Believe it or not, but my decision – all those years ago – to study medicine was to a significant degree influenced by a somewhat naive desire to, one day, be able to save lives. In my experience, most medical students are motivated by this wish – “to save lives” in this context stands not just for the dramatic act of administering a life-saving treatment to a moribund patient but it is meant as a synonym for helping patients in a much more general sense.
I am not sure whether, as a young clinician, I ever did manage to save many lives. Later, I had a career-change and became a researcher. The general view about researchers seems to be that they are detached from real life, sit in ivory towers and write clever papers which hardly anyone understands and few people will ever read. Researchers therefore cannot save lives, can they?
So, what happened to those laudable ambitions of the young Dr Ernst? Why did I decide to go into research, and why alternative medicine; why did I not conduct research in more the promotional way of so many of my colleagues (my life would have been so much more hassle-free, and I even might have a knighthood by now); why did I feel the need to insist on rigorous assessments and critical thinking, often at high cost? For my many detractors, the answers to these questions seem to be more than obvious: I was corrupted by BIG PHARMA, I have an axe to grind against all things alternative, I have an insatiable desire to be in the lime-light, I defend my profession against the concurrence from alternative practitioners etc. However, for me, the issues are a little less obvious (today, I will, for the first time, disclose the bribe I received from BIG PHARMA for criticising alternative medicine: the precise sum was zero £ and the same amount again in $).
As I am retiring from academic life and doing less original research, I do have the time and the inclination to brood over such questions. What precisely motivated my research agenda in alternative medicine, and why did I remain unimpressed by the number of powerful enemies I made pursuing it?
If I am honest – and I know this will sound strange to many, particularly to those who are convinced that I merely rejoice in being alarmist – I am still inspired by this hope to save lives. Sure, the youthful naivety of the early days has all but disappeared, yet the core motivation has remained unchanged.
But how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?
Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:
Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.
For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.
Some time ago, we published a systematic review aimed at identifying what patients might hope for when they consult a practitioner of alternative medicine. The most common expectations that emerged from this research are listed here:
- Less side-effects
- Symptom relief
- Cure of their disease
- Cope better with their condition
- Improve quality of life
- Boost immune system
- Prevention of illness
- Good therapeutic relationship with a clinician
- Holistic care
- Emotional support
- Control over their own health
In several ways, I think, these expectations are revealing; here I want to focus on one particular aspect, and ask the following question: To what extent are patients driven to see alternative practitioners simply because conventional medicine is letting them down? It seems to me that several items in the list above are an implicit criticism of mainstream medicine. This might get much clearer, if I re-phrase the points a bit: according to our findings, patients feel:
- that conventional treatments have too many side-effects;
- that they frequently fail to ease their symptoms;
- that they often do not cure the disease;
- that doctors do not enable their patients to cope with their condition;
- that doctors care not enough about their patients’ quality of life;
- that many conventional treatments neglect the importance of the immune system;
- that prevention is not given the importance it should have;
- that doctors are often no good at establishing good therapeutic relationships with their patients;
- that doctors fail to realise that their patients are not just “cases” but whole human individuals;
- that doctors are not providing enough emotional support;
- that doctors fail to empower their patients to be in control of their health.
Some of these points will probably strike a cord with most of us. I for one know of many instances where conventional physicians have failed their patients most miserably. All too often, the failings of modern medicine are as obvious as they are inexcusable! I can fully understand that disappointed patients look for help and compassion elsewhere, and I am quite sure that the failings of modern medicine are an important motivator for people to try alternative medicine.
But looking elsewhere might not be the best approach for improving health care. Alternative practitioners may well be more compassionate than conventional clinicians but features like empathy, time and attention can never make good medicine, if they are not accompanied by effective therapies.
The conclusion is therefore simple: whenever we encounter one of the many failings of conventional medicine, instead of turning away in disgust, we ought to make sure that mistakes are corrected, lessons are learnt and improvements are found and put into practice. Our aim must be to generate progress, and it cannot be reached by opting for unproven or dis-proven treatments.
Fairly early on during my time at Exeter, I had felt that it would be relevant, interesting and important to familiarise general practitioners with alternative medicine. At the time, we decided that we would start to run regular courses specifically for these health care professionals. Back in the mid 1990s, this was a remarkable thing to do, so much so that we even published our experience after the first such event. Recently I came across the article that resulted from this endeavour; here is an except from the abstract:
The delegates started with a positive but questioning attitude toward complementary medicine (CM) and acknowledged that they gained useful information, leading to increased confidence in discussing CM with patients. The course to a large extent met their needs and expectations. Benefits and draw-backs of integrating CM within general practice were explored. The main advantage of CM, apart from the potential intrinsic value of the techniques themselves, was identified as the time to establish a good therapeutic relationship with the patient. The particular concerns about CM that were expressed by the doctors included poor dialogue with CM practitioners, doubts about competence, and lack of readily identifiable and recognized qualifications. The risk of holding out unrealistic hope of cure was their greatest concern, however, especially if patients were thereby denied an effective orthodox treatment.
What strikes me as particularly remarkable is the fact that, even then, so many doubts were voiced by our GPs about alternative practitioners, their therapeutic claims and their doubtful medical competence. It was then that it occured to me for the first time that these therapists might systematically misinform their patients. This suspicion was strengthened on numerous occasions in the years to come; but it was not until much later that we decided to look into this subject (which is rather difficult to research) more systematically. What we found shocked us. Here are the conclusions of some of our investigations:
The most popular websites on complementary and alternative medicine for cancer offer information of extremely variable quality. Many endorse unproven therapies and some are outright dangerous. The link to the article is here.
Some complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers have a negative attitude towards immunisation and means of changing this should be considered. The link is here.
Advice about herbal medicine is readily available over the Internet. The advice offered is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Potential Internet users should be made aware of these problems and ways of minimizing the risk should be found. The link is here.
The majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue. The link is here.
In another study, we found that advice given by alternative practitioners to diabetic patients had the potential to kill them. A similarly scary conclusion emerged when we evaluated the advice chiropractors provide to asthma patients. Other research found that anthroposophic doctors often advise against measles vaccinations and are thus causing measles outbreaks.
The totality of this evidence, I believe, begs the question: DO ALTERNATIVE PRACTITIONERS SYSTEMATICALLY MISINFORM THEIR PATIENTS? I look forward to a lively discussion of it.
Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician who was frustrated with the ‘heroic’ medicine of his time, invented homeopathy about 200 years ago. Since then, his followers have applied what we might call ‘selective dogmatism’ to his invention: they have religiously adhered to certain aspects, been considerably more liberal in other respects and abandoned some concepts altogether. It is therefore not unreasonable, I think, to ask what the ‘father of homeopathy’ – if he were still with us – might think of homeopathy as it is being practised today.
TYPES OF HOMEOPATHY
We tend to consider homeopathy to be one single therapy or school of thought, but this is not quite true. There a numerous forms of homeopathy, including the following:
Auto-isopathy (treatment with remedies made from patients’ own body substances)
Classical homeopathy (doctrine based on strict Hahnemannian principles)
Clinical homeopathy (non-individualised treatment based mainly on guiding symptoms; e.g. arnica for bruises)
Complex homeopathy (treatment with combination remedies)
Homotoxicology (treatment based on Reckeweg’s concepts of detoxification)
Isopathy (use of remedies made from the causative agent, e.g. a specific allergen for an allergy)
Pluralistic homeopathy (use of more than one remedy at once)
The list could be extended, and we could discuss the characteristics as well as the pros and cons of each variant. But this would be rather futile and intensely boring; suffice to say that, from all we know about Hahnemann’s views and temper, he would have strongly condemned even the slightest deviation from the strict rules of his doctrine.
CURRENT TYPES OF HOMEOPATHS
So, what about the different ways in which homeopathy (whatever version we might select) is practised by Hahnemann’s disciples today? The way I see it, four different and fairly distinct types of homeopaths currently exist.
The purist homeopath
Samuel Hahnemann himself clearly was a purist. He was adamant that his detailed instructions must be followed to the letter. Amongst other things, this means that homeopathy must be seen as the only true medicine; mixing homeopathy with any other type of medicine is, according to its founder, strictly forbidden; Hahnemann was very explicit that this would weaken or even abolish its effects. Today’s purist homeopaths therefore follow these instructions religiously and employ homeopathy as the sole and only therapeutic option for any symptom or disease.
The liberal homeopath
Purist-homeopaths still do exist today, but they seem to be in the minority. Most homeopathic doctors mix homeopathic with conventional medicines, and most non-doctor homeopaths (they prefer the term ‘professional homeopaths’) accept or at least acknowledge that a mixed approach might often be necessary or preferable. In the words of Hahnemann, these homeopaths are ‘half-homeopaths’ who have ‘betrayed’ his gospel. He would most certainly disown them and point out that this type of approach is doomed to failure and cannot possibly work.
The occasional homeopath
In several countries – Germany is a good example – many doctors use homeopathy on just relatively rare occasions. We might speculate why this is so; my personal impression is that this group of clinicians do not really believe in the effectiveness of homeopathy at all. They employ it because some patients ask for it, or because they want to use a legally defensible and harmless placebo. There can be no doubt, Hahnemann would have not approved of this approach at all. Quite to the contrary, he would have been furious, called them ‘traitors’ or worse and insisted that this is nothing more than a placebo-therapy.
DIY-homeopaths is my term for patients and consumers who have no training in homeopathy but buy homeopathic remedies over the counter and self-administer them without consulting a trained homeopath. They might see it being recommended for a certain health problem and give it a try. If their symptoms subsequently disappear, they are likely to misinterpret this phenomenon and become convinced that homeopathy is effective. This group seems to be by far the largest of all types of homeopaths.
WOULD HAHNEMANN APPROVE?
What would Hahnemann, if we could ask him today, make of all this? I think he would be fuming with anger (from all we know, he was a rather short-tempered man and had no patience with ‘traitors’).
The DIY-homeopaths obviously break every rule in his book: without a long and complicated consultation, it would not be possible to identify the correct, individualised remedy. What follows is simple: according to Hahnemann’s teachings, all these millions of people across the globe are treating themselves with pure placebos. Ironically, this is where most scientists would agree Hahnemann’s verdict!
Hahnemann would certainly direct equal scorn towards the occasional homeopaths who do not even believe in homeopathy. To Hahnemann, belief in his doctrine was essential and the use of his remedies as mere placebos would have been insulting, utterly unacceptable and destined to therapeutic failure.
We do know from Hahnemann’s mouth what he thought of those clinicians he himself called “half-homeopaths”. In his view, they were ‘traitors’ who did not even deserve to be called true homeopaths. There can be no question about the fact that he would have judged their practice as a useless and ineffective abomination.
This leaves us with the purist-homeopath. This relatively small group of dogmatists turns out to be the only one which Hahnemann might have actually approved of. They tend to strictly adhere to (almost) every of the numerous therapeutic instruction he ever put to paper. Like Hahnemann, they believe that homeopathy is the only efficacious medicine and, like Hahnemann, they use it as a true alternative to ‘allopathy’, the derogatory term Hahnemann coined for conventional medicine.
If this analysis is correct, we are today faced with the situation where homeopathy is used by many people worldwide but, according to the teachings of homeopathy’s founder, it is currently badly misused – so much so that, according to Hahnemann’s most clearly and repeatedly expressed views, it cannot possibly result in clinical benefit. Considering that most of today’s homeopaths would insist that the words of Hahnemann as pure gospel, this situation is most bizarre and ironic indeed. It becomes even more ironic when we realise that the only group of clinicians who employ homeopathy in the ‘correct’ way is also the one which is the most serious danger to public health.
The developed world is in the middle of a major obesity epidemic. It is predicted to cause millions of premature deaths and billions of dollars, money that would be badly needed elsewhere. The well-known method of eating less and moving more is most efficacious but sadly not very effective, that is to say people do not easily adopt and adhere to it. This is why many experts are searching for a treatment that works and is acceptable to all or at least most patients.
Entrepreneurs of alternative medicine have long jumped on this band waggon. They have learnt that the regulations are lax or non-existent, that consumers are keen to believe anything they tell them and that the opportunities to make a fast buck are thus enormous. Today, they are offering an endless array of treatments which are cleverly marketed, for instance via the Internet.
Since many years, my research team are involved in a programme of assessing the alternative slimming aids mostly through systematic reviews and occasionally also through conducting our own clinical trials. Our published analyses include the following treatments:
Supplements containing conjugated linoleic acid
There are, of course, many more but, for most, no evidence exist at all. The treatments listed above have all been submitted to clinical trials. The results show invariably that the outcomes were not convincingly positive: either there were too few data, or there were too many flaws in the studies, or the weight reduction achieved was too small to be clinically relevant.
Our latest systematic review is a good example; its aim was to evaluate the evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving the use of the African Bush Mango, Irvingia gabonensis, for body weight reduction in obese and overweight individuals. Three RCTs were identified, and all had major methodological flaws. All RCTs reported statistically significant reductions in body weight and waist circumference favoring I. gabonensis over placebo. They also suggested positive effects of I. gabonensis on blood lipids. Adverse events included headache and insomnia. Despite these apparently positive findings, our conclusions had to be cautious: “Due to the paucity and poor reporting quality of the RCTs, the effect of I. gabonensis on body weight and related parameters are unproven. Therefore, I. gabonensis cannot be recommended as a weight loss aid. Future research in this area should be more rigorous and better reported.”
People who want to loose weight are often extremely desperate and ready to try anything. They are thus easy victims of the irresponsible promises that are being made on the Internet and elsewhere. Despite the overwhelmingly evidence to the contrary, consumers are led to believe that alternative slimming aids are effective. What is more, they are also misled to assume they are risks-free. This latter assumption is false too: apart from the harm done to the patient’s bank account, many alternative slimming aids are associated with side-effects which, in some cases, are serious and can even include death.
The conclusion from all this is short and simple: alternative slimming aids are bogus.
Whenever I have the occasion to discuss with practitioners of alternative medicine the pros and cons of their methods, I hear sooner or later the argument “WE TREAT THE ROOT CAUSES OF DISEASE !!!” This remark emerges regularly regardless of the type of treatment the practitioner uses, and regardless of what disease we might have been talking about.
The statement is regularly pronounced with such deep conviction (and almost audible exclamation marks) that I am inclined to conclude these practitioners fully and wholeheartedly believe it. The implication usually is that, in conventional medicine, we only treat the symptoms of our patients. Quite often, this latter notion is not just gently implied but also forcefully expressed.
I have often wondered where this assumption and the fierce conviction with which it is expressed come from. The answer, I have come to conclude after many years of having such debates, is quite simple: it is being taught over and over again during the practitioners’ training, and it constitutes a central message of most ‘textbooks’ for the aspiring alternative practitioner.
It is not difficult to find the actual origin of all this. The notion that alternative practitioners treat the root causes is clearly based on the practitioners’ understanding of aetiology. If a traditional acupuncturist, for instance, becomes convinced that all disease is the expression of an imbalance of life-forces, and that needling acupuncture points will re-balance these forces thus restoring health, he must automatically assume that he is treating the root causes of any condition. If a chiropractor believes that all diseases are due to ‘subluxations’ of the spine, it must seem logical to him that spinal ‘adjustment’ is synonymous with treating the root cause of whatever complaint his patient is suffering from. If a Bowen therapist is convinced that “the Bowen Technique aims to balance the whole person, not just the symptoms“, he is bound to be equally sure that “practically any problem can potentially be addressed” by this intervention.
Let us assume for a minute that all these practitioners are correct in believing that their interventions are causal treatments, i.e. therapies directed against the cause of a disease. Successful treatment of any root cause can only mean that the therapy in question completely heals the problem at hand. If we abolish the cause of a disease, we would expect the disease to disappear for good.
This, I think, begs a crucial question: ARE THERE ANY DISEASES WHICH ARE REPRODUCIBLY CURED BY AN ALTERNATIVE THERAPY?
I have contemplated it frequently and discussed it often with practitioners but, so far, I have not identified a single one. I have no problem naming diseases which conventional medicine can cure – but, in alternative medicine, I only draw blanks. Even those alternative therapies which might be effective are not causal but symptomatic by nature. Honestly, I have not yet come across a single alternative treatment for which there is compelling evidence proving that it can produce more than symptom-relief.
But, of course, I might be wrong, over-critical, blind, bought by the pharmaeutical industry, dishonest or stupid. So, the purpose of this post is to clarify this issue once and for all. I herewith invite practitioners to name a disease for which there is sound evidence proving that it can be cured by their therapy.
Several months ago, my co-workers and I once again re-visited the contentious issue of acupuncture’s safety. We published several articles on the topic none of which, I am afraid to say, was much appreciated by the slightly myopic world of acupuncture. The paper which created overt outrage and prompted an unprecedented amount of hate-mail was the one on deaths after acupuncture. This publication reported that around 90 fatalities associated with acupuncture had been documented in the medical literature.
The responses from acupuncturists ranged from disbelief to overt hostility. Acupuncturists the world over seemed to agree that there was something profoundly wrong with me personally and with my research; they all knew that acupuncture was entirely safe and that I was maliciously incorrect and merely out to destroy their livelihood.
So, am I alarmist or am I just doing my duty in reporting important facts? Two new articles might go some way towards answering this intriguing question.
The first is a review by Chinese acupuncturists who summarised all the adverse events published in the Chinese literature, a task which my article may have done only partially. The authors found 1038 cases of serious adverse events, including 35 fatalities. The most frequent non-fatal adverse events were syncope (468 cases), pneumothorax (307 cases), and subarachnoid hemorrhage (64 cases). To put this into context, we ought to know that the Chinese literature is hopelessly biased in favour of acupuncture. Thus the level of under-reporting can be assumed to be even larger than in English language publications.
The second new article is by a Swedish surgeon who aimed at systematically reviewing the literature specifically on vascular injuries caused by acupuncture. His literature searches found 31 such cases; the majority of these patients developed symptoms in direct connection with the acupuncture treatment. Three patients died, two from pericardial tamponade and one from an aortoduodenal fistula. There were 7 more tamponades, 8 pseudoaneurysms, two with ischemia, two with venous thrombosis, one with compartment syndrome and 7 with bleeding (5 in the central nervous system). The two patients with ischemia suffered lasting sequeleae.
The answer to the question asked above seems thus simple: the Chinese authors, the Swedish surgeon (none of whom I know personally or have collaborated with) and I are entirely correct and merely report the truth. And the truth is that acupuncture can cause severe complications through any of the following mechanisms:
1) puncturing the lungs resulting in a pneumothorax,
2) puncturing the heart causing a cardiac tamponade,
3) puncturing blood vessels causing haemorrhage,
4) injuring other vital structures in the body,
5) introducing bacteria or viruses resulting in infections.
Any of these complications can be severe and might, in dramatic cases, even lead to the death of the patient.
But we have to have the right perspective! These are extremely rare events! Most other treatments used in medicine are much much more risky! To keep banging on about such exotic events is not helpful! I can hear the acupuncture world shout in unison.
True, these are almost certainly rare events – but we have no good idea how rare they are. There is no adverse event reporting scheme in acupuncture, and the published cases are surely only the tip of the ice-berg. True, most other medical treatments carry much greater risks! And true, we need to have the right perspective in all of this!
So let’s put this in a reasonable perspective: with most other treatments, we know how effective they are. We can thus estimate whether the risks outweigh the benefit, and if we find that they do, we should (and usually do) stop using them. I am not at all sure that we can perform similar assessments in the case of acupuncture.
Still in the spirit of ACUPUNCTURE AWARENESS WEEK, I have another critical look at a recent paper. If you trust some of the conclusions of this new article, you might think that acupuncture is an evidence-based treatment for coronary heart disease. I think this would be a recipe for disaster.
This condition affects millions and eventually kills a frighteningly large percentage of the population. Essentially, it is caused by the fact that, as we get older, the blood vessels supplying the heart also change, become narrower and get partially or even totally blocked. This causes lack of oxygen in the heart which causes pain known as angina pectoris. Angina is a most important warning sign indicating that a full blown heart attack might be not far.
The treatment of coronary heart disease consists in trying to let more blood flow through the narrowed coronaries, either by drugs or by surgery. At the same time, one attempts to reduce the oxygen demand of the heart, if possible. Normalisation of risk factors like hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia are key preventative strategies. It is not immediate clear to me how acupuncture might help in all this – but I have been wrong before!
The new meta-analysis included 16 individual randomised clinical trials. All had a high or moderate risk of bias. Acupuncture combined with conventional drugs (AC+CD) turned out to be superior to conventional drugs alone in reducing the incidence of acute myocardial infarction (AMI). AC+CD was superior to conventional drugs in reducing angina symptoms as well as in improving electrocardiography (ECG). Acupuncture by itself was also superior to conventional drugs for angina symptoms and ECG improvement. AC+CD was superior to conventional drugs in shortening the time to onset of angina relief. However, the time to onset was significantly longer for acupuncture treatment than for conventional treatment alone.
From these results, the authors [who are from the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Sichuan, China] conclude that “AC+CD reduced the occurrence of AMI, and both acupuncture and AC+CD relieved angina symptoms and improved ECG. However, compared with conventional treatment, acupuncture showed a longer delay before its onset of action. This indicates that acupuncture is not suitable for emergency treatment of heart attack. Owing to the poor quality of the current evidence, the findings of this systematic review need to be verified by more RCTs to enhance statistical power.”
As in the meta-analysis discussed in my previous post, the studies are mostly Chinese, flawed, and not obtainable for an independent assessment. As in the previous article, I fail to see a plausible mechanism by which acupuncture might bring about the effects. This is not just a trivial or coincidental observation – I could cite dozens of systematic reviews for which the same criticism applies.
What is different, however, from the last post on gout is simple and important: if you treat gout with a therapy that is ineffective, you have more pain and eventually might opt for an effective one. If you treat coronary heart disease with a therapy that does not work, you might not have time to change, you might be dead.
Therefore I strongly disagree with the authors of this meta-analysis; “the findings of this systematic review need NOT to be verified by more RCTs to enhance statistical power” — foremost, I think, the findings need to be interpreted with much more caution and re-written. In fact, the findings show quite clearly that there is no good evidence to use acupuncture for coronary heart disease. To pretend otherwise is, in my view, not responsible.
There might be an important lesson here: A SEEMINGLY SLIGHT CORRECTION OF CONCLUSIONS OF SUCH SYSTEMATIC REVIEWS MIGHT SAVE LIVES.
This week is acupuncture awareness week, and I will use this occasion to continue focusing on this therapy. This first time ever event is supported by the British Acupuncture Council who state that it aims to “help better inform people about the ancient practice of traditional acupuncture. With 2.3 million acupuncture treatments carried out each year, acupuncture is one of the most popular complementary therapies practised in the UK today.“
Right, let’s inform people about acupuncture then! Let’s show them that there is often more to acupuncture research than meets the eye.
My team and I have done lots of research into acupuncture and probably published more papers on this than any other subject. We had prominent acupuncturists on board from the UK, Korea, China and Japan, we ran conferences, published books and are proud to have been innovative and productive in our multidisciplinary research. But here I do not intend to dwell on our own achievements, rather I will highlight several important new papers in this area.
Korean authors just published a meta-analysis to assess the effectiveness of acupuncture as therapy for gouty arthritis. Ten RCTs involving 852 gouty arthritis patients were included. Six studies of 512 patients reported a significant decrease in uric acid in the treatment group compared with a control group, while two studies of 120 patients reported no such effect. The remaining four studies of 380 patients reported a significant decrease in pain in the treatment group.
The authors conclude “that acupuncture is efficacious as complementary therapy for gouty arthritis patients”.
We should be delighted with such a positive and neat result! Why then do I hesitate and have doubts?
I believe that this paper reveals several important issues in relation to systematic reviews of Chinese acupuncture trials and studies of other TCM interventions. In fact, this is my main reason for discussing the new meta-analysis here. The following three points are crucial, in my view:
1) All the primary studies were from China, and 8 of the 10 were only available in Chinese.
2) All of them had major methodological flaws.
3) It has been shown repeatedly that all acupuncture-trials from China are positive.
Given this situation, the conclusions of any review for which there are only Chinese acupuncture studies might as well be written before the actual research has started. If the authors are pro-acupuncture, as the ones of the present article clearly are, they will conclude that “acupuncture is efficacious“. If the research team has some critical thinkers on board, the same evidence will lead to an entirely different conclusion, such as “due to the lack of rigorous trials, the evidence is less than compelling.“
Systematic reviews are supposed to be the best type of evidence we currently have; they are supposed to guide therapeutic decisions. I find it unacceptable that one and the same set of data could be systematically analysed to generate such dramatically different outcomes. This is confusing and counter-productive!
So what is there to do? How can we prevent being misled by such articles? I think that medical journals should refuse to publish systematic reviews which so clearly lack sufficient critical input. I also believe that reviewers of predominantly Chinese studies should provide English translations of these texts so that they can be independently assessed by those who are not able to read Chinese – and for the sake of transparency, journal editors should insist on this point.
And what about the value of acupuncture for gouty arthritis? I think I let the readers draw their own conclusion.
“They would say that, wouldn’t they?” is the quote attributed to Mandy Rice-Davies giving witness in the Profumo affair. I think, it aptly highlights some of the issues related to conflicts of interest in health care.
These days, when a researcher publishes a paper, he will in all likelihood have to disclose all conflicts of interest he might have. The aim of this exercise is to be as transparent as possible; if someone has received support from a commercial company, for example, this fact does not necessarily follow that his paper is biased, but it is important to lay open the fact so that the readers can make up their own minds.
The questionnaires that authors have to complete prior to publication of their article focus almost exclusively on financial issues. For instance, one has to disclose any sponsorship, fees, travel support or shares that one might own in a company. In conventional medicine, these matters are deemed to be the most important sources for potential conflicts of interest.
In alternative medicine, financial issues are generally thought to be far less critical; it is generally seen as an area where there is so little money that it is hardly worth bothering. Perhaps this is the reason why few journals in this field insist on declarations of conflicts of interests and few authors disclose them.
After having been a full-time researcher of alternative medicine for two decades, I have become convinced that conflicts of interest are at least as prevalent and powerful in this field as in any other area of health care. Sure, there is less money at stake, but this fact is more than compensated by non-financial issues. Quasi-evangelic convictions abound in alternative medicine and it is, I think, obvious that they can amount to significant conflicts of interest.
During their training, alternative practitioners are being taught many things which are unproven, have no basis in fact or are just plainly wrong. Eventually this schooling can create a belief system which often is adhered to regardless of the scientific evidence and which tends to be defended at all cost. As some of my readers are bound to object to this remark, I better cite an example: during their training, students of chiropractic develop a more and more firm stance against immunization which in all likelihood is due to the type of information they receive at the chiropractic college. There is no question in my mind that creeds can represent an even more powerful conflict of interest than financial matters.
Moreover, this belief is indivisibly intertwined with existential issues. In alternative medicine, there may not be huge amounts of money at stake but practitioners’ livelihoods are perceived to be at risk. If an acupuncturist, for instance, argues in favour of his therapy, he also consciously or sub-consciously is trying to protect his income.
Some might say that this not different from conventional medicine, but I disagree: if we take away one specific therapy from a doctor because it turns out to be useless or unsafe, he will be able to use another one; if we take the acupuncture needle away from an acupuncturist, we have deprived him of his livelihood.
This is why conflicts of interest in alternative medicine tend to be very acute, powerful and personal. And this is why enthusiasts of alternative medicine are incapable or unwilling to look upon any type of critical assessment of their area as anything else than an attack on their income, their beliefs, their status, their training or their person. If anyone should doubt it, I recommend studying the comments I received to previous posts of this blog.
When Mandi Rice-Davies gave evidence during the trial of Stephen Ward, the osteopath who had introduced her to influential clients, the prosecuting council noted that Lord Astor denied having had an affair with her. Mrs Rice-Davies allegedly replied “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” (Actually, she did not say these exact words but something rather similar) When I read the comments following my posts on this blog, I am often reminded of this now classical quote.
When chiropractors deny that neck manipulations carry a risk, when herbalists insist that traditional herbalism is based on good evidence, when homeopaths claim that their remedies are more than placebos, I believe we should ask who, in these debates, might have a conflict of interest.
Is there a circumstance of one party in the discussion where personal interests might benefit from the argument? Who is more likely to be objective, the person whose livelihood is endangered or the independent expert who studied the subject in depth but has no axe to grind? If you ask these questions, you might conclude as I frequently do: “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”