Two years ago, Emily Rosa of Loveland, Colo., designed and carried out an experiment that challenges a leading treatment in alternative medicine. Her study, reported today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has thrown the field into tumult.
Emily is 11. She did the experiment for her fourth-grade science fair.
The technique she challenges is therapeutic touch, in which healers manipulate what they call the “human energy field” by passing their hands over a patient’s body without actually touching the patient. The method is practiced in healing centers and medical centers throughout the world, and is taught at prominent universities and schools of nursing.
Tens of thousands of people have been trained to treat patients through the use of therapeutic touch. Its practitioners insist that the human energy field is real and that anyone can be trained to feel it.
But Emily asked an “emperor’s new clothes” type of question. Could therapeutic touch practitioners actually detect a human energy field? Her method was devilishly simple.
It was a question critics of alternative medicine had asked before. But only one practitioner agreed to submit to a test, said James Randi, a magician who conducted the test. Emily, however, was able to recruit 21 practitioners. Her mother, Linda Rosa, a nurse who is among the critics of therapeutic touch, said she believed Emily succeeded because practitioners were not threatened by a 9-year-old girl.
Rosa said Emily originally was designing a science fair experiment involving different colored M&M;’s candy. Then she glanced at the television screen in her home where her mother was watching a videotape about therapeutic touch. Suddenly, Emily piped up, saying she had a way to test the premise of therapeutic touch, her mother said.
Emily designed an experiment in which the healer and Emily were separated by a screen. Then Emily decided, by flipping a coin, whether to put her hand over the healer’s left hand or the right hand. The healer was asked to decide where Emily’s hand was hovering. If the healer could detect Emily’s human energy field, he or she should be able to discern where Emily’s hand was.
In 280 tests involving the 21 practitioners, the healers did no better than chance. They identified the correct location of Emily’s hand just 44 percent of the time; if they guessed at random, they would have been right about half the time.
Emily wrote her study with her mother, a member of the National Therapeutic Touch Study Group, a group based in Loveland that questions the method. The study’s authors included Larry Sarner of the Therapeutic Touch Study Group and Dr. Stephen Barrett, board chairman of Quackwatch in Allentown, Pa., a nonprofit group that puts information about questionable medical practices on the Internet.
The report on the study is accompanied by a note from Dr. George Lundberg, the journal’s editor. In it, Lundberg says that “practitioners should disclose these results to patients, third-party payers should question whether they should pay for this procedure, and patients should save their money unless or until additional honest experimentation demonstrates an actual effect.”
Lundberg said the journal’s statisticians thought the study was well done. “They were amazed by its simplicity and by the clarity of its results,” he said.
Practitioners hardly agree. “I do hope it’s an April Fool’s joke,” said Dr. Dolores Krieger, an emeritus professor of nursing at New York University who is a developer of therapeutic touch.
Krieger and other therapeutic touch practitioners insist that they and anyone else who is trained can easily feel human energy fields. In her book, “Accepting Your Power to Heal,” Krieger said the field feels like “warm Jell-O or warm foam.”
Practitioners of therapeutic touch say that patients who are ill have hot spots or cold spots in their fields or areas that feel tingly. By “rebalancing” a person’s field, practitioners say they can calm colicky babies, relieve symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, treat cancer and more.
Krieger said that since she developed therapeutic touch 26 years ago, she has trained more than 47,000 practitioners.
Krieger said it is taught in nursing schools and colleges in 70 countries and is used in hospitals around the world. “It works,” she said, adding that Emily Rosa “completely misunderstood what the nature of basic research is.”