New England Journal of Medicine 1998 (Sep 17); 339 (12): 839-841
Response by Dr. Andrew Weil, Nutritionist
I was disappointed to see the New England Journal of Medicine disparage alternative medicine and its advocates. The recent editorial reflected a fear that I believe many in the medical establishment feel about trends in medicine today. Patients are tired of supporting the capital-intensive medical system when the results are often disappointing. Patients are also asking questions that doctors are simply not trained to answer.
The Journal's assertion that advocates of alternative medicine don't want their methods to be researched is absurd. We do. Just give us the funds, facilities and personnel to do the job! With regard to botanical medicine in particular, a lot of data already exists to support therapeutic safety and efficacy, but most doctors in the U.S. don't know about it. Our colleagues in Japan, Germany, France and Russia, for example, have left the Amercian medical establishment in the dust when it comes to research in this area. A first step would be to collect the existing information and make it more widely known.
The fact is that millions of consumers in America have turned to natural supplements and alternative therapies, yet in the absence of trustworthy information, people are left to get information from any source they can. In some cases this information is good, but often it's not. What we need now are physicians and pharmacists trained in these modalities who are able to help their patients rather than further estrange them. That's just what I'm working on in the integrative medicine program at the University of Arizona.
But I also must agree that the dietary supplement industry need regulation. Whether that regulation comes from an independent unit of the FDA that is free from the influence of the pharmaceutical lobby or from a nongovernmental organization such as the American Botanical Council that can operate as an industry watchdog, the point is there are currently too many products on the market of questionable quality and too many for which misleading and unsupported claims are being made.
For herbal medicine to gain the legitimacy it deserves, manufacturers must produce standardized products containing exactly what labels say they contain and make no more claims than the evidence supports. So far the industry has not shown that it is capable of policing itself. Ultimately no one would be better served by intelligent regulation than the supplement industry itself.