Dr. Gorski is in the throes of grant-writing, so I’m filling in for him today by following up on a topic introduced a few months ago. It involves a key medical player in the U.S. government: Dr. Josephine Briggs, Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).


Steve Novella and I first encountered Dr. Briggs at the 2nd Yale Research Symposium on Complementary and Integrative Medicine in March, 2010. I reported here that she seemed well-meaning and pro-science but that she also seemed naive to the political realities of her office and to much of the content of “CAM” (as illustrated by her recommending the NCCAM website, which is full of misinformation; previously I’d noticed her unfortunate innocence of “acupuncture anesthesia,” which is to be expected of most academics but not of the CAM Explicator-in-Chief).

Shortly thereafter, Drs. Novella, Gorski, and I visited Dr. Briggs at the NCCAM, after (to our surprise) she had requested our presence. Dr. Novella reported on that visit here, noting that Dr. Briggs’s call for science to be neutral “could easily fall into the trap of false balance (balancing legitimate scientific evidence and analysis with pseudoscientific promotion).” She also refused to discuss the rotten-to-the-core Trial To Assess Chelation Therapy (TACT), instead passing the buck to the NHLBI, which also apparently will not discuss it. I wonder why?

Nevertheless, there were suggestions at that meeting that Dr. Briggs might use her position to do some good. We explained several examples of misinformation in the NCCAM newsletter that we’d found in the waiting room; she seemed to agree with at least some of our points. She portrayed an appropriate skepticism about homeopathy. She agreed that “CAM” advocates are especially likely to be opposed to vaccinations, and that the NCCAM ought to address this on its website. She insisted, when asked (again), that the NCCAM now looks favorably upon proposals for legitimate natural products research—which, if true, marks a distinct shift from its previous bias toward zealous herbalism.

Report Card

So how’s Dr. Briggs been doing since then? Mostly not so well. Almost immediately after Steve’s report hit the screen, we discovered that a few weeks before our meeting she’d met with an “international team of homeopaths” who left the building feeling quite satisfied that they had made a favorable impression on Briggs and her colleagues. Her own account of both meetings revealed exactly the “false balance” that Dr. Novella had warned about.

A few months later Dr. Briggs made the regrettable decision to lend her imprimatur, along with those of the NIH and the federal government, to the formal celebration of quackery titled the “25th Anniversary Convention of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians” (AANP). In an Open Letter posted on SBM I attempted to explain why this was a bad idea. Dr. Gorski also expressed his dismay. So did Dr. Benway.

Dr. Briggs seems to have noticed our displeasure. Here is one of the slides from her talk to the AANP, obtained by an interested SBM reader via the Freedom of Information Act; compare it to my Open Letter linked above:

I wasn’t there, but I imagine that Dr. Briggs and the audience had a good chuckle over our assertions, particularly the last one. Well, a few months later Dr. Briggs nominated Jane Guiltinan, ND, Past-President of the AANP and Dean of Naturopathic Medicine for Bastyr University, to be the newest member of the National Advisory Council for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NACCAM). Here is the nominee’s Philosophy:

Dr. Guiltinan emphasizes the concepts of treating the cause of a problem, supporting the body’s own healing process and encouraging patients to create their own wellness even in the face of serious illness. Dr. Guiltinan uses nutrition, plant medicine and homeopathy in her practice and believes that air, water, food, touch, love and laughter are some of the most powerful healing agents.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but with that repertoire of ‘healing agents,’ her patients will have no choice but to attempt to create their own wellness in the face of serious illness. Dr. Briggs, of course, has no choice but to nominate representatives of pseudomedicine to the NACCAM, because such is required by (Sen. Tom Harkin’s) law. Jane Guiltinan, all things considered, is probably about as benign a nominee as one could hope to find among the universe of magical thinkers from which Dr. Briggs must make her selections. Then again, Dr. Briggs needn’t choose to remain Director of a bogus NIH Center.

In November, for Vaccine Awareness Week, I decided to find out whether Dr. Briggs had yet posted any useful discussions of immunizations and antivax fanaticism. I could find none, but I found plenty of the usual misinformation.

Since then, however, Dr. Briggs has finally posted such an article. She begins by dangling some questionable and irrelevant bait:

People turn to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) seeking better health. Several studies have found an association between use of CAM and positive health behaviors such as getting regular exercise, not using tobacco products, and following a healthy diet. CAM use also has been associated with higher rates of vaccination for influenza, pneumococcus, and hepatitis B among adults.

Then she squints and tiptoes onto the battlefield:

Unfortunately, however, this may not be the case for vaccinations in children.

No! Really?

A recently reported NCCAM-funded study in the Maternal and Child Health Journal showed that children in Washington State who received care from CAM providers were substantially less likely to get recommended immunizations and were more likely to be diagnosed with a vaccine-preventable disease.

What?? Why didn’t anyone tell us this before? Don’t worry, though, it ain’t necessarily the poor “CAM providers”—our stakeholders, doncha know—who are at fault here:

The investigators note that their findings do not provide an explanation for the association.

All right, it’s time to stop being so flippant, even though anyone with a passing knowledge of sCAMmery knows that it’s both the sCAM artists and their willing marks who collaborate in science-based medicine denial, that there have been countless articles for a couple of decades demonstrating the culpability of the “providers” themselves, and that most of those articles were written without the benefit of NCCAM funding. Here, for example. Hmmm…Washington state: home of the largest population of NDs in the country, and of Bastyr U. (ahem)

But enough. Other than the objections just made, Dr. Briggs’s statement on childhood vaccinations is a pretty good one, and it links to an even better entry, also new in April, 2011, titled NCCAM Clinical Digest: Childhood Vaccinations/Immunizations.

Goodonya, Josie, but I still think you oughtta tell Tom Harkin to take that job and shove it. It doesn’t become you.



Posted by Kimball Atwood