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Editorial: Wrong question raised at alternative medicine debate

Arizona Daily Wildcat
April 12, 1999
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The dark knight and the dragon of alternative medicine clashed last Friday to much fanfare, but the lesson of the day lies beyond their parry over its legitimacy.

Dr. Arnold Relman, past editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and a vocal critic of alternative medical methods, over the past year has repeatedly challenged the validity and efficacy of integrative medicine, a $21 billion industry according to a study done by David Eisenberg of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Relman challenged the University of Arizona's own alternative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil to discuss the controversial topic of incorporating conventional methods and alternative medicine. Weil is the director of the UA program in integrative medicine.

Relman spent much of last week's 90-minute debate preaching that the untested methodology of alternative medicine has no place in a medical school environment because it has yet to be supported by much other than anecdotal evidence.

But Weil, a self proclaimed "open-minded skeptic," says this is his chance to prove that conventional theories of medicine can be rivaled by alternative practice.

This is the most compelling point of the evening. The debate over alternative medicine's legitimacy is premature. Alternative medicine clearly needs more scientific evaluation, a point accepted by both Weil and Relman.

A Research One university is the ideal place to examine the efficacy of herbal methods of healing for chronic ear infections in children; hypnosis, acupuncture and osteopathic manipulation to reduce muscle tension in children with spastic cerebral palsy; and relaxation exercises similar to hypnosis for children who suffer stress related abdominal pain.

The UA's integrative medicine program has the chance to take years of anecdotal evidence and scientifically prove one way or another what should or should not be included in medical practices. There is no better way to scientifically examine hypotheses that Weil and the field of alternative medicine propose than to use them in conjunction with antibiotics and therapies that have already been proven.

The need for this work, which Weil is pioneering is critical because alternative medicine, regardless of its scientific legitimacy, has taken hold of popular acceptance.

Alternative medicine has already drawn 600 million patient visits, compared to less than 400 million visits to primary care physicians in the country, according to Eisenberg's study.

Since expanding the UA's integrative medicine program over the past few years, from one fellow in 1997 to four last year, Weil received a $5 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Health to study the effects of alternative medicines on children.

This provides the perfect opportunity to determine the scientific background medical professionals like Relman are demanding from the alternative medical field.