We all know that there is a plethora of interventions for and specialists in low back pain (chiropractors, osteopaths, massage therapists, physiotherapists etc., etc.); and, depending whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, each of these therapies is as good or as useless as the next. Today, a widely-publicised series of articles in the Lancet confirms that none of the current options is optimal:
Almost everyone will have low back pain at some point in their lives. It can affect anyone at any age, and it is increasing—disability due to back pain has risen by more than 50% since 1990. Low back pain is becoming more prevalent in low-income and middle-income countries (LMICs) much more rapidly than in high-income countries. The cause is not always clear, apart from in people with, for example, malignant disease, spinal malformations, or spinal injury. Treatment varies widely around the world, from bed rest, mainly in LMICs, to surgery and the use of dangerous drugs such as opioids, usually in high-income countries.
The Lancet publishes three papers on low back pain, by an international group of authors led by Prof Rachelle Buchbinder, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, which address the issues around the disorder and call for worldwide recognition of the disability associated with the disorder and the removal of harmful practices. In the first paper, Jan Hartvigsen, Mark Hancock, and colleagues draw our attention to the complexity of the condition and the contributors to it, such as psychological, social, and biophysical factors, and especially to the problems faced by LMICs. In the second paper, Nadine Foster, Christopher Maher, and their colleagues outline recommendations for treatment and the scarcity of research into prevention of low back pain. The last paper is a call for action by Rachelle Buchbinder and her colleagues. They say that persistence of disability associated with low back pain needs to be recognised and that it cannot be separated from social and economic factors and personal and cultural beliefs about back pain.
Overview of interventions endorsed for non-specific low back pain in evidence-based clinical practice guidelines (Danish, US, and UK guidelines)
In this situation, it makes sense, I think, to opt for a treatment (amongst similarly effective/ineffective therapies) that is at least safe, cheap and readily available. This automatically rules out chiropractic, osteopathy and many others. Exercise, however, does come to mind – but what type of exercise?
The aim of this meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials was to gain insight into the effectiveness of walking intervention on pain, disability, and quality of life in patients with chronic low back pain (LBP) at post intervention and follow ups.
Six electronic databases (PubMed, Science Direct, Web of Science, Scopus, PEDro and The Cochrane library) were searched from 1980 to October 2017. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in patients with chronic LBP were included, if they compared the effects of walking intervention to non-pharmacological interventions. Pain, disability, and quality of life were the primary health outcomes.
Nine RCTs were suitable for meta-analysis. Data was analysed according to the duration of follow-up (short-term, < 3 months; intermediate-term, between 3 and 12 months; long-term, > 12 months). Low- to moderate-quality evidence suggests that walking intervention in patients with chronic LBP was as effective as other non-pharmacological interventions on pain and disability reduction in both short- and intermediate-term follow ups.
The authors concluded that, unless supplementary high-quality studies provide different evidence, walking, which is easy to perform and highly accessible, can be recommended in the management of chronic LBP to reduce pain and disability.
I know – this will hardly please the legions of therapists who earn their daily bread with pretending their therapy is the best for LBP. But healthcare is clearly not about the welfare of the therapists, it is/should be about patients. And patients should surely welcome this evidence. I know, walking is not always easy for people with severe LBP, but it seems effective and it is safe, free and available to everyone.
My advice to patients is therefore to walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of their preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.
“In my medical practice, writes Sheila Patel, M.D. on the website of Deepak Chopra, I always take into consideration the underlying dosha of a patient, or what their main imbalance is, when choosing treatments out of the many options available. For example, if I see someone who has the symptoms of hypertension as well as a Kapha imbalance, I may prescribe a diuretic, since excess water is more likely to be a contributing factor. I would also encourage more exercise or physical activity, since lack of movement is often a causative factor for these individuals. However, in a Vata-type person with hypertension, a diuretic may actually cause harm, as the Vata system tends to have too much dryness (air and space). I’ve observed that Vatas often have more side effects and electrolyte imbalances due to the diuretic medication. For these individuals, a beta-blocker may be a better choice, as this “slows” down the excitatory pathways in the body. In addition, I recommend meditation and calming activities to settle the excess energy as an adjunct to (or at times, instead of) the medicine. Alternatively, for someone with hypertension who is predominantly a Pitta type or who has a Pitta imbalance, I may choose a calcium-channel blocker, as this medication may be more beneficial in regulating the process of “energy exchange” in the body, which is represented by the fire element of Pitta. This is just one example of the way in which we can tailor our choice of medication to best suit the individual.
“In contrast with conventional medicine, which until very recently has assumed that a given disorder or disease is the same in all people, Ayurveda places great importance on recognizing the unique qualities of individual human beings. Ayurveda’s understanding of constitutional types or doshas offers us a remarkably accurate way to pinpoint what is happening inside each individual, allowing us to customize treatment and offer specific lifestyle recommendations to prevent disease and promote health and longevity. Keeping the doshas balanced is one of the most important factors in keeping the whole mind-body system in balance. When our mind-body system is in balance and we are connecting to our inner wisdom and intelligence, then we are most able to realize our full human potential and achieve our optimal state of being…”
END OF QUOTE
From such texts, some might conclude that Ayurvedic medicine is gentle and kind (personally, I am much more inclined to feel that Ayurvedic medicine is full of BS). This may be true or not, but Ayurvedic medicines are certainly anything but gentle and kind. In fact, they can be positively dangerous. I have repeatedly blogged about their risks, in particular the risk of heavy metal poisoning (see here, here, and here, for instance).
My 2002 systematic review summarised the evidence available at the time and concluded that heavy metals, particularly lead, have been a regular constituent of traditional Indian remedies. This has repeatedly caused serious harm to patients taking such remedies. The incidence of heavy metal contamination is not known, but one study shows that 64% of samples collected in India contained significant amounts of lead (64% mercury, 41% arsenic and 9% cadmium). These findings should alert us to the possibility of heavy metal content in traditional Indian remedies and motivate us to consider means of protecting consumers from such risks.
Meanwhile, new data have emerged and a new article with important information has recently been published by authors from the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health , College of Public Health, The University of Iowa and the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa, USA. They present an analysis based on reports of toxic metals content of Ayurvedic products obtained during an investigation of lead poisoning among users of Ayurvedic medicine. Samples of Ayurvedic formulations were analysed for metals and metalloids following established US. Environmental Protection Agency methods. Lead was found in 65% of 252 Ayurvedic medicine samples with mercury and arsenic found in 38 and 32% of samples, respectively. Almost half of samples containing mercury, 36% of samples containing lead, and 39% of samples containing arsenic had concentrations of those metals per pill that exceeded, up to several thousand times, the recommended daily intake values for pharmaceutical impurities.
The authors concluded that lack of regulations regarding manufacturing and content or purity of Ayurvedic and other herbal formulations poses a significant global public health problem.
I could not have said it better myself!
As I often said, I find it regrettable that sceptics often say THERE IS NOT A SINGLE STUDY THAT SHOWS HOMEOPATHY TO BE EFFECTIVE (or something to that extent). This is quite simply not true, and it gives homeopathy-fans the occasion to suggest sceptics wrong. The truth is that THE TOTALITY OF THE MOST RELIABLE EVIDENCE FAILS TO SUGGEST THAT HIGHLY DILUTED HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES ARE EFFECTIVE BEYOND PLACEBO. As a message for consumers, this is a little more complex, but I believe that it’s worth being well-informed and truthful.
And that also means admitting that a few apparently rigorous trials of homeopathy exist and some of them show positive results. Today, I want to focus on this small set of studies.
How can a rigorous trial of a highly diluted homeopathic remedy yield a positive result? As far as I can see, there are several possibilities:
- Homeopathy does work after all, and we have not fully understood the laws of physics, chemistry etc. Homeopaths favour this option, of course, but I find it extremely unlikely, and most rational thinkers would discard this possibility outright. It is not that we don’t quite understand homeopathy’s mechanism; the fact is that we understand that there cannot be a mechanism that is in line with the laws of nature.
- The trial in question is the victim of some undetected error.
- The result has come about by chance. Of 100 trials, 5 would produce a positive result at the 5% probability level purely by chance.
- The researchers have cheated.
When we critically assess any given trial, we attempt, in a way, to determine which of the 4 solutions apply. But unfortunately we always have to contend with what the authors of the trial tell us. Publications never provide all the details we need for this purpose, and we are often left speculating which of the explanations might apply. Whatever it is, we assume the result is false-positive.
Naturally, this assumption is hard to accept for homeopaths; they merely conclude that we are biased against homeopathy and conclude that, however, rigorous a study of homeopathy is, sceptics will not accept its result, if it turns out to be positive.
But there might be a way to settle the argument and get some more objective verdict, I think. We only need to remind ourselves of a crucially important principle in all science: INDEPENDENT REPLICATION. To be convincing, a scientific paper needs to provide evidence that the results are reproducible. In medicine, it unquestionably is wise to accept a new finding only after it has been confirmed by other, independent researchers. Only if we have at least one (better several) independent replications, can we be reasonably sure that the result in question is true and not false-positive due to bias, chance, error or fraud.
And this is, I believe, the extremely odd phenomenon about the ‘positive’ and apparently rigorous studies of homeopathic remedies. Let’s look at the recent meta-analysis of Mathie et al. The authors found several studies that were both positive and fairly rigorous. These trials differ in many respects (e. g. remedies used, conditions treated) but they have, as far as I can see, one important feature in common: THEY HAVE NOT BEEN INDEPENDENTLY REPLICATED.
If that is not astounding, I don’t know what is!
Think of it: faced with a finding that flies in the face of science and would, if true, revolutionise much of medicine, scientists should jump with excitement. Yet, in reality, nobody seems to take the trouble to check whether it is the truth or an error.
To explain this absurdity more fully, let’s take just one of these trials as an example, one related to a common and serious condition: COPD
The study is by Prof Frass and was published in 2005 – surely long enough ago for plenty of independent replications to emerge. Its results showed that potentized (C30) potassium dichromate decreases the amount of tracheal secretions was reduced, extubation could be performed significantly earlier, and the length of stay was significantly shorter. This is a scientific as well as clinical sensation, if there ever was one!
The RCT was published in one of the leading journals on this subject (Chest) which is read by most specialists in the field, and it was at the time widely reported. Even today, there is hardly an interview with Prof Frass in which he does not boast about this trial with truly sensational results (only last week, I saw one). If Frass is correct, his findings would revolutionise the lives of thousands of seriously suffering patients at the very brink of death. In other words, it is inconceivable that Frass’ result has not been replicated!
But it hasn’t; at least there is nothing in Medline.
Why not? A risk-free, cheap, universally available and easy to administer treatment for such a severe, life-threatening condition would normally be picked up instantly. There should not be one, but dozens of independent replications by now. There should be several RCTs testing Frass’ therapy and at least one systematic review of these studies telling us clearly what is what.
But instead there is a deafening silence.
For heaven sakes, why?
The only logical explanation is that many centres around the world did try Frass’ therapy. Most likely they found it does not work and soon dismissed it. Others might even have gone to the trouble of conducting a formal study of Frass’ ‘sensational’ therapy and found it to be ineffective. Subsequently they felt too silly to submit it for publication – who would not laugh at them, if they said they trailed a remedy that was diluted 1: 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 and found it to be worthless? Others might have written up their study and submitted it for publication, but got rejected by all reputable journals in the field because the editors felt that comparing one placebo to another placebo is not real science.
And this is roughly, how it went with the other ‘positive’ and seemingly rigorous studies of homeopathy as well, I suspect.
Regardless of whether I am correct or not, the fact is that there are no independent replications (if readers know any, please let me know).
Once a sufficiently long period of time has lapsed and no replications of a ‘sensational’ finding did not emerge, the finding becomes unbelievable or bogus – no rational thinker can possibly believe such a results (I for one have not yet met an intensive care specialist who believes Frass’ findings, for instance). Subsequently, it is quietly dropped into the waste-basket of science where it no longer obstructs progress.
The absence of independent replications is therefore a most useful mechanism by which science rids itself of falsehoods.
It seems that homeopathy is such a falsehood.
The plethora of dodgy meta-analyses in alternative medicine has been the subject of a recent post – so this one is a mere update of a regular lament.
This new meta-analysis was to evaluate evidence for the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of lumbar disc herniation (LDH). (Call me pedantic, but I prefer meta-analyses that evaluate the evidence FOR AND AGAINST a therapy.) Electronic databases were searched to identify RCTs of acupuncture for LDH, and 30 RCTs involving 3503 participants were included; 29 were published in Chinese and one in English, and all trialists were Chinese.
The results showed that acupuncture had a higher total effective rate than lumbar traction, ibuprofen, diclofenac sodium and meloxicam. Acupuncture was also superior to lumbar traction and diclofenac sodium in terms of pain measured with visual analogue scales (VAS). The total effective rate in 5 trials was greater for acupuncture than for mannitol plus dexamethasone and mecobalamin, ibuprofen plus fugui gutong capsule, loxoprofen, mannitol plus dexamethasone and huoxue zhitong decoction, respectively. Two trials showed a superior effect of acupuncture in VAS scores compared with ibuprofen or mannitol plus dexamethasone, respectively.
The authors from the College of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Jinan University, Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, concluded that acupuncture showed a more favourable effect in the treatment of LDH than lumbar traction, ibuprofen, diclofenac sodium, meloxicam, mannitol plus dexamethasone and mecobalamin, fugui gutong capsule plus ibuprofen, mannitol plus dexamethasone, loxoprofen and huoxue zhitong decoction. However, further rigorously designed, large-scale RCTs are needed to confirm these findings.
Why do I call this meta-analysis ‘dodgy’? I have several reasons, 10 to be exact:
- There is no plausible mechanism by which acupuncture might cure LDH.
- The types of acupuncture used in these trials was far from uniform and included manual acupuncture (MA) in 13 studies, electro-acupuncture (EA) in 10 studies, and warm needle acupuncture (WNA) in 7 studies. Arguably, these are different interventions that cannot be lumped together.
- The trials were mostly of very poor quality, as depicted in the table above. For instance, 18 studies failed to mention the methods used for randomisation. I have previously shown that some Chinese studies use the terms ‘randomisation’ and ‘RCT’ even in the absence of a control group.
- None of the trials made any attempt to control for placebo effects.
- None of the trials were conducted against sham acupuncture.
- Only 10 studies 10 trials reported dropouts or withdrawals.
- Only two trials reported adverse reactions.
- None of these shortcomings were critically discussed in the paper.
- Despite their affiliation, the authors state that they have no conflicts of interest.
- All trials were conducted in China, and, on this blog, we have discussed repeatedly that acupuncture trials from China never report negative results.
And why do I find the journal ‘dodgy’?
Because any journal that publishes such a paper is likely to be sub-standard. In the case of ‘Acupuncture in Medicine’, the official journal of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, I see such appalling articles published far too frequently to believe that the present paper is just a regrettable, one-off mistake. What makes this issue particularly embarrassing is, of course, the fact that the journal belongs to the BMJ group.
… but we never really thought that science publishing was about anything other than money, did we?
What an odd title, you might think.
Systematic reviews are the most reliable evidence we presently have!
Yes, this is my often-voiced and honestly-held opinion but, like any other type of research, systematic reviews can be badly abused; and when this happens, they can seriously mislead us.
A new paper by someone who knows more about these issues than most of us, John Ioannidis from Stanford university, should make us think. It aimed at exploring the growth of published systematic reviews and meta‐analyses and at estimating how often they are redundant, misleading, or serving conflicted interests. Ioannidis demonstrated that publication of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses has increased rapidly. In the period January 1, 1986, to December 4, 2015, PubMed tags 266,782 items as “systematic reviews” and 58,611 as “meta‐analyses.” Annual publications between 1991 and 2014 increased 2,728% for systematic reviews and 2,635% for meta‐analyses versus only 153% for all PubMed‐indexed items. Ioannidis believes that probably more systematic reviews of trials than new randomized trials are published annually. Most topics addressed by meta‐analyses of randomized trials have overlapping, redundant meta‐analyses; same‐topic meta‐analyses may exceed 20 sometimes.
Some fields produce massive numbers of meta‐analyses; for example, 185 meta‐analyses of antidepressants for depression were published between 2007 and 2014. These meta‐analyses are often produced either by industry employees or by authors with industry ties and results are aligned with sponsor interests. China has rapidly become the most prolific producer of English‐language, PubMed‐indexed meta‐analyses. The most massive presence of Chinese meta‐analyses is on genetic associations (63% of global production in 2014), where almost all results are misleading since they combine fragmented information from mostly abandoned era of candidate genes. Furthermore, many contracting companies working on evidence synthesis receive industry contracts to produce meta‐analyses, many of which probably remain unpublished. Many other meta‐analyses have serious flaws. Of the remaining, most have weak or insufficient evidence to inform decision making. Few systematic reviews and meta‐analyses are both non‐misleading and useful.
The author concluded that the production of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses has reached epidemic proportions. Possibly, the large majority of produced systematic reviews and meta‐analyses are unnecessary, misleading, and/or conflicted.
Ioannidis makes the following ‘Policy Points’:
- Currently, there is massive production of unnecessary, misleading, and conflicted systematic reviews and meta‐analyses. Instead of promoting evidence‐based medicine and health care, these instruments often serve mostly as easily produced publishable units or marketing tools.
- Suboptimal systematic reviews and meta‐analyses can be harmful given the major prestige and influence these types of studies have acquired.
- The publication of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses should be realigned to remove biases and vested interests and to integrate them better with the primary production of evidence.
Obviously, Ioannidis did not have alternative medicine in mind when he researched and published this article. But he easily could have! Virtually everything he stated in his paper does apply to it. In some areas of alternative medicine, things are even worse than Ioannidis describes.
Take TCM, for instance. I have previously looked at some of the many systematic reviews of TCM that currently flood Medline, based on Chinese studies. This is what I concluded at the time:
Why does that sort of thing frustrate me so much? Because it is utterly meaningless and potentially harmful:
- I don’t know what treatments the authors are talking about.
- Even if I managed to dig deeper, I cannot get the information because practically all the primary studies are published in obscure journals in Chinese language.
- Even if I did read Chinese, I do not feel motivated to assess the primary studies because we know they are all of very poor quality – too flimsy to bother.
- Even if they were formally of good quality, I would have my doubts about their reliability; remember: 100% of these trials report positive findings!
- Most crucially, I am frustrated because conclusions of this nature are deeply misleading and potentially harmful. They give the impression that there might be ‘something in it’, and that it (whatever ‘it’ might be) could be well worth trying. This may give false hope to patients and can send the rest of us on a wild goose chase.
So, to ease the task of future authors of such papers, I decided give them a text for a proper EVIDENCE-BASED conclusion which they can adapt to fit every review. This will save them time and, more importantly perhaps, it will save everyone who might be tempted to read such futile articles the effort to study them in detail. Here is my suggestion for a conclusion soundly based on the evidence, not matter what TCM subject the review is about:
OUR SYSTEMATIC REVIEW HAS SHOWN THAT THERAPY ‘X’ AS A TREATMENT OF CONDITION ‘Y’ IS CURRENTLY NOT SUPPORTED BY SOUND EVIDENCE.
On another occasion, I stated that I am getting very tired of conclusions stating ‘…XY MAY BE EFFECTIVE/HELPFUL/USEFUL/WORTH A TRY…’ It is obvious that the therapy in question MAY be effective, otherwise one would surely not conduct a systematic review. If a review fails to produce good evidence, it is the authors’ ethical, moral and scientific obligation to state this clearly. If they don’t, they simply misuse science for promotion and mislead the public. Strictly speaking, this amounts to scientific misconduct.
In yet another post on the subject of systematic reviews, I wrote that if you have rubbish trials, you can produce a rubbish review and publish it in a rubbish journal (perhaps I should have added ‘rubbish researchers).
And finally this post about a systematic review of acupuncture: it is almost needless to mention that the findings (presented in a host of hardly understandable tables) suggest that acupuncture is of proven or possible effectiveness/efficacy for a very wide array of conditions. It also goes without saying that there is no critical discussion, for instance, of the fact that most of the included evidence originated from China, and that it has been shown over and over again that Chinese acupuncture research never seems to produce negative results.
The main point surely is that the problem of shoddy systematic reviews applies to a depressingly large degree to all areas of alternative medicine, and this is misleading us all.
So, what can be done about it?
My preferred (but sadly unrealistic) solution would be this:
STOP ENTHUSIASTIC AMATEURS FROM PRETENDING TO BE RESEARCHERS!
Research is not fundamentally different from other professional activities; to do it well, one needs adequate training; and doing it badly can cause untold damage.
A few days ago, the German TV ‘FACT’ broadcast a film (it is in German, the bit on homeopathy starts at ~min 20) about a young woman who had her breast cancer first operated but then decided to forfeit subsequent conventional treatments. Instead she chose homeopathy which she received from Dr Jens Wurster at the ‘Clinica Sta Croce‘ in Lucano/Switzerland.
Elsewhere Dr Wurster stated this: Contrary to chemotherapy and radiation, we offer a therapy with homeopathy that supports the patient’s immune system. The basic approach of orthodox medicine is to consider the tumor as a local disease and to treat it aggressively, what leads to a weakening of the immune system. However, when analyzing all studies on cured cancer cases it becomes evident that the immune system is always the decisive factor. When the immune system is enabled to recognize tumor cells, it will also be able to combat them… When homeopathic treatment is successful in rebuilding the immune system and reestablishing the basic regulation of the organism then tumors can disappear again. I’ve treated more than 1000 cancer patients homeopathically and we could even cure or considerably ameliorate the quality of life for several years in some, advanced and metastasizing cases.
The recent TV programme showed a doctor at this establishment confirming that homeopathy alone can cure cancer. Dr Wurster (who currently seems to be a star amongst European homeopaths) is seen lecturing at the 2017 World Congress of Homeopathic Physicians in Leipzig and stating that a ‘particularly rigorous study’ conducted by conventional scientists (the senior author is Harald Walach!, hardly a conventional scientist in my book) proved homeopathy to be effective for cancer. Specifically, he stated that this study showed that ‘homeopathy offers a great advantage in terms of quality of life even for patients suffering from advanced cancers’.
This study did, of course, interest me. So, I located it and had a look. Here is the abstract:
Many cancer patients seek homeopathy as a complementary therapy. It has rarely been studied systematically, whether homeopathic care is of benefit for cancer patients.
We conducted a prospective observational study with cancer patients in two differently treated cohorts: one cohort with patients under complementary homeopathic treatment (HG; n = 259), and one cohort with conventionally treated cancer patients (CG; n = 380). For a direct comparison, matched pairs with patients of the same tumour entity and comparable prognosis were to be formed. Main outcome parameter: change of quality of life (FACT-G, FACIT-Sp) after 3 months. Secondary outcome parameters: change of quality of life (FACT-G, FACIT-Sp) after a year, as well as impairment by fatigue (MFI) and by anxiety and depression (HADS).
HG: FACT-G, or FACIT-Sp, respectively improved statistically significantly in the first three months, from 75.6 (SD 14.6) to 81.1 (SD 16.9), or from 32.1 (SD 8.2) to 34.9 (SD 8.32), respectively. After 12 months, a further increase to 84.1 (SD 15.5) or 35.2 (SD 8.6) was found. Fatigue (MFI) decreased; anxiety and depression (HADS) did not change. CG: FACT-G remained constant in the first three months: 75.3 (SD 17.3) at t0, and 76.6 (SD 16.6) at t1. After 12 months, there was a slight increase to 78.9 (SD 18.1). FACIT-Sp scores improved significantly from t0 (31.0 – SD 8.9) to t1 (32.1 – SD 8.9) and declined again after a year (31.6 – SD 9.4). For fatigue, anxiety, and depression, no relevant changes were found. 120 patients of HG and 206 patients of CG met our criteria for matched-pairs selection. Due to large differences between the two patient populations, however, only 11 matched pairs could be formed. This is not sufficient for a comparative study.
In our prospective study, we observed an improvement of quality of life as well as a tendency of fatigue symptoms to decrease in cancer patients under complementary homeopathic treatment. It would take considerably larger samples to find matched pairs suitable for comparison in order to establish a definite causal relation between these effects and homeopathic treatment.
Even the abstract makes several points very clear, and the full text confirms further embarrassing details:
- The patients in this study received homeopathy in addition to standard care (the patient shown in the film only had homeopathy until it was too late, and she subsequently died, aged 33).
- The study compared A+B with B alone (A=homeopathy, B= standard care). It is hardly surprising that the additional attention of A leads to an improvement in quality of life. It is arguably even unethical to conduct a clinical trial to demonstrate such an obvious outcome.
- The authors of this paper caution that it is not possible to conclude that a causal relationship between homeopathy and the outcome exists.
- This is true not just because of the small sample size, but also because of the fact that the two groups had not been allocated randomly and therefore are bound to differ in a whole host of variables that have not or cannot be measured.
- Harald Walach, the senior author of this paper, held a position which was funded by Heel, Baden-Baden, one of Germany’s largest manufacturer of homeopathics.
- The H.W.& J.Hector Foundation, Germany, and the Samueli Institute, provided the funding for this study.
In the film, one of the co-authors of this paper, the oncologist HH Bartsch from Freiburg, states that Dr Wurster’s interpretation of this study is ‘dishonest’.
I am inclined to agree.
We have repeatedly discussed the journal ‘Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ (see for instance here and here). The journal has recently done something remarkable and seemingly laudable: it retracted an article titled “Psorinum Therapy in Treating Stomach, Gall Bladder, Pancreatic, and Liver Cancers: A Prospective Clinical Study” due to concerns about the ethics, authorship, quality of reporting, and misleading conclusions.***
Aradeep and Ashim Chatterjee own and manage the Critical Cancer Management Research Centre and Clinic (CCMRCC), the private clinic to which they are affiliated. The methods state “The study protocol was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB approval Number: 2001–05) of the CCMRCC” in 2001, but a 2014 review of Psorinum therapy said CCMRCC was founded in 2008. The study states “The participants received the drug Psorinum along with allopathic and homeopathic supportive treatments without trying conventional or any other investigational cancer treatments”; withholding conventional cancer treatment raises ethical concerns.
We asked the authors and their institutions for documentation of the ethics approval, the study protocol, and a blank copy of the informed consent form. However, the corresponding author, Aradeep Chatterjee, was reported to have been arrested in June 2017 for allegedly practising medicine without the correct qualifications and his co-author and father Ashim Chatterjee was reported to have been arrested in August; the Chatterjees and their legal representative did not respond to our queries. The co-authors Syamsundar Mandal, Sudin Bhattacharya, and Bishnu Mukhopadhyay said they did not agree to be authors of the article and were not aware of its submission; co-author Jaydip Biswas did not respond.
A member of the editorial board noted that although the discussion stated that “The limitation of this study is that it did not have any placebo or treatment control arm; therefore, it cannot be concluded that Psorinum Therapy is effective in improving the survival and the quality of life of the participants due to the academic rigours of the scientific clinical trials”, the abstract was misleading because it implied Psorinum therapy is effective in cancer treatment. The study design was described as a “prospective observational clinical trial”, but it cannot have been both observational and a clinical trial.
(*** while I wrote this blog (13/3/18) the abstract of this paper was still available on Medline without a retraction notice)
In case you wonder what ‘psorinum therapy’ is, this website explains:
A cancer specialist and Psorinum clinical researcher, Aurodeep Chaterjee, believes Psorinum Therapy is less time consuming and more economical for treatment of cancer. ‘The advantage of this treatment is that the patient can continue this treatment while staying home and the hospitalization is less required,’ said Chaterjee. He added that it’s an immunotherapy treatment in which the medicine is in liquid form and the technique of consumption is oral.
Though no chemo or radiation sessions are required in it but they can be used parallel to it depending upon the stage of the cancer. He claimed that more than 30 types of cancers could be treated from this therapy. Some of them include gastrointestinal cancer, liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, ovarian cancer, stomach cancer, etc. The process requires two months duration in which the patient has to undergo 12 cycles and the cost is just Rs 5000. Moli Rapoor 55, software engineer from USA who is suffering from ovarian cancer said on Thursday (June 20) that after three chemo cycles when her cancer did not cure after being diagnosed in 2008, she decided to take up Psorinum therapy.
I am sorry, but the retraction of such a paper is far less laudable than it seems – it should not have been retracted, but it should have never been published in the first place. There are multiple points where the reviewers’ and editors’ alarm bells should have started ringing loud and clear. Take, for instance, this note at the end of the paper:
Dr. Rabindranath Chatterjee Memorial Cancer Trust provided funding for this study.
Conflict of Interests
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interests.
What this story shows, in my view, is that the journal ‘Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ (EBCAM) operates an unacceptably poor system of peer-review, and is led by an editor who seems to shut both eyes when deciding about publication or rejection. And why would an editor shut his/her eyes to abuse? Perhaps the journal’s interesting business model provides an explanation? Here is what I wrote about it previously:
What I fail to understand is why so many researchers send their papers to this journal. In 2015, EBCAM published just under 1000 (983 to be exact) papers. This is not far from half of all Medline-listed articles on alternative medicine (2056 in total).
To appreciate these figures – and this is where it gets not just puzzling but intriguing, in my view – we need to know that EBCAM charges a publication fee of US$ 2500. That means the journal has an income of about US$ 2 500 000 per annum!
END OF QUOTE
To put it in a nutshell: in healthcare, fraud and greed can cause enormous harm.
The UK ACUPPUNCTURE RESEARCH RESOURCE CENTRE (ARRC) is a specialist resource for acupuncture research information; the only such resource in the land. It is funded by the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) and was established in 1994 by the BAcC in partnership with the Foundation for Research in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The ARRC organise an annual meeting. This year’s meeting is special because it is their 20th! It is scheduled to take place in London on 17th March. In case you are already busy that day, or you want to save the £120 registration fee, I have copied for you the programme below and am even able to inform you about the content of each lecture.
- Hugh MacPherson – Celebrating twenty years of acupuncture research
- Lee Hullender Rubin – The Impact of Whole Systems Traditional Chinese Medicine on In Vitro Fertilization Outcomes – A Retrospective Cohort Study
- Robert Davis – Beyond Efficacy: Conducting and translating research for policy-makers considering acupuncture reimbursement in a small, rural US state
- Lee Hullender Rubin – Acupuncture Augmentation of Lidocaine Treatment of Provoked, localized Vulvodynia – a Feasability and Acceptability Pilot Study
- Florian Beissner – A TCM-based psychotherapy with acupuncture for endometriosis
- Beverley De Valois – Using moxa on St 36 to reduce chemotherapy-induced pancytopenia: a feasibility study
- Ian Appleyard – Warm needle acupuncture for osteoarthritis of the knee: a pilot study
- Ed Fraser – Stand Easy: An Evaluation of the acceptability and effectiveness of acupuncture as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans in Norfolk
Having attended plenty of such meetings in my time, I can give you a fairly good idea about the contents of the 8 lectures. Below, I provide succinct (and slightly satirical) summaries of what the presenters will tell their audience on the 17th:
- Despite difficult circumstances, we (the ARRC) have done very well indeed. We managed to publish lots of papers, and we made sure that not a single one reported a negative result. That would be bad for business. We are optimistic about the future provided we get some funding, of course.
- Whole Systems Traditional Chinese Medicine has a profoundly positive effect on the outcomes of In Vitro fertilization. We are totally balled over! Only the most pedantic sceptics would have reservations and might argue that the study had no controls and was retrospective. But who cares, we believe in positive results, and therefore, we never listen to criticism.
- Because efficacy is a sticky issue in the realm of acupuncture, it is much wiser to tackle policy makers by persuading them that they can save money (lots of it), if they implement the abundant use of acupuncture. The evidence for this notion is flimsy to say the least, but policy makers do not understand the science (and neither do we).
- Our study showed that Acupuncture Augmentation of Lidocaine Treatment is extremely good for vulvodynia. We are very impressed, over the moon even. Of course, this was a feasibility study and we should really only conclude that a full study may be feasible, but let’s not be nit-picking.
- Based on my very extensive experience, I am able to confirm that TCM-based psychotherapy with acupuncture is an excellent therapy for endometriosis. Rigorous, controlled clinical trials do not exist, but my findings are so clear that, quite honestly, we do not need them.
- Using moxa on St 36 to reduce chemotherapy-induced pancytopenia is feasible. Isn’t that lovely?
- My trial of warm needle acupuncture for osteoarthritis of the knee showed most encouraging results. Of course, this was only a pilot study, and from it we should really only conclude that a proper study may be feasible, but let’s not be holier than thou!
- Our results demonstrate that acupuncture as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder is amazingly effective. A breakthrough! What is more, veterans found it most acceptable. The study is not rigorous, but I don’t mind. I advocate this treatment to be rolled out nationally as a matter of urgency.
So, there you are; that’s all you need to know about the 20th annual meeting of the ARRC.
You don’t need to go.
I have thus saved you £120!
No, I don’t expect thanks – I prefer, if you would send half of this amount (£60) to my account.
Homeopathy has always enjoyed a special status in Germany, its country of origin. Germans use homeopathy more often than the citizens of most other countries, they spend more money on it, and they even have elevated it to some kind of medical speciality. In 2003, the German medical profession re-considered the requirements for carrying the title of ‘Doctor of Homeopathy’. It was decided that only physicians who already were specialists in one medical field were allowed to be certified with this title after a post-graduate education and training programme of 6 months, or 100 hours of case studies under supervision plus 160 hours of course work. Many German physicians seem to find this rigorously regulated programme attractive, opted for it, and earn good money with it; the number of ‘doctors of homeopathy’ has risen from 2212 to 6712 between 1993 and 2009.
Personally, I find much of this surprising, even laughable, and have repeatedly stated that even the most rigorously regulated education in nonsense can only result in nonsense.
Luckily, I am not alone. A multidisciplinary group of experts (Muensteraner Kreis) has just filed an official application with the current 121st General Assembly of the German medical profession to completely abolish the title ‘Doctor of Homeopathy’. Our application itself is a lengthy document outlining in some detail the nature of our arguments. Here, I will merely translate its conclusion:
Even though present in science-business, homeopathy is not scientifically founded. Its basis – potentisation and the simile principle – contradicts scientific facts; homeopathy therefore must be categorised as esoteric. The international scientific community does not interpret the clinical studies of homeopathy as a sufficient proof for its efficacy. Giving an esoteric approach to medicine the veneer of credibility by officially establishing the title ‘Doctor of Homeopathy’ contradicts the physicians’ claim of a scientifically-based medicine and weakens the status of the science-based medicine through blurring the boundaries between science and belief. Problems within science-based medicine must be solved internally and cannot be unburdened onto an unscientific approach to medicine. We consider the abolishment of the ‘Doctor of Homeopathy’ to be urgently indicated.
END OF MY TRANSLATION
I think it would be more than a little over-optimistic to assume that the Assembly will swiftly adopt our suggestion. Perhaps this is also not the intention of our application. In Germany (I learnt my homeopathy in this country), homeopathy is still very much protected by powerful lobby groups and financial interests, as well as loaded with heavy emotional baggage. Yet I do hope that our application will start a discussion which, eventually, will bring a rational resolution to the embarrassing anachronism of the ‘Doctor of Homeopathy’ (Arzt fuer Homoeopathie).
The German medical profession might even have the opportunity to be internationally at the forefront of reason and progress.
Clinical trials are a most useful tool, but they can easily be abused. It is not difficult to misuse them in such a way that even the most useless treatment appears to be effective. Sadly, this sort of thing happens all too often in the realm of alternative medicine. Take for instance this recently published trial of homeopathy.
The objective of this study was to investigate the usefulness of classical homeopathy for the prevention of recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI) in patients with spinal cord injury (SCI). Patients were admitted to this trial, if they had chronic SCI and had previously suffered from at least three UTI/year. They were treated either with a standardized prophylaxis alone, or with a standardized prophylaxis in combination with homeopathy. The number of UTIs, general and specific quality of life (QoL), and satisfaction with homeopathic treatment were assessed prospectively over the period of one year. Ten patients were in the control group and 25 patients received adjunctive homeopathic treatment. The median number of self-reported UTI in the homeopathy group decreased significantly, whereas it remained unchanged in the control group. The domain incontinence impact of the KHQ improved significantly, whereas the general QoL did not change. The satisfaction with homeopathic care was high.
The authors concluded that adjunctive homeopathic treatment lead to a significant decrease of UTI in SCI patients. Therefore, classical homeopathy could be considered in SCI patients with recurrent UTI.
Where to begin?
Here are just some of the most obvious flaws of and concerns with this study:
- There is no plausible rationale to even plan such a study.
- The sample size was far too small for allowing generalizable conclusions.
- There was no adequate randomisation and patients were able to chose the homeopathy option.
- The study seems to lack objective outcome measures.
- The study design did not allow to control for non-specific effects; therefore, it seems likely that the observed outcomes are unrelated to the homeopathic treatments but are caused by placebo and other non-specific effects.
- Even if the study had been rigorous, we would need independent replications before we draw such definitive conclusions.
- Two of the authors are homeopaths, and it is in their clinics that the study took place.
- Some of the authors have previously published a very similar paper – except that this ‘case series’ included no control group at all.
- The latter paper seems to have been published more than once.
- Of this paper, one of the authors claimed that ” the usefulness of classical homeopathy as an adjunctive measure for UTI prophylaxis in patients with NLUTD due to SCI has been demonstrated in a case series”. He seems to be unaware of the fact that a case series cannot possible lend itself to demonstrate this.
- I do wonder: did they just add a control group to their case series thus pretending it became a controlled clinical trial?
What strikes me most with such pseudo-research is its abundance and the naivety – or should I call it ignorance? – of the enthusiasts who conduct it. Most of them, I am fairly sure do not mean to do harm; but by Jove they do!