Contact: Heather Rock Woods, (415) 725-5371 or (415) 723-6911.

Claims for Alternative Medicine Need Scrutiny

STANFORD -- A seemingly scientific research paper supporting the therapeutic benefits of homeopathy crosses the desk of a newspaper reporter. The study is a randomized, double-blind clinical trial, published in a medical journal.

It looks bona fide -- but is it?

Probably not, contends an outspoken physician who has been investigating aberrant medical claims and crusading against alternative medicine for three decades.

As chair of the National Council Against Health Fraud, Dr. Wallace Sampson has scrutinized studies of homeopathic, chiropractic, mind-illness therapies and other kinds of so-called alternative medicine, sometimes spending as much as six months investigating a single research paper.

In his view, most alternative medicine is "quackery," and reporters need to convey that to the public.

"I would want [reporters] to write these things up from the standpoint that they're not valid," said Sampson, associate chief of hematology and oncology at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., and a clinical professor of medicine at Stanford. Sampson teaches a class at Stanford University School of Medicine on applying critical, scientific thinking to claims for alternative medicine.

"You have to look at everything in a paper, not just the researcher's conclusion," he warned. "What people forget to do sometimes is to take a good look at the figures and see if there's something fishy."

Editors and reviewers, even on respected scientific journals, often miss errors in papers on alternative medicine, Sampson said. For example, several studies he has investigated used inappropriate control groups, making comparisons to the experimental group unreliable, he said.

Despite an abundance of research papers on alternative practices, Sampson said there is "no credible evidence" for the vast majority of claims made by proponents of alternative medicine.

"The studies aren't done well, or the authors have drawn the wrong conclusions. The best-done studies are most often negative, showing no effectiveness for the treatment under study," he said.

While studies of mainstream medical practices also contain errors, he said, "the studies are repeated and the system self-corrects. That's the difference. [Alternative medicine adherents] go on for centuries with the same philosophy and don't self-correct."

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Seattle, Sampson will give examples of the kinds of errors he typically finds in the alternative medicine literature. His talk is set for Friday, Feb. 14, as part of the session "Alternative Medicine in a Scientific World" (2:30 to 5:30 p.m.).


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