After three years, $45,000, and five attempts at in vitro fertilization, Gil and Christie Goren said, “Enough.”
Frustrated by their experiences with fertility specialists and modern medicine in general, the Los Angeles couple decided to take a different approach to getting pregnant. Foregoing test tubes and artificial insemination, they placed their hopes and dreams for a child into the hands of a group of traditional Maori healers visiting from New Zealand. The head of the healers, “Papa Joe,” has told Christie that following his treatment—which involves deep tissue massage and chanting—she will likely become pregnant within three weeks.
The Gorens are not alone. They are among a growing number of Americans whose disenchantment with modern health care has led them to seek alternative therapies. From acupuncture to homeopathy, herbal supplements to chiropractic, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has become an $48 billion a year industry in America—one that traditional hospitals and medical schools are now eagerly embracing. But do these treatments actually work? Are they safe? And have medical professionals put aside their doubts in the efficacy of complementary medicine treatments in order to cash in on a multimillion-dollar market?
In “The Alternative Fix,” FRONTLINE® examines the controversy over complementary and alternative medicine. The one-hour documentary features interviews with staunch supporters, skeptical scientists, and other observers on both sides of the alternative medicine debate and questions whether hospitals that offer alternative therapies are inappropriately conveying a sense of legitimacy to these largely untested and scientifically unproven treatments.
FRONTLINE traces the mainstreaming of alternative medicine to the halls of Congress and one U.S. senator’s allergies. Viewers meet Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who recalls complaining to a friend about his terrible allergies. The friend said he knew someone who could cure the senator’s allergies using bee pollen.
“I went on this very tough regimen of taking a lot of bee pollen, sometimes as much as sixty pills a day,” Harkin tells FRONTLINE. “And literally on about the tenth day, all of a sudden my allergies just left. Well, that’s when I began to think, ‘We’ve got to have somebody looking at these different approaches.'”
Harkin, the chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Committee, convinced Congress to allocate $2 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the study of alternative medicine. Ten years later, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has a budget of over $100 million and is funding hundreds of research projects around the nation. Still, hard evidence on whether alternative treatments actually work is hard to come by: large scale randomized controlled clinical trials take years and millions of dollars. Also, some alternative practioners argue that their therapies are not appropriate for traditional scientific testing. Naturopathy, for example, is a system of medicine which tailors remedies to each particular patient, so two people with an ear infection might receive two very different treatments. It would not be possible, proponants say, to evaluate these individualized treatments in a large scale trial.
So the question remains: Do complementary and alternative medicine treatments actually work? In “The Alternative Fix,” FRONTLINE examines the few research studies conducted on alternative treatments, while also previewing several larger studies currently underway, including one of the largest studies ever done on the efficacy of acupuncture. Yet even if these new studies prove that the treatments in question are no more effective than a placebo, will the legions of consumers who spend billions on them be swayed?
Not likely, alternative treatment proponents say. “People are fed up with being passive recipients of authoritarian, paternalistic medicine,” says noted alternative healer Dr. Andrew Weil. “And many of these systems make people feel they are more autonomous, more in charge of their own destiny.”
Hester Young agrees. In the past fifteen years, Young has battled breast cancer, rectal cancer, and lung cancer. But after undergoing chemotherapy and other traditional therapies the first two times around, she says she simply couldn’t face the debilitating treatments when her doctor diagnosed cancer in her lungs. Although never confirmed through a biopsy, she began looking for alternative cancer treatments.
Today, six years later, she credits her survival to a special regimen prescribed by Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, an alternative cancer specialist who prescribes controversial—and expensive— treatments such as repeated coffee enemas and megadoses of supplements to cancer patients desperate for a cure. The NIH is currently studying Dr. Gonzalez’s claims that nutritional therapy can help prolong life for cancer patients. But if the tests conclude the doctor’s treatments are ineffective, Hester Young doesn’t want to hear it. “Nothing they could say would make me feel differently,” she says, “because I’m feeling well and it’s a success as far as I’m concerned.”
Despite the lack of positive evidence, some of the nation’s leading hospitals and medical centers have embraced lucrative alternative therapies, offering them alongside more traditional treatments. New York’s Beth Israel Hospital, for example, now houses the Continuum Center for Health and Healing, which offers such alternative treatments as guided imagery, acupuncture, and homeopathy—despite the fact that some practitioners confess to not knowing how or why their treatments work. In the documentary, viewers watch Beth Israel’s Dr. Edward Shalts treat a five-year-old boy’s behavior problems with homeopathic pills that contain microscopic amounts of ground up tarantula—a treatment other doctors say can’t possibly be effective. The charges don’t seem to trouble Dr. Matt Fink, former president and CEO of Beth Israel Hospital. “If hospitals don’t get involved in these kinds of programs they will lose patients because patients will go elsewhere,” Fink tells FRONTLINE. “So, like any other new discoveries, you can either lead or you can follow.”
“The Alternative Fix” also follows the money to examine the big business of herbal supplements. In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), a controversial bill that limited the Food and Drug Administration’s power to regulate dietary supplements at a time when the FDA was gearing up to increase its regulation of what has since become an $18 billion a year industry. Supporters claim that the bill protects the freedom of American consumers to take care of their own health by assuring access to a range of natural products. Critics say the bill was passed at the behest of the powerful supplement lobby, and that without regulation, many supplements are worthless at best, and dangerous at worst. [Editor’s Note: Since this report was first broadcast, the FDA has banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedra, ruling that such supplements pose “an unreasonable risk of illness or injury.”]
FRONTLINE’s report continues on this web site, where you’ll find resources for consumers interested in CAM, guides to understanding the controversial scientific evidence on alternative medicine, a report on the history of the tug-of-war between conventional and alternative medical practioners, and more.