Touch – Ouch. here they are again.

I had planned to post contents of a letter written a decade ago to a Washington Post reporter on why med schools would entertain associating with quacky methods and their advocates. But an article in the SF Chronicle intruded on May 25 on a research project at Stanford on “Healing Touch” (HT). The project is to test if HT affects symptoms of cancer and chemo- and radiotherapy. HT at Stanford?

I had sat down to write a letter to the editor when a call came through Center for Inquiry, where the reporter had called asking for someone to give her information on HT at Stanford. She called within a minute, apologetic for not having included critical comments from others. She had received emails already from irate scientists who told her about 11 year old Emily Rosa’s experiment published in the AMA Journal showing non-existence of human energy fields, which the HT practitioners claimed to be manipulating. And wasn’t HT different from Therapeutic Touch – (TT?) From the reporter’s description, I saw little difference except these HT people seemed to make more of fixing subjects’ chakras.

I was surprised by the article, in that I had not known about the study. But there were a few new wrinkles. I presumed the study was under the “complementary” medicine clinic run by David Spiegel of group therapy for cancer fame. I had thought that the clinic just allowed group therapy, acupuncture, meditation, and a few other more modestly offensive methods. As I read on I found the HT study is under a special program called Healing Partners, a group of like-minded women and cancer patients (<>.) The study is supervised under the department of Women’s Health, associated with the ObGyn Department. I’m still unclear on the administrative arrangement, but med school departments are run almost autonomously, with perhaps cooperation with others, but with little to no review from others or deans. That takes care of objections from outsiders.

Second, I was reading a reporter’s report, depending on her take as to what was given to her by proponents and the indoctrinated. As per most articles, this one was mainly descriptions given in testimonial style by the satisfied and convinced. One of them stated that her wound healed under HT – implying that the HT did it (I’m thinking, she should have been on the OJ jury…) Here’s the quote: “It opened my mind to the fact there are some things in this world we can’t explain, and that doesn’t make them any less real. ” said CP, a trained geologist….[Analyze that sentence for logic]…” As a scientist I didn’t have a real spiritual background, …I found it really powerful.” [I stumbled – real spiritual?” But who’s talkin’ logic and reality here?] Did the report reflect the real quality of the study?

I think so. The report was frank and open about some aspects, like the beliefs of the practitioners as well. I wondered how the study got so far, how it had passed an IRB inspection and so forth, but as if to answer that, they told the reporter about their international organization, Healing Touch International, Inc.

HT Int., Inc. lists some 85 or more certified instructors, and the list of official and unofficial practitioners must be a multiple of that. And there are five stages of expertise and advancement. Most are RNs. I did not see the Stanford people on the list of instructors. One can safely assume that through the organization a template for research protocols could be developed, and a plan of action as well.

But more important was what I found on searching for federally sponsored research – projects initiated through or listed at the NIH. There are 11 separate HT protocols in US medical schools, 9 testing HT results in cancer patients. None of the studies has as end points, tumor recurrence, survival, tumor growth, etc., but all have end points of symptom control and quality of life. Those make it easier to pass IRB scrutiny. Most of the studies are NIH/NCCAM sponsored.

The surprisingly large numbers of trainers and research protocols, the faithfulness of the Stanford practitioners’ description to those of others’ projects and to the material on the international organization’s web site, suggested an organized push for acceptance of HT by the establishment through medical school research. Despite being denied a place in the curriculum at the place of origin, U. of Colorado School of Nursing, the HT/TT community has found an opening in gullible and academically correct medical schools. I have no question that HT/TT will be found “positive” in a number of projects. The blinding procedures probably leave lots of holes for subject detection of practitioner activity. But positive reports are common in studies of things that don’t work, anyway. Positive biases outnumber negative ones, and even in well controlled studies, results form a normal distribution array around the zero effect point. Some systematic reviews or meta-analyses (MAs) will record positive results. Relationships among HT practitioners, patients, and some physicians will result in formal programs at the schools. Satisfied patients may even fund special sections for continuation of HT.

The reporter told me she felt bad about not having looked more deeply into the matter, called for other opinions, or presented the other side. She intended to write another article as a sort of second part, presenting the history and material we gave her. But that was not to last. She called back later that day to say that the editors disapproved a second other-side article, and suggested revisiting the study after completion. That would be 3 or more years hence. I told her that at my age I might not be around (but of course I’ll leave a forwarding phone number ..)

Well, I don’t know the editors’ names, but from prior experience with that newspaper, there does not seem to be a thirst for truth or reality there. It’s more a matter of pandering to a readership known to be – um, more interested in the possible and exciting rather than probable? What does one call the praising of cult leader Jim Jones? The praising of the NIH acupuncture conference report, and rejecting an article revealing its errors? Stuff like that.

So the SF Chron’s readership is left with an accurate report but based in biased information from cult-like advocates of a cult-like organization with probable ulterior anti-scientific motives – to change the character of medicine from science based to feeling-based. And a reporter is left with knowledge that she did an inadequate job after being taken in by HTers’ masks of goodness; knowing what a good report should have looked like. Awaiting assignments from editors who should know better, to a reporter who does know better.

And we are left with the effects of an anti-scientific cult, members of which have learned how assume the mask of goodness and innocence, but with a salient sharpened to penetrate the thin veneer of science that medical schools think is protecting them. That veneer’s faults are guarded by sleeping sentries and are willingly opened by gullible recent graduates and trainees coming out of other “Integrative” programs financed by last week’s power idealists. Medical academics: Beware. Presidential candidates and politicians: Take notes from these people.




  • Retired hematologist/oncologist, presumptive analyzer of ideological and fraudulent medical claims, claimant to being founding editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and to detecting quackery by smell. Editor's note: To the world's great loss, Dr. Sampson died in 2015 at the age of 85. He will be greatly missed.

Posted by Wallace Sampson

Retired hematologist/oncologist, presumptive analyzer of ideological and fraudulent medical claims, claimant to being founding editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, and to detecting quackery by smell. Editor's note: To the world's great loss, Dr. Sampson died in 2015 at the age of 85. He will be greatly missed.