MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

alternative therapist

Anyone who has looked into the discussions around homeopathy for more than 10 minutes will have come across Dana Ullman (DU). Some 15 years ago, I had the pleasure to meet him in person during a conference in Boston. After the brief chat, I asked a UK homeopath who this bizarre person was. “Oh Dana!” he replied “Dana is alright.”

But is he? Let’s have a look at the evidence.

There are very few papers by DU listed in Medline, and most of these articles are simply opinion pieces. The opinions DU expresses there (or anywhere else) are usually not supported by good evidence; some of them are even outright dangerous. Here are a few quotes:

“…homeopathic care is cost effective…”

“…homeopathic medicines are effective…”

“…homeopathic medicine may play a useful role as an adjunctive and/or alternative therapy [for HIV infections]”

“[There are]…significant effects of homeopathic treatment in allergic patients.”

Occasionally, DU writes little essays full of utter nonsense, logical fallacies and falsehoods for HUFFPOST where he is nevertheless characterised in glowing terms: Dana Ullman, M.P.H. (Masters in Public Health, U.C. Berkeley), CCH (Certification in Classical Homeopathy) is “homeopathic.com” and is widely recognized as the foremost spokesperson for homeopathic medicine in the U.S.

Wikipedia, however, is more critical and cites the opinion of a judge who was presiding over a class action against a US homeopathic producer in which DU had been called as an expert witness: The Defendant presented the testimony of Gregory Dana Ullman who is a homeopathic practitioner. He outlined the theory of homeopathic treatment and presented his opinion as to the value and effectiveness of homeopathic remedies. The Court found Mr. Ullman’s testimony to be not credible. Mr. Ullman’s bias in favor of homeopathy and against conventional medicine was readily apparent from his testimony. He admitted that he was not an impartial expert but rather is a passionate advocate of homeopathy. He posted on Twitter that he views conventional medicine as witchcraft. He opined that conventional medical science cannot be trusted…Mr. Ullman’s testimony was unhelpful in understanding the purported efficacy of the ingredients of SnoreStop to reduce the symptoms of snoring. Although he is familiar with the theory of homeopathic treatment, his opinions regarding its effectiveness was unsupported and biased. The Court gave no weight to his testimony.

The Encyclopedia of Americam Loons is even more poignant and describes DU as: A master of cognitive dissonance and memory bias, Ullman seems clinically unable to grasp the possibility that he may be wrong. Combined with a lack of understanding of science or medicine – and the possession of certain marketing skills – what we end up with is rather insidious.

Anyone who has debated with DU will have to concur with the claim that he fails to understand science or medicine. If you don’t believe me, please read his recent comments on the post about Prof Frass on this blog where he excels in producing one fallacy after the next (if he were on a mission to give homeopathy a bad name, he would be doing a sterling job!).

Despite all this abysmal ignorance, DU has one undisputed and outstanding talent: the knack of getting on people’s nerves and thus driving rational thinkers to distraction. In this way he even managed to be headlined as an ‘idiot‘!

I find it tempting to agree with the many experts who have called him an idiot, a moron or a laughing stock but, for now, I will resist that temptation. On the contrary, I want point out that he is much more cunning and clever than we give him credit for: after all, he runs a thriving business and lives off the nonsense he produces. To my mind, this is not idiotic; devious and unethical surely, but not idiotic nor laughable!

One of the most common claims of alternative practitioners is that they take a holistic approach to health care. And it is this claim which attracts many consumers. It also makes conventional medicine look bad, reductionist and inhuman, as it implies that mainstream medicine is non-holistic.

The claim can be easily disclosed to be a straw man, because all good medicine was, is and always will be holistic. Moreover, the claim amounts to a falsehood, because much of alternative medicine is everything but holistic. I will try to explain what I mean using the recent example of acupuncture for neck pain, but I could have used almost any other alternative treatment and any other human complaint/condition/disease:

  • chiropractic for back pain;
  • homeopathy for asthma;
  • energy healing for depression;
  • aromatherapy for jet lag;
  • etc. etc.

The recent trial found that adding acupuncture to usual care yields a slightly better outcome than usual care alone. This is hardly a big deal; adding a good cup of tea and a compassionate chat to usual care might have done a similar thing. Acupuncturists, however, will say that their holistic approach is successful.

How holistic is acupuncture?

A ‘Western’ acupuncturist would normally ask what is wrong with the patient; in the case of neck pain, he would probably ask several further questions about the history of the condition, when the pain occurs, what aggravates it etc. Then he might conduct a physical examination of his patient. Eventually, he would get out his needles and start the treatment.

A ‘traditional’ acupuncturist would ask similar questions, feel the pulse, look at the tongue and make a diagnosis in terms of yin and yang imbalance. Eventually, he too would get out his needles and start the treatment.

Is that holistic?

Certainly not! If we look at alternative practitioners in general, we cannot fail to notice that they tend to be the very opposite of holistic. They usually attribute a patients illness to one single cause such as yin/yang imbalance (acupuncture), subluxation (chiropractic), impediment of the life force (homeopathy), etc.

Holistic means that the patient is understood as a whole person. Our neck pain patient might have physical problems such as muscular tension; the acupuncturists might well have realised this and placed their needles accordingly. But neck pain, like most other symptoms, can have many other dimensions:

  • there could be stress;
  • there could be an ergonomically disadvantageous work place;
  • there could be a history of injury;
  • there could be a malformation of the spine;
  • there could be a tumour;
  • there could be an inflammation;
  • there could be many other specific diseases;
  • there could be relationship problems, et. etc.

Of course, the acupuncturists will claim that, during an acupuncture session, they will pick up on all of these. However, in my experience, this is little more than wishful thinking. And even if they did pick up other dimensions of the patient’s complaint, what can they do about it? They can (and often do) give rather amateur advice. This may be meant most kindly but it is rarely optimal.

And what about conventional practitioners, aren’t they even worse?

True, there often is far too much room for improvement. But at least the concept of multifactorial conditions and treatments is deeply ingrained in everyone who has been to medical school. We learn that symptoms/complaints/conditions/diseases are almost invariably multifactorial; they have many causes and contributing factors which can interact in complex ways. Therefore, responsible physicians always consider to treat patients in multifactorial ways; in the case of our neck pain patient:

  • the stress might need a relaxation programme,
  • the work place might need the input of an occupational therapist;
  • in case of an old injury, a physio might be needed;
  • specific conditions might need to be seen by a range of medical specialists;
  • muscular tension could be reduced by a massage therapist;
  • relationship problems might require the help of a psychologist; etc. etc.

I am NOT saying that all of this is necessary in each and every case. But I am saying that, in conventional medicine, both the awareness and the possibility for a professional multidisciplinary approach is well established. You don’t believe me? Ask a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist who refers more patients to them, an acupuncturist or a GP!

Alternative practitioners claim to be holistic and some might even be aware of the complexity of their patients’ symptoms. But, at best, they have an amateur approach to this complexity by dabbling themselves in issuing more or less suited advice. They are not adequately trained to do this job, and they refer very rarely.

My conclusion: professional multidiscipinarity is an approach deeply engrained in conventional medicine (we don’t often call it holism, perhaps because many doctors associate this term with charlatans), and it beats the mostly amateurish pseudo-holism of alternative practitioners any time.

Homeopathy seems to attract some kind of miracle worker. Elsewhere I have, for instance, reported the curious case of Prof Claudia Witt who published more than anyone on homeopathy in recent years without hardly ever arriving at a negative conclusion. Recently, I came across a researcher with an even better track record: Prof Michael Frass.

Wikipedia describes his achievements as follows: “Michael Frass studied medicine from 1972 to 1978 at the Medical University of Vienna followed by visits abroad at the Pasteur Institute, Paris and at the Porter Memorial Hospital (USA). Since March 2004 he directs the Outpatients Unit of Homeopathy for Malign Diseases at the Department Clinic for Internal of Medicine I at the Medical University of Vienna. Since 2005 Frass also works as a coordinator of the lecture series Homeopathy at the Medical University of Vienna. Beginning with the winter semester 2001/02 he is the coordinator of a lecture series Basics and practise of complementary medical methods at the Medical University of Vienna. From 2002 to 2005 he led the Ludwig Boltzmanm Institute of Homeopathy. Since 2005 Frass is president of the Institute for Homeopathic Research. Actually he works at the Division of Oncology at the Department of Medicine I in Vienna. He is First Chairman of the Scientific Society for Homeopathy (WissHom), founded in 2010, president of the Umbrella organization of Austrian Doctors for Holistic Medicine.”

He directs the WHAT? The Outpatients Unit of Homeopathy for Malign Diseases at the Department Clinic for Internal of Medicine I at the Medical University of Vienna? This is my former medical school, and I had no idea that such a unit even existed – but, of course, I left in 1993 for Exeter (a few months ago, I followed an invitation to give a lecture on homeopathy at the Medical University of Vienna ; sadly neither Prof Frass nor anyone of his team attended).

And what about the Scientific Society for Homeopathy? I am sure that the name of this organisation will make some people wonder. From the society’s website, we learn that “the intention of WissHom is to contribute to the progress of medicine and to the collective good. To this end, WissHom intents to further develop homeopathy both practically and theoretically. It will be WissHom’s task to breathe life into this committed objective.”

Breathing life into homeopathy seems exactly what Prof Frass does. He seems to have found his way to homeopathy relatively late in his career (the 1st Medline-listed article was published only in 2003) but he has nevertheless published many studies on this subject (I use the term ‘study’ here to describe both clinical, pre-clinical and basic research papers); in total, I found 12 such articles on Medline. They cover extremely diverse areas and a wide range of methodologies. Yet they all have one remarkable feature in common: they arrive at positive conclusions.

You find this hard to believe? Join the club!

But it is undeniably true, here are the conclusions (or the bit that comes close to a conclusion) from the Medline-listed abstracts (only the headings in capital letters are mine, and they simply depict the nature of the paper)

AN RCT WITH CANCER PATIENTS (2015)

Results suggest that the global health status and subjective wellbeing of cancer patients improve significantly when adjunct classical homeopathic treatment is administered in addition to conventional therapy.

TWO CASE REPORTS OF HOMEOPATHICALLY TREATED INTOXICATIONS (2014)

Based on the 2 cases, including 1 extreme situation, we suggest that adjunctive homeopathic treatment has a role in the treatment of acute Amanita phalloides-induced toxicity following mushroom poisoning. Additional studies may clarify a more precise dosing regimen, standardization, and better acceptance of homeopathic medicine in the intensive care setting.

RETORSPECTIVE ANALYSIS OF CANER SURVIVAL UNDER HOMEOPATHIC TREATMENT (2014)

Extended survival time in this sample of cancer patients with fatal prognosis but additive homeopathic treatment is interesting. However, findings are based on a small sample, and with only limited data available about patient and treatment characteristics. The relationship between homeopathic treatment and survival time requires prospective investigation in larger samples possibly using matched-pair control analysis or randomized trials.

OBSERVATIONAL STUDY OF HOMEOPATHIC TREATMENT FOR ALLERGIES (2012)

The symptoms of patients undergoing homeopathic treatment were shown to improve substantially and conventional medication dosage could be substantially reduced. While the real-life effect assessed indicates that there is a potential for enhancing therapeutic measures and reducing healthcare cost, it does not allow to draw conclusions as to the efficacy of homeopathic treatment per se.

IN-VITRO STUDY OF THE EFFECTS OF HOMEOPATHICS ON HELIOBACTER PYLORI (2010)

The data suggest that both drugs prepared in ethanolic solution are potent inhibitors of H. pylori induced gene expression.

SYSTEMATIC REVIEW OF HOMEOPATHY FOR RESPIRATORY ALLERGIES (2010)

Most of these clinical studies have been deemed to be high quality trials, according to the three most commonly referenced meta-analyses of homeopathic research. Basic in vitro experimental studies also provide evidence that the effects of homeopathy differ from placebo.

CASE SERIES OF PATIENTS TREATED WITH HOMEOPATHIC PETROLEUM (2008)

This study is based on 25 well documented reports of cases which responded well to treatment with Petroleum.

ANIMAL EXPERIMENT WITH HOMEOPATHY ( 2008)

Animals treated with the standard test solution thyroxine 10(-30) metamorphosed more slowly than the control animals, ie the effect of the homeopathically prepared thyroxine was opposed to the usual physiological effect of molecular thyroxine.

OVERVIEW OF HOMEOPATHIC TREATMENT IN INTENSIVE CARE (2005)

Our report suggests that homeopathy may be applicable even for critically ill patients.

RCT OF HOMEOPATHY FOR SEVERE SEPSIS (2005)

Our data suggest that homeopathic treatment may be a useful additional therapeutic measure with a long-term benefit for severely septic patients admitted to the intensive care unit. A constraint to wider application of this method is the limited number of trained homeopaths.

RCT OF HOMEOPATHY FOR COPD (2005)

These data suggest that potentized (diluted and vigorously shaken) potassium dichromate may help to decrease the amount of stringy tracheal secretions in COPD patients.

ANIMAL STUDY OF A HOMEOPATHIC REMEDY (2003)

These animals reacted to the homeopathically prepared thyroxine with a slowing down of metamorphosis, even when they had not been prestimulated with a molecular dose of the hormone. This effect was observed in all 3 laboratories and is consistent with the results of previous studies.

Surprised?

So am I!

How can homeopathy produce nothing but positive results in the hands of this researcher? How can it work in so many entirely different conditions? How is it possible that homeopathic remedies are better than placebo regardless of the methodology used? Why does homeopathy, in the hands of Prof Frass, not even once produce a result that disappoints the aspirations of homeopaths and its advocates? Why are these sensational results almost invariably published in very minor journals? Crucially, why has not one of the findings (as far as I can see) ever been independently reproduced?

I do not know the answers to these questions.

If anyone does, I would like to hear them.

Not long ago, Peter Fisher fired me from the editorial board of ‘his’ journal ‘HOMEOPATHY’. I thought that this was a surprisingly daft move, particularly as we used to have respect for each other and even published together as co-authors (for instance here). But perhaps I should not have been surprised because, already in 2007, he published an important, potentially libellous falsehood about me.

In this article which he published as Dr. Peter Fisher, Homeopath to Her Majesty, the Queen, he wrote: There is a serious threat to the future of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital (RLHH), and we need your help…Lurking behind all this is an orchestrated campaign, including the ’13 doctors letter’, the front page lead in The Times of 23 May 2006, Ernst’s leak of the Smallwood report (also front page lead in The Times, August 2005), and the deeply flawed, but much publicised Lancet meta-analysis of Shang et al…

If you have read my memoir, you will know that even the hostile 13-months investigation by my own university did not find me guilty of the ‘leak’. The Times journalist who interviewed me about the Smallwood report already had the document on his desk when we spoke, and I did not disclose any contents of the report to him. But the truth in homeopathy seems often highly diluted.

More recently, Peter Fisher could be heard on UK radio and TV (for instance here) making further claims which, in my view, are false. Specifically, I am thinking of two of his statements which would mislead the public, if they stood uncorrected:

  1. He said that the studies unanimously show that integrating homeopathy into conventional medicine improves outcomes and saves money.
  2. He also claimed that most of the homeopathic remedies available in the high street still contain small amounts of active ingredients.

POINT NUMBER 1

It seems obvious that adding homeopathy with its lengthy, compassionate encounters to conventional care can easily generate positive outcomes. But costs? I don’t see unanimously positive evidence here at all.

Dr Fisher must know the literature on homeopathy very well. Therefore I assume that he is aware of the most up-to-date systematic review of economic evaluations of this subject. Its authors from the ‘School of Health and Related Research’, University of Sheffield concluded that “it is… not possible to draw firm conclusions based on existing economic evaluations of homeopathy“.

Fisher knows and likes to quote Claudia Witt’s work on homeopathy. Why does he not cite this recent paper then?

OBJECTIVES:

The aim of this study was to compare the health care costs for patients using additional homeopathic treatment (homeopathy group) with the costs for those receiving usual care (control group).

METHODS:

Cost data provided by a large German statutory health insurance company were retrospectively analysed from the societal perspective (primary outcome) and from the statutory health insurance perspective. Patients in both groups were matched using a propensity score matching procedure based on socio-demographic variables as well as costs, number of hospital stays and sick leave days in the previous 12 months. Total cumulative costs over 18 months were compared between the groups with an analysis of covariance (adjusted for baseline costs) across diagnoses and for six specific diagnoses (depression, migraine, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and headache).

RESULTS:

Data from 44,550 patients (67.3% females) were available for analysis. From the societal perspective, total costs after 18 months were higher in the homeopathy group (adj. mean: EUR 7,207.72 [95% CI 7,001.14-7,414.29]) than in the control group (EUR 5,857.56 [5,650.98-6,064.13]; p<0.0001) with the largest differences between groups for productivity loss (homeopathy EUR 3,698.00 [3,586.48-3,809.53] vs. control EUR 3,092.84 [2,981.31-3,204.37]) and outpatient care costs (homeopathy EUR 1,088.25 [1,073.90-1,102.59] vs. control EUR 867.87 [853.52-882.21]). Group differences decreased over time. For all diagnoses, costs were higher in the homeopathy group than in the control group, although this difference was not always statistically significant.

CONCLUSION:

Compared with usual care, additional homeopathic treatment was associated with significantly higher costs. These analyses did not confirm previously observed cost savings resulting from the use of homeopathy in the health care system.

To speak about unanimously positive evidence is simply not true! And Fisher, I suspect, must know it.

POINT NUMBER 2

This point is even clearer, I think. The most commonly used homeopathic potency is surely a ’30C’ – it was already Hahnemann’s favourite. A small statistic proves my point: of the 24 products listed on the Nelson site, 21 are ’30C’ and just three are ‘6C’. For Ainsworths, all 33 of their listed standard products are ’30C’. Helios have 70 ’30C’ products and 27 ‘200C’ products

The likelihood that a ’30C’ contains a single molecule of what it says on the bottle is precisely zero. In fact, this applies already to all remedies beyond ’12C’. Fisher knows that, of course, I assume; if not he should not be a homeopath.

MY CONCLUSION OF ALL THIS

I do not take any pleasure in calling anyone a liar – and it is, of course, far from me to use this word in connection with the Queen’s homeopath. Therefore, in the interest of the scientific truth, medical ethics and honesty, I would like to give Dr Fisher the opportunity to comment on the above issues and herewith invite him to correct the three errors/falsehoods/inaccuracies/misunderstandings mentioned above by supplying the evidence for his statements or by withdrawing them. Then we won’t have to call him names which he might feel are hurtful.

Having just finished reading an ‘satirical esothriller’ entitled ‘VIER FRAUEN UND EIN SCHARLATAN’ (it’s a good book but it’s in German, I’m afraid), I have been thinking more than usual about charlatans. A charlatan is defined as a person who falsely pretends to know or be something in order to deceive people. In the book, the charlatan character is deliberately exaggerated as a dishonest, immoral crook. I have met such people; in fact, I have met plenty of such people in alternative medicine. But I have to admit that, in my experience, there are other charlatans too; in particular, I am talking of ‘honest’ quacks who pretend to know while also being utterly convinced to know.

Come to think of the categories of charlatans, I think the matter is really quite simple: as far as I can see, in alternative medicine, there are essentially just two types.

THE CROOK

This type of charlatan is the one we think of first when we mention the term. He (usually it’s a male) has a range of remarkable features:

  • he is dishonest;
  • he is entirely rational;
  • he knows about evidence and has prepared all the necessary pseudo-arguments to belittle science vis a vis his followers;
  • he is only interested in himself;
  • he is immoral;
  • he wants to make money;
  • he employs all the means available to achieve his aims, including PR, advertising, branding, merchandising etc.
  • he does not believe in his ‘message’;
  • he systematically studies and exploits his target group;
  • he does not live by his own rules;
  • when he is implicated in harming a patient, he consults his lawyers;
  • he is cynical;
  • his ‘charisma’, if he has any, is well-studied and extensively rehearsed;
  • when challenged, he sues.

THE FANATCIST

This type is very different from the crook and would be deeply shocked by the crook’s behaviour and attitude. She (often it is a female) can be described as follows:

  • she is convinced to be profoundly honest;
  • she is deluded, often to the point of madness;
  • she ignores the evidence totally and argues that science is just one of several ways of knowing;
  • she feels altruistic;
  • she thinks she is on the moral high ground;
  • she is not primarily out to make money and might even offer her services for free;
  • she does not seek fame;
  • she is religiously convinced of the correctness of her message and wants to save mankind through it;
  • her message is for everyone;
  • she strictly adheres to her own gospel and thinks that those who don’t are traitors;
  • when she is implicated in causing harm, she consults her ueber-guru;
  • she abhors cynicism;
  • her charisma, if she has any, is real and a powerful tool for convincing followers;
  • when challenged, she feels hurt and misunderstood.

As I indicated already, this is a SIMPLE classification. Between the two extremes, there are all shades of grey. In fact, it is a continuous spectrum.

Why should any of this be important?

Charlatans of both types cause immeasurable harm, and it is impossible to decide which type is more dangerous. Our aim must be to prevent or minimise the harm they do. I think, this aim can best be pursued, if we know who we are dealing with. Identifying where precisely on the above scale a particular charlatan or quack is situated, might help in the prevention of harm.

Yes, I got an award – and a very prestigious one at that!

Thanks to everyone who supported me in often difficult times and made this possible.

Here are some details from the website of Nature:

Edzard Ernst, Emeritus Professor at Peninsula Medical School, and Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford, have been awarded the international 2015 John Maddox Prize for courage in promoting science and evidence on a matter of public interest, despite facing difficulty and hostility in doing so.

Edzard Ernst is recognised for his long commitment to applying scientific methodologies in research into complementary and alternative medicines and to communicating this need. Prof Ernst continued in his work despite personal attacks and attempts to undermine his research unit and end his employment. As a result, he has addressed a significant gap in the research base in this field and has brought insights into discussions with the public, policy makers, commentators, practitioners and other researchers.

Susan Jebb is recognised for her promotion of public understanding of nutrition on a diverse range of issues of public concern, from food supplements to dieting. Prof Jebb tackled misconceptions about sugar in the media and among the public, and endured personal attacks and accusations that industry funding compromised her integrity and advisory capabilities. Despite this experience, she continued to engage with the media and the public on issues of dietary advice, talking about the need for sound science and high quality research, and advocating for high standards of research governance.

The John Maddox Prize is a joint initiative of the science journal Nature, the Kohn Foundation, and the charity Sense About Science, and it is awarded to one or two people a year. The late Sir John Maddox FRS, was editor of Nature for 22 years and a founding trustee of Sense About Science. A passionate and tireless communicator and defender of science, he engaged with difficult debates, inspiring others to do the same.

For full award details see http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/maddox-prize-2015.html.

END OF QUOTE

On the day, I was quite nervous – so much so that I forgot the little text which I had prepared for the occasion. Therefore I had to memorize it and got a bit muddled up in my excitement. For all who were not present, here is the very short (they asked me for 3 minutes only!) ‘thank-you-address’ I had wanted to give:

I am delighted to receive this prestigious award and to have the research of my team recognised in this way. But, as a true sceptic, I have to ask whether I really deserve this prize.

What is remarkable about what I have done?

For the last 20 years, I have tried to find out the truth about alternative treatments. The results were often not what enthusiasts of alt med had hoped for. But my job was to test and not to promote alternative medicine. So I published our findings and, if necessary, I defended them – nothing truly remarkable about that; it is exactly what scientists should be doing. To me, it seems almost as obvious as explaining that 2 + 2 = 4.

The remarkable thing is not standing up for well-documented facts; the remarkable thing surely is that there are others who claim that reductionist science is not applicable to such a problem, and that it has to be solved holistically: 2 and 2 must be integrated not added, and anyway, the whole is greater than its parts. Therefore 2 + 2 is not for 4, it is whatever you want to make of it.

The even more remarkable thing is that, about 10 years ago, my peers in Exeter all of a sudden seemed to defend such lunacy and joined the charlatans who promoted this nonsense in attacking me, my work and my integrity.

I thank you for the prize and I thank you for the cheque that comes with it. I have decided to donate the money to THE GOOD THINKING SOCIETY founded by my friend Simon Singh. This charity stands up for science by correcting some of the many false claims that are currently being made for bogus treatments. I think this is in the spirit of John Maddox and the prize in his honour. I hope the prize will inspire other scientists to stand up for science – because our science can only be as good as the integrity of our scientists.

For me, the most touching thing of the entire evening was a man who came up to me afterwards, shook my hand with enthusiasm and said: “If we all had courage like you, the world would be a better place”. Then he disappeared into the crowd and left me fighting back my tears.

The INDEPENDENT carried a nice article about the prize, Prof Jebb and myself the next day. It attracted a comment by someone calling himself ‘ZimJay’ which typifies the level of debate in the field of alternative medicine quite well, in my view:

Who knew there’s a science award for thumbsucking?  is there is a bigger white male whiner than Edzard Ernst acting out like a 4 year old while living in the UK? Name them.

The University of Exeter has, as far as I know, not put out a comment. Odd, as it is not every day that a professor from this institution wins an international prize of this standing. Or perhaps not odd at all? But it is early days, of course – I wait and see.

Today, the INDEPENDENT published a short editorial with this conclusion:

During two decades patrolling the boundary between magic and medicine, he has protected our dignity, our pockets and our health. For that, we salute him.

I WOULD NOT HOLD MY BREATH FOR FURTHER VILE COMMENTS BY ALTERNATIVISTS – AND, IN THIS PARTICULAR INSTANCE, I OUGHT TO THANK THEM: WITHOUT THEIR INCESSANT DIRTY WORK, I WOULD PROBABLY NOT HAVE BEEN AWARDED THE JOHN MADDOX PRIZE 2015.

Having been in contact with homeopaths most of my life, I had almost come to the conclusion that they tend to be more than a little short of a sense of humour. Well, I was wrong! I first realised my error when I came across this website. Under the heading ‘WHY USE HOMEOPATHICS?’, it lists 6 reasons which are undeniably full of humour, satire and irony. Here they are:

  • Homeopathy is extremely effective. When the correct remedy is taken, results can be rapid, complete and permanent.
  • Homeopathy is completely safe. Even babies and pregnant women can use Homeopathy without the danger of side effects. Homeopathic remedies can also be taken alongside other medication without producing unwanted side effects.
  • Homeopathy is natural. Homeopathic remedies are normally based on natural ingredients.
  • Homeopathy works in harmony with your immune system, unlike some conventional medicines which suppress the immune system. (For example, cough medicines suppress the cough reflex, which is your body’s attempt to clear the lungs)
  • Homeopathic remedies are not addictive – once relief is felt, you should stop taking them. If no relief is felt, you are probably taking the wrong homeopathic remedy.
  • Homeopathy is holistic. It treats all the symptoms as one, which in practical terms means that it addresses the cause, not the symptoms. This often means that symptoms tackled with Homeopathy do not recur.

This is hilarious, but perhaps not as funny as this website of the ‘British Homeopathic Dental Association’ (yes, you read correctly: there are dentists who use homeopathy!) providing ‘six good reasons why you should visit a homeopathic dentist’:

  1. Because they treat patients holistically
  2. Homeopathic remedies are effective and have no unpleasant side effects
  3. There are remedies which stop swelling and pain after injections and extractions
  4. There are remedies which reduce the pain and swelling of dental abscesses
  5. There are remedies which alleviate toothache
  6. There are remedies which which cure ulcers and cold sores and many more

You might think that these are isolated cases of humour. If so, I recommend you go on the internet and find what else homeopathy offer for our amusement. There is more laughter hidden in the homeopathic websites that you can possibly imagine. Here is another example: on his homepage, a homeopath clearly states that the following list of conditions are curable/treatable with homeopathy:

You have to admit, this is funny! No?

Perhaps this website will make you giggle:

The online procedure for homeopathic treatment is straightforward, and only requires four simple steps. Please note that your second Follow Up Consultation is absolutely free.

  1. First, please send me some basic information about yourself, so that I can analyse your case. In my reply I will inform you if Homeopathic treatment can be successful personally for you. This step is absolutely FREE.
  2. After receiving my reply, you may decide whether you wish to continue with treatment. You can then make a payment and you will be sent a First Consultation Form, to complete via email, which you should fill in carefully and send back. This will be a detailed questionnaire.
  3. Please allow two days for me to read your form, from which I will be able to work out your case. I will then send you a reply, with written report regarding your general state of health, pointing possible weaknesses and a Homeopathic prescription for Homeopathic remedies with full explanation of how to use them and the reason why they are prescribed.
  4.  After your initial period of using homeopathic medication is over / usually 4-5 weeks/, you will then be asked to fill in a Follow Up Consultation Form, which will be sent to you. This is to see how you have got on with the treatment.

From here, the fourth step is repeated until you are treated. As stated above, your second Follow Up Consultation is absolutely free. This is to encourage you to stay on your course of treatment, as often (not always), you will need some patience to see lasting results. Your health is my first priority.

You will also have phone and email support from me at any time while you are using this service.

I am only ever a phone-call away if you have any queries and I do not charge for this service.

There you are, I am certain that nobody can deny it: THIS IS COMIC GOLD!!!

Good humour carries a strong element of satire aimed at “the absurdity of everyday life”. And surely these homeopaths are spot on.

The ‘INTERNATIONAL CHIROPRACTIC PEDIATRIC ASSOCIATION’ (ICPA) is, according to their website, ‘a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance chiropractic by establishing evidence informed practice, supporting excellence in professional skills and delivering educational resources to the public. It fulfills this mission by engaging and serving family chiropractors worldwide through research, training and public education.’

It fulfils its mission by, amongst other things, tweeting links to other pro-chiropractic activities. It is via such a tweet that I recently found the Pathways to Family Wellness (PFW). This is a quarterly print and digital magazine whose mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.

This sounds exciting, I thought, and decided to have a closer look. I found that, according to its website, the magazine ‘collaborates with consciousness leaders, cutting-edge scientists and researchers, families on their conscious path, holistic practitioners and dynamic non-profit organizations to bring the most current insights into wellness to our readers.’

The Executive Editor and Publisher of PFW is Dr. Jeanne Ohm. She has ‘practiced family wellness care since 1981 with her husband, Dr. Tom. They have six children who were all born at home and are living the chiropractic family wellness lifestyle. Ohm is an instructor, author, and innovator. Her passion is: training DC’s with specific techniques for care in pregnancy, birth & infancy, forming national alliances for chiropractors with like-minded perinatal practitioners, empowering mothers to make informed choices, and offering pertinent patient educational materials.’

My suspicion that this is an outlet of chiropractic nonsense is confirmed as I read an article by Bobby Doscher, D.C., N.D. on the subject of chiropractic treatment for children with neurological problems. The article itself is merely promotional and therefore largely irrelevant. But one short passage is interesting nevertheless, I thought:

Chiropractic Based on Scientific Fact

Since its beginning, chiropractic has been based on the scientific fact that the nervous system controls the function of every cell, tissue, organ and system of your body. While the brain is protected by the skull, the spinal cord is more vulnerable, covered by 24 moving vertebrae. When these bones lose their normal motion or position, they can irritate the nervous system. This disrupts the function of the tissues or organs these nerves control; this is called vertebral subluxation complex.

I thought this was as revealing as it was hilarious. Since such nonsensical notions are ubiquitous in the chiropractic literature, I am tempted to conclude that most chiropractors believe this sort of thing themselves. This makes them perhaps more honest but also more of a threat: sincere conviction renders a quack not less but more dangerous.

Today the GUARDIAN published an article promoting acupuncture on the NHS. The article is offensively misleading, I think, and therefore deserves a comment. I write these comments with a heavy heart, I should add, because the GUARDIAN is by far my favourite UK daily. In the following, I will cite key passages from the article in question and add my comments in bold.

Every woman needing pain relief while giving birth at University College London hospital (UCLH) is offered acupuncture, with around half of the hospital’s midwives specially trained to give the treatment. UCLH is far from typical in this respect, though: acupuncture is not standard throughout the UK and many health practitioners claim patients are often denied access to it through the NHS because of entrenched scepticism from sections of the medical establishment.

Entrenched scepticism? I would say that it could be perhaps be related to the evidence. The conclusions of the current Cochrane review on acupuncture for labour pain are cautious and do not seem strong enough to issue a general recommendation for general use in childbirth: “acupuncture and acupressure may have a role with reducing pain, increasing satisfaction with pain management and reduced use of pharmacological management. However, there is a need for further research.”

“There are conditions for which acupuncture works and others where it doesn’t. It is not a cure-all, and should be open to scrutiny. But the focus of my work is for acupuncture to become a standard part of midwifery training, and at the same time change perceptions among clinicians about its appropriate use for a whole range of other conditions.”

Open to scrutiny indeed! And if we scrutinise the evidence critically – rather than engaging in uncritical and arguably irresponsible promotion – we find that the evidence is not nearly as convincing as acupuncture fans try to make us believe.

The UK lags behind many other European countries in its support for acupuncture. Just 2,500 medical professionals here are qualified to practice it, compared with 45,000 in Germany. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) recommends WMA specifically for the treatment of only two conditions – lower back pain (which costs the NHS £1bn a year) and headaches.

Yes, the UK also lags behind Germany in the use of leeches and other quackery. The ‘ad populum’ fallacy is certainly popular in alternative medicine – but surely, it is still a fallacy!

A growing body of healthcare practitioners believe it should be offered routinely for a variety of conditions, including pain in labour, cancer, musculoskeletal conditions and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Here we go, belief as a substitute for evidence and fallacies as a replacement of logical arguments. I had thought the GUARDIAN was better than this!

At a time of NHS cuts the use of needles at 8p per unit look attractive. In St Albans, where a group of nurse-led clinics have been using acupuncture since 2008 for patients with knee osteoarthritis, economics have been put under scrutiny. WMA was offered to 114 patients rather than a knee replacement costing £5,000, and 79% accepted. Two years later a third of them had not required a knee transplant, representing an annual saving of £100,000, as estimated by researchers to the St Albans local commissioning group.

This looks a bit like a ‘back of an envelope’ analysis. I would like to see this published in a reputable journal and see it scrutinised by a competent health economist.

So why is acupuncture not being used more widely? The difficulty of proving its efficacy is clearly one of the biggest stumbling blocks. An analysis of 29 studies of almost 18,000 patients found acupuncture effective in treating chronic pain compared with sham acupuncture.

This passage refers to an analysis by Vickers et al. It was severely and repeatedly criticised for being too optimistic and, more importantly, it is not nearly as positive as implied here. Its conclusions are in fact quite cautious: “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.”

But even treatment proponents question whether a randomised controlled trial – the gold standard of medical research – works, given that faking treatment is nearly impossible.

What do you mean ‘even treatment proponents’? It is only proponents who question these sham needles! The reason: they frequently do not generate the results acupuncture fans had hoped for.

MY CONCLUSIONS

The article is clearly not the GUARDIAN’s finest hour. It lacks even a tinge of critical assessment. This is regrettable, I think, particularly as the truth about acupuncture is not that difficult to transmit to the public:

  • Much of the research is of woefully poor quality.
  • Its effectiveness is not proven beyond doubt for a single condition.
  • Serious adverse effects have been reported.
  • Because it requires substantial amounts of therapist time, it also is not cheap.

All across the world we see initiatives to regulate alternative medicine. The most recent news in this sphere comes from Switzerland. The ‘Swissinfo’ website reported that the training of alternative medicine practitioners is to be regulated by creating a ‘COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE DIPLOMA’.

The decision was welcomed by the Organisation of Swiss Alternative Medicine Professionals (OdA KT), which will conduct the exams for the diploma in question. The five therapies selected by the government for the complementary medicine diploma are yoga, ayurveda, shiatsu, craniosacral therapy and eutony. The first exams are expected to be held in 2016.

“Recognition by the state provides an important political basis for these therapies,” Christoph Q Meier, secretary general of OdA KT told swissinfo.ch. “The diploma will also improve the quality of therapy offered in Switzerland, as until now anybody could call themselves a therapist.” Meier estimates that there are between 12-15,000 practitioners of complementary therapies in Switzerland. Applicants for the national diploma will first have to pass a series of pre-exams. However, those with recognised qualifications and at least five years of experience could be exempt from the pre-exams. The exam is open to foreign nationals but will only be offered in German, French and Italian. In April this year, ayurveda was also included for a separate national diploma in naturopathy medicine along with Chinese and European traditional medicine, as well as homeopathy. Switzerland has around 3,000 naturopaths.

Whenever issues like this come up, I ask myself: IS REGULATION OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE A GOOD OR A BAD THING?

On the one hand, one might be pleased to hear that therapists receive some training and that not everyone who feels like it can do this job. On the other hand, it has to be said that regulation of nonsense will inevitably result in nonsense. What is more, regulation will also be misused by the practitioners to claim that their treatment is now well-established and supported by the government. This phenomenon can already be seen in the comments above and it misleads the public who understandably believe that, once a form of health care is regulated officially, it must be evidence-based.

So, what is the solution? I wish I knew the answer.

Any suggestion is welcomed.

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