The British Columbia Medical Association is criticizing Vancouver's Langara College for training the public in therapies that are "medically useless" and potentially harmful.
Dr. Lloyd Oppel, who monitors alternative health practices for the BCMA, says that he has watched for a decade as Langara's roster of holistic health courses has progressed from recreational classes to career training. The publicly accredited college offers more than 50 classes in things like iridology (divining health from iris reading) and bone breathing, as well as a three-year certificate program qualifying practitioners of integrative energy healing to work on the public.
"This is not a benign thing," Dr. Oppel says, noting that he often hears the "What's the harm?" argument for the so-called energy-healing treatments, such as therapeutic touch, which present no obvious hazards. He argues that if there is a serious medical problem, delaying effective treatment can lead to problems.
"The bottom line is, there is no convincing scientific evidence to support these therapies, and there's an overwhelming wealth of scientific evidence [against]" he says.
Dr. Oppel says such classes defeat the purpose of education.
"The reason we care about education is that by learning things that are tolerable reflections of reality, it helps us to be more functional - to make less mistakes. To deliberately teach material known to be contradicted by the best evidence seems inconsistent with that goal."
Doug Soo, dean of Langara's Continuing Studies, says he is used to hearing his holistic-health offerings criticized by the science and medical communities. He began developing the non-credit courses in 1997 because alternative health practitioners came to him requesting it. Most complementary therapies are taught through privately owned colleges, and Mr. Soo saw a way to give Langara a unique market niche.
He says that all courses are approved by Langara's board of governors and its education council, a committee comprised of faculty, staff and students who review the curriculum. Continuing education courses are run for-profit, unlike academic and career courses in the regular program, which are publicly subsidized.
Mr. Soo also disagrees with the medical community about what the research says. He points out that these practices have been studied by the U.S. government's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. But the Associated Press reported in June that after 10 years and $2.5-billion in research costs, the centre determined that almost none of the alternative therapies it studied had worked. The centre is still investigating some energy-healing practices.
Dale Beyerstein, who teaches the history of science and ethics at Langara and professional ethics at the University of British Columbia's medical school, echoes Dr. Oppel's views.
"There is not a single peer-reviewed controlled study backing up any of the treatments taught in that program, and it is an embarrassment to Langara," Mr. Beyerstein says.
Catherine Ralphs is a satisfied customer. The registered nurse and energy healer works at Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital, where she says some doctors invite her to "clear the energy field" of patients after surgery. Although she acknowledges some colleagues object to her practice, she believes energy healing brings an important spiritual quality to medicine.
Ms. Ralphs says Langara taught her that an energy field exists in and around the body in a radius of about two metres. Therapists work by resting their hands on the energy field, but they don't cure or repair anything. It's up to patients to do that work themselves.
"I can sense the vibrations and I do the best I can to meet their vibrational frequency. I am holding a place of healing for them to come into. It's like two tuning forks - you strike one and the other vibrates at the same frequency," she says.
Mr. Soo says the public wants alternative health courses. He says Mr. Beyerstein publicly debated the manager of the energy-healing program, but "as many people applauded for her as for him."
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