Clinical trials Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery Surgery

It looks like the University of Cincinnati is another candidate for the Academic Woo Aggregator

Having lived in Ohio for eight years and married a woman from the Toledo area, I had come to think that Ohioans had more common sense. I guess I was wrong.

On the other hand, I should have realized that I was wrong. After all, Ohio is home to The Ohio State University Center for Integrative Medicine and the Cleveland Clinic Department of Integrative Medicine. So much for hard-nosed Midwestern skepticism, I guess. My only consolation as a University of Michigan graduate is that Ohio seems to be trying to surpass Michigan for promoting woo in academia. Or it would be were it not that a major force for woo in academic medicine is my old alma mater, the University of Michigan itself.

Sadly, though, I need to add another university to my (in)famous Academic Woo Aggregator. Woo Aggregator, say hello to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. University of Cincinnati Medical Center, say hello to my leetle friend–I mean, my Academic Woo Aggregator:

CINCINNATI–Often, a gentle hand on your shoulder when you’re upset is all it takes to ease your mind and calm your nerves.

Now, UC researchers are looking at a similar occurrence by pairing a complementary therapy known as Healing Touch with mild sedation to see if the technique truly calms patients undergoing minor procedures.

Healing Touch is a series of techniques that balance energy for wholeness within a person’s body, mind and soul. It is an energy therapy that can be used in conjunction with other traditional medical treatments.


I know this is a press release, but geez Louise! “Balance energy for wholeness within a person’s mind, body, and soul”? Give me a break! This is not science. This is woo. But let’s see. Maybe–just maybe–this prose was the result of an overzealous copy writer in U. of C.’s media relations department. After all, no real researcher would talk about adjusting one’s energy, right?


Nathan Schmulewitz, MD, the lead author of this investigator-initiated study and assistant professor of digestive diseases, says people undergoing procedures often have problems falling asleep because of anxiety.

Schmulewitz specializes in endoscopic ultrasound (EUS), a technique for imaging and accessing deep structures in the chest and abdomen which are near the GI tract. EUS is used as a screening tool for cancer or other suspicious polyps.

He says if a patient is unable to fall asleep with intravenous sedation, it might be necessary to use stronger anesthesia which is expensive and not often covered by insurance companies.

“In addition, stronger sedation can prolong recovery for the patient and can cause slight amnesia following the procedure,” Schmulewitz says.

This study is looking at whether coupling Healing Touch with mild sedation prior to an EUS procedure can help relax patients, avoiding problems with anesthesia and making the procedure run more smoothly.

Dr. Schmulewitz looks like a fine young academic gastroenterologist. His webpage lists his clinical and research interests as endoscopic ultrasound, GI oncology, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and pancreatic disease. So how on earth did he get mixed up in this woo? Here’s how:

Judy Bowers, a nurse at University Hospital, Healing Touch practitioner and co-author of the study, has been doing this therapy for about seven years and has administered it to over 40 patients involved in this study.

“By restoring balance within the energy system, you create an optimal environment for healing,” Bowers says. “This is complementary medicine, not alternative medicine, so it can be easily incorporated in a medical model.”

Here we go again with the “restoring balance within the energy system” woo again! But it’s even more seriously out there than that:

Although there are many healing touch therapies, this study is only looking at three: the Chakra Connection, which facilitates movement of energy from one energy center to another, Magnetic Clearing, which clears the field of congested energy, and Mind Clearing, which involves a light touch on the face, head and neck.

Once again, whenever I hear any “healer” discussing manipulating the “movement of energy” for “healing” purposes, especially when it’s the variety of woo known as therapeutic touch, I remember that this is woo so easy to demonstrate to be worthless that even a nine year old girl could do it. I’m referring, of course, to Emily Rosa, who was nine years old back in 1998, when she undertook a study that was actually published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The design was simple yet powerful in that it tested the concept at the heart of therapeutic touch; i.e., that human beings have an “energy field” and that practitioners can manipulate this energy field in order to induce therapeutic or “healing” effects.

Remember, therapeutic touch (or healing touch) has little to do with actual touch. It’s not massage therapy, which at least feels very good and can be quite relaxing, as anyone who’s ever had a massage can tell you. Rather, touch practitioners barely touch their clients and claim that, by having their hands over the patient, coupled with the occasional gentle touch, they can alter the flow of life energy in the patient and thereby produce a therapeutic affect. Just look at the website for the Healing Touch Program, which describes it thusly:

Practitioners use their hands with light or near-body touch to help clear, balance and energize the human energy system, thus promoting healing for the mind, body and/or spirit.

Back to Emily Rosa. She reasoned that if touch practitioners could detect a human energy field then they could detect which of their hands was closer to an investigator’s hand. During Emily’s test, several experienced practitioners rested their forearms and hands on a flat surface with their palms up, approximately 10 to 12 inches apart. Emily would then hold her hand, palm down, a few inches above one of the subject’s palms. The practitioners correctly located Emily’s hand only 122 (44%) out of 280 trials, which is no better than would be expected by random chance alone. Even more tellingly, there was no correlation between the practitioner’s score and length of experience. The conclusion was clear: Experienced practitioners could not detect whether a hand was near one of their hands any better than they could by guessing. They could not detect any “energy fields” or anything else related to the central claim of “healing” or “therapeutic touch,” for that matter.

Of course, the more rigorous the study, the less of an apparent effect is observed for healing touch. It’s a lot like homeopathy that way. It’s also a lot like homeopathy in that the alleged “scientific” basis postulated to support healing touch is roughly equally as improbable as the incredibly improbable “scientific” basis of homeopathy, known as the “memory” of water, a memory that, if you believe homeopaths, not only can retain characteristics of any substance the water has come into contact with but can transmit that memory through absorption through the GI tract and somehow impart it to the body through no molecular interaction that’s ever been characterized.

This leads me to ask whether this particular study is of adequately rigorous scientific design to produce results that have any validity whatsoever, regardless of what its results turn out to be. The answer, not unexpectedly, is no:

As part of the study, a third party calls the patient two days after the procedure to ask a number of questions about how Healing Touch affected the patient during the EUS and recovery.

The results are being analyzed, but Bowers says she’s observed some fairly positive responses.

“Some of the patients are asleep before they even receive the intravenous sedation,” she says, noting that she stays with patients throughout the procedure in order to continue sharing her energy with them and maintaining the balance.

I could be wrong, but this description it certainly sounds as though this is an uncontrolled, unblinded study, probably with leading questions in the “survey.” Even if it is controlled (again, which it appears not to be), at the very least the study’s participants do not appear to have been blinded to what treatment group they are in. Of course, we all know (or should know) what uncontrolled, unblinded studies of “alternative” medical therapies almost always show, don’t we? Yes, thanks to the placebo effect, observation bias, and a number of other confounding factors, such studies are virtually always “positive.” If Ms. Bowers’ study did not include blinding of the patients and Dr. Schmulewitz to whether patients were receiving “true” healing touch or not, it’s guaranteed to produce a seemingly positive result. One wonders why anyone even wastes the time and money.

I see an article heading straight to the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

It’s sad to see this sort of shoddy and credulous “testing” of woo at an academic institution as respected as the University of Cincinnati. Apparently, U. of C. also has a highly organized “complementary and alternative” medicine curriculum for its medical students as well. On the other hand, searching the U. of C. website, I’ve been unable to find an organized department or program in woo. From this observation I conclude one of two things: Either there is no organized program at U. of C.

Or possibly U. of C. actually has a sense of shame.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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