LOS ANGELES — When billionaires Susan and Henry Samueli this week announced a $200 million donation to the University of California, Irvine to launch a new health program dedicated to integrative medicine, they drew a standing ovation and glowing coverage.
But for those who have been watching the steady creep of unproven therapies into mainstream medicine, the announcement didn’t go over quite as well.
“This is ultimately a very bad thing,” said Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University and longtime critic of alternative therapies. “It’s putting emphasis and the imprimatur of a university on things that have been discarded as medical fraud for 50 years.”
University of Alberta health law professor Tim Caulfield, who has made his name debunking celebrity health fads, has raised red flags about the adoption of alternative therapies — from “energy healing” to homeopathic bee venom to intravenous mineral infusions — at top medical centers including Duke, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Francisco. The new school at UC Irvine “is more of the same, and I find it very frustrating,” he said. “I worry this legitimizes practices that aren’t valid.”
But two physicians at UC Irvine who will lead the new initiative — both with solid pedigrees in traditional medicine and years of experience conducting research funded by the National Institutes of Health — pushed back against those depictions.
They argue that medical schools are too slow to adopt new approaches, including alternative therapies that show clinical promise — and that UCI can do so in a way that is solidly grounded in science.
“We take patient safety as our highest calling and we will never deploy any approach — integrative or not — that put patients at risk,” said Dr. Howard Federoff, a board-certified internist and Ph.D who serves as CEO of UC Irvine’s health system and runs a lab working to develop a blood test for Alzheimer’s disease. “Any non-proven or non-evidence based approach? We will not deploy it.”