Forget those crystals

As an integrative medical practitioner, I keep my mind open to new modalities for evaluating illness and treating disease. My interest in and exploration of complementary or alternative medical therapies has led me to selectively incorporate into my practice some of what I’ve come across. For example, I embrace acupuncture for the diagnosis and treatment of certain disease states. Both traditional Chinese herbal medicine and Western herbs have also been quite helpful, producing successful outcomes for many of our patients.

But as one who subscribes to substantiated complementary medical practices while not turning my back on traditional allopathic medicine, I believe I have a license to be a critic.

Many self-proclaimed practitioners of “alternative medicine” prey on the gullible and ignorant. This fact hit home as never before when I attended and participated in a “Holistic Expo” in Atlanta a few weeks ago.

I was a guest speaker; my topic was the role of supernutrients in health and longevity. I also had a booth on the Expo floor to promote my dietary-supplement line and integrative practice in Savannah. But after viewing more than 160 vendor booths and reviewing the list of topics being presented, I was appalled.

To my amazement, the bulk of the “practitioners” present at this supposed health fair were charlatans, fakes and quacks. Even more astonishing was the number of visitors to the expo who were duped into believing that there was actually healing going on. Many of the vendors — whom I view as entertainers, but certainly not as healers — offered their services or wares for sale on the spot.

A typical “divine-psychic reading” could cost up to $35. A channeling session with crystals was $5 per minute. People were lining up for this!

I felt very uncomfortable and out of place amongst this group. To my immediate left were three “healers”: one who would sketch your spiritual drawing, plus a psychic and a tarot-card reader. Across from me was a vendor for a distance-learning “institution” that offered “degrees” in nutrition, herbology, spiritual healing and reiki. To my right was a “massage therapist/channeler/healer” who on several occasions had his victims on a table where he would rub them rather aggressively and wave rocks and crystals over their head and chest.

Yet another booth offered “spontaneous healing” in which practitioners pranced around their victim, chanting and waving their hands in an effort to expel the evil forces causing disease. They also repeatedly showed a videotape of a nonsurgical way of extracting tumors from the body, seemingly through the skin, to promote instantaneous healing.

Others, both at booths and in the lecture hall, purported to be able to deliver unbelievable advice “channeled” from celebrities on the other side. Many claimed to be divine psychics, and one booth offered “aromatherapy” for people and pets. One Native American fellow in traditional garb spoke of “meeting your totem animal”; others talked about “sonic angel music” and “turbo tantra.” One couple was selling “Chakra Life” — a set of crystal balls in a wooden box that could supposedly diagnose illness. Still others offered means of “accessing the Akashic Records.”

My astonishment at seeing such a large number of people interested in miraculous healing claims led me to some basic questions: Where did modern medicine go wrong that it encouraged people to accept or believe in such craziness? What have we done as physicians to push people to embrace such silly notions and odd alternative therapies? Why is the traditional physician despised by these people?

There is genuine dislike of allopathic medicine and its practitioners. The rhetoric one overhears at these booths is ridiculous but nonetheless embarrassing. Many complaints about medical doctors are based on misguided casual observations, anecdotal horror stories with a lot of “spin,” or reports from those with an ax to grind. Some complaints are legitimate, I must admit, but they are never bad enough to warrant the alternative.

Have we sold our souls to the pharmaceutical companies, as has been charged? Have we been overly caught up in the pressures placed upon us by the current system of managed care? Have we been embittered by our feelings about governmental and private insurance reimbursements and medical-malpractice litigation? Whatever the answers, I still have faith in our ability to turn this trend around, salvage our reputations, and dissuade those seeking health from wasting their time and energy on quacks and charlatans.

As Libertarian editor Charles T. Sprading once said, “Knowledge consists in understanding the evidence that establishes the fact, not in the belief that it is a fact.” And if we ignore our patients, we will only intensify this movement away from what we know to be effective medical care toward the circus of harmful “caregivers.”

This is a call to those who are seeking healing and wellness. Don’t give up on the medical establishment just yet. Despite the negative press, we still offer the best health/patient care around, with a proven track record. And despite widely disseminated misinformation, many of us do subscribe to and uphold our Hippocratic Oath. A few of us are even open-minded enough to realize that our allopathic education doesn’t give us all the answers. We continuously seek new and better ways to take care of our patients. And the consequences of not giving us another chance could be devastating.

[Integrative physician J.P. Saleeby, M.D., is the medical director of Saleeby Longevity Institute in Savannah, Ga. He also co-directs the emergency department at Liberty Regional Medical Center in Hinesville, Ga. He can be reached for comment at jpsaleeby@aol.com, or (912) 201-9464.]

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