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Government panel makes alternative medicine recommendations

Updated:
(WASHINGTON) - A controversial panel is recommending the Bush administration consider more Medicare coverage of alternative remedies.

They'd also like to see a national office backing research of them despite some panelists' warning that much of what their own report touts is unproven at best.

Another hot-button recommendation: Teaching certain alternative medicine practices to schoolchildren to encourage better nutrition, exercise and stress management by young people.

Proponents estimate that four in 10 Americans use some form of alternative medicine, from acupuncture or hypnosis to herbs or Internet-touted wonder remedies. Some may work; in fact, some of the nation's best-known hospitals have begun offering certain remedies. But others can be quackery or outright dangerous.

To help determine a national policy on alternative medicine -- how to prove what works and what doesn't and make sure doctors and patients act accordingly -- President Clinton appointed a commission that spent two years and $2 million debating the issue.

Last week, the commission sent its recommendations to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who will decide which if any to urge the administration follow. Thompson's office declined comment and has not yet released the report.

But the list of recommendations, obtained by The Associated Press, shows a wide range of advice, from more regulation for certain alternative therapies to campaigns designed to promote others.

"Our work is to see what's helpful for the people living in this country and do our best, where it's safe and effective, to make it available for them," said Dr. James Gordon, who chaired the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

But two commissioners who don't practice alternative medicine -- a minority on the panel -- said too many of the recommendations ultimately were boosterism not backed by science. This week, they took the unusual step of sending Thompson a dissent from some of the findings.

"Where we're talking about medical care, the common good means ideology and advocacy have to yield to science," said Dr. Joseph Fins, director of medical ethics at New York Presbyterian Hospital.

He says the report overstates Americans' desire for and use of unconventional medicine, such as by citing reports that count cancer patients who pray as alternative therapy users -- and perpetuates an unfounded belief that most of the remedies will be proven beneficial eventually.

Among the recommendations:

  • Medicare and other federal health programs should consider paying for safe and effective alternative therapies, and should perform demonstration projects to determine the best ones to fund.


Fins cautioned that many people have no access to proven medicine and that federal efforts to increase access to alternative care should not "foster a second tier of medical care for those who are economically disadvantaged."

  • HHS begin a national campaign to teach and promote nutrition, stress management and exercise to schoolchildren, including proven alternative medicine practices.


Asked for an example, Gordon advocated teaching breathing techniques and biofeedback to children with problems concentrating. Fins cautioned that "to impose ideological perspective to children would be problematic."

  • HHS should increase research of alternative therapies, and establish a national office to coordinate the research and access to therapies that work. Gordon said one crucial function is to provide consumers with information about what works and what doesn't, information now very hard to get.


But Fins says the panel did a disservice by lumping the unconventional together instead of prioritizing which therapies are most likely to work and thus should be studied first, he said.

  • Congress should require dietary supplement makers to register with the Food and Drug Administration, a step important in ensuring consumers learn about dangerous side effects. Supplements today are largely unregulated.
  • Congress should provide more funding to the Federal Trade Commission to better target false or misleading advertising of alternative remedies, and HHS should teach consumers how to evaluate claims found on the Internet and elsewhere.
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