but popularity has raced ahead of research on benefits and dangers, as well as action to protect consumers, says a federal report out Wednesday.
There are many alternate health practices, from herbs and acupuncture to homeopathic products, chiropractic care and yoga.

Insurance usually won't cover them, so Americans are spending more than $30 billion a year out of pocket to get them, says Stuart Bondurant, a dean at Georgetown University Medical Center. He chaired the Institute of Medicine expert panel asked to report on key research and policy questions by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

The Institute of Medicine is part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization chartered by Congress to advise the government on scientific matters.

Overall use of alternative medicine has stayed about the same for 14 years, says panel member David Eisenberg of Harvard Medical School, who did the first large survey on the issue in 1990. But herbal product use jumped 50% from 1997 to 2002.

Nearly 1 in 5 adults use herbs for symptoms as diverse as menopausal hot flashes and memory problems. But consumers can't count on getting the product promised on the label, the IOM panel warns. These supplements, such as Saint-John's-wort and ginkgo, are regulated like foods, not drugs, and manufacturers don't have to prove safety and effectiveness.

A 1994 law authorized the Food and Drug Administration to set "good manufacturing practices" for supplement makers. The agency also can fine companies that don't meet standards, or even shut them down, says Mark Blumenthal of the American Botanical Council, an independent non-profit that promotes responsible use of herbs.

The FDA published proposed rules in 2003 but has not issued final guidelines.

Some herbs can be dangerous when taken with traditional medicines, and about two-thirds of Americans using alternative therapies don't tell their doctors, according to Eisenberg's studies.

"Most of our products are very safe," says Judy Blatman of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group for the vitamin and herb industry.

The IOM panel says the 1994 law needs to be amended to strengthen quality control and consumer protection. Even if the current law were fully enforced, it wouldn't yield enough information, Bondurant says. But Blumenthal says expecting the FDA to take on new responsibilities is unrealistic: "They lack the manpower, the expertise and the budget to deal with herbal safety issues."

Alternative therapies also should be held to the same standards for effectiveness as conventional medicine, the panel says. Lack of standardizing among products has made research difficult, Eisenberg says. "Our hands are tied in terms of advising the public on what should or should not be used."

Federal agencies should invest in more alternative medicine research, and incentives should be created for private firms to do research because they don't gain patents for their investments like drugmakers do, the panel says. More than 7,000 controlled trials on alternative therapies have been published. Quality varies but is improving.

Stephen Barrett, who runs, a Web site aimed at identifying health fraud, says the panel's findings can't be trusted because many members are advocates of alternative medicine and stand to benefit financially from more research funds. "They gave an overly rosy view of this."