The website of BMJ Clinical Evidence seems to be popular with fans of alternative medicine (FAMs). That sounds like good news: it’s an excellent source, and one can learn a lot about EBM when studying it. But there is a problem: FAMs don’t seem to really study it (alternatively they do not have the power of comprehension to understand the data); they merely pounce on this figure and cite it endlessly:
They interpret it to mean that only 11% of what conventional clinicians do is based on sound evidence. This is water on their mills, because now they feel able to claim:
THE MAJORITY OF WHAT CONVENTIONAL CLINICIANS DO IS NOT EVIDENCE-BASED. SO, WHY DO SO-CALLED RATIONAL THINKERS EXPECT ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES TO BE EVIDENCE-BASED? IF WE NEEDED PROOF THAT THEY ARE HYPOCRITES, HERE IT IS!!!
The question is: are these FAMs correct?
The answer is: no!
They are merely using a logical fallacy (tu quoque); what is worse, they use it based on misunderstanding the actual data summarised in the above figure.
Let’s look at this in a little more detail.
The first thing we need to understand the methodologies used by ‘Clinical Evidence’ and what the different categories in the graph mean. Here is the explanation:
So, arguably the top three categories amounting to 42% signify some evidential support (if we decided to be more rigorous and merely included the two top categories, we would still arrive at 35%). This is not great, but we must remember two things here:
- EBM is fairly new;
- lots of people are working hard to improve the evidence base of medicine so that, in future, these figures will be better (by contrast, in alternative medicine, no similar progress is noticeable).
The second thing that strikes me is that, in alternative medicine, these figures would surely be much, much worse. I am not aware of reliable estimates, but I guess that the percentages might be one dimension smaller.
The third thing to mention is that the figures do not cover the entire spectrum of treatments available today but are based on ~ 3000 selected therapies. It is unclear how they were chosen, presumably the choice is pragmatic and based on the information available. If an up-to date systematic review has been published and provided the necessary information, the therapy was included. This means that the figures include not just mainstream but also plenty of alternative treatments (to the best of my knowledge ‘Clinical Evidence’ makes no distinction between the two). It is thus nonsensical to claim that the data highlight the weakness of the evidence in conventional medicine. It is even possible that the figures would be better, if alternative treatments had been excluded (I estimate that around 2 000 systematic reviews of alternative therapies have been published [I am the author of ~400 of them!]).
The fourth and possibly the most important thing to mention is that the percentage figures in the graph are certainly NOT a reflection of what percentage of treatments used in routine care are based on good evidence. In conventional practice, clinicians would, of course, select where possible those treatments with the best evidence base, while leaving the less well documented ones aside. In other words, they will use the ones in the two top categories much more frequently than those from the other categories.
At this stage, I hear some FAMs say: how does he know that?
Because several studies have been published that investigated this issue in some detail. They have monitored what percentage of interventions used by conventional clinicians in their daily practice are based on good evidence. In 2004, I reviewed these studies; here is the crucial passage from my paper:
“The most conclusive answer comes from a UK survey by Gill et al who retrospectively reviewed 122 consecutive general practice consultations. They found that 81% of the prescribed treatments were based on evidence and 30% were based on randomised controlled trials (RCTs). A similar study conducted in a UK university hospital outpatient department of general medicine arrived at comparable figures; 82% of the interventions were based on evidence, 53% on RCTs. Other relevant data originate from abroad. In Sweden, 84% of internal medicine interventions were based on evidence and 50% on RCTs. In Spain these percentages were 55 and 38%, respectively. Imrie and Ramey pooled a total of 15 studies across all medical disciplines, and found that, on average, 76% of medical treatments are supported by some form of compelling evidence — the lowest was that mentioned above (55%),6 and the highest (97%) was achieved in anaesthesia in Britain. Collectively these data suggest that, in terms of evidence-base, general practice is much better than its reputation.”
My conclusions from all this:
FAMs should study the BMJ Clinical Evidence more thoroughly. If they did, they might comprehend that the claims they tend to make about the data shown there are, in fact, bogus. In addition, they might even learn a thing or two about EBM which might eventually improve the quality of the debate.
It has been pointed out that many of the discussions we have on this blog are like pigeon chess. The term comes from a comment made by Scott D. Weitzenhoffer about Evolution vs. Creationism: An introduction: “Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.”
Debating a fan of alternative medicine is frequently just like that: ignorant of the basics of science and logic, he nevertheless insists on playing with you, knocks over the pieces, defecates on the board, flies back to his flock to boast of victory, only to come back a little later to start over again.
The sequence of events is comically stereotypical: in order to start this game, the evangelist of alternative medicine does his best to appear rational and interested in the subject. Once a discussion has commenced, he begins to make more and more irrational claims. When asked to provide evidence for them, he evades the challenge. Instead, he issues all sorts of accusations to you. Some of the favourites include:
- being not competent to discuss the issue at hand,
- having a closed mind,
- being paid by BIG PHARMA,
As the accusations continue, it can be almost impossible to remain polite. Your reminders to produce evidence for the evangelist’s irrational claims become more and more pressing. He then decides to focus on a triviality and pesters you with questions about it which are too silly to answer. Consequently, the temperature of the exchange rises until his accusations become offensive or turn into overt insults (in the past I have sometimes deleted insulting comments and I intend to continue doing this on hopefully rare occasions). The aims of the evangelist are 1) to arrive at a point where you lose your temper and 2) to distract from the fact that he is unable to provide any evidence for his outlandish claims. Eventually your patience is exhausted and you finally start paying him back in the same coinage as he dispensed.
At this stage, the evangelist indignantly shouts:
- YOU HAVE INSULTED ME!!!
- YOU HAVE INSULTED ANYONE WHO DISAGREES WITH YOU!!!
- THIS SHOWS WHAT A BAD, BAD PERSON YOU ARE!!!
Consequently, you give him a real piece of your mind and tell him what you really think of people who are belligerent, ignorant on their chosen subject, provocatively irrational and unable or unwilling to learn. The reaction of the evangelist is predictable: he says THAT’S IT, I AM NOT TALKING TO YOU ANYMORE, announces that he is the winner of the argument, and flies off triumphantly promising never to return.
We all give a sigh of relief. The evangelist has now returned to his fellow conspiracy theorists where he defames you the best he can. Eventually he disappoints your hope of peace and rationality by returning to the table. He pretends nothing has happened and starts over again.
So, what is the solution?
I am not sure there is an ideal way out.
Personally I intend to do the following in future (and I invite others to follow my example): before I reach the point where I lose my temper completely and regrettably, I will refer the evangelist to this blog post entitled ‘A method of ending discussions with belligerent twits’. At the same time, I will inform him (rarely it is a ‘her’) that I am about to break off the discussion with him because I fear that otherwise I might be openly rude, and perhaps even tell him: YOU ARE A FLAMING IDIOT WHO POSTS FAR TO MUCH NONSENSE TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.
This, I hope will get my message across without actually ever tempting me to post a rude word again.
Failing this, I will block him completely, a measure to which so far I only needed rarely to resort.
The website of the HOMEOPATHY HUB gives us intriguing access to the brain of a homeopath. It tells us that “protecting patient choice is at the heart of everything we do. Homeopathy, which is the second largest system of medicine in the world, is a form of treatment which plays a vital role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people across the UK. There is, however, a movement to try and withdraw homeopathy from the public and make homeopathic medicines difficult to secure. Our intention is to be a central “hub” for accurate information on current campaigns to retain access to homeopathy and details on how you can get involved and make your voice heard. Without public and patient support we will not be successful.”
Here are a few of the above statements that I find doubtful:
- protecting patient choice – choice requires reliable information; as we will see, this is not provided here;
- second largest system of medicine in the world – really?
- plays a vital role – where is the evidence for that claim?
- movement to try and withdraw homeopathy from the public and make homeopathic medicines difficult to secure – nobody works towards this aim, some people are trying to stop wasting public funds on useless therapies, but that’s quite different, I find;
The HOMEOPATHY HUB recently alerted its readers to the fact that the Charity Commission (CC) is currently conducting a public consultation on whether organisations promoting the use of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) should have charitable status (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/consultation-on-complementary-and-alternative-medicines) and urged its readers to defend homeopathy by responding to the CC offering a “few helpful points” to raise. These 7 points give, I think, a good insight into the thinking of homeopaths. I therefore copy them here and add a few of my own comments below:
- there are many types of evidence that should be considered when evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy. These include scientific studies, patient feedback and the clinical experience of doctors who have trained in a CAM discipline. Within Homeopathy there is considerable evidence which can be found (https://www.hri-research.org)
- many conventional therapies and drugs have inconclusive evidence or prove to be useful in only some cases, for example SSRIs (anti-depressants). Inconsistent evidence is often the result of the complexity of both the medical condition being treated and the therapy being used. It is not indicative of a therapy that doesn’t work
- removing all therapies or interventions that have inconsistent or inconclusive evidence would seriously limit the public and the medical profession’s ability to help treat and ease patients suffering.
- all over the world there are doctors, nurses, midwives, vets and other healthcare professional who integrate CAM therapies into their daily practice because they see effectiveness. They would not use these therapies if they did not see their patients benefitting from them. For example in the UK, within the NHS hospital setting, outcome studies demonstrate effectiveness of homeopathy. (http://www.britishhomeopathic.org/evidence/results-from-the-homeopathic-hospitals/)
- practitioners of many CAM therapies belong to registering bodies which expect their members to comply to the highest professional standards in regards to training and practice
- In the UK the producers and suppliers of CAM treatments (homeopathy, herbal medicine etc) are strictly regulated
- as well as providing valuable information to the growing number of people seeking to use CAM as part of their healthcare, CAM charities frequently fund treatment for those people, particularly the elderly and those on a low income, whose health has benefitted from these therapies but who cannot afford them. This meets the charity’s criterion of providing a public benefit.
- “Patient feedback and the clinical experience of doctors” may be important but is not what can be considered evidence of therapeutic effectiveness.
- Yes, in medicine evidence is often inconsistent; this is why we need to rely on proper assessments of the totality of the reliable data. If that fails to be positive (as is the case for homeopathy and several other forms of alternative medicine), we are well advised not to employ the treatment in question in routine healthcare.
- Removing all treatments for which the best evidence fails to show effectiveness – such as homeopathy – would greatly improve healthcare and reduces cost. It is one of the aims of EBM and an ethical imperative.
- Yes, some healthcare professionals do use useless therapies. They urgently need to be educated in the principles of EBM. Outcome studies have normally no control groups and therefore are no adequate tools for testing the effectiveness of medical interventions.
- The highest professional standards in regards to training and practice of nonsense will still result in nonsense.
- The proper regulation of nonsense can only generate proper nonsense.
- Yes, CAM charities frequently fund bogus treatments; hopefully (and with the help of readers of this blog), the CC will put an end to this soon.
I think these 7 points by the HOMEOPATHY HUB are a very poor defence of homeopathy. In fact, they are so bad that it is not worth analysing more closely than I did above. Yet, they do provide us with an insight into the homeopathic mind-set and show how illogical, misguided and wrong the arguments of homeopathy enthusiasts really are.
I do encourage you to give your response to the CC – it wound be hard to use better arguments than the homeopaths!!!
On this blog, we have had (mostly unproductive) discussions with homeopath so often that sometimes they sound like a broken disk. I don’t want to add to this kerfuffle; what I hope to do today is to summarise a certain line of argument which, from the homeopaths’ point of view, seems entirely logical. I do this in the form of a fictitious conversation between a scientist (S) and a classical homeopath (H). My aim is to make the reader understand homeopaths better so that, future debates might be better informed.
HERE WE GO:
S: I have studied the evidence from studies of homeopathy in some detail, and I have to tell you, it fails to show that homeopathy works.
H: This is not true! We have plenty of evidence to prove that patients get better after seeing a homeopath.
S: Yes, but this is not because of the remedy; it is due to non-specific effect like the empathetic consultation with a homeopath. If one controls for these factors in adequately designed trials, the result usually is negative.
I will re-phrase my claim: the evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are more effective than placebos.
H: I disagree, there are positive studies as well.
S: Let’s not cherry pick. We must always consider the totality of the reliable evidence. We now have a meta-analysis published by homeopaths that demonstrates the ineffectiveness of homeopathy quite clearly.
H: This is because homeopathy was not used correctly in the primary trials. Homeopathy must be individualised for each unique patient; no two cases are alike! Remember: homeopathy is based on the principle that like cures like!!!
S: Are you saying that all other forms of using homeopathy are wrong?
H: They are certainly not adhering to what Hahnemann told us to do; therefore you cannot take their ineffectiveness as proof that homeopathy does not work.
S: This means that much, if not most of homeopathy as it is used today is to be condemned as fake.
H: I would not go that far, but it is definitely not the real thing; it does not obey the law of similars.
S: Let’s leave this to one side for the moment. If you insist on individualised homeopathy, I must tell you that this approach can also be tested in clinical trials.
H: I know; and there is a meta-analysis which proves that it is effective.
S: Not quite; it concluded that medicines prescribed in individualised homeopathy may have small, specific treatment effects. Findings are consistent with sub-group data available in a previous ‘global’ systematic review. The low or unclear overall quality of the evidence prompts caution in interpreting the findings. New high-quality RCT research is necessary to enable more decisive interpretation.
If you call this a proof of efficacy, I would have to disagree with you. The effect was tiny and at least two of the best studies relevant to the subject were left out. If anything, this paper is yet another proof that homeopathy is useless!
H: You simply don’t understand homeopathy enough to say that. I tried to tell you that the remedy must be carefully chosen to fit each unique patient. This is a very difficult task, and sometimes it is not successful – mainly because the homeopaths employed in clinical trials are not skilled enough to find it. This means that, in these studies, we will always have a certain failure rate which, in turn, is responsible for the small average effect size.
S: But these studies are always conducted by experienced homeopaths, and only the very best, most experienced homeopaths were chosen to cooperate in them. Your argument that the trials are negative because of the ineffectiveness of the homeopaths – rather than the ineffectiveness of homeopathy – is therefore nonsense.
H: This is what you say because you don’t understand homeopathy!
S: No, it is what you say because you don’t understand science. How else would you prove that your hypothesis is correct?
H: Simple! Just look at individual cases from the primary studies within this meta-analysis . You will see that there are always patients who did improve. These cases are the proof we need. The method of the RCT is only good for defining average effects; this is not what we should be looking at, and it is certainly not what homeopaths are interested in.
S: Are you saying that the method of the RCT is wrong?
H: It is not always wrong. Some RCTs of homeopathy are positive and do very clearly prove that homeopathy works. These are obviously the studies where homeopathy has been applied correctly. We have to make a meta-analysis of such trials, and you will see that the result turns out to be positive.
S: So, you claim that all the positive studies have used the correct method, while all the negative ones have used homeopathy incorrectly.
H: If you insist to put it like that, yes.
S: I see, you define a trial to have used homeopathy correctly by its result. Essentially you accept science only if it generates the outcome you like.
H: Yes, that sounds odd to you – because you don’t understand enough of homeopathy.
S: No, what you seem to insist on is nothing short of double standards. Or would you accept a drug company claiming: some patients did feel better after taking our new drug, and this is proof that it works?
H: You see, not understanding homeopathy leads to serious errors.
S: I give up.
The aim of this pragmatic study was “to investigate the effectiveness of acupuncture in addition to routine care in patients with allergic asthma compared to treatment with routine care alone.”
Patients with allergic asthma were included in a controlled trial and randomized to receive up to 15 acupuncture sessions over 3 months plus routine care, or to a control group receiving routine care alone. Patients who did not consent to randomization received acupuncture treatment for the first 3 months and were followed as a cohort. All trial patients were allowed to receive routine care in addition to study treatment. The primary endpoint was the asthma quality of life questionnaire (AQLQ, range: 1–7) at 3 months. Secondary endpoints included general health related to quality of life (Short-Form-36, SF-36, range 0–100). Outcome parameters were assessed at baseline and at 3 and 6 months.
A total of 1,445 patients were randomized and included in the analysis (184 patients randomized to acupuncture plus routine care and 173 to routine care alone, and 1,088 in the nonrandomized acupuncture plus routine care group). In the randomized part, acupuncture was associated with an improvement in the AQLQ score compared to the control group (difference acupuncture vs. control group 0.7 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.5–1.0]) as well as in the physical component scale and the mental component scale of the SF-36 (physical: 2.5 [1.0–4.0]; mental 4.0 [2.1–6.0]) after 3 months. Treatment success was maintained throughout 6 months. Patients not consenting to randomization showed similar improvements as the randomized acupuncture group.
The authors concluded that in patients with allergic asthma, additional acupuncture treatment to routine care was associated with increased disease-specific and health-related quality of life compared to treatment with routine care alone.
We have been over this so many times (see for instance here, here and here) that I am almost a little embarrassed to explain it again: it is fairly easy to design an RCT such that it can only produce a positive result. The currently most popular way to achieve this aim in alternative medicine research is to do a ‘A+B versus B’ study, where A = the experimental treatment, and B = routine care. As A always amounts to more than nothing – in the above trial acupuncture would have placebo effects and the extra attention would also amount to something – A+B must always be more than B alone. The easiest way of thinking of this is to imagine that A and B are both finite amounts of money; everyone can understand that A+B must always be more than B!
Why then do acupuncture researchers not get the point? Are they that stupid? I happen to know some of the authors of the above paper personally, and I can assure you, they are not stupid!
I am afraid there is only one reason I can think of: they know perfectly well that such an RCT can only produce a positive finding, and precisely that is their reason for conducting such a study. In other words, they are not using science to test a hypothesis, they deliberately abuse it to promote their pet therapy or hypothesis.
As I stated above, it is fairly easy to design an RCT such that it can only produce a positive result. Yet, it is arguably also unethical, perhaps even fraudulent, to do this. In my view, such RCTs amount to pseudoscience and scientific misconduct.
CBC news (Canada) reported yesterday that, more than a decade ago, the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission had been tasked to review the cost effectiveness of chiropractic services. It therefore prepared a report in 2004 for the Manitoba province and the Manitoba Chiropractors Association. Since then, this report has been kept secret. The report makes 37 recommendations, including:
- Manitoba Health should limit its funding to “chiropractic treatment of acute lower back pain.”
- Manitoba Health should provide “limited coverage of the treatment of neck pain.” The report called the literature around the efficacy of chiropractic care for neck pain “ambiguous or at best weakly supportive” and noted such treatment carried a “not insignificant safety risk.”
- Manitoba Health should not fund chiropractic treatment anyone under 18 “as the literature does not unequivocally justify” the “efficacy or safety” of such treatment.
A Manitoba Ombudsman’s Office report from 2012 might shed some light on why the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission’s report was never made public. Someone had attempted to get a copy of the report, but large parts of it were redacted. “Access to this record was refused on the basis that disclosure would be harmful to a third party’s business interest,” the ombudsman report notes, “and harm the economic or financial interests or negotiating position of a public body.”
The report also challenged claims that chiropractic treatments can be address a wide variety of medical conditions. It stated that there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective in treating muscle tension, migraines, HIV, carpal tunnel syndrome, gastrointestinal problems, infertility or cancer, or as a preventive care treatment. It also said there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective for children.
The report urged Manitoba Health to establish a monitoring system to keep a closer eye on “the advertising practices of the Manitoba Chiropractors Association and its members to ensure claims regarding treatments are restricted to those for which proof of efficacy and safety exist.” It suggested the government should have regulatory powers over chiropractic ads.
A recent CBC I-Team investigation found Manitoba chiropractors advertising treatment for a wide range of conditions including Alzheimer’s, autism and pediatric services. The commission report contained sharp criticisms of previous reports that suggested funding chiropractic care could save the health-care system money. Dr. Pranlal Manga authored two widely cited reports which claim that by offering publicly funded chiropractic care, provinces can cut health-care costs. “The Manga study on Manitoba must be rejected as a guide to public policy,” the commission report states, “because its assumptions, methodology and costing of recommendations are all deeply flawed.” The reports states, “What limited evidence the Commission has suggests he [Manga] grossly exaggerates possible medical savings.” Dr. Manga did not respond to CBC’s repeated attempts to contact him.
The commission report also made recommendations around the use of X-ray machines by chiropractors. It suggested chiropractors not own and operate X-ray machines “Given the restrictive conditions under which X-rays are advisable, their poor correlation with low-back problems, their apparent limitation as a guide to appropriate treatment …[and] the apparent complete lack of monitoring [of] the use of X-ray by chiropractors.” Instead, it recommended consulting with radiologists when imaging is deemed necessary. “The Commission is of the view that the public interest, and even chiropractic itself, would be better served if chiropractors had access to radiologists for this service, rather than perform it themselves,” the report said.
All three report authors declined comment. Calls to Dave Chomiak, who was health minister at the time the report was prepared, were not returned. In an email to CBC, Manitoba Chiropractors Association president Perry Taylor said, “I personally have never seen this 13-year-old document and [it] pre-dates my time as President. As such I have no comment on this.” The CBC I-Team offered to go through the report with Taylor but he did not respond.
This report seems to confirm much of what we have discussed repeatedly on this blog: Chiropractic is not nearly as effective and safe as chiropractors try to make us believe. To hide this fact is certainly dishonest and unethical, but it is in some ways understandable: this knowledge would directly threaten the income of most chiropractors.
Yesterday I commented on another post: “the conflict of interest seems obvious: if homeopaths speak the truth, they are out of business. therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and eventually end up believing them. there is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent them from making false claims. if not, this will go on for another 200 years and damage many patients’ health”. In the light of the above report, I will now re-phrase this: the conflict of interest seems obvious: if chiropractors allowed the truth to be known, they would soon be out of business. Therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and many end up believing them. There is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent chiropractors from making false claims. If not, this abuse will go on for another 120 years and damage many patients’ health.
D D Palmer was born on March 7, 1845; so, why do chiros celebrate the ‘CHIROPRACTIC AWARENESS WEEK’ from 10 – 16 of April? Perhaps out of sympathy with the homeopaths (many US chiros also use homeopathy) who had their ‘big week’ during the same period? Please tell me, I want to know!
Anyway, the HAW almost ‘drowned’ the CAW – but only almost.
The British Chiropractic Association did its best to make sure we don’t forget the CAW. On their website, we find an article that alerts us to their newest bit of research. Here are some excerpts:
The consumer survey by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) of more than 2,000 UK adults who currently suffer from back or neck pain, or have done so in the past, found that almost three in five (56%) people experienced pain after using some form of technological device. Despite this, only 27% of people surveyed had limited or stopped using their devices due to concerns for their back or neck health and posture. The research showed people were most likely to experience back or neck pain after using the following technological devices:
• Laptop computer (35%)
• Desktop computer (35%)
• Smart phone (22%)
• Tablet (20%)
• Games console (17%)
The age group most likely to experience back or neck pain when using their smart phone were 16-24 year olds, while nearly half (45%) of young adults 25-34 year olds) admitted to experiencing back or neck pain after using a laptop. One in seven (14%) 16-24 year olds attributed their back or neck pain to virtual reality headsets.
As part of Chiropractic Awareness Week (10-16 April) the BCA is calling for technology companies to design devices with posture in mind, to help tech proof our back health. BCA chiropractor Rishi Loatey comments: “We all know how easy it is to remain glued to our smart phone or tablet, messaging friends or scrolling through social media. However, this addiction to technology could be causing changes to posture, which can lead to increased pressure on the muscles, joints and discs in the spine. Technology companies are now starting to issue older phone models which hark back to a time before smart phones enabled people to do everything from check emails and take pictures, to internet banking. Returning to a time of basic functionality, which may see people look to limit the time spent on their phone, can only be good news for our backs. Yet, in an age where people can now track their health and wellbeing using their phone, technology companies should also start looking at ways to make their devices posture friendly from the outset, encouraging us to take time away from our desks and breaks from our scrolling, gaming and messaging.”
END OF QUOTE
So, here we have it: another piece of compelling, cutting edge research by the BCA. They have made us giggle before but rarely have I laughed so heartily about a ‘professional’ organisation confusing so unprofessionally correlation with causation.
Considering the amount of highly public blunders they managed to inflict on the profession in recent years, I have come to the conclusion that the BCA is a cover organisation of BIG PHARMA with the aim of giving chiropractic a bad name!
The world of homeopathy is getting very excited: HOMEOPATHY AWARENESS WEEK is approaching (it’s starting 10 April). An ideal occasion, I think, for making a celebratory offer to all homeopaths:
I am suggesting to give a free lecture on any homeopathy-related subject of your choosing. This, I hope, might increase homeopaths’ awareness of the science, research and evidence for or against homeopathy.
Which professional organisation could possibly say no to such a generous offer?
None with an interest in evidence, surely!
Homeopathy has been the number one subject on this blog from its very beginnings. It regularly attracts lively discussions, and I am confident that I could generate an even better dialogue, if you let me present the evidence. I think I am almost uniquely qualified to give such a lecture, not least because I have the following types of expertise:
- I have given about 800 lectures on alternative medicine and therefore know what to do,
- I have a sound knowledge of evidence-based medicine,
- I possess the ability to tell good from poor science,
- I have experience as a patient treated by a homeopath,
- I have research experience in homeopathy (clinical trials, systematic reviews, etc.),
- I have published many scientific papers on the subject,
- I possess many years of clinical experience,
- I have been trained in homeopathy and used it as a clinician,
- I can think critically,
- I regularly review the emerging literature,
- finally, I have recently published a book entitled HOMEOPATHY, THE UNDILUTED FACTS.
The specifics of my offer are as follows:
- I will give a 45-min lecture to your organisation.
- I will then answer questions for up to 30 min.
- This can be scheduled at a location and a time of day that suits you.
- I will not charge a lecture fee.
- You will cover my travel cost from my home in Suffolk to your venue.
- Depending on the location of the venue and timing of the lecture, I might need to stay overnight and would hope you can foot the bill for that.
- There will be no other costs involved.
- My offer is limited to a time-window during which I plan to be in the UK. The best time for me would be July and August.
I am convinced that we all might profit from such lectures:
- You might learn about science, the evidence, the need for thinking critically, etc.
- And I might learn a bit more about the views and concerns of homeopaths.
Therefore, I hope that my offer will find plenty of takers. If you are interested, please contact me via this blog.
Is spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) dangerous? This question has kept us on this blog busy for quite some time now. To me, there is little doubt that SMT can cause adverse effects some of which are serious. But many chiropractors seem totally unconvinced. Perhaps this new overview of reviews might help to clarify the issue. Its aim was to elucidate and quantify the risk of serious adverse events (SAEs) associated with SMT.
The authors searched five electronic databases from inception to December 8, 2015 and included reviews on any type of studies, patients, and SMT technique. The primary outcome was SAEs. The quality of the included reviews was assessed using a measurement tool to assess systematic reviews (AMSTAR). Since there were insufficient data for calculating incidence rates of SAEs, they used an alternative approach; the conclusions regarding safety of SMT were extracted for each review, and the communicated opinion were judged by two reviewers independently as safe, harmful, or neutral/unclear. Risk ratios (RRs) of a review communicating that SMT is safe and meeting the requirements for each AMSTAR item, were calculated.
A total of 283 eligible reviews were identified, but only 118 provided data for synthesis. The most frequently described adverse events (AEs) were stroke, headache, and vertebral artery dissection. Fifty-four reviews (46%) expressed that SMT is safe, 15 (13%) expressed that SMT is harmful, and 49 reviews (42%) were neutral or unclear. Thirteen reviews reported incidence estimates for SAEs, roughly ranging from 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 250,000,000 manipulations. Low methodological quality was present, with a median of 4 of 11 AMSTAR items met (interquartile range, 3 to 6). Reviews meeting the requirements for each of the AMSTAR items (i.e. good internal validity) had a higher chance of expressing that SMT is safe.
The authors concluded that it is currently not possible to provide an overall conclusion about the safety of SMT; however, the types of SAEs reported can indeed be significant, sustaining that some risk is present. High quality research and consistent reporting of AEs and SAEs are needed.
This article is valuable, if only for the wealth of information one can extract from it. There are, however, numerous problems. One is that the overview included mostly reviews of the effectiveness of SMT for various conditions. We know that studies of SMT often do not even mention AEs. If such studies are then pooled in a review, they inevitably generate an impression of safety. But this would, of course, be a false-positive result!
The authors of the overview are aware of this problem and address it in the following paragraph: “When only considering the subset of reviews, where the objective was to investigate AEs (37 reviews), then 8 reviews (22%) expressed that SMT is safe, 13 reviews (35%) expressed that SMT is harmful and 16 reviews (43%) were neutral or unclear regarding the safety of SMT. Hence, there is a tendency that a bigger proportion of these reviews are expressing that SMT is harmful compared to the full sample of reviews…”
To my surprise, I found several of my own reviews in the ‘neutral or unclear’ category. Here are the verbatim conclusions of three of them:
- It is concluded that serious cerebrovascular complications of spinal manipulation continue to be reported.
- The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome.
- These data indicate that mild and transient adverse events seem to be frequent. Serious adverse events are probably rare but their incidence can only be estimated at present.
I find it puzzling how this could be classified as neutral or unclear. The solution of the puzzle might lie in the methodology used: “we appraised the communicated opinions of each review concerning the safety of SMT based on their conclusions regarding the AEs and SAEs. This was done by two reviewers independently (SMN, LK), who judged the communicated opinions as either ‘safe’, ‘neutral/unclear’ or ‘harmful’, based on the qualitative impression the reviewers had when reading the conclusions. The reviewers had no opinion about the safety/harmfulness of SMT before commencing the judgements. Cohen’s weighted Kappa was calculated for the agreement between the reviewers, with a value of 0.40–0.59 indicating ‘fair agreement’, 0.60–0.74 indicating ‘good agreement’ and ≥0.75 indicating ‘excellent agreement’. Disagreements were resolved by a third reviewer (MH).”
In other words, the categorisation was done on the basis of subjective judgements of two researchers. It seems obvious that, if their attitude was favourable towards SMT, their judgements would be influenced. The three examples from my own work cited above indicates to me that their verdicts were indeed far from objective.
So what is the main message here? In my view, it can be summarized in the following quote from the overview: “a bigger proportion of these reviews are expressing that SMT is harmful …”
Yes, yes, yes – I know that, if you are a chiropractor (or other practitioner using mostly SMT), you are unlikely to agree with this!
Perhaps you can agree with this statement then:
As long as there is reasonable doubt about the safety of SMT, and as long as we cannot be sure that SMT generates more good than harm, we should be very cautious using it for routine healthcare and do rigorous research to determine the truth (it’s called the precautionary principle and applies to all types of healthcare).
THE CHRONICLE OF CHIROPRACTIC is not a publication I usually read, I have to admit. But perhaps I should, because this article from its latest edition is truly fascinating. Here are the crucial excerpts:
“A so called “debate” on vertebral subluxation was held at the recent chiropractic educational conference held by the controlling factions of the Chiropractic Cartel: The World Federation of Chiropractic, the Association of Chiropractic Colleges and the American Chiropractic Association. Every few years this faction of the profession makes an attempt to disparage vertebral subluxation and those who practice in a subluxation model by trotting out its long list of Subluxation Deniers.
This year was no different.
David Newell, who is a Senior Lecturer at the Anglo European College of Chiropractic, made a number of unsubstantiated claims and engaged in logical fallacies that would shock even the casual observer. As an example, Newell made the statement:
“The subluxation as vitalistic concept, an impediment in and of itself to health and well being, impeding the expression of higher intelligence is not only entirely bereft of any evidence whatsoever but is a complete non starter even as a scientific question.”
…Newell claimed that what is dangerous about the use of vertebral subluxation are concepts and behavior associated with its use. Newell stated that subluxations are used by some in the profession to “scare or misinform patients” and gave the following examples of claims he has issues with:
- You cannot be healthy with them
- They will lead to serious disease
- Chiropractors are the only ones that can help
- A chiropractic manipulation is unique
- You need to come back for the rest of your life
- You need to bring your children otherwise they will not develop properly
Newell claimed that such statements are “confusing, un-evidenced and detrimental to our standing as a profession in the outside world” and that “at worse, sometimes used to justify approaches to care and practice models that are unacceptable both inside and outside of the profession.”
Newell … continued his tirade against his perceived threat to public health stating vertebral subluxation and the concepts attached to it are: “. . . used to generate dependancy through fear or coercion. Here, use of such words and concepts essentially as smoke screens for a model of care dominated by a coercive business ethic are strongly reputationally damaging and are not OK.” …Newell further claimed that the concept of ” . . . subluxation as an impediment to innate intelligence is bereft of science and evidence” and that “. . . this approach will be inadmissible to characterise a modern healthcare profession. Describing the profession in such language will further isolate and marginalise.”…”The irony” he states “. . . is of course that there are much better explanations, concepts and terms. Much of what is seen in practice can be explained by sound science and scientific language and so a subluxation model isn’t even needed.”
He went on to engage in further expressions of logical fallacies by stating: “Even on a simple level, science has yet to answer questions as to what a subluxation is as a defined entity, can it be validly and reliably identified, can it be validly and reliably shown to have gone post manipulation and is such disappearance associated with meaningful clinical change in patients.”
In reality, there is a rich evidence base that demonstrates the validity and reliability of numerous methods of measurements focused on the various components of vertebral subluxation as well as evidence demonstrating reduction or correction of it with resulting positive health outcomes.
Unfortunately, most simply go along with statements such as Newell’s either out of ignorance, simple aquiesence or collegiality.
Imagine the plight of students in a chiropractic program being exposed to Newell’s dogma, scientism and denial of even the existence of vertebral subluxation. That he is even given a stage and an audience is a failure of leadership within the ranks of those who purport to embrace the vitalistic concept of vertebral subluxation.
We laugh and mock those who contend the Earth is flat, yet Subluxation Deniers are given voice by schools and political organizations along with a role in determining the subluxation research agenda. And its the leadership on the traditional, conservative side of the profession that does this – as evidenced by his even being entertained at an educational conference billed as the largest and most important gathering of chiropractic educators and researchers.
Not a single objection to his, or any other Deniers, participation by the leadership in the vitalistic faction. In fact, quite the opposite – he was given the opportunity to spew his Flat Earth nonsense to a wide audience who educate the future of this profession.
Imagine a meeting at NASA where a Flat Earther is given a voice and a vote on the Mars Mission.
This was and is a failure of leadership within the vitalistic, conservative, traditional faction of the chiropractic profession.”
END OF EXCERTS
On this blog, we have heard again and again that the chiropractic profession is in the middle of a fundamental reform, that it has given up the idiotic concepts of its founders, that it has joined the 21st century, that it is becoming evidence-based, that progress is being made etc. etc. However, sceptics have always doubted these claims and pointed out that chiropractic minus its traditional concepts would merely become a limited type of physiotherapy.
From the above article, I get the impression that the notion of reform might be a bit optimistic. The old guard seems to be as alive and powerful as ever, fighting as fiercely as always to preserve chiropractic’s nonsensical cult.
Some will, of course, claim that the above article shows exactly the opposite of what I just stated. They will try to persuade us that it is evidence for the struggle of the new generation of chiropractors instilling reason into their brain-dead peers. It is evidence, they will claim, for the fact that there is a healthy discussion within the profession.
Yet this is simply not true: The maligned Mr Newell is NOT a chiropractor!
To me, the above article suggests that, for the foreseeable future, chiropractic will remain where it always has been: firmly anchored in the realm of quackery.