The Laidlers’ story is a microcosm of the changing debate over so-called alternative medicine and its cousin, integrative medicine. In 2007, Americans spent $2.9 billion on homeopathic medicine, a treatment based on the belief that minuscule amounts of what causes symptoms in a healthy person will alleviate symptoms in someone who is ill. From nutritional supplements to energy healing to acupuncture, treatments outside the medical mainstream are big business. But the vast majority of scientists find much of alternative medicine highly problematic.
The supposed mechanisms of energy healing, homeopathy, and acupuncture are unscientific and violate basic laws of physics and chemistry. Other alternative treatments, including many nutritional supplements, are unproven, unregulated, and occasionally dangerous. This month, the fight came to a very public head when a group of doctors sent an open letter to Columbia University, demanding the school remove Dr. Mehmet Oz, who has used his syndicated TV show to promote integrative medicine, including nutritional regimens, homeopathy, and reiki—a form of energy healing that claims to use “universal life force energy” to “detoxify the body” and “increase the vibrational frequency on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels.” But at the same time, integrative medicine has pushed such techniques into the mainstream.