I regularly used to ask alternative practitioners what diseases they are good at treating. In fact, we once ran an entire research project dedicated to this question and found that their own impressions were generally based on wishful thinking rather than on evidence. The libel case of the BCA versus Simon Singh then brought this issue into the focus of the public eye, and consequently several professional organisations of alternative practitioners seem to have advised their members to be cautious about making unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. This could have been an important step into the right direction – unless, of course, a clever trick had not been devised to bypass the need for evidence. Today, when I ask alternative practitioners ‘what do you treat effectively?’ I tend to get answers like:
- Alternative practitioners, unlike conventional clinicians, do not treat diseases.
- I treat the whole person, not just the disease.
- I treat people and their specific set of signs and symptoms, rather than disease labels (this actually is a quote from the comments section of one of my recent posts).
- I focus on the totality of the symptoms; disease labels are irrelevant in the realm of my therapy.
- Chiropractors adjust subluxations which are the root cause for most diseases.
- Acupuncturists re-balance life energies which is a precondition for healing to commence irrespective of the disease.
- Homeopaths treat the totality of symptoms so that the patient’s vital force can do the healing.
- etc. etc.
All of these statements are deeply rooted in the long obsolete notions of vitalism, i.e. the assumption that a vital energy flows in all living organisms and is responsible for our health irrespective of the disease we happen to suffer from. But what do the answers to my question ‘what do you treat?’ really mean? If we analyse the above responses critically, they seem to imply that:
- Conventional clinicians do not treat patients but merely disease labels.
- Alternative practitioners can successfully treat any disease or condition.
Ad 1 In my view, it is arrogant and grossly unfair to claim that alternative practitioners work holistically, while conventional health care professionals do not. I have pointed out repeatedly that any good medicine always has been and always will be holistic. High-jacking holism as a specific characteristic for alternative medicine is misleading and an insult to all conventional clinicians who do their best to practice good medicine.
Ad 2 By claiming that they treat the whole person irrespective of her disease, alternative practitioners effectively try to give themselves a ‘carte blanche’ for treating any disease or any condition or any symptom. If a child has asthma, a chiropractor will find a subluxation, adjust it with spinal manipulation, and claim that the child’s condition will improve as a consequence of his treatment – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a person wants to give up smoking, an acupuncturist will use acupuncture to re-balance her yin and yang claiming that this intervention will make smoking cessation more successful – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a patient suffers from cancer, a homeopath might find a remedy that promotes her vital energy claiming that the cancer will subsequently be cured – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE which in all of the three cases is negative.
The claim of alternative practitioners to not treat disease labels but the whole patient is doubtlessly attractive to consumers and it is also extremely good for business. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be a distraction from the fact that alternative practitioners treat everything and anything, usually without the slightest evidence that their interventions generates more good than harm. It allows alternative practitioners to live in a fool’s paradise of quackery where they believe themselves to be protected from any challenges and demands for evidence.
It almost goes without saying that alternative practitioners contribute importantly to the ‘sea of misinformation’ about alternative medicine. Again, I could write books about this subject but have to refrain myself and therefore will merely put quick spotlights on several types of practitioners, mostly drawing from my own research on these subjects.
A survey of more than 9000 patients of U.K. non-medically trained acupuncturists showed that a considerable number had received advice from their therapists about prescribed medicines. Since these acupuncturists hold no medical qualifications, they are not qualified to issue such advice. It is therefore clear to me that the advice given is likely to be misleading. In 2000, we directly asked the U.K. acupuncturists’ advice about electro-acupuncture treatment for smoking cessation, a treatment which we previously had identified to be ineffective. The advice we received was frequently not based on current best evidence and some of it also raised serious safety concerns (Schmidt, K., & Ernst, E. Internet advice by acupuncturists—a risk factor for cardiovascular patients? Perfusion,2002, 15: 44-50. Article not Medline-listed).
Many chiropractors from the UK and other countries make unsustainable therapeutic claims on their websites. In 2002, at the height of the ‘‘MMR scare’’ in Britain, we conducted a study revealing that a sizable proportion of U.K. chiropractors advised mothers against having the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) jab for their children. A survey of the U.K. chiropractors demonstrated that an alarming percentage of the U.K. chiropractors fail to provide advice about the risks of spinal manipulation before commencing treatment. As these risks are, in fact, considerable, this behaviour amounts to misinformation and is an obvious violation of medical ethics.
With osteopaths, it is a very similar story; the main difference is that there are far less investigations than for chiropractors. This may be due to the fact that, in the US, osteopaths are not alternative but conventional clinicians with much the same training and skills as proper doctors. But in Europe, they are strictly alternative and make as many bogus claims as chiropractors. Systematic investigations are rare, but I only need to remind us of my recent blog-post where I pointed out that:
Most osteopaths treat children for a wide range of conditions and claim that their interventions are helpful. They believe that children are prone to structural problems which can be corrected by their interventions. Here is an example from just one of the numerous promotional websites on this topic:
STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS, such as those affecting the proper mobility and function of the body’s framework, can lead to a range of problems. These may include:
- Postural – such as scoliosis
- Respiratory – such as asthma
- Manifestations of brain injury – such as cerebral palsy and spasticity
- Developmental – with delayed physical or intellectual progress, perhaps triggering learning behaviour difficulties
- Infections – such as ear and throat infections or urinary disturbances, which may be recurrent.
OSTEOPATHY can assist in the prevention of health problems, helping children to make a smooth transition into normal, healthy adult life.
Encouraging evidence exists for some specific herbs in the treatment of some specific conditions. Yet, virtually no good evidence exists to suggest that the prescriptions of individualized herbal mixtures by traditional herbalists across the globe generate more good than harm. Despite this lack of evidence, herbalists do not seem to offer this information voluntarily to his or her patients. When we directly asked the UK herbalists for advice on a clinical case, we found that it was ‘‘misleading at best and dangerous at worst’’ . In other words, herbalists misinform their patients and the public about the value of their treatments.
Many non-medically trained homeopaths advise their clients against the immunization of children. Instead, these practitioners often recommend using ‘‘homeopathic vaccinations’’ for which no good evidence exists. For instance, the vice-chair of the board of directors of ‘‘The Society of Homeopaths’’ had a site with the following statements: ‘‘Homeopathic alternatives to children’s immunisation are now available.’’ ‘‘Our clinic offers alternative immunisation programmes for the whole family.’’ Such statements amounts to misinformation which puts children’s health at risk.
Other alternative practitioners
I have chosen the above-listed professions almost at random and could have selected any other type as well. Arguably, all alternative practitioners who employ unproven treatments – and that must be the vast majority – misinform their patients to some extend. The only way to avoid this is to say: ‘look, I am going to give you a therapy for which there is no good evidence – I hope you don’t mind’. If they did that, they would be out of business in a flash. It follows, I think, that being in business is tantamount to misleading patients.
And there is, of course, another way of misinforming patients which is often forgotten yet very important: withholding essential information. In all of health care, informed consent is a ‘sine qua non’. Alternative practitioners very rarely obtain informed consent from their patients. The reason seems obvious (see above). I would argue that not informing people when they should be informed is a form of misinformation.
In this context, it is worth mentioning an investigation we did in 2009: We obtained the ethical codes of the following bodies: Association of Naturopathic Practitioners, Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK), Ayurvedic Practitioners Association, British Acupuncture Council, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, European Herbal Practitioners Association, General Chiropractic Council, General Osteopathic Council, General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies, National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, Society of Homeopaths, UK Healers, Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners. We then extracted the statements from these codes referring to evidence-based practice (EBP). The results showed that only the General Chiropractic Council, the General Osteopathic Council and the General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies oblige their members to adopt EBP.
It seems that misinformation is an alternative practitioner’s daily bread. Without it, alternative therapists would need to confine their practice to the few treatments/conditions for which the evidence is positive. If they ever followed this strategy, they would hardly be able to earn a living.