Over the last decade, Dr. Mark Hyman has become not just the primary medical adviser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, but one of their inner circle in whom—as a New York Times April 2014 article on him makes clear—they place great trust. While outlets like the Daily Beast are presenting the "Clinton doctor" as the man whose alternative approach to medicine could finally “fix healthcare,” some in the science community are getting increasingly nervous about the amount of faith Bill and Hillary place in Dr. Hyman—a man whose work is listed on Quackwatch, whose “faux autism cure” has been blasted by experts as reckless at best, and who promotes "functional medicine,” a blend of pseudoscientific practices, science-based medicine, and trendy popular health advice.
As the New York Times explained in April, the Clintons have been turning to Hyman for their advice on healthcare issues for nearly a decade, when they first sought him out in response to Bill's quadruple bypass surgery in 2004. In addition to highly valuing his personal health advice, the Clintons have clearly come to perceive Hyman as holding many of the answers to healthcare in general, turning to him, as the NYT noted, for direction on “health-related issues at the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation.”
While Hyman was trained as a family doctor, he spent 8 years working as the co-medical director of the Canyon Ranch “integrative wellness” resort in Lenox, Mass. After his time at Canyon Ranch, Hyman went on to found the “UltraWellness Center,” which offers members a wide range of materials they can purchase, including some of Hyman’s popular dietary books. He is perhaps best known for The Blood Sugar Solution and its sequel The Blood Sugar Solution: 10-Day Detox Diet, but he also wrote Ultraprevention (listed as "nonrecommended" on Quackwatch) and helped develop, along with Rick Warren, a “biblical-based” healthplan called The Daniel Plan.
As his website indicates, Hyman and UltraWellness has become a major brand. He has made appearances on various popular health and talk shows and is now the chairman of The Institute of Functional Medicine. But he is perhaps becoming increasingly recognized as “the Clintons’ doctor.” With Hillary's likely 2016 campaign approaching, some in the scientific community have begun to worry about the implications of the Clintons' deep confidence in the leader of the "functional medicine" movement.
“If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic Party nominee in 2016, I’m likely to have a real dilemma,” wrote surgeon and science blogger Dr. David Gorski in April. “Should I vote for her, knowing that she’s likely to appoint people like Dr. Hyman to health policy positions?”
Gorski problem is Hyman's "integrative" functional medicine approach, "in which pseudoscience and unscientific medicine are 'integrated' with science-based medicine and innocuous advice like eating more vegetables and fish.” writes Gorski. Citing Science-Based Medicine’s Dr. Wallace Sampson, Gorski provides a description of Hyman’s particular brand of “integrative medicine”:
Unfortunately, Dr. Hyman appears to be one of those “integrative medicine” doctors who’s very good at sounding reasonable as he “integrates” pseudoscience and unsupported medical modalities into science-based medicine. He gives the game away by the way he attacks science, touts anecdotal evidence over science, and subscribes to ideas based on prescientific thinking, such as “detoxification” and “imbalances” of hormones, vitamins, and nutrients that could easily be imbalances in the four humors or the five elements.
Functional medicine is pure pseudoscience, as the eminent Wally Sampson has explained. It postulates “imbalances” in hormones and neurotransmitters, oxidation-reduction, detoxification and biotransformation, immune function, inflammation, and cell structure. It’s all so vague that these “imbalances” could mean almost anything, and when practitioners of “functional medicine” refer to them, they usually do. Arguably the most famous practitioner of “functional medicine” is Mark Hyman, known for creating “UltraWellness,” the very name of which should tell you pretty much all you need to know about functional medicine. Indeed, it just seems to be a label used to encompass a whole lot of alternative medicine practices being “integrated” with real medicine.
Here is an excerpt from Sampson’s “Functional Medicine – What is it?":
After extensive searching and examination, my answer is still – only the originators of “FM” know. Or, at least one must assume they know, because so far as I can see, I certainly see nothing that distinguishes “FM” from other descriptions of sectarian and “Complementary/Alternative Medicine” practices. A difference may lie in the advocates’ assumptions to have found some “imbalance” of body chemistry or physiology before applying one or more unproved methods or substances. From what I could determine, the “imbalance” or dysfunction is usually either imaginary or at least presumptive. And the general principles are so poorly defined as to allow practioners vast leeway to apply a host of unproven methods.
I have heard Dr. Hyman speak in the past. He is smart, sincere and passionate about his approach to health. Many of my colleagues have great respect for him. But his most recent post on the Post, "Why the Current Thinking on Autism is Completely Wrong," raises many questions about his approach to this complex disorder. In it, Dr. Hyman claims to have a unique understanding about the cause of autism. He then tells us that his insights allow him to cure patients with this complex disorder.
Yet neither of these claims is true. A close look at Dr. Hyman’s essay shows him to be just like many other Huffington Post health bloggers I’ve discussed in the past, who use shaky science and cite questionable experts to promote unproven cures. In Dr. Hyman's case that prescription is also identical to that of the anti-vaccine group, Defeat Autism Now! (DAN!)--which promotes the kind of "biomedical cure" (expensive tests, vitamins and herbs, extreme food restriction and drugs to detoxify the body) which is costly and potentially dangerous. The final punchline here is that Dr. Hyman’s piece is a recycled essay that is two years old, and doesn’t take into account many new revelations that have debunked his claims.
(Hyman's skepticism about the "current thinking on autism," might explain Hillary's questions about vaccinations in 2008—a position she reversed (and mocked) this year after an outbreak of measles and the president (who also had some doubts in 2008) came out in full support of vaccines.)
Another member of the medical field who studied Hyman's claims is Dr. Robert Burton, one of Parikh's colleagues at Salon, who condemned Hyman in 2009 for his self-promotional "cut and paste" approach to medicine:
Mark Hyman, M.D., a family physician, was talking about “brain fog” and “broken minds” and how such “conditions” could be cured or prevented by using “The UltraMind Solution” — a combination of books, DVDs and home questionnaires.
Before I could change the channel, I heard Dr. Hyman make the following comments: “The way we think about disease, mental illness, and our brain aging, actually has nothing, nothing to do with how our body actually works … The way we think about disease is all wrong … the name of the disease tells us nothing about the real reason or the causes of them. Diseases don’t exist.” [...]
If Dr. Hyman is correct, then we should disregard present medical knowledge and research. And yet, to justify his pet theories, Dr. Hyman cherry-picks from the very medical literature that he thinks approaches disease from the wrong perspective.
For those in scientific community who have examined functional medicine's "pseudoscientific" methods, the "Clinton doctor" is particularly troubling. As Gorski argues, Hyman's “woo” potentially carries great weight should Hillary win the Democratic nomination, and thus could be a “real dilemma” in 2016 for those like himself who traditionally vote Democrat:
Should I vote for her, knowing that she's likely appoint people like Dr. Hyman to health policy positions? Say what you will about Hillary Clinton, before meeting Dr. Hyman, she didn’t use to be into what I would consider woo, at least not as far as I can tell. I was half-tempted at the beginning of this post to crack a lame joke about how Hillary Clinton, when she found Dr. Hyman to take care of her husband, wasn’t actually trying to keep him around for decades to come at all, but then I thought better of it. The reason is that she clearly does take Dr. Hyman and his functional medicine woo seriously, just as Senator Tom Harkin took a lot of alternative medicine seriously and Representative Dan Burton took the antivaccine view that vaccines cause autism seriously. Does she take him seriously enough to try to take his ideas and implement some of them in her health policy if she ends up being elected President in 2016?