Some Notes on Susan Folkman, Ph.D.

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
January 15, 2005

In February 2003, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) announced that it was assembling a committee to identify major scientific and policy issues in “complementary and alternative medicine” (“CAM”) research, regulation, training, credentialing and “integration with conventional medicine.” As part of this process, it posted the names of 15 appointees and asked for public comment about their suitability. Here are IOM’s biographical sketch of Dr. Folkman and the comments I submitted. Despite the fact that her center was promoting unscientific methods, she was retained on the proposed committee.

IOM Description (February 2003): Susan Folkman is internationally recognized for her theoretical and empirical contributions to the field of psychological stress and coping. Her work since 1988 has focused on stress and coping in the context of HIV disease and other chronic illness, especially on issues having to do with caregiving and bereavement. In addition, Dr. Folkman also serves as Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, and the Osher Foundation Distinguished Professor of Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research has been supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR). She currently serves on the NIH/NIMH National Advisory Mental Health Council and the NIH/Office of AIDS Research Advisory Council. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, has chaired or been a member of various NIH proposal review committees, served on Institute of Medicine and NIH workgroups, and was co-chair of the American Psychological Association task force on ethics in research with human participants.
My Comments (Posted on February 23, 2003)
  • The Osler Center’s Web site states: “Integrative Medicine embodies a new way of understanding health and illness: one that embraces the best of conventional and alternative medicine to care for people as whole beings, not just as diagnoses or diseases. Many patients feel that it is as important for medical students to learn about this new approach to healing as it is for them to understand the molecular basis for cancer or which drug to prescribe.” This statement is misleading because “caring for people as whole beings” is not a “new approach.” It has been a principle of good medical practice for more than a hundred years.
  • The site also states: “UCSF has been among the leaders in the field of alternative medicine education, offering major elective courses for ten years: an introductory course on complementary modalities, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, manual therapies and Ayurvedic medicine; a course on homeopathy; a class called ‘the Healer’s Art’; and a lecture series on the history of alternative medicine. UCSF seeks to build upon this foundation in the hope of transforming the current model of medical education in this country.” The key question in evaluating any “CAM” educational program is whether it promotes critical thinking of merely regurgitates the claims of “CAM” proponents.
  • An article in the June/July 2000 issue of San Francisco Medical Society magazine notes that two of of the center’s faculty members were sent for training in an “intensive two-year course in five-element acupuncture.” This form of acupuncture is based on nonsensical theories. The center’s clinical staff includes two practitioners of reiki, which is based on the notion that “healing energy” can flow from the practitioner’s hands to the patient’s body.
  • Public lectures sponsored by the center include: “Traditional Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture Meridians and CHI,” “Breath Therapy: How We Breathe Affects Health & Wellness,” “Biofeedback: Taking Control to Optimize Health and Healing,” “Energy Healing: Meridians, Shiatsu, and Reiki,” “Acupuncture: For More than Pain,” and Acupuncture: The Wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine.” Neither these talks nor the others in the series appear to criticize anything that might be considered “CAM.”
  • Taken together, the above findings suggest that the Osher Center is promoting unscientific “CAM” concepts rather than fostering critical thinking about them.

Overview of IOM “CAM” Committee

This article was revised on January 15, 2005.