What's wrong with Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil? They're health gurus, and, according to infectious disease expert Paul Offit, a guru spells trouble. People should put their faith, and fate, in concrete data, not charisma or any of the myriad other unscientific elements that suffuse the alternative medicine industry, Offit argues in his latest book, "Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine."
"There's no such thing as conventional or alternative or complementary or integrative or holistic medicine. There's only medicine that works and medicine that doesn't," writes Offit, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "The best way to sort it out is by carefully evaluating scientific studies." The problem, he says, is that the alternative medicine industry is not federally regulated. So companies don't have to back up the claims of their products.
[Read: How Safe Are Your Cosmetics?]
By his own reasoning, Offit's crusade is formidable. He writes that half of Americans use some kind of alternative medicine, and hospitals employ a range of alternative therapies like supplements, which he argues can do significant harm, especially in excess doses."I can't believe anyone would put a megavitamin in their mouth," he says. "It's frightening."
Unconventional treatments have filled the void left by mainstream medicine, Offit explains, calling his own health care experiences "largely disappointing." (Offit was born with club feet, one of which has caused him unrelenting pain into adulthood despite corrective surgery, and a misdiagnosis of malignant melanoma saddled him with two years of needless worry.) In the wake of human errors, lack of medical resolutions and poor bedside manners, alternative medicine leaves patients with, well, an alternative.
Americans also have reason to feel suspicious of a pharmaceutical industry that "often pushes on us drugs that are of marginal efficacy and convinces us that we need to use them," he says, but adds that so-called natural supplements rely on some of the same manufacturers. To those who rebuke the pharmaceutical industry in defense of natural supplements, Offit asks: "Who do they think makes these products? Elves and old hippies?"
According to Josephine Briggs, director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, "Much of the widespread appeal of complementary or alternative health approaches is driven by mainstream medicine not effectively addressing patients' needs – particularly for symptom management and promotion of health and wellness. Mainstream medicine will benefit by paying attention, learning and integrating selectively."
Commenting on Offit's book, Briggs writes in an e-mail that he "makes many important points in his book, most strongly, the need for research into complementary approaches that are widely used by the American public to help inform their decision-making. In fact, most of the research we've funded on widely-used dietary supplements failed to demonstrate the expected benefit." Still, many of the alternative therapies "hold promise," she says.
Offit agrees that a lot of alternative therapies work, "just not for the reasons people would imagine." "The remarkably powerful, highly underrated placebo response" – the title of Offit's favorite chapter in the book – explains why people feel better from alternative therapies that have no proven clinical value. "This mind-body connection is real," he says, citing, for example, the case of a wounded World War II soldier whose nurse ran out of morphine and secretly treated him with a salt water solution. Somehow, the gambit worked as the soldier's pain disappeared. Parents also employ the placebo effect regularly, every time they repair their child's boo-boo with a soothing hug and kiss, he writes.