Terminology is important. From the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH) site: “…people often use “alternative” and “complementary” interchangeably, but the two terms refer to different concepts: If a non-mainstream practice is used together with conventional medicine, it’s considered “complementary.” If a non-mainstream practice is used in place of conventional medicine, it’s considered “alternative.” True alternative medicine is uncommon. Most people who use non-mainstream approaches use them along with conventional treatments.”

Alternative medicine becomes a lucrative business for U.S. top hospitals

Chinese herbal therapies, acupuncture, homeopathy and reiki are just a few of the offerings that some prestigious medical centers now provide, despite the fact that in many cases there is no evidence the therapies work.

The rise of alternative medicine has created friction within some of these hospitals as many physicians believe it undermines the credibility of the organizations, according to an in-depth investigation of 15 academic research centers by STAT.

The issue came to the forefront earlier this year when the Cleveland Clinic decided to rethink its alternative medicine offerings and how they align with evidence-based practices after the director of the organization’s wellness program went on an anti-vaccine rant in a blog post that sparked an immediate backlash.

The clinic said the wellness center would stop selling some of the products, like homeopathy kits, on its website and focus instead on items that improve diet and lifestyle.

But the STAT investigation noted that the Cleveland Clinic is just one of many that has a hand in the $37-billion-a-year business. Other organizations include Duke University, Johns Hopkins, Yale and the University of California, San Francisco. Some hospitals open spa-like wellness centers, while others, like Duke, refer to them as integrative medicine centers.

Several of the hospitals highlighted in the STAT report declined to talk to the publication about why they have embraced unproven therapies, but critics were quick to point out that patients are being “snookered” and physicians who promote these therapies forfeit claims that they belong to a science-based profession.

“We’ve become witch doctors,” Steven Novella, M.D., a professor of neurology at the Yale School of Medicine and a longtime critic of alternative medicine, told STAT.

Others, however, say that alternative therapies have helped patients and modern medicine doesn’t offer a cure for everyone. Linda Lee, M.D., who runs the Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center, said the therapies offered are meant to complement, not supplement, conventional treatment.

But Novella worries that when these unconventional treatments are offered by prestigious institutions, patients will think they are legitimate. The problem only worsens when patients find the treatments being sold online by the institution. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, for instance, sells homeopathic bee venom to relieve symptoms of arthritis.

Daniel Monti, M.D., who directs the integrative health center at the organization, admits the evidence behind some of these treatments is largely anecdotal but said the hospital only offers the treatment when there are few other options.