MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Monthly Archives: October 2013

A most excellent comment by Donald Marcus on what many now call ‘quackademia‘ (the disgraceful practice of teaching quackery (alternology) such as homoeopathy, acupuncture or chiropractic at universities as if they were legitimate medical professions) has recently been published in the BMJ.

Please allow me to quote extensively from it:

A detailed review of curriculums created by 15 institutions that received educational grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) showed that they failed to conform to the principles of evidence based medicine. In brief, they cited many poor quality clinical trials that supported the efficacy of alternative therapies and omitted negative clinical trials; they had not been updated for 6-7 years; and they omitted reports of serious adverse events associated with CAM therapies, especially with chiropractic manipulation and with non-vitamin, non-mineral dietary supplements such as herbal remedies. Representation of the curriculums as “evidence based” was inaccurate and unjustified. Similar defects were present in the curriculums of other integrative medicine programs that did not receive educational grants….

A re-examination of the integrative medicine curriculums reviewed previously showed that they were essentially unchanged since their creation in 2002-03…Why do academic centers that are committed to evidence based medicine and to comparative effectiveness analysis of treatments endorse CAM? One factor may be a concern about jeopardizing income from grants from NCCAM, from CAM clinical practice, and from private foundations that donate large amounts of money to integrative medicine centers. Additional factors may be concern about antagonizing faculty colleagues who advocate and practice CAM, and inadequate oversight of curriculums.

By contrast to the inattention of US academics and professional societies to CAM education, biomedical scientists in Great Britain and Australia have taken action. At the beginning of 2007, 16 British universities offered 45 bachelor of science degrees in alternative practices. As the result of a campaign to expose the lack of evidence supporting those practices, most courses in alternative therapies offered by public universities in Britain have been discontinued. Scientists, physicians, and consumer advocates in Australia have formed an organization, Friends of Science in Medicine, to counter the growth of pseudoscience in medicine.

The CAM curriculums violate every tenet of evidence based medicine, and they are a disservice to learners and to the public. It could be argued that, in the name of academic freedom, faculty who believe in the benefits of CAM have a right to present their views. However, as educators and role models they should adhere to the principles of medical professionalism, including “a duty to uphold scientific standards.” Faculty at health profession schools should urge administrators to appoint independent committees to review integrative medicine curriculums, and to consider whether provision of CAM clinical services is consistent with a commitment to scholarship and to evidence based healthcare.

One of the first who openly opposed science degrees without science was David Colquhoun; in an influential article published in Nature, he wrote:

The least that one can expect of a bachelor of science (BSc) honours degree is that the subject of the degree is science. Yet in December 2006 the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service advertised 61 courses for complementary medicine, of which 45 are BSc honours degrees. Most complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is not science because the vast majority of it is not based on empirical evidence. Homeopathy, for example, has barely changed since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is much more like religion than science. Worse still, many of the doctrines of CAM, and quite a lot of its practitioners, are openly anti-science.

More recently, Louise Lubetkin wrote in her post ‘Quackademia‘ that alternative medicine and mainstream medicine are absolutely not equivalent, nor are they by any means interchangeable, and to speak about them the way one might when debating whether to take the bus or the subway to work – both will get you there reliably – constitutes an assault on truth.

I think ‘quackademia’ is most definitely an assault on truth – and I certainly know what I am talking about. When, in 1993, I was appointed as Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter, I became the director of a pre-existing team of apologists teaching a BSc-course in alternative medicine to evangelic believers. I was horrified and had to use skill, diplomacy and even money to divorce myself from this unit, an experience which I will not forget in a hurry. In fact, I am currently writing it up for a book I hope to publish soon which covers not only this story but many similarly bizarre encounters I had while researching alternative medicine during the last two decades.

Here are 3 more short pieces of alternative medicine satire. if you like them, please consider to send me your own short articles.

AT FAP No 7 (sent in by ‘Ex-Acupuncturist’)

Heroin junkies are now putting another type of needle in their body to get high…  Acupuncture needles!  Acupuncturists have long theorized that an endorphin release is part of the clinical effect of acupuncture.  Endorphins are the body’s own painkillers.  They are in a group of chemicals called endogenous opioids.  While sceptics have pointed out that endorphin release is also a key part of the placebo effect, it seems that ancient Chinese wisdom wins this round of the battle.

“The key is to twirl the needle in the correct direction for each individual,” one experienced user reported.  “In general, men get clockwise, women counter-clockwise, but it reverses depending on the phase of the moon and whether the kidney pulse on the wrist is floating or deep.  It may sound strange, but once you hit the right point and twirl the right way, you’re talking to the rabbit on the moon for hours.”

Apparently, heroin-like effects aren’t the only drugs acupuncture can mimic.  Homeless researcher William S. Burrows reports point combinations which replicate cannabis, magic mushrooms, and even methamphetamines.  “We confirmed this with a double-blind test down in the park.  I drew the point combinations and labelled them with codes, then taught a few volunteers how to do the needling without telling them what combinations mimic each drug.  Then I hit the bar while they rolled dice and randomly did these combinations on hundreds of homeless addicts, who then were observed and interviewed by different volunteers who didn’t know what group they had been randomized to.  The differences between the meth points and the horse points were pretty obvious by behaviour, but we also gathered more objective data such as blood pressure, pupil size, and pre- and post- treatment urinalysis results.  Most of our volunteers are users of real drugs, but when you get the acupuncture right it the metabolites show up in urine.”

Science journal editor Dr. Edward Ernest was impressed.  “This acupuncture research carried out by homeless drug addicts, literally under a bridge, is better and more convincing than all previous acupuncture research combined.  What’s more impressive is that it’s being replicated as we speak in addicted populations around the world, all through grassroots efforts.”
When asked why his research was so well structured and recorded compared to previous acupuncture research, Burrows said, “I’m not sure, but it may have something to do with how important getting high is to addicts.  Regular acupuncturists are just telling people they can treat normal pain and diseases, and many of those go away on their own.  We are dealing with serious drug habits here, it’s not something to mess around with.  Regular people can be fooled with post hoc reasoning, regression to the mean, and a good bedside manner.  Junkies in withdrawal have a higher standard of evidence.”

While getting high with acupuncture is safer and less expensive than using black market drugs, public health officials are already warning users that familiar communicable disease dangers exist if needles are shared.  “We are discussing setting up a free acupuncture needle exchange to reduce the risk of hepatitis and HIV transmission.”

AT FAP No 8 (by Edzard Ernst)

THE END OF EBM and the arrival of VBM

Inspired by a recent popular vote in Scotland on the need of having homeopathy free on the NHS, top-ranking health politicians from across the UK have met to discuss the implications of this intriguing and ground-breaking development. The politicians were taken by the idea of replacing evidence with a popular vote. They felt that they were much more familiar with the various ways to influence voters than with the often fiendishly complex issues of scientific evidence. “Everything becomes understandable and transparent with one single stroke”, one senior official commented, “what could be more logical than finally democratising health care? It was time anyway to break the dictatorship of science; as politicians, we cannot tolerate to be told by scientists what is right and wrong.”

The panel drew up plans to have all major health care decisions decided by popular vote. Pilot projects that followed this courageous move have already generated most encouraging results: diabetics voted to have free chocolate, claudicants opted for cheaper cigarettes, addicts wanted to legalise hard drugs and the entire population of Totness was in favour of replacing conventional by alternative medicine.

On the basis of these findings, the secretary for health issued a press release pointing out that innovations of this nature might look counter-intuitive to notoriously short-sighted medics but from a more realistic perspective, they do make a lot of sense: patients deserve to be given a choice; if many to the most desperately ill diabetics die early as a consequence, it might even be humane to let them end their suffering quickly and with dignity – and from a societal point of view, early fatalities mean significant cost-savings which will certainly free funds to improve the health of the rest of the nation. “I am sure that this innovation will win us votes”, one Tory health politician was quoted saying. A white paper was drawn up which suggests the nationwide implementation of these progressive concepts, and well-informed circles at Westminster indicate that David Cameron views the new ‘Vote-Based Medicine’ (VBM) as a possible solution to steer the NHS out of its current crisis.

AT FAP No 9 (by Edzard Ernst)

A bitter row has broken out in the US-based ‘Palmer Institute of Straight Chiropractic’ (PISC) over the interpretation of the results generated by the largest long-term study of chiropractic that has ever been initiated. The study in question, which had been funded by the NIH and several chiropractic bodies across the world, started recruiting in the 1970. Its was aimed at testing the effects of chiropractic maintenance treatment. Based on D D Palmer’s , the father of chiropractic, axiom that all diseases are caused by ‘subluxations of the spine’, chiropractic maintenance care is a method of regularly adjusting subluxations of healthy people before they can do any significant damage to health and well-being. Top officials of PICS had therefore concluded that regular adjustments would prevent illness and prolong life. The project was thus to administer maintenance care to 1000 volunteers for their entire life time and compare the mortality and morbidity of this cohort with the data from the US population at large.

So far, the findings of this study had been kept under tight wraps; the protocol foresaw that the first analysis should only be at the 40-year follow-up. Last months, however, the first preliminary analysis emerged at a closed meeting of the PISC in Devonport, US. A leaked note shows that, despite the large sample size and the sizable number of morbidity and mortality outcomes in the study cohort, the comparison with the general population did not demonstrate any significant differences; if anything, the incidence of neurological problems, e.g. stroke, in the experimental group seems unusually high.

As soon as the results were known to the PISC-officials, dramatically different interpretations of these findings emerged, our reporter was told:

  • One group of chiropractors claimed the results were obviously rigged; some were sure that BIG PHARMA had bribed the researchers/statisticians to produce false negative findings. “It stands to reason”, one chiropractor from this camp was quoted saying, “just imagine what would happen, if the effectiveness of chiropractic maintenance care would become general knowledge; nobody would need the pharma-industry any more. It is therefore clear that they did everything in their power to supress the truth”
  •  The other group of chiropractors claimed that the maintenance treatment implemented in the study was not intensive enough to be effective. On average, every study participant had 1.6 sessions of spinal manipulation per week (the costs of these treatments were estimated at US$ 60 million across the study period). But these chiropractors argued that “subluxations occur much more frequently and need to be treated more regularly; we advocate daily sessions to be on the safe side – besides, this would be ever so good for the profession as a whole.”

So far none of the chiropractors who have commented on the results of this study considered that their original hypothesis was false, i.e. that subluxations might not be the cause of all human disease. When our reporter put this possibility to the president of PISC, the answer was prompt and abrupt: ” You must be kidding! That would mean that D D Plamer was wrong. This is not a realistic possibility at all. Chiropractors are foremost manipulators; we will now manipulate the data until they confirm Palmer’s theory.”

Acupressure is a treatment-variation of acupuncture; instead of sticking needles into the skin, pressure is applied over ‘acupuncture points’ which is supposed to provide a stimulus similar to needling. Therefore the effects of both treatments should theoretically be similar.

Acupressure could have several advantages over acupuncture:

  • it can be used for self-treatment
  • it is suitable for people with needle-phobia
  • it is painless
  • it is not invasive
  • it has less risks
  • it could be cheaper

But is acupressure really effective? What do the trial data tell us? Our own systematic review concluded that the effectiveness of acupressure is currently not well documented for any condition. But now there is a new study which might change this negative verdict.

The primary objective of this 3-armed RCT was to assess the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of self-acupressure using wristbands compared with sham acupressure wristbands and standard care alone in the management of chemotherapy-induced nausea. 500 patients from outpatient chemotherapy clinics in three regions in the UK involving 14 different cancer units/centres were randomised to the wristband arm, the sham wristband arm and the standard care only arm. Participants were chemotherapy-naive cancer patients receiving chemotherapy of low, moderate and high emetogenic risk. The experimental group were given acupressure wristbands pressing the P6 point (anterior surface of the forearm). The Rhodes Index for Nausea/Vomiting, the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC) Antiemesis Tool and the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy General (FACT-G) served as outcome measures. At baseline, participants completed measures of anxiety/depression, nausea/vomiting expectation and expectations from using the wristbands.

Data were available for 361 participants for the primary outcome. The primary outcome analysis (nausea in cycle 1) revealed no statistically significant differences between the three arms. The median nausea experience in patients using wristbands (both real and sham ones) was somewhat lower than that in the anti-emetics only group (median nausea experience scores for the four cycles: standard care arm 1.43, 1.71, 1.14, 1.14; sham acupressure arm 0.57, 0.71, 0.71, 0.43; acupressure arm 1.00, 0.93, 0.43, 0). Women responded more favourably to the use of sham acupressure wristbands than men (odds ratio 0.35 for men and 2.02 for women in the sham acupressure group; 1.27 for men and 1.17 for women in the acupressure group). No significant differences were detected in relation to vomiting outcomes, anxiety and quality of life. Some transient adverse effects were reported, including tightness in the area of the wristbands, feeling uncomfortable when wearing them and minor swelling in the wristband area (n = 6). There were no statistically significant differences in the costs associated with the use of real acupressure band.

26 subjects took part in qualitative interviews. Participants perceived the wristbands (both real and sham) as effective and helpful in managing their nausea during chemotherapy.

The authors concluded that there were no statistically significant differences between the three arms in terms of nausea, vomiting and quality of life, although apparent resource use was less in both the real acupressure arm and the sham acupressure arm compared with standard care only; therefore; no clear conclusions can be drawn about the use of acupressure wristbands in the management of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting. However, the study provided encouraging evidence in relation to an improved nausea experience and some indications of possible cost savings to warrant further consideration of acupressure both in practice and in further clinical trials.

I could argue about several of the methodological details of this study. But I resist the temptation in order to focus on just one single point which I find important and which has implications beyond the realm of acupressure.

Why on earth do the authors conclude that no clear conclusions can be drawn about the use of acupressure wristbands in the management of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting? The stated aim of this RCT was to assess the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of self-acupressure using wristbands compared with sham acupressure wristbands and standard care. The results failed to show significant differences of the primary outcome measures, consequently the conclusion cannot be “unclear”, it has to be that ACUPRESSURE WRIST BANDS ARE NOT MORE EFFECTIVE THAN SHAM ACUPRESSURE WRIST BANDS AS AN ADJUNCT TO ANTI-EMETIC DRUG TREATMENT (or something to that extent).

As long as RCTs of alternative therapies are run by evangelic believers in the respective therapy, we are bound to regularly encounter this lamentable phenomenon of white-washing negative findings with an inadequate conclusion. In my view, this is not research or science, it is pseudo-research or pseudo-science. And it is much more than a nuisance or a trivial matter; it is a waste of research funds, a waste of patients’ good will that has reached a point where people will lose trust in alternative medicine research. Someone should really do a systematic study to identify those research teams that regularly commit such scientific misconduct and ensure that they are cut off public funding and support.

I am delighted to report that my invitation to contribute AT FAPs was successful! Some readers did indeed cotton on and submitted their funny satire and bizarre absurdities – oddly enough, they are all homeopathic by nature. If you like to know more about the idea of AT FAPs, please see here. And do not forget: if you want me to continue with this feature, keep your alt med satire coming!

AT FAP No 4 (sent in by an anonymous reader)

You’ve heard or Gerson but now we can reveal Dyson therapy!

The well established and long-proven facts of homeopathy – that like cures like, ultra diluted solutions of nothing are incredibly potent medicines, Hahnemann can’t be wrong etc. have, of course revolutionised our world view.  Nothing substantial had changed in homeopathy for 200 years, until now!  Vacuous homeopaths have now discovered an amazing breakthrough- Dyson therapy. After extensive research one afternoon, they have made a breakthrough that will rock the world and clean your carpet.

Some homeopaths believe that ultra diluted water contains silica that is remarkably similar to that found in the glass vessels it is prepared in. Vacuous homeopaths have found a way to reduce the content of the water still further, indeed eliminate it completely!

Using the principle of like cures like, a material is chosen for its powerful homeopathic effects,  and ground up in a small amount of water and/or alcohol until it turns into a paste or solution. Now here’s the science bit- it is then smeared on the floor. After being allowed to dry for precisely 3.4 minutes (trust us) it is then vacuumed up! This amazing breakthrough allows the nano-bollock essence of the material to be firmly trapped within the vacuum cleaner, but here is the genius part-as air is drawn over it the nano-bollock material is infinitely diluted. No need for complicated machines you can do this yourself at home. Vacuous homeopaths have found that the vacuum cleaner has to be tapped on the floor during the process, or for a far more potent effect on the head of a sceptic (we call this concussion). It has to be tapped a precise number of times, the number is decided by the current cost in pence of a avocado pear, this in scientific terms is known as the avocado number  -trust us it works!

We now have a homeopathic remedy inside the cleaner. The patient takes a tube from the cleaner applies it to their mouth * and vacuums out all those nasty miasmas  whilst simultaneously increasing the potency of the homeopathic preparation by yet further dilution.  But that’s not all! Dyson therapy removes harmful mercury vapour from your fillings, this is truly miraculous.

Until now vacuous homeopaths have argued that homeopathy  has no side effects effects. Sceptics have argued this is because it contains nothing does nothing and is worth nothing. Vacuous homeopaths have now found side effects, after all when you prepare the ultimate vacuum potencies we are dealing with the strongest medicine in the universe. Side effects include blisters of the lips and mouth, ruptured lungs and feelings of intense stupidity.

* Some experiments with Dyson therapy have been abandoned due to penile injury, but an exciting new avenue of research – anal Dyson therapy is being intensively studied, this combined with coffee enemas is an exciting new wake up call for homepathy. So far results have shown that homeopaths are full of shit.

Disclaimer: I do not own shares in Dyson, and am in no way associated with the company – Big Pharma wouldn’t let me. Other brands of vacuum cleaner are available.

AT FAP No5 (sent in by Norbert Aust)

German scientist succeeded in creating the ultimate homeopathic remedy: Vinum Christi C200! This remedy combines strong beliefs and ancient wisdom from christianity with the more recent scientific achievements of current homeopathy.

Details on the procedure are not clear yet, but the scientist (name known to the edotor) succeeded in building an entanglement with the the molecules of Our Lord’s last goblet of wine that today can be found in any glass of water. By banging his head on the wall he could successfully succuss just these molecules and could build a very powerful mother tincture. Further potentization yielded a very strong remedy, much more powerful than any of the current homeopathic alcoholic dilutions. It took only one tiny drop of this solution to turn a bottle of Scotch whisky into a very efficacious tincture outperforming any of our Lord’s wines or what you would expect of todays wines. In fact, the proving got a little out of control, but the effects could be witnessed nevertheless. It seems a perfect medicine for headaches, vertigo, nausea, general pain and feeling of being sick, difficulties in eye focus and speech, turns of general love and hate of the world in total. Many more symptoms expected to be found in further provings.

The scientist – after he recovered fronm the proving – made it a point, that the preparation of the mother tincture requires much experience and personality. The beginner might well end up entangled with the wrong molecules in his glass of water (like the donkey’s first pee after he carried our Lord to Jerusalem), which may lead to unpredictable results when proving the final compound.

Adress any inquiries for marketing of this medicine to the editor who will forward it to the scientist.

According to a recent comment by Dr Larry Dossey, sceptics are afflicted by “randomania,” “statisticalitis,” “coincidentitis,” or “ODD” (Obsessive Debunking Disorder). I thought his opinion was hilariously funny; it shows that this prominent apologist of alternative medicine who claims that he is deeply rooted in the scientific world has, in fact, understood next to nothing about the scientific method. Like all quacks who have run out of rational arguments, he resorts to primitive ad hominem attacks in order to defend his bizarre notions. It also suggests that he could do with a little scepticism himself, perhaps.

In case anyone wonders how the long-obsolete notions of vitalism, which Dossey promotes, not just survive but are becoming again wide-spread, they only need to look into the best-selling books of Dossey and other vitalists. And it is not just lay people, the target audience of such books, who are taken by such nonsense. Health care professionals are by no means immune to these remnants from the prescientific era.

A recent survey is a good case in point. It was aimed at exploring US student pharmacists’ attitudes toward complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and examine factors shaping students’ attitudes. In total, 887 student pharmacists in 10 U.S. colleges/schools of pharmacy took part. Student pharmacists’ attitudes regarding CAM were quantified using the attitudes toward CAM scale (15 items), attitudes toward specific CAM therapies (13 items), influence of factors (e.g., coursework, personal experience) on attitudes (18 items), and demographic characteristics (15 items).

The results show a mean (±SD) score on the attitudes toward CAM scale of 52.57 ± 7.65 (of a possible 75; higher score indicated more favorable attitudes). There were strong indications that students agreed with the concepts of vitalism. When asked about specific CAMs, many students revealed positive views even on the least plausible and least evidence-based modalities like homeopathy or Reiki.

Unsurprisingly, students agreed that a patient’s health beliefs should be integrated in the patient care process and that knowledge about CAM would be required in future pharmacy practice. Scores on the attitudes toward CAM scale varied by gender, race/ethnicity, type of institution, previous CAM coursework, and previous CAM use. Personal experience, pharmacy education, and family background were important factors shaping students’ attitudes.

The authors concluded: Student pharmacists hold generally favorable views of CAM, and both personal and educational factors shape their views. These results provide insight into factors shaping future pharmacists’ perceptions of CAM. Additional research is needed to examine how attitudes influence future pharmacists’ confidence and willingness to talk to patients about CAM.

I find the overwhelmingly positive views of pharmacists on even over quackery quite troubling. One of the few critical pharmacists shares my worries and commented that this survey on CAM attitudes paints a concerning portrait of American pharmacy students. However, limitations in the survey process may have created biases that could have exaggerated the overall perspective presented. More concerning than the results themselves are the researchers’ interpretation of this data: Critical and negative perspectives on CAM seem to be viewed as problematic, rather than positive examples of good critical thinking.

One lesson from surveys like these is they illustrate the educational goals of CAM proponents. Just like “integrative” medicine that is making its ways into academic hospital settings, CAM education on campus is another tactic that is being used by proponents to shape health professional attitudes and perspectives early in their careers. The objective is obvious: normalize pseudoscience with students, and watch it become embedded into pharmacy practice.

Is this going to change? Unless there is a deliberate and explicit attempt to call out and push back against the degradation of academic and scientific standards created by existing forms of CAM education and “integrative medicine” programs, we should expect to see a growing normalizing of pseudoscience in health professions like pharmacy.

I have criticised pharmacists’ attitude and behaviour towards alternative medicine more often than I care to remember. I even contributed an entire series of articles (around 10; I forgot the precise number) to THE PHARMACEUTICAL JOURNAL in an attempt to stimulate their abilities to think critically about alternative medicine. Pharmacists could certainly do with a high dose of “randomania,” “statisticalitis,” “coincidentitis,” or “ODD” (Obsessive Debunking Disorder). In particular, pharmacists who sell bogus remedies, i.e. virtually all retail pharmacists, need to remember that

  • they are breaking their own ethical code
  • they are putting profit before responsible health care
  • by selling bogus products, they give credibility to quackery
  • they are risking their reputation as professionals who provide evidence-based advice to the public
  • they might seriously endanger the health of many of their customers

In discussions about these issues, pharmacists usually defend themselves and argue that

  • those working in retail chains cannot do anything about this situation; head office decides what is sold on their premises and what not
  • many medicinal products we sell are as bogus as the alternative medicines in question
  • other health care professions are also not perfect, blameless or free of fault and error
  • many pharmacists, particularly those not working in retail, are aware of this lamentable situation but cannot do anything about it
  • retail pharmacists are both shopkeepers and health care professionals and are trying their very best to cope with this difficult dual role
  • we usually appreciate your work and critical comments but, in this case, you are talking nonsense

I do not agree with any of these arguments. Of course, each single individual pharmacist is fairly powerless when it comes to changing the system (but nobody forces anyone to work in a chain that breaks the ethical code of their profession). Yet pharmacists have their professional organisations, and it is up to each individual pharmacist to exert influence, if necessary pressure, via their professional bodies and representatives, such that eventually the system changes. In all this distasteful mess, only one thing seems certain: without a groundswell of opinion from pharmacists, nothing will happen simply because too many pharmacists are doing very nicely with fooling their customers into buying expensive rubbish.

And when eventually something does happen, it will almost certainly be a slow and long process until quackery has been fully expelled from retail pharmacies. My big concern is not so much the slowness of the process but the fact that, currently, I see virtually no groundswell of opinion that might produce anything. For the foreseeable future pharmacists seem to have decided to be content with a role as shopkeepers who do not sufficiently care about healthcare-ethics to change the status quo.

I woke up the other morning and thought that this blog might be in need of a bit of interactive fun. All these long discussions about evidence, science claims and counter-claims are important, of course, but they can be a bit tedious at times. Often the quality of the evidence, the audacity of the bogus claims and the idiocy of the discussions are such that spontaneously I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. On reflection, however, it must be better to laugh and to make fun. Therefore I have decided to try out this new feature and, with my readers’ help, it might become a regular distraction.

The only thing you can do wrong with ‘ALTERNATIVE TRUTHS FROM ANOTHER PLANET’ is to take them seriously. Nothing that I intend to publish here has all that much to do with reality (just like alternative medicine, you might say).

My hope is that readers of this blog cotton on to the idea and send me their own AT FAPs via email. I will consider publishing anything that is short, funny, inoffensive and somehow related to alternative medicine. Please do send me your bizarre ideas, odd dreams, worst nightmares, absurd pranks, childish hoaxes etc. To get the ball rolling, I try three little AT FAPs below.

AT FAP No 1

DUTCHY ORIGINALS SET TO BECOME MAJOR PLAYER IN THE CAR INDUSTRY

Prince Charles has announced today that his firm ‘Dutchy Originals’ is venturing into the automobile industry. Engineers from his ‘Foundation for Integrated Technology’ have succeeded in developing a car that works entirely on homeopathic principles. “It is all very simple” the Prince explained “normal petrol gets diluted and succussed until it has reached the right potency. Our modified combustion engine has been adapted such that it runs on the homeopathic petrol”. The Dutchy Originals Homeobil 1 (DOH1), as the first model is to be called, will be available for sale later this year. Experts expect it will be a worldwide success, not least because it will do ~1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 to one millionth of a gallon of petrol. “It’ll be good for the planet” Clarence House stated.

AT FAP No 2

ALTERNATIVE PRACTITIONER FOUND GUILTY OF MURDER

The jury did not have to deliberate for longer than an hour; the case could not have been more clear-cut, even though the defendant, Martin W., never actually admitted his guilt. He did, however, state disliking his mother in law and threatening her on numerous occasions. The court heard how Martin W. had trained as a Feng Shui expert and, once he had mastered the skill of furniture-rearranging to a sufficiently high degree of sophistication, had deliberately moved several items of furniture in her Clapham flat. As a consequence, her chi-energy had violently collided with the dimensions more powerful cosmic chi. Apparently the mother in law’s death was instantaneous. In his defence, Martin W. had claimed that he had moved the couch and the mirror simply on aesthetic grounds. But the prosecutions’ expert witness and president of the ‘International Association of Feng Shui and Chi Consultants’ supplied scientific evidence showing that the furniture arrangement was a classic case of death by an excess of kidney-chi. Martin W. is expected to receive a life-sentence.

AT FAP No 3

BREAKTHROUGH IN ACUPUNCTURE RESEARCH

Chinese researchers from the ‘Institute for Advanced Meridian Studies’ in Beijing have solved a puzzle that had baffled TCM-researchers and hindered progress for centuries. Acupuncturists believe life-energy runs in minute channels throughout the body; they call them MERIDIANS. But there was a significant problem: nobody had ever shown that MERIDIANS actually exist and where exactly they are located. Now Prof X Chen et al have published a paper in the highly reputed science journal ‘Advances in Meridian Studies’ (Editor in chief: Prof X Chen) which seems to solve this problem once and for all. In the lengthy article, the researchers describe their recent visit to the US which took them through Alabama and Mississippi. “And there it was”, they write, “right in front of our eyes”. It turns out that MERIDIAN is a city of eastern Mississippi near the Alabama border, east of Jackson. “Of course, this is only one and we need more”, said the exited Chen to our reporter, “but this was just a ‘proof of principle study’, and we very much expect to find further MERIDIANS in a parallel universe.

A recent article  by a South African homeopath promoted the concept of homeopaths taking over the role of primary care practitioners. His argument essentially was that, in South Africa, homeopaths are well trained and thus adequately equipped to do this job responsibly. Responsibly, really? You find that hard to believe? Here are the essentials of his arguments including all his references in full. I think they are worth reading.

Currently, the Durban University of Technology (DUT) and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) offer degree’s in homoeopathy. This involves a 5-year full-time theoretical and practical training course, followed by a Master’s level research project. After fulfilment of these criteria, a Master’s Degree in Technology (Homoeopathy) is awarded. The course comprises of a strong core of medical subjects, such as the basic sciences of Anatomy, Physiology, Medical Microbiology, Biochemistry and Epidemiology, and the clinical sciences of Pathology and Diagnostics. This is complemented with subjects in Classical, Clinical and Modern Homoeopathy and Homoeopharmaceutics4,5

By law, any person practicing homoeopathy in South Africa must be registered with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa (AHPCSA). This is essential, as the Council ensures both medical and homoeopathic competency of practitioners, and that the activities of registered practitioners are closely monitored by the Professional Board. The purpose of the AHPCSA is to ensure that only those with legitimate qualifications of a high enough standard are registered and allowed to practice in South Africa, thus protecting the public against any fraudulent behaviour and illegal practitioners. Therefore, in order to ensure effective homoeopathic treatment, it is essential that any person wishing to prescribe homoeopathic medicine or practice homoeopathy in South Africa must be registered as a Homoeopathic Practitioner with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa. This includes conventional Medical Practitioners (dual registration is allowed for Medical Practitioners with both the Health Professions Council and AHPCSA)6,  as homoeopathy requires several years of training in order to apply effectively in clinical practice… 

Registration with the Council affords medico-legal rights similar to those of a medical professional, where treatment is limited to the scope of homoeopathic practice. Thus a homoeopath is firstly a trained diagnostician, and with successful registration with the Council, obtains the title Doctor. A homoeopath is trained and legally obliged to conduct a full medical history, a comprehensive clinical examination, and request further medical investigations, such as blood tests and X-rays, in order to fully assess patients. This is coupled with the ability to consult with specialist pathologists and other medical specialists when necessary, and refer a patient to the appropriate practitioner if the condition falls outside the scope of homoeopathic practice. A homoeopath may also legally issue a certificate of dispensation (‘Doctor’s note’) with appropriate evidence and within reason, and is deemed responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of patients under their care6. A homoeopath is not trained or licensed in any form of surgery, specialist diagnostics (e.g. colonoscopy or angiograms), cannot prescribe prescription medication and is not lawfully allowed to conduct intra-venous treatment of any kind. However, a registered homoeopath is licensed to use intra-muscular homoeopathic injectables in the treatment of various local or systemic complaints when necessary.

Conventional (allopathic) medicine generally targets specific biochemical processes with mostly chemically synthesised medication, in an attempt to suppress a symptom. However, in doing so, this usually negatively affects other biochemical reactions which results in an imbalance within the system. Homoeopathy, by contrast, seeks to re-establish a balance within the natural functioning of the body, restore proper function and results in the reduction or cessation of symptoms.  Homoeopathy therefore enables the body to self-regulate and self-heal, a process known as homeostasis that is intrinsic to every living organism.

Conventional medical treatment is by no means risk free. Iatrogenic (medically induced) deaths in the United States are estimated at 786 000 per year, deaths which are considered avoidable by medical doctors7,8. These figures put annual iatrogenic death in the American medical system above that of cardiovascular disease and cancer as the leading cause of death in that country9, a fact that is not widely reported! South African figures are not easily available, but it is likely that we have similar rates. Although conventional medications have a vital role, are sometimes necessary and can of-course be life-saving, all too often too many patients are put on chronic medication when there are numerous effective, natural, safe and scientifically substantiated options available….

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), homeopathy is the second largest system of medicine in the world, and world-wide use continues to grow in developed and developing nations10. Homoeopathy is widely considered to be safe and effective, with both clinical and laboratory research providing evidence for the efficacy of homoeopathy11. As the range of potential conditions that homoeopathy can treat is almost limitless, and that treatment is not associated with adverse reactions, homoeopathy should be considered a first-line therapy for all ages. As homoeopaths in South Africa are considered primary health care practitioners, if a conventional approach is deemed necessary, and further diagnostics are required, your practitioner will not hesitate to refer you to the appropriate health care practitioner. Homeopathy is also used alongside conventional medicine and any other form of therapy, and should be seen as ‘complementary’ medicine and not ‘alternative’ medicine.

 

Conclusion

Homoeopathy is an approach that is widely considered to be safe, and when utilised correctly, can be effective for a wide range of conditions. As a primary health care practitioner, a homoeopath is able to handle all aspects of general practice and family health care, including diagnostics, case management and referral to other practitioners or medical specialists. A registered homoeopath is legally responsible to ensure the adequate treatment of their patients, and is accountable for all clinical decisions and advice. A registered homoeopath understands the role of conventional medicine, and will refer to the appropriate specialist in cases that fall outside the legal scope of practice.

 

 

References

1. http://homeopathyresource.wordpress.com/what-is-homeopathy (accessed 31 March 2010)

2.  Bloch R, Lewis B. Homoeopathy for the home. Cape Town, South Africa: Struik Publishers: 2003

3. http://www.dut.ac.za/site/awdep.asp?depnum=22609 (accessed 1 April 2010)

4. http://dutweb.dut.ac.za/handbooks/HEALTH%20Homoeopathy.pdf (accessed 1 April 2010)

5. http://www.uj.ac.za/EN/Faculties/health/departments/homeopathy/coursesandprogrammes/undergraduate/Pages/default.aspx (accessed 1 April 2010)

6. http://www.ahpcsa.co.za/pb_pbhnp_homoeopathy.htm (accessed 6 April 2010)

7. Starfield, B. Is US Health Really the Best in the World? JAMA 2000; 284(4).

8. Null G, Dean C, et al. Death by Medicine. Nutrition Institute of America 2003. 9. http://www4.dr-rath-foundation.org/features/death_by_medicine.html (accessed 7 April 2010)

10. http://ukiahcommunityblog.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/worldwide-popularity-grows-for-homeopathy-alternative-medicine/#comments (accessed 7 April 2010)

11. http://liga.iwmh.net/dokumente/upload/556c7_SCIEN_FRA_2009_final_approved.pdf (accessed 7 April 2010)

I found this article extremely revealing and scary. It gives us an important glimpse into the way some or perhaps even most homeopaths think. They clearly believe that:

1) Their training is sufficient for them to become competent primary care professionals, i.e. clinicians who are the first port of call for sick people  to be diagnosed and treated effectively.

2) Homeopathy is scientifically proven to be efficacious for an ‘almost limitless’ range of conditions. Interestingly, not a single reference is provided to support this claim. Nevertheless, homeopath believe it, and that seems to be enough.

3) Homeopaths seem convinced that they perfectly understand real medicine; yet all they really do is to denounce it as one of the biggest killer of mankind.

4) The fact that homeopaths cannot prescribe real medicine is not seen as a hindrance to their role as primary care practitioner; if anything, homeopaths consider this to be an advantage.

5) Homeopaths view registration with some sort of governing body as the ultimate legitimation of their trade. Once such regulatory measures are in place, the need to support any of their claims with evidence is nil and void.

This article did remind me of the wry statement that ‘HOMEOPATHY IS TO MEDICINE WHAT THE CARPET INDUSTRY IS TO AVIATION’. Homeopaths truly live on a different planet, a planet where belief is everything and responsibility is an alien concept. I certainly hope that they will not take over planet earth in a hurry. If I imagine a world where homeopaths dominate primary care in the way it is suggested in this article, I start having nightmares. It seems to me that people who harbour ideas of this type are not just deluded to the point of madness but they are a danger to public health.

This post will probably work best, if you have read the previous one describing how the parallel universe of acupuncture research insists on going in circles in order to avoid admitting that their treatment might not be as effective as they pretend. The way they achieve this is fairly simple: they conduct trials that are designed in such a way that they cannot possibly produce a negative result.

A brand-new investigation which was recently vociferously touted via press releases etc. as a major advance in proving the effectiveness of acupuncture is an excellent case in point. According to its authors, the aim of this study was to evaluate acupuncture versus usual care and counselling versus usual care for patients who continue to experience depression in primary care. This sounds alright, but wait!

755 patients with depression were randomised to one of three arms to 1)acupuncture, 2)counselling, and 3)usual care alone. The primary outcome was the difference in mean Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) scores at 3 months with secondary analyses over 12 months follow-up. Analysis was by intention-to-treat. PHQ-9 data were available for 614 patients at 3 months and 572 patients at 12 months. Patients attended a mean of 10 sessions for acupuncture and 9 sessions for counselling. Compared to usual care, there was a statistically significant reduction in mean PHQ-9 depression scores at 3 and 12 months for acupuncture and counselling.

From this, the authors conclude that both interventions were associated with significantly reduced depression at 3 months when compared to usual care alone.

Acupuncture for depression? Really? Our own systematic review with co-authors who are the most ardent apologists of acupuncture I have come across showed that the evidence is inconsistent on whether manual acupuncture is superior to sham… Therefore, I thought it might be a good idea to have a closer look at this new study.

One needs to search this article very closely indeed to find out that the authors did not actually evaluate acupuncture versus usual care and counselling versus usual care at all, and that comparisons were not made between acupuncture, counselling, and usual care (hints like the use of the word “alone” are all we get to guess that the authors’ text is outrageously misleading). Not even the methods section informs us what really happened in this trial. You find this hard to believe? Here is the unabbreviated part of the article that describes the interventions applied:

Patients allocated to the acupuncture and counselling groups were offered up to 12 sessions usually on a weekly basis. Participating acupuncturists were registered with the British Acupuncture Council with at least 3 years post-qualification experience. An acupuncture treatment protocol was developed and subsequently refined in consultation with participating acupuncturists. It allowed for customised treatments within a standardised theory-driven framework. Counselling was provided by members of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy who were accredited or were eligible for accreditation having completed 400 supervised hours post-qualification. A manualised protocol, using a humanistic approach, was based on competences independently developed for Skills for Health. Practitioners recorded in logbooks the number and length of sessions, treatment provided, and adverse events. Further details of the two interventions are presented in Tables S2 and S3. Usual care, both NHS and private, was available according to need and monitored for all patients in all three groups for the purposes of comparison.

It is only in the results tables that we can determine what treatments were actually given; and these were:

1) Acupuncture PLUS usual care (i.e. medication)

2) Counselling PLUS usual care

3) Usual care

Its almost a ‘no-brainer’ that, if you compare A+B to B (or in this three-armed study A+B vs C+B vs B), you find that the former is more than the latter – unless A is a negative, of course. As acupuncture has significant placebo-effects, it never can be a negative, and thus this trial is an entirely foregone conclusion. As, in alternative medicine, one seems to need experimental proof even for ‘no-brainers’, we have some time ago demonstrated that this common sense theory is correct by conducting a systematic review of all acupuncture trials with such a design. We concluded that the ‘A + B versus B’ design is prone to false positive results…What makes this whole thing even worse is the fact that I once presented our review in a lecture where the lead author of the new trial was in the audience; so there can be no excuse of not being aware of the ‘no-brainer’.

Some might argue that this is a pragmatic trial, that it would have been unethical to not give anti-depressants to depressed patients and that therefore it was not possible to design this study differently. However, none of these arguments are convincing, if you analyse them closely (I might leave that to the comment section, if there is interest in such aspects). At the very minimum, the authors should have explained in full detail what interventions were given; and that means disclosing these essentials even in the abstract (and press release) – the part of the publication that is most widely read and quoted.

It is arguably unethical to ask patients’ co-operation, use research funds etc. for a study, the results of which were known even before the first patient had been recruited. And it is surely dishonest to hide the true nature of the design so very sneakily in the final report.

In my view, this trial begs at least 5 questions:

1) How on earth did it pass the peer review process of one of the most highly reputed medical journals?

2) How did the protocol get ethics approval?

3) How did it get funding?

4) Does the scientific community really allow itself to be fooled by such pseudo-research?

5) What do I do to not get depressed by studies of acupuncture for depression?

Has it ever occurred to you that much of the discussion about cause and effect in alternative medicine goes in circles without ever making progress? I have come to the conclusion that it does. Here I try to illustrate this point using the example of acupuncture, more precisely the endless discussion about how to best test acupuncture for efficacy. For those readers who like to misunderstand me I should explain that the sceptics’ view is in capital letters.

At the beginning there was the experience. Unaware of anatomy, physiology, pathology etc., people started sticking needles in other people’s skin, some 2000 years ago, and observed that they experienced relief of all sorts of symptoms.When an American journalist reported about this phenomenon in the 1970s, acupuncture became all the rage in the West. Acupuncture-fans then claimed that a 2000-year history is ample proof that acupuncture does work.

BUT ANECDOTES ARE NOTORIOUSLY UNRELIABLE!

Even the most enthusiastic advocates conceded that this is probably true. So they documented detailed case-series of lots of patients, calculated the average difference between the pre- and post-treatment severity of symptoms, submitted it to statistical tests, and published the notion that the effects of acupuncture are not just anecdotal; in fact, they are statistically significant, they said.

BUT THIS EFFECT COULD BE DUE TO THE NATURAL HISTORY OF THE CONDITION!

“True enough”, grumbled the acupuncture-fans and conducted the very first controlled clinical trials. Essentially they treated one group of patients with acupuncture while another group received conventional treatments as usual. When they analysed the results, they found that the acupuncture group had improved significantly more. “Now do you believe us?”, they asked triumphantly, “acupuncture is clearly effective”.

NO! THIS OUTCOME MIGHT BE DUE TO SELECTION BIAS. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT.

The acupuncturists felt slightly embarrassed because they had not thought of that. They had allocated their patients to the treatment according to patients’ choice. Thus the expectation of the patients (or the clinician) to get relief from acupuncture might have been the reason for the difference in outcome. So they consulted an expert in trial-design and were advised to allocate not by choice but by chance. In other words, they repeated the previous study but randomised patients to the two groups. Amazingly, their RCT still found a significant difference favouring acupuncture over treatment as usual.

BUT THIS DIFFERENCE COULD BE CAUSED BY A PLACEBO-EFFECT!

Now the acupuncturists were in a bit of a pickle; as far as they could see, there was no good placebo for acupuncture! Eventually some methodologist-chap came up with the idea that, in order to mimic a placebo, they could simply stick needles into non-acupuncture points. When the acupuncturists tried that method, they found that there were improvements in both groups but the difference between real acupuncture and placebo was tiny and usually neither statistically significant nor clinically relevant.

NOW DO YOU CONCEDE THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS NOT AN EFFECTIVE TREATMENT?

Absolutely not! The results merely show that needling non-acupuncture points is not an adequate placebo. Obviously this intervention also sends a powerful signal to the brain which clearly makes it an effective intervention. What do you expect when you compare two effective treatments?

IF YOU REALLY THINK SO, YOU NEED TO PROVE IT AND DESIGN A PLACEBO THAT IS INERT.

At that stage, the acupuncturists came up with a placebo-needle that did not actually penetrate the skin; it worked like a mini stage dagger that telescopes into itself while giving the impression that it penetrated the skin just like the real thing. Surely this was an adequate placebo! The acupuncturists repeated their studies but, to their utter dismay, they found again that both groups improved and the difference in outcome between their new placebo and true acupuncture was minimal.

WE TOLD YOU THAT ACUPUNCTURE WAS NOT EFFECTIVE! DO YOU FINALLY AGREE?

Certainly not, they replied. We have thought long and hard about these intriguing findings and believe that they can be explained just like the last set of results: the non-penetrating needles touch the skin; this touch provides a stimulus powerful enough to have an effect on the brain; the non-penetrating placebo-needles are not inert and therefore the results merely depict a comparison of two effective treatments.

YOU MUST BE JOKING! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PROVE THAT BIZARRE HYPOTHESIS?

We had many discussions and consensus meeting amongst the most brilliant brains in acupuncture about this issue and have arrived at the conclusion that your obsession with placebo, cause and effect etc. is ridiculous and entirely misplaced. In real life, we don’t use placebos. So, let’s instead address the ‘real life’ question: is acupuncture better than usual treatment? We have conducted pragmatic studies where one group of patients gets treatment as usual and the other group receives acupuncture in addition. These studies show that acupuncture is effective. This is all the evidence we need. Why can you not believe us?

NOW WE HAVE ARRIVED EXACTLY AT THE POINT WHERE WE HAVE BEEN A LONG TIME AGO. SUCH A STUDY-DESIGN CANNOT ESTABLISH CAUSE AND EFFECT. YOU OBVIOUSLY CANNOT DEMONSTRATE THAT ACUPUNCTURE CAUSES CLINICAL IMPROVEMENT. THEREFORE YOU OPT TO PRETEND THAT CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE IRRELEVANT. YOU USE SOME IMITATION OF SCIENCE TO ‘PROVE’ THAT YOUR PRECONCEIVED IDEAS ARE CORRECT. YOU DO NOT SEEM TO BE INTERESTED IN THE TRUTH ABOUT ACUPUNCTURE AT ALL.

Herbal medicine is popular. Consumers seem to be attracted by the notion that they are natural – and if it’s natural, it must be safe!!! But do we really know what is in the product that we might be buying? A recently published analytical study aimed to investigate herbal product integrity and authenticity with the goal of protecting consumers from health risks associated with product substitution and contamination.

The researchers used DNA barcoding to conduct a blind test of the authenticity for (i) 44 herbal   products representing 12 companies and 30 different species of herbs, and (ii) 50 leaf samples collected from 42 herbal species. They also assembled the first   standard reference material (SRM) herbal barcode library from 100 herbal species of   known provenance that were used to identify the unknown herbal products and leaf samples.

DNA barcodes from 91% of the herbal products and all leaf samples could be recovered. 59% of the products tested contained DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels. 48% of the products could be authenticated but one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label. Product substitution occurred in 30 of the 44 products tested and only 2 of the 12 companies sold products without any substitution, contamination or fillers. Some of the contaminants we found pose serious health risks to consumers.

Based on these findings, the authors drew the following conclusions: Most of the herbal products tested were of poor quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers. These activities dilute the effectiveness of otherwise useful remedies, lowering the perceived value of all related products because of a lack of consumer confidence in them. We suggest that the herbal industry should embrace DNA barcoding for authenticating herbal products through testing of raw materials used in manufacturing products. The use of an SRM DNA herbal barcode library for testing bulk materials could provide a method for ‘best practices’ in the manufacturing of herbal products. This would provide consumers with safe, high quality herbal products.

These findings are fairly alarming. I have previously blogged about the fact that herbal products are far to often adulterated or contaminated. Now it seems that we have to add to this list of dangers the substitution of the herbal ingredient with a presumably less expensive but potentially toxic herb that should not legally be there at all.

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