MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Believe it or not, but my decision – all those years ago – to study medicine was to a significant degree influenced by a somewhat naive desire to, one day, be able to save lives. In my experience, most medical students are motivated by this wish – “to save lives” in this context stands not just for the dramatic act of administering a life-saving treatment to a moribund patient but it is meant as a synonym for helping patients in a much more general sense.

I am not sure whether, as a young clinician, I ever did manage to save many lives. Later, I had a career-change and became a researcher. The general view about researchers seems to be that they are detached from real life, sit in ivory towers and write clever papers which hardly anyone understands and few people will ever read. Researchers therefore cannot save lives, can they?

So, what happened to those laudable ambitions of the young Dr Ernst? Why did I decide to go into research, and why alternative medicine; why did I not conduct research in more the promotional way of so many of my colleagues (my life would have been so much more hassle-free, and I even might have a knighthood by now); why did I feel the need to insist on rigorous assessments and critical thinking, often at high cost? For my many detractors, the answers to these questions seem to be more than obvious: I was corrupted by BIG PHARMA, I have an axe to grind against all things alternative, I have an insatiable desire to be in the lime-light, I defend my profession against the concurrence from alternative practitioners etc. However, for me, the issues are a little less obvious (today, I will, for the first time, disclose the bribe I received from BIG PHARMA for criticising alternative medicine: the precise sum was zero £ and the same amount again in $).

As I am retiring from academic life and doing less original research, I do have the time and the inclination to brood over such questions. What precisely motivated my research agenda in alternative medicine, and why did I remain unimpressed by the number of powerful enemies I made pursuing it?

If I am honest – and I know this will sound strange to many, particularly to those who are convinced that I merely rejoice in being alarmist – I am still inspired by this hope to save lives. Sure, the youthful naivety of the early days has all but disappeared, yet the core motivation has remained unchanged.

But how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?

Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:

– pointing out that some forms of alternative medicine can cause serious complications, including deaths,

– disclosing that alternative diagnostic methods are unreliable and can cause serious problems,

– demonstrating that much of the advice given by alternative practitioners can cause serious harm to the patients who follow it,

– that the advice provided in books or on the Internet can be equally dangerous,

– and that even the most innocent yet ineffective therapy becomes life-threatening, once it is used to replace effective treatments for serious conditions.

Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.

For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles  (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.

12 Responses to Saving lives with alternative medicine research?

  • Edzard,

    Thanks for your conscientious good work in this area. _Trick or Treatment_ was an important key, along with a couple other books, in motivating me to look more critically at the claims of Traditional Chinese Medicine and have the tools to evaluate the TCM research. This has led me to dramatically cut down the TCM part of my life, and increase non-CAM projects with the goal of eventually getting out of CAM altogether. I advise patients to be skeptical about the many claims of CAM promotions, to get proper diagnosis, and to focus on rational solutions to health problems (i.e. exercise and diet for weight loss instead of fads and magical thinking).
    One of my goals is to teach kids (and adults) better critical thinking and skeptical inquiry skills. It’s exciting to be creating a new professional life free of TCM and CAM. It feels somewhat like getting out of a cult. So thanks again for your part–writing and research have a larger reach than standard clinical practice.

  • Is there anybody with the same dedication going to follow in your footsteps Ernst?
    I see this war against quackery and pseudo science lasting for generations andwe will need more like you.

  • I’ve studied complementary therapies, I would never ever say they can treat or cure tc. I do feel they are like a little bit of luxury eg relaxation time! Relaxation is definitely the word I would use!
    I went along to study acupuncture at a UK university, I was so shocked at what was being taught there. Too much joy is bad for your heart, people had week qi inherited from there parents, the more children a woman has the weeker your qi, all your own fault actually.
    As it was a BSc Hons (Scientific ?) I challenged this and the standard of the candidates on the course, I would have thought that sticking needles in various parts of peoples anatomy would have attracted nice, caring, professional minded people.
    To be honest in my opinion of course! they had attracted some vulnerable people, ex drug users, people with mental health issues, problems in their life which had led them there.
    The university were held up by ASA challenged by DOH as they made false claims that they could treat and cure and they were held in high regard by the Department of Health. I received confirmation this was untrue, totally stressful experience, no one helped me they all closed ranks to the point I was too frightened to attend their caring course. I was thrown off for non attendance, frightened by the students and what the uni were teaching.
    The outcome still fighting the case, offerred a a couple of hundred pounds to go away. I spent £1000’s in student loans etc.
    The OIA were no help, they said that they do not deal with the sale of goods act etc. They could see no evidence these things were said, well the university wouldn’t admit that. I had to prove it with ASA and DOH letters that they were claiming untruths.
    The OIA say student union are a seperate body, so no help with evidence there.
    They said that they are happy DOH and ASA had dealt with it, not their stuff.
    How in earth universities can get away with this I will never know, I did not fit in to their CULT, I was strong enough not to go with the flow. I aske the uni for help, to no avail.
    Trying to decide my next course of action at the moment!
    Just because a course is at uni does not make it scientific, it was QUACKY and TACKY and disturbing.
    They even got me to see the university counsellor, after all it must be me that was mad, weak qi and all that jazz.
    People were what I thought were friends turned hater, they would, no mind of their own, brainwashed or thinking of the money to be made afterwards. Some had come from the dole office , it was that or go to work ;(
    Even the QAA did not help…….. so what is the moral of the story……….. they are all MAD.
    I would NEVER trust an acupuncturist or complementary therapist that made health claims, my sister is a physio an she has heard stories and experienced the QUACKY courses too. Makes me shudder ;( Thanks!
    The course is no longer running, hope it stays that way!! £9000 plus per year for Quack disgusting!

  • Sorry about the typos, written when ANGRY and hit the post comment button too early! Must be my Qi, that’s the problem, I can’t help myself! Stagnation of Liver Qi = ANGRY AS HELL ! & this is just one of my seven emotions!

  • Dr. Ernst,

    I tell my patients often that the best teammates they could have in achieving recovery from an injury or improving their overall health are MD’s, DC’s, and other needed CAM providers who work co-operatively together for the benefit of the patient. No one profession has all the answers. I think our healthcare system would be so much better if all providers worked this way. Gods knows, it would certainly take away some of the over-powering influence of Big Pharma, Big For Profit Insurance Company, Big…. If all the opinions and biases could be left at home so research could be done in a space of neutrality, we might actually get some results that everyone would benefit from.

    Just something to consider.

    Dr. Deb

    • So how do you know that the CAM providers are “the best teammates they could have in achieving recovery from an injury or improving their overall health”? What evidence do you base this piece of advice on?

      • While many studies are ongoing, there are numerous published studies on the effectiveness and benefits of chiropractic care. The DOD here did a study here with soldiers and found they recovered faster and were able to return to duty sooner when chiropractic care was a part of the treatment plan. There have been several multi-year studies around the country that have all shown the same results: decreased visits to the ER, fewer hospital admissions, shorter stays when an admission is required, greatly (over 50%) reduction in pharmaceutical costs, and fewer prescription drugs being sold on the streets in the test areas.

        As for who all I refer my patients to, I am pretty careful in my selections. If I would go see that MD or would be comfortable with my family seeing them, I will make the referral. I also ask my patients to report back to me about consult appointments and ask for their recommendations of who they have seen in the past.

  • It help,s to all kinds of tools in your tool bag. As a physician I use all kinds of methods whatever works for me and my patients.. Thank God for big pharma and their miracles drugs. Thank God for the acupuncturists, thank God for our spiritual healers, thank god for our personal trainers, thankGod for 12 step programs. Thank god for matrix energetics

    Every person should have access to what ever healing modalities work for them not what some over educated biased blind professional foists on them

    Different strokes for different folks!!!

    Fritz Miller MD

    • that seems to me as the perfect prescription to re-join the dark ages of medicine when anecdote and experience reigned over evidence and science. it is not even a caring attitude: if you have compassion, you want patients to have the best available treatments for their conditions.

    • Thank you for that response. I believe every patient should have all the choices for healing laid out in front of them. When traditional medicine doesn’t work there should be alternative ways for healing. I wouldn’t be here right now if traditional medicine had been my only choice. I also believe that if you are using alternative medicine and it isn’t working, God gave you the intelligence to seek something more traditional and don’t wait until your illness so advanced that nothing can heal! So yes, thank you for being intelligent enough to use whatever works to save lives!

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