Dr. Rosenfeld's Guide to Alternative Medicine

by Isadore Rosenfeld, M.D. Random House 1996

Reviewed by Paul Lowinger, M. D.


Memorial Day brought a San Francisco Chronicle with the news that Ram Das had a massive stroke with the paralysis of his right side and the loss of most of his speech. The New Age author of Be Here Now aka Richard Alpert, was convalescing at his Marin home. He was learning about silence according to the interviewer but I speculated about the use of Alternative Medicine for this gentle and creative man, now 66 who welcomed the counterculture. Was there a cure or hope in unconventional therapy?

As I read Dr. Rosenfeld's book, I learned new things about healing because the information is balanced and readable. The author's unique contribution is a good humored appraisal of alternative therapies by a medical doctor for the general reader. Each unconventional treatment is compared to its orthodox counterpart with the author's bottom line recommendation. There are appropriate warnings and a minimum of jargon. We are all patients so the author's references to his own practice or even what he does for himself and his family offer are helpful.

Praise yes, but I offer some caveats and criticisms too. The book is a guide but it is not really "What Works, What Doesn't -- And What's Right For You," the words of the alluring subtitle.

The tips about treatment are welcome but sometimes are incomplete. We're told that an herb, saw palmetto is good for an enlarged prostate and a conventional medicine, Proscar is also mentioned but the other Western medicine for this condition, Hytrin is ignored.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I learned in China is a combination of 90% herbs and only 10% acupuncture which is rather different then Dr. Rosenfeld's chapter on the insertion of acupuncture needles and their use in anesthesia for surgery. Of course, herbs from North America and Asia are covered in a separate chapter but this is confusing to the reader.

Dr. Rosenfeld understands the methods he uses personally like meditation and hydrotherapy better then acupuncture, coffee enemas, rolfing and the others which he hasn't tried himself. This means that the words of the alternative practitioner and the consumer are necessary to our evaluation of an unconventional therapy. Also, it would be helpful to have photos or diagrams of some the treatments like acupuncture, Ayurveda and biofeedback. You'll find the pictures in Alternative Medicine, a thousand page encyclopedia by 350 proponents of these therapies which you can consult at the Planetree Library, 2040 Webster in San Francisco, 415-923-3680.

The author has some other biases which shouldn't go unnoticed. He likes hypnosis, meditation and biofeedback and flirts with neurolinguistic programming but ignores psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. For better or worse, these kissing cousins deserve a place at his table too.

Dr. Rosenfeld cops out on the most widely used alternative therapy, prayer in a paragraph where he says he's not qualified to discuss it. Even if you disregard the abandoned crutches at the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec, the laying on of hands by televangelists like Oral Roberts and the lines waiting for the wonder-working Chassidic rabbis in New York, you can't ignore the research on prayer at San Francisco General Hospital. It reported that hospitalized heart patients had fewer complications if they were prayed for then if they weren't. These complications included cardiac arrest, infections requiring antibiotics, fluid in the lungs and breathing difficulties requiring a tube in the throat or a ventilator. The 192 patients who were prayed for but didn't know it was happening did better then the other 201 (the control patients) who weren't prayed for. Pious Christians who didn't know the patients said daily prayers asking God to intercede. This is mentioned by Rosenfeld's fellow cardiologist, Dean Ornish whose book Reversing Heart Disease offers a bibliography so I could check the references, something Rosenfeld's book needs.

Rosenfeld's discussion of bodywork and yoga is useful but he doesn't mention the therapeutic uses of exercise: stretching, weight training, walking, running and aerobics for back pain, stress, weight control and cardiac function. Perhaps exercise isn't Alternative Medicine anymore.

I think there is another kind of alternative to drugs, surgery and radiation and even the Alternative Medicine in this book. It involves doing less, not more, maybe even just waiting and doing nothing for a while. This might not interest people with cancer, in pain and facing death and then they wouldn't read the book but some of the best recent research tells us to do less treatment including surgery and radiation in slow growing cancers like those of the prostate. The aggressive conventional treatment of this condition in older men does not prolong life and causes additional disabilities like urinary incontinence and impotence. Other surveys tell us that we're doing too many hysterectomies, Caesarean sections and coronary artery bypass surgeries. Maybe Nature is a kind of alternative treatment.

Dr. Rosenfeld says with a flourish that there is no medical conspiracy to keep treatments from people but I'm not so sure. Ask Dr. Burzynski in Texas about his fourteen years of criminal prosecution by the Food and Drug Administration for his innovative antineoplaston (anti-new growth) cancer treatment. After police raids and a trial which said he was not guilty on 34 charges, the government finally dropped the remaining charges in May 1997. Is there a close connection between the FDA and the medical schools and the AMA ? You bet! At least two other unconventional cancer doctors have been prosecuted by the U.S. and Canadian governments: Emanuel Revici in New York City and Gaston Naessens in Quebec. In Syracuse, Joseph Gold's hydrazine treatment for cancer remains unavailable. They didn't make it into the Rosenfeld book but they are in a book by Michael Lerner, Choices in Healing.

I pondered the role of Ayurveda and TCM for Ram Das with his Indian and Chinese spirituality and then I wondered about homeopathy, coffee enemas and even bee venom therapy for him and finally I decided that we need another book from Dr. Rosenfeld.