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The Islington Tribune (11 May 2007) revealed that spiritual healers are being paid by the NHS. The National Secular Society commented

“Spiritual healers” using up scarce NHS resources

The University College London Hospital is to spend £80,000 on testing whether “spiritual healers” can have an effect on cancer.

” ‘Healers’ who wave their hands over the patient and claim to transmit some kind of undefined ‘energy’ “ want to find out whether their efforts increase the number of white blood cells in cancer sufferers.

Astonishingly, UCLH has a dedicated team of 10 “healers”, who cost the hospital around £80,000 a year to maintain. They are the idea of department manager Angela Buxton who first became interested in ‘spiritual healing’ after the death of her seven-year-old son from leukaemia. She told the local paper: “Science has not caught up with how it works. Anecdotal evidence shows it works but we need hard evidence.”

A defence of this procedure was offered in an email from Martin Lerner (Divisional Manager, Cancer Services)’ He cites cancertherapies.org.uk as saying.

“Today we are also entering the era where appropriate scientific studies of complementary therapy will begin to show specific improvements in outcome for some patients.”

Hang on. Aren’t you meant to get the scientific studies before you start treating patients?

Lerner goes on to say

“UCLH does employ the staff and provide some of the budget (about £90,000 this year) towards the cost of this service, with a similar amount raised through charitable fundraising. By making these complementary therapy services an integral part of the clinical service, we show that we take responsibility for the whole of the patient’s wellbeing, . . .”

Spiritual healing clearly comes under the heading of  “dishonest placebo effects”. Nobody is disputing the value to some patients of palliative treatments. The placebo effect can be quite powerful. But is seems the proponents of laying-on-of hands have not considered adequately the lying dilemma

The laying-on-of hands also gives rise to the training dilemma. What does it mean to be “trained”, In something that is essentially mumbo-jumbo?. Well this poses no problem for the box-ticking mentality of the corporate administrator, Just tick the box. Here is the application form. It seems that if you can produce a piece of paper saying you are well-qualified in mumbo-jumbo, then everything is fine.

There is more on the box-ticker mentality elsewhere. It is only too typical of the “efficient administration” that results from corporatisation of the health service, and universities, and the removal of power from those who know what they are talking about.

What is the evidence about ‘spiritual healing’ ?

Very little it seems. There is an interesting paper with the title “Psychotherapy and Survival in Cancer: The Conflict Between Hope and Evidence”, by Coyne, Stefanek & Palmer (2007) [download the paper]. They conclude that, despite the popular belief to the contrary, there is little reason to believe that psychotherapy can prolong life in cancer patients. Insofar as complementary treatments are placebos, they count as a form of psychotherapy.

No doubt, mumbo-jumbo can make some people feel better, and to that extent it is justified. But it can and should done be honestly (for example, foot massage is fine, ‘reflexology’ isn’t). Lies to patients should be minimised and universities should not be tempted to hand out certificates in mumbo jumbo.


Here is another interesting article on this topic . Attitude doesn’t affect cancer survival. That is based on Optimism and Survival in Lung Carcinoma Patients [download pdf]..

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14 Responses to Laying on of hands: just tick the box

  • loz03041985 says:

    I feel you have created a bit of a chicken and the egg style observation in your comment “Hang on. Aren’t you meant to get the scientific studies before you start treating patients?” Unless you didnt read the article you actually quote from you should have noticed that it said they are spending the money on TESTING its effectiveness. So unless i’m mistaken that makes it a study doesn’t it. They are not enough studies in this field to draw a conclusion and therefore the university has recognised this and commisioned a study. Patients will not have this forced onto them, full consent will be gained and all patients fully informed of what will happen, so where is the lie’s you claim willbe inflicted? As far as your “mumbo jumbo” observation goes about there training then that seems somewhat ignorant. You havent looked into what training they do and it clearly states they need a nationally recognised qualification not just a “piece of paper”. As a therapy radiographer I deal with cancer patients every day and better emotional and spiritual support is a well recognised need in their care. If a patient says they feel better from reiki healing then who are we to argue? This is not about healing them medically, you need to make this clear! Reiki relieves pain and relaxes the body and mind. Cancer is a traumatic experience and anything that makes it more berable for the individual is a good idea. Let us not forget that it is the patients who matter and it is they who are crying out for more support and access to complementary therapies. In my experience most cancer patients will have looked at some kind of complementary therapy. Who are we to not provide what the patient asks for? Surely that is our purpose in the NHS.

  • Sorry, but a “a nationally recognised qualification” in a subject that is nonsense is just an oxymoron. That is the whole problem.

    May I suggest that you take a look at the “Dilemmas of CAM” which deals with many of the points that you raise, at http://dcscience.net/?page_id=10

  • loz03041985 says:

    How exactly can you say that something is nonsense without reading into it? The article does not say anything about reiki so I have no idea why you thought it would be of any interest to me. I read research papers to draw conclusions, not someone’s rant and rave. Also you actually admitted in both articles was what i said was true, if the patients want it let them have it. I see you have made no comment about the fact that you clearly slated the hospital for having no evidence when they clearly said it WAS a study. Patients ask for the treatments, they believe in them and it is not for us to judge them. Like I said they do actually have a qualification and two years practice before they are deemed to be suitable for the post. Even if you think the idea of this qualification is ridiculous then fair enough but that is the reiki trade standard qualification so that is what they are expected to have. Maybe the study will prove that it is entirely unjustified and uneccesary, but they need reiki practitioners for the study and that is what they have asked for.

  • Well if I thought they were going to do a serious study, it might be a bit different. I’ll bet a substantial amount that they wiil not.

    It is one of the more interesting characteristics of alternative medicine that its advocates will not do studies that are properly designed, even when given money: for example, see http://www.dcscience.net/improbable.html#fact-03

    It is as though, deep down, they really realise that the tests would fail (and their income diminished)

  • loz03041985 says:

    Firstly you need to be clear what the difference is between Alternative medicine and Complementary therapy, the clue is in the name! Reiki is classed as a complementary therapy, meaning in goes alongside conventional medicine to help the patient and their well being. An alternative medicine is an alternative to conventional medicine, reiki does not claim to be this. UCLH are running a serious study to investigate if their patients benefit from reiki healing, it is one thing to critique research studies but quite another to make a swift judgement based on a clipping and an email. You cant tar everyone with the same brush, just because some bad studies have been done does not mean all are unreliable. Its not as if pharmaceutical research has never been done badly is?

  • We’ll see how good the research is when, and if, it is done.

    I’m quite clear though, about Complementary vs Alternative. “Complementary” is the word favoured by alternative people because they hope it will give them an air of (spurious) respectability.

    All I ask is to see the evidence. It is really very simple.

  • loz03041985 says:

    You ask to see evidence but then you criticise the idea of research being undertaken?

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  • […] for spiritual healers, but that is the NHS not a university. The job specification form for spiritual healers was, it’s true, a pretty good example of the HR box-ticking mentality. You are in as long as […]

  • Another interesting account of how having a positive attitude doesn’t make you live longer –see postscript.

  • […] certificate. or a full Reiki Master qualification, and two years post certificate experience” (I quote). That is one reason why you can find in UK universities, undergraduates being taught at […]

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  • […] manifestation of the endarkenment thought. If you tick a box to say that you are fully-qualifed at laying-on-of-hands, that is good enough. You have done the course, and it is irrelevant whether the course teaches […]

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