MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Currently, over 50 000 000 websites promote alternative medicine, and consumers are bombarded with information not just via the Internet, but also via newspapers, magazines and other sources. This has the potential of needlessly separating them from their cash or even seriously harming their health. As there is little that protects us from greedy entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic therapists, we should think about protecting ourselves. Here I will provide five simple tips that may fortify you against fake news in the realm of alternative medicine.

Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are exited by this news. Before you now rush to the next health shop or alternative medicine centre, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the claim plausible? As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.
  • What is the evidence for the claim? In the case of CARCTOL, the claim was based on a UK doctor apparently observing that, in several patients, tumours had been melting like butter in the sun after they took this herbal mixture. One particularly irresponsible headline read: “I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor.” This, however, is no evidence but mere anecdotes, and we confuse the two at our peril. Remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence. With anecdotes, we can never be sure about cause and effect. Therapeutic claims must be based on good evidence, e.g. controlled clinical trials.
  • Who is behind the claim? In the UK, the CARCTOL claim emerged around 2004 and originated mainly from Dr Rosy Daniel. In the above newspaper article, she was called ‘a respected cancer doctor’. Personally, I do NOT ‘respect’  someone who makes claims of this nature without having good evidence. And a ‘cancer doctor’ is usually understood to be an oncologist; to the best of my knowledge, Dr Daniel is NOT an oncologist. In fact, she now calls herself a ‘Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine Consultant’. Faced with an important new health claim, one should always check who is behind it. Check out whether this person is reputable and free of conflicts of interest. An affiliation to a reputable university is usually more convincing than being a director of your own private heath centre.
  • Where was the claim published? The CARCTOL story had been published in newspapers – and nowhere else! Even today, there is only one Medline-listed publication on the subject. It is my own review of the evidence which, in 2004, concluded that “The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.”   *** If important new therapeutic claims like ‘therapy xy cures cancer’ are reported in the popular media, you should always check where they were first published (or simply dismiss it without researching it). It is unthinkable that such an important claim is not made first in a proper, peer-reviewed article in a good medical journal. Go on ‘Medline’, conduct a quick search and find out whether the new findings have been published. If the claim does not come from peer-reviewed journals, forget about it. If it has been published in any journal that has alternative, complementary, integrative or similar terms in its name, take it with a good pinch of salt.
  • Is there money involved? In the case of CARCTOL, the costs were high. I was called once by a woman who had read my article telling me that she was pursued by the doctor who had treated her husband. Tragically, the man had nevertheless died of his cancer, and the widow was now pursued for £8 000 which she understandably was reluctant to pay. Many new treatments are expensive. So, high costs are not necessarily suspicious. Still, I advise you to be extra cautious in situations where there is the potential for someone to make a fast buck. Financial exploitation is sadly rife in the realm of alternative medicine.

A similar checklist originates from a team of experts. Researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, worked to identify the most important ideas a person would need to grasp thinking critically about health claims. They came up with excellent points:

  1. Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
  2. New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
  3. Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
  4. Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
  5. Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
  6. Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.

Alternative medicine can easily turn into a jungle or even a nightmare. Before you fall for any dubious claim that THERAPY XY is good for you, please go through the simple sets of questions above. This might protect you from getting ripped off or – more importantly – from getting harmed.

 

*** After this article had been published, I received letters from layers threatening me with legal action unless I withdrew the paper. I decided to ignore them, and no legal action followed.

12 Responses to How to protect yourself from bogus claims about so-called alternative medicine

  • ” If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.”

    Well, it did happen. And it did happen far too often and it is too widespread.
    Look at Cannabis.
    Long known, quite well documented and in the major pharmocopeias for centuries.
    That means: it turned out to be efficacious centuries ago, if not millennia.
    Then it was banned.
    And then it became alternative medicine.
    And it still is, in most parts of the world.
    Despite being scientifically investigated, and getting good results and things done.
    Good luck in having a condition now “proven” to be effectively treatable with that herb and being in one of those backwater countries where there is still this prohibition thing going on.
    Most stunning example: German clinicians and pharmacists are overwhelmingly happy to _prescribe_ you homeopathy for lack of appetite, PTSD and so on. But they work actively against you and tell you a Grimm’s story about criminal intentions coming out of your dirty, worthless mind if you mention ‘the alternative’ cannabis.
    So it seems to me you used far too radical terminology there and oversimplified the situation.
    Good scientists maybe open to investigate. But pharmacists and clinicians are not scientists and mostly just lackeys going after the money?

    • please show me the evidence that cannabis cures cancer – it does not exist!

    • What a wonderful example: cannabis. What a wonderful ‘most stunning example’: German clinicians and pharmacists.

      Take a look at this paper. It was published in a German medical journal in 2012. Its title is “The Therapeutic Potential of Cannabis and Cannabinoids”. From the abstract: “More than 100 controlled clinical trials of cannabinoids or whole-plant preparations for various indications have been conducted since 1975. The findings of these trials have led to the approval of cannabis-based medicines (dronabinol, nabilone, and a cannabis extract [THC:CBD=1:1]) in several countries. In Germany, a cannabis extract was approved in 2011 for the treatment of moderate to severe refractory spasticity in multiple sclerosis. It is commonly used off label for the treatment of anorexia, nausea, and neuropathic pain. Patients can also apply for government permission to buy medicinal cannabis flowers for self-treatment under medical supervision.” Conclusion: “There is now clear evidence that cannabinoids are useful for the treatment of various medical conditions.”

      Yep, clearly Germany is one of those “backwater” countries where they “work actively against you” where cannabis is concerned. Mike, we all so easily fool ourselves. You seem to have got hold of the wrong end of several sticks, and have persuaded yourself of the truth of something that’s clearly utterly incorrect. Let’s be kind and say you misapprehended the situation vis-a-vis cannabis and medicine.

      Of course, if you were prompted to post by the notion that cannabis cures cancer, you only have to google ‘cannabis and cancer’ to find many sites that will disabuse you of this claim.

      • but my post was about CURE OF CANCER

        • “but my post was about CURE OF CANCER”
          Sorry, but it doesn’t read that specifically.

          Title: “How to protect yourself from bogus claims about so-called alternative medicine”

          Two introductory paragraphs that don’t mention cancer contain the sentence “Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are excited by this news.” So far, it’s all pretty general.

          Then you use CARCTOL and cancer as an example of the generalized case.

          • my fault!
            I did not mean ‘my post’ but was referring to the paragraph Mike referred to; it was this one:
            “As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.”

  • Sure.
    If I were to follow this: Has anyone ever had the funds and tried to conduct such a trial?

    The cure for cancer is the wrong straw man here.
    Please, you show me where I used the word cancer.
    You phrased your headline without the word cancer.
    Or was your usage of “cure” in the quoted passage strictly confined; only to cures for cancer?
    That would be my fault of misunderstanding it.
    The point I wanted to call into question is that “If an[y] alternative therapy ever did turn out to be…” (how I apparently misread the y) And that, universally phrased and often cited like “…then we would call it medicine.”
    Cannabis got classified as ‘alternative’ despite being effective in a number of ways and that there are forces at work suppressing it on primarily legal, social or political grounds. And thereby contaminating an already all too weakly formed should-be-scientific mindset of real doctors.
    But, since you mentioned it, cancer is quite ugly and radiation or chemotherapy ain’t no beauties either.
    So, if I were to get these universally favored treatments, I would insist on getting the right adjuvants to soften that blow.
    Loss of appetite, nausea and so on. Cannabis won’t cure cancer, but it will certainly help in dealing with the currently best available treatments for cancer.
    It would be impossible for me to find a doctor for that in time and even illegal to treat myself with a simple weed.
    In real life evidence is worthless against entrenched mindsets. (I guess we should both lament that.)
    If this example of cannabis being not only unfavored but prohibited isn’t enough to prove that ‘conventional clinicians’ adhere more to conservative politics instead of abolishing them, based on the evidence and this abominable track record they gave?
    There is precedent that this has occurred, and I am sure it will happen in the future.
    This sums up the schizophrenic situation quite nicely:
    https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/cannabis-pdq

    And since Germany is just one example of this conservative backwatering, you might want to have a look at this actively working against patients (in German):
    https://hanfverband.de/nachrichten/pressemitteilungen/laesst-die-bayerische-landesaerztekammer-schwerkranke-patienten-im-stich-frust-bei-patienten-waechst
    Isolating single compounds that can be sold at high prices when a simple “sure, do in your garden what you like” would suffice is paramount to show that hippocratic rules are simply not in effect.

    • you cited from this paragraph:
      “As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.”

      • Of course I know from which paragraph I took a quite universally phrased dismissal of so-called “alternative medicine”.
        And it was this generality that lead me to the conclusion that the bath tub you emptied there was still full of little people. Even in your paragraph using one quack therapy for cancer as an example you use language implying a far greater reach as now claimed.
        My guess is, that I am still not getting it. Am I now reading correctly that you meant to write: “[(Only) for cancer:] if an alternative…”?
        Your focus seems to be on the debunking of unwanted miracles, fads and hoaxes and I am all for it, being more of a Doogie Howser than a hoagie dowser.
        Nevertheless, your choice of wording exemplifies how ideals about the scientific method clash with the reality of the medical profession, alternative or not. There are numerous problems with evidence based medicine trickling down to those who need help. I want to praise my medicine man clad in white robes when he does good, but I want to criticize his speech and actions when he does not. In my example, The Medicine Man is doing harm for decades now, pointing to his degree from often decades ago and saying something beginning like the first lines of Pride and Prejudice.
        To me this looks like primitive scientism usurped a noble cause.
        The science in medicine is, as everywhere else, not about facts of life or the reality.
        It should be and we wish that to be true.
        It can only approach it, tries hopefully its best and does some- or most times remarkably well, even in my eyes.
        Your examples using CARCTOL are quite right to show how hope and greed and un-science go hand in hand into the woods. Your generalized follow-up reasoning is misleading, imho, alas and also.
        My focus here is on the debunking of an idealized version of science that is often used as a shield to protect and immunize the politics connected to it from reasonable arguments and demands.
        Science is not and can never be perfect. It has to get better at its own subject, and for that it needs to consider how things like money, power, politics are opposed to its core values far too often. Further, scientism is cargo cult science and the wording you chose – and now ignore that I criticized only that – promotes just that.

    • Mike Nickerner said:

      Has anyone ever had the funds and tried to conduct such a trial?

      How much would one cost?

    • In addition quite good summary for what cannabis is useful and for what not –
      https://www.skepticalraptor.com/skepticalraptorblog.php/marijuana-medical-benefits-large-review/

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