The Imprimatur of Integrative Medicine | The Body of Evidence

The Imprimatur of Integrative Medicine

Jonathan's avatar


One of the harms of integrative medicine is the acquisition of academic imprimatur. You may not think it matters much, but it can sway a decision-making body over financial matters.

Here's a recent example.

A person I know is involved with an organization whose goal is to facilitate transitions into a second career. They receive partial funding from the government and this money is allocated to a subset of applicants who wish to leave one career behind to study a different discipline.

Given the limited funding and the number of applicants, a committee needs to evaluate the submissions and only a fraction will receive funding.

I was told by my acquaintance that two of the current seven applications are from people who wish to pursue studies in alternative medicine: acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, etc. Knowing that these disciplines are generally not science based, he raised the philosophical question as to whether such applicants should or should not be funded. He asked me to send him a few peer-reviewed publications, as well as lay summaries concerning these disciplines, so he could pass them on to the committee to effectively "make them see the light."

One of the counterarguments he received came in the form of a Wikipedia entry on Helene Langevin. Dr. Langevin is the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Harvard; moreover, she got her medical degree from McGill University. She comes from our most prestigious university; she is currently at Harvard; and she studies acupuncture. Surely, the members of the committee counter-argue, if she's doing it, it must be science based.

The committee will also find champions of chiropractic. In fact, McGill University itself has a chiropractor on faculty. They will also find that homeopathy is being taught and practised in certain major health centres in the United States. And reflexology, and Reiki, and down, down the rabbit hole.

The word "imprimatur", Merriam-Webster tells me, means "let it be printed" in New Latin. It referred to the authorization a book received by an official body, such as the Roman Catholic Church, to be printed. It now more generally signifies "a mark of approval or distinction."

Alternative medicine has gained this imprimatur, though, I would argue, undeservedly. It navigated its Trojan horse with its outward displays of nutrition and exercise into the heart of academic medicine, and let out prescientific nonsense and magical thinking.

Convincing decision makers of its unscientific nature just became more difficult.