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Analysis of the Reports of the White House Commission on
Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy (WHCCAMP)

Response to a Letter in the Washington Post by
WHCCAMP Chair James S. Gordon, MD

Stephen Barrett, MD


WHCCAMP Chair James S. Gordon, MD, is is upset that his 2-year pet project is under attack. On March 26, 2002, the Washington Post printed a letter in which he defended his irresponsible behavior. My comments are interspersed in bracketed red type.


CAM Panel's Chair Responds
Washington Post, March 26, 2002.

The article "Alternative Health Panel Under Attack" [March 19] suggests I was "dismayed" by "critics" of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy, which I had the honor to chair. The quoted "critics," including Stephen Barrett, were repeatedly and cordially invited to present their views to the commission -- and almost all, including Barrett, declined to participate in a collegial scientific inquiry. [Dr. Gordon is correct that I was invited to present my views to the Commission. He is correct that I did not personally testify. However, there is more to the story. From the moment it was appointed, it was obvious that the Commission was a stacked deck. Nearly all of its members are philosophically aligned and economically involved with the so-called "CAM" movement. No outspoken critic was among them. Although a few of us were invited to testify (at our own expense, and for about 3 minutes), we did not believe our testimony would influence the final report. Note also that inviting critics to testify is a variation of the "heads I win, tails you lose" ploy. The more mainsteam representatives who would testify, the more Gordon could pretend the Commission was "fair-minded." And the more who refused, the more he could claim that his critics were uncooperative and not "collegial." The hearing process was not a scientific inquiry. It was a circus.

If Gordon and company really wanted to take us seriously, our viewpoint would have been represented on the Commission. Nevertheless, on May 15, 2001, National Council Against Health Fraud president William London, EdD, MPH, testified in my place and said essentially the same things that I would have said. Dr. London recommended four things:

  1. The education and training of health care practitioners must address principles of consumer protection and science. Health care practitioners must learn to recognize quackery/health fraud associated with "complementary" and "alternative" medicine.
  2. WHCCAMP should promote opportunities for research to increase knowledge about quackery/health fraud as a public-health problem associated with the "complementary" and "alternative" medicine marketplace.
  3. WHCCAMP should declare that it is misleading to use the terms "complementary" and "alternative" to refer to questionable, unproven, and disproved methods. Reliable and useful information must be grounded in principles of consumer protection and science.
  4. WHCCAMP should recommend that appropriate access and delivery of healthcare be based on principles of consumer protection and science.

None of these recommendations were reflected WHCCAMP's preliminary report of November 15, 2001 or its final report issued this week. In fact, they were deliberately avoided.]

What did indeed dismay me was The Washington Post's uncritical acceptance of these people's accusations against a commission that worked very hard for 20 months to fulfill a presidential and bipartisan congressional mandate: to make legislative and administrative recommendations to help ensure that the American people have access to the potential benefits of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and are protected from its limitations and hazards. [We don't doubt that the Commission worked hard. But its final report does not identify a single hazard from which the public needs protection.]

The "dissent" on the commission referred to in the article was not, in fact, a dissent. Two commissioners (out of a diverse group of 20) issued a "statement" which has been incorporated in the report. The points of view expressed in the statement were repeatedly heard in meetings (transcripts are at http://whccamp.hhs.gov) and, I believe, were well represented in a number of sections of the report. [Gordon's description is a flat lie.] These two commissioners also assented, in public sessions, to all of the commission's recommendations, as the transcripts show. [The extent to which they did or did not assent "in public" has no relevance. Their statement reflects the fact that they were appalled at what took place. Its contents include most of the points made in Dr. London's testimony.]

Further, in addition to many experts in CAM, a variety of mainstream American medical organizations -- from the American Medical Association and the Federation of State Medical Boards, to the Food and Drug Administration, the Health Care Financing Administration and the National Institutes of Health -- testified in a thoughtful and constructive way, and contributed substantially to the final report. The report reflects their and others' emphasis on the need to scientifically investigate complementary and alternative therapies to find out if they are safe and effective and cost-effective; the necessity for the federal government to provide easily accessible, authoritative information about these approaches to the American people; and the need for collaboration among conventional and CAM researchers, clinicians and organizations. [It is not at all clear that these organizations (a) understood that the deck was stacked, (b) had any genuine impact on the Commission's final report, or (c) would agree with the overall thrust of WHCCAMP's recommendations. For example, on May 16 2001, an editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association testified:

Complementary and alternative medicine therapies that are shown to cause harm, or that are demonstrated to have no beneficial effect should be abandoned. Decisions regarding the use of and reimbursement for CAM therapies should be based on published evidence and proper cost effectiveness analyses, rather than tradition, anecdotal reports, testimonials, consumer interest, market demand, competition, or political pressures.

The final WHCCAMP report does not say a single word about identifying or abandoning therapies that don't work.]

I would also like to correct a misrepresentation attributed to Barrett in the article. The article states that I may have "collaborated" with a religious cult leader whose followers poisoned 750 people. I did not collaborate with anyone in the poisoning of any human being. I have, for 35 years, been a practicing physician working to understand and be helpful to others and upholding my professional oaths. I am dismayed that The Post would print such an unsubstantiated and irresponsible charge. [I did not accuse Gordon of collaborating in poisoning people. The Washington Post article to which Gordon refers stated the following:

In September, a dozen academic psychologists called for the commission to be dissolved and charged that its chairman, Washington psychiatrist James Gordon, "has been a longstanding and highly partial advocate for untested and unsubstantiated medical practices. . . .

The psychologists who went public in September focused much of their criticism on Gordon, a psychiatrist who directs the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in the District. In a letter to Surgeon General David Satcher, they claimed that Gordon has supported therapists who take seriously the claims of patients who believe they were abducted by aliens and collaborated long ago with the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a cult leader who was deported from the United States in 1985 after followers tainted salad bars in Oregon with salmonella, sickening more than 750 people.

These paragraphs refer to an open letter to the Surgeon General written by academic psychologists and other consumer advocates who urged the U.S. Surgeon General to disband the commission. I was not among them. The letter did not state that Gordon collaborated in the attempted poisoning. In fact, it did not even mention the poisoning. It merely stated:

For many years, Dr. Gordon was closely associated with (and apparently became a devotee of) the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who endorsed such practices as Dynamic Meditation (which involved intense dancing during altered states of consciousness), primal scream therapy, and rebirthing therapy. Dr. Gordon's book, "The Golden Guru" contains many highly complimentary passages concerning the Bhagwan Rajneesh and his therapeutic methods. As you may know, Rajneesh took over the town of Antelope, Oregon, and bused in and exploited a number of homeless individuals in order to do so (he was finally deported for immigration fraud).

The phrase about the poisoning was added by the Washington Post's writer in order to indicate that Rajneesh was a rogue. The reporter's description of what happened was accurate. It did not say that Gordon collaborated with the poisoning. It said that he collaborated with the Rajneesh -- which he did. It would have been better for the sentence to have been broken into two parts so that it could not be misinterpreted. However, that does not excuse Gordon from falsely attributing the accusation to me.]

I am also dismayed that the reporter does not appear to have read articles I suggested to her, which I have written for many publications, including The Washington Post, that address my studies of cults. I have researched and written about a number of dangerous, and benign, cults and new religions, spiritual groups and therapeutic practices, as well as my own medical and psychotherapeutic work with children and adults in the United States and Kosovo. Congress initially requested many of these studies, which I began in the 1970s when I was a research psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Finally, at a time when the incidence of chronic illness among Americans is rising, and health care costs are predicted to double in the next 10 years, it is vital that all of us work together to find better ways to enhance the American people's health and treat our illnesses. The White House commission's work was to explore ways that CAM therapies, properly evaluated and thoughtfully integrated into our health care system, could help accomplish this goal. [This falsely implies -- as does the report -- that there are a large number of "CAM" methods that are valuable.] I invite The Washington Post and other major publications to carefully and respectfully report on and assess the road map for enhancing our health care created by the commission report. [Our paragraph-by-paragraph analysis is posted at NCAHF.org.]

James S. Gordon, M.D.
Chair, White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy
Washington
 

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This page was posted on March 27, 2002.