When the Holmes programme showcased the new “healing touch” service operated by Wellington Hospital, we swung into action with the following fax:

September 21, 1999

Dear Mr Holmes,

In your item on Wellington Hospital’s “healing” hands, I noted that Dr John Carter said that there is no evidence to prove that such practices cause healing, yet he permits his staff to make precisely that claim in media publicity, in patient discussions and on signs. What would the Fair Trade Commission have to say about this? And what position does the Health Funding Authority take on paying for such nursing time?

Like any form of extra caring or positive interaction, from a basic smile to a relaxing massage, such laying on of hands may well make patients feel better. But it is not ethical to take advantage of a common psychological reaction and dress it up as some form of special treatment when it is not.

If my recent experience of Middlemore Hospital is anything to go by, the public health system would do better to concentrate on ensuring that their nursing staff know how to adequately lift, turn and move patients without causing them undue distress or dropping them on the floor! Nursing staff seem to be a scarce resource and it is frustrating to see time taken up with this sort of deception, however well-meaning, when basic patient care is often inadequate.

Dr Carter also seemed unconcerned at having nursing staff who appear to subscribe to the ideas of the “human energy system” promoted by the enthusiasts of this latter-day form of faith healing. Good grief, a 10-year-old girl was able to demonstrate that the claimed detection of human energy fields underpinning such practices was bunkum — she even co-authored a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association along with her mother, a registered nurse herself and a member of the Questionable Nurse Practices Task Force of the US National Council Against Health Fraud!

Frankly, I would be dismayed to be treated by a doctor or hospital who doesn’t recognise the important ethical or professional questions here — delusion or deception is not an acceptable basis for something claiming medical support and public funds.


Vicki Hyde

P.S. I would be happy to provide you with any amount of information on the whole therapeutic touch field should you wish to take an informed look at the implications of our health system adopting this sort of approach to medical care. I can be contacted at (03) 384-5137 or via nzsm@spis.co.nz

Mr Holmes actually read selected portions of this fax the following evening (missing out the comments on Middlemore Hospital), and castigated at length Yours Truly, demanding that Skeptics “get a life” and that we white-skinned, chardonnay-sipping academic elitists should scuttle back to our holes in the Arts Centre and not bother real people! (N.B. I’m proud of my Tainui whakapapa and prefer Pinot Noir, but we elitists don’t respond to ad hominem attacks.)

Mr Holmes then went on to indicate his displeasure at receiving the “wooden spoon” (sic) from us for his sensitive, caring coverage of the Liam Holloway-Williams story. It looks like we hit a nerve there….

In recent years we’ve seen an increasing number of Bent Spoon nominations for the “Holmes” programme and a sorry decline in Bravo Award nominations for his team. Your committee had thought of consigning “Holmes” to the same “uncredible” basket as “Women’s Weekly” and “Truth” — we reserve the Bent Spoon for news and current affairs sources which are expected to maintain some degree of professionalism and credible journalistic ability. Sadly, the dominant position of “Holmes” means that, regardless of its content, it serves as a major “news” source for many in this country, so we will continue to persevere with monitoring its performance and calling into question stories which we do not consider meet adequate standards of disinterested reporting, however much this may irritate Mr Holmes.

And just to show that we’re not always reactive, here’s a copy of a proactive notice we sent out in October last year when we first heard that Wellington Hospital was planning to introduce “therapeutic touch”.

Attn: Health Reporter

We understand that Therapeutic Touch has been introduced as a form of “treatment” at Wellington Hospital. While initial reports have been unclear as to the amount of resources (both time and financial) being devoted to this, we would be keen to ensure that health reporters have a good understanding of this questionable practice and its implications for the New Zealand health system.

We therefore enclose some of the background information from our files concerning Therapeutic Touch, as well as a couple of print-outs from some diverse sources on the Web. Should you be following up this story, this will give you some idea of the concerns and questions such an approach raises.

As the NZ Skeptics, we are well aware of many different approaches to healing, both conventional and alternative. Therapeutic Touch concerns us because, as far as we can ascertain, there have been no demonstrable, consistent efficacious results in its use. Should its teaching and applications detract from other areas of proven medical care, we would consider the use of such an approach unethical and unacceptable. This is particularly so given the already stretched resources of our current medical system.

A further concern results from the way in which Therapeutic Touch makes claims which are paranormal in that they rely on an undemonstrated, undemonstrable energy system. We would not accept this from a used-car salesman; we certainly should not accept this from our health system.

We understand that the use of TT can be attractive in that it does not require any expensive equipment or extensive training — something that would no doubt appeal to any cash-strapped hospital. Like any form of extra caring or positive interaction — from a basic smile to a relaxing massage — TT may well make patients feel better. But it is not ethical to take advantage of a common psychological reaction and dress it up as some form of special treatment when it is not.

You are welcome to quote any material from this, or to contact us for further information or comment.

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