MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

bias

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“Dr” Brian Moravec is a chiropractor from the US; he has a website where he describes himself and his skills as follows: I attended Chiropractic College and I am a graduate of Palmer College of Chiropractic in Davenport Iowa. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree as well as my Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Palmer College, which is the first chiropractic college in the world and the origin of our profession. I also attend continuing education seminars designed to keep doctors current with regard to clinical chiropractic, technique and nutrition.

The key to overall health and wellness is to have a healthy nervous system and that is what I do as a chiropractor – I make sure that your spine is functioning at its best so that your nervous system functions at its best. When the nervous system is functioning at 100%, you are a healthier individual that experiences a higher quality of life and health. I know this to be true in myself, my family and my patients.

I go to great lengths to provide my patients with the best chiropractic care I can give. I work with my patients to design a treatment plan that will be effective for their particular condition and specific to their needs. We utilize manual and low force techniques (safe and effective for newborns to seniors), to correct sublaxations in the spine. Chiropractic adjustments remove nerve interference, which allows the body to perform at its best again. I also am available for consultations on nutrition and diet, dietary supplementation and how to minimize the wear and tear on your spine.

[Emphases are mine]

What he does not state is the fact that he also is a nifty e-mail writer!

To my great surprise, I received an e-mail from him which is far too good to be kept for myself. So I decided to share it with my readers; here it is in its full and unabbreviated beauty:

its interesting to see someone with your education, and is a self proclaimed “expert” on alternative medicine, promote so much misinformation with regard to chiropractic care.   fortunately you look old.  and soon will be gone.  I always refer to the few of you anti chiropractic fools left here as “dinosaurs”.   the proof is in the pudding my “friend”.  chiropractic works and will continue to be here for centuries more.   you and others with much much more power than you (the AMA for example) have tried to perpetuate lies and squash chiropractic.  you fail, and they failed, because whatever better serves mankind will stand the test of time.   you’re a dying breed edzard.  thank God.
yours in health,

brian moravec d.c.

I am encouraged to see that he recognises my education but do wonder why his upbringing obviously failed so dismally teach him even a minimum of politeness, tact, or critical thinking. It is disappointing, I think, that he does not even mention what he perceives as my lies about his beloved chiropractic. So sad, I am sure it would have been fun to debate with him.

A reader of this blog recently sent me the following message: “Looks like this group followed you recent post about how to perform a CAM RCT!” A link directed me to a new trial of ear-acupressure. Today is ‘national acupuncture and oriental medicine day’ in the US, a good occasion perhaps to have a critical look at it.

The aim of this study was to assess the effectiveness of ear acupressure and massage vs. control in the improvement of pain, anxiety and depression in persons diagnosed with dementia.

For this purpose, the researchers recruited a total of 120 elderly dementia patients institutionalized in residential homes. The participants were randomly allocated, to three groups:

  • Control group – they continued with their routine activities;
  • Ear acupressure intervention group – they received ear acupressure treatment (pressure was applied to acupressure points on the ear);
  • Massage therapy intervention group – they received relaxing massage therapy.

Pain, anxiety and depression were assessed with the Doloplus2, Cornell and Campbell scales. The study was carried out during 5 months; three months of experimental treatment and two months with no treatment. The assessments were done at baseline, each month during the treatment and at one and two months of follow-up.

A total of 111 participants completed the study. The ear acupressure intervention group showed better improvements than the two other groups in relation to pain and depression during the treatment period and at one month of follow-up. The best improvement in pain was achieved in the last (3rd) month of ear acupressure treatment. The best results regarding anxiety were also observed in the last month of treatment.

The authors concluded that ear acupressure and massage therapy showed better results than the control group in relation to pain, anxiety and depression. However, ear acupressure achieved more improvements.

The question is: IS THIS A RIGOROUS TRIAL?

My answer would be NO.

Now I better explain why, don’t I?

If we look at them critically, the results of this trial might merely prove that spending some time with a patient, being nice to her, administering a treatment that involves time and touch, etc. yields positive changes in subjective experiences of pain, anxiety and depression. Thus the results of this study might have nothing to do with the therapies per se.

And why would acupressure be more successful than massage therapy? Massage therapy is an ‘old hat’ for many patients; by contrast, acupressure is exotic and relates to mystical life forces etc. Features like that have the potential to maximise the placebo-response. Therefore it is conceivable that they have contributed to the superiority of acupressure over massage.

What I am saying is that the results of this trial can be interpreted in not just one but several ways. The main reason for that is the fact that the control group were not given an acceptable placebo, one that was indistinguishable from the real treatment. Patients were fully aware of what type of intervention they were getting. Therefore their expectations, possibly heightened by the therapists, determined the outcomes. Consequently there were factors at work which were totally beyond the control of the researchers and a clear causal link between the therapy and the outcome cannot be established.

An RCT that is aimed to test the effectiveness of a therapy but fails to establish such a causal link beyond reasonable doubt cannot be characterised as a rigorous study, I am afraid.

Sorry! Did I spoil your ‘national acupuncture and oriental medicine day’?

Whenever I give a public lecture about homeopathy, I explain what it is, briefly go in to its history, explain what its assumptions are, and what the evidence tells us about its efficacy and safety. When I am finished, there usually is a discussion with the audience. This is the part I like best; in fact, it is the main reason why I made the effort to do the lecture in the first place.

The questions vary, of course, but you can bet your last shirt that someone asks: “We know it works for animals; animals cannot experience a placebo-response, and therefore your claim that homeopathy relies on nothing but the placebo-effect must be wrong!” At this stage I often despair a little, I must admit. Not because the question is too daft, but because I did address it during my lecture. Thus I feel that I have failed to get the right message across – I despair with my obviously poor skills of giving an informative lecture!

Yet I need to answer the above question, of course. So I reiterate that the perceived effectiveness of homeopathy relies not just on the placebo-effect but also on phenomena such as regression towards the mean, natural history of the condition etc. I also usually mention that it is erroneous to assume that animals cannot benefit from placebo-effects; they can be conditioned, and pets can react to the expectations of their owners.

Finally, I need to mention the veterinary clinical evidence which – just like in the case of human patients – fails to show that homeopathic remedies are better than placebos for treating animals. Until recently, this was not an easy task because no systematic review of randomised placebo-controlled trials (RCTs) of veterinary homeopathy was available. Now, I am happy to announce, this situation has changed.

Using Cochrane methods, a brand-new review aimed to assess risk of bias and to quantify the effect size of homeopathic interventions compared with placebo for each eligible peer-reviewed trial. Judgement in 7 assessment domains enabled a trial’s risk of bias to be designated as low, unclear or high. A trial was judged to comprise reliable evidence, if its risk of bias was low or was unclear in specified domains. A trial was considered to be free of vested interest, if it was not funded by a homeopathic pharmacy.

The 18 RCTs found by the researchers were disparate in nature, representing 4 species and 11 different medical conditions. Reliable evidence, free from vested interest, was identified in only two trials:

  1. homeopathic Coli had a prophylactic effect on porcine diarrhoea (odds ratio 3.89, 95 per cent confidence interval [CI], 1.19 to 12.68, P=0.02);
  2. individualised homeopathic treatment did not have a more beneficial effect on bovine mastitis than placebo intervention (standardised mean difference -0.31, 95 per cent CI, -0.97 to 0.34, P=0.35).

The authors conclusions are clear: Mixed findings from the only two placebo-controlled RCTs that had suitably reliable evidence precluded generalisable conclusions about the efficacy of any particular homeopathic medicine or the impact of individualised homeopathic intervention on any given medical condition in animals.

My task when lecturing about homeopathy has thus become a great deal easier. But homeopathy-fans are not best pleased with this new article, I guess. They will try to claim that it was a biased piece of research conducted, most likely, by notorious anti-homeopaths who cannot be trusted. So who are the authors of this new publication?

They are RT Mathie from the British Homeopathic Association and J Clausen from one of Germany’s most pro-homeopathic institution, the ‘Karl und Veronica Carstens-Stiftung’.

DOES ANYONE BELIEVE THAT THIS ARTICLE IS BIASED AGAINST HOMEOPATHY?

If you think that homeopathy is risk-free, you should read what this US homeopath proclaims on his website. I have copied several sections from his lengthy article (everything that is in normal print is his writing; mine is in bold). The author first gives a general introduction into homeopathy and why he believes in it; then he continues:

…Now, on the surface, you might think that since there is some common ground between homeopathy and vaccinations, that homeopathic doctors would be, all-in, when it comes to vaccines. The fact is, most homeopaths today are against vaccinations. The main reason for that is not because of the underlying principle, but because the process have been perverted by eugenics. Today, the real purpose of vaccinations is to cause sterilization and early death. Bill Gates spends billions of dollars on global vaccination, admittedly, to reduce the population. All kinds of heavy metals like aluminum, mercury and other poisons and pathogens are put into vaccinations. People, especially children, are given many more times the amount of vaccinations today than they were decades gone by, when it can be argued, vaccinations were effective and were needed.Even cancer viruses have, on record, been put into vaccinations. There is no actual vaccine for cancer. The only reason to put cancer viruses in the mix is to create more cases of cancer. In this day and age, one of the most dangerous things you can do for your health is to get vaccinated…

With homeopathy, you never have to worry about heavy metals, cancer viruses or other poisons being mixed in with the natural ingredients. Even though some of the underlying foundations of homeopathy and vaccinations are similar, there are a number of differences. With vaccinations, the actual disease that they are allegedly trying to build up immunity to is in the injection. In homeopathy, that is not the case, except in rare exception, and due to the dilution process, there is never any risk. Another difference is that homeopathic remedies are taken orally, rather than injected…

Homeopathic remedies have no side effects. That’s a great thing. On the other hand, every drug comes with lots of side effects. And then, you can get in a vicious cycle where you keep taking (or being prescribed) more and more drugs to deal with more and more side effects. In time, this often leads to emergency “live saving” surgery. When they are successful and the patient doesn’t die on the operating table, everyone praises modern medicine for saving those millions of lives, all the while ignoring that the reason those millions of surgeries were needed in the first place, was due to those allegedly wonderful and so-called scientifically proven drugs. Plus, many times, these surgeries aren’t truly needed. If the patient would simply quit taking the drugs, the body could, often, heal itself from life threatening conditions…

Homeopathy is much more well known in Europe and various other nations than it is known in the United States. There is a huge medical conspiracy against the use of homeopathy and other medical modalities that threaten the financial dominance of the current medical industry. The conspiracy extends world-wide, but it is strongest in the USA…This conspiracy is being perpetrated on a conscious level, for going on 200 years. Then, on the heels of that, there is a massive amount of ignorance from ironically, highly educated people, who have been influenced by the conspirators. (Most of these people you might not be able to classify as conspirators, because they believe what they are saying.) Doctors who have never even tried a homeopathic remedy on themselves, or their patients, often say that there is no evidence that homeopathy works. When you point to the innumerable raving fans of homeopathy around the world, each of whom have testimonies of homeopathic remedies working extremely well, the detractors simply call those, anecdotal evidence, not worthy of consideration. When you point out some of the clinical case histories of undeniable healings that have come to patients of homeopathic doctors, the opponents of homeopathy chalk it all up to the placebo effect. They say they want scientific proof and that none exists, but the truth is, numerous studies have shown very positive results, and have outperformed drugs and/or placebo. There are more than 150 placebo controlled clinical studies, most of which have shown positive results, either compared with a placebo or compared with a conventional drug. Moreover, they did so with zero side effects, (unlike drugs, which often have that little side effect known as, death.) And yet, the detractors always have a Rolodex of never ending excuses, why those studies, “don’t count.” They range from, the studies are too small; they are conducted by people who believe in homeopathy – (I’m serious!); the doctors aren’t well known enough; there must have been some breakdown of the scientific procedure that has yet to come out, etc. These people are unable to deal with the conundrum, that homeopathic remedies become more potent, with dilution, instead of less potent, like you would assume. From there, they assume that it can’t work, and no matter how much healing is done with homeopathic remedies, it’s nothing more than mind of matter, (placebo effect.) …The evidence is overwhelming to anyone with an open mind that homeopathy is for real. Does everyone magically become well? Will you not have to die? You know the answers to that, and nobody is suggesting it.

What is undeniable is that the pharmaceutical industry peddles toxic drugs that do more harm than good, by far. Big pharma corporations get caught faking studies, bribing doctors and all kinds of dirty, illegal activity, for which they are fined billions of dollars. To call them purveyors of science is laughable. There are drugs like Vioxx, that have killed anywhere from tens of thousands to more than a million people (depending on whether you go by Merck and the FDA statistics, or outside investigators), which, shockingly, aren’t even pulled from the market by the government. The company finally quits peddling them once the lawsuits make it unprofitable…

I’ve finally come to the conclusion that these people aren’t interested in finding the truth. They only want to protect their status quo, and well as their paradigms of how the world works. They don’t have room for experiential evidence. When these type of people write research papers smearing homeopathy, they are being intellectually dishonest. They consciously obfuscate facts and mold findings to seem to conform to their beliefs – let the evidence be damned…

These medical mafia type of people, don’t even care about logic. They stopped making sense a long, long time ago. When you are done reading these two articles, if you have a modicum of an open mind, you will at the very least, not be able to deny that there really is a very genuine conspiracy against homeopathy…

Such utter nonsense speaks, I think, for itself. Therefore perhaps just this as my comment. 

I have said and written it often: the homeopathic remedy might be harmless, however, many homeopaths are clearly not.

In a way, I should be thankful to the author of this truly amazing article enforcing my point.

 

Many proponents of alternative medicine seem somewhat suspicious of research; they have obviously understood that it might not produce the positive result they had hoped for; after all, good research tests hypotheses and does not necessarily confirm beliefs. At the same time, they are often tempted to conduct research: this is perceived as being good for the image and, provided the findings are positive, also good for business.

Therefore they seem to be tirelessly looking for a study design that cannot ‘fail’, i.e. one that avoids the risk of negative results but looks respectable enough to be accepted by ‘the establishment’. For these enthusiasts, I have good news: here is the study design that cannot fail.

It is perhaps best outlined as a concrete example; for reasons that will become clear very shortly, I have chosen reflexology as a treatment of diabetic neuropathy, but you can, of course, replace both the treatment and the condition as it suits your needs. Here is the outline:

  • recruit a group of patients suffering from diabetic neuropathy – say 58, that will do nicely,
  • randomly allocate them to two groups,
  • the experimental group receives regular treatments by a motivated reflexologist,
  • the controls get no such therapy,
  • both groups also receive conventional treatments for their neuropathy,
  • the follow-up is 6 months,
  • the following outcome measures are used: pain reduction, glycemic control, nerve conductivity, and thermal and vibration sensitivities,
  • the results show that the reflexology group experience more improvements in all outcome measures than those of control subjects,
  • your conclusion: This study exhibited the efficient utility of reflexology therapy integrated with conventional medicines in managing diabetic neuropathy.

Mission accomplished!

This method is fool-proof, trust me, I have seen it often enough being tested, and never has it generated disappointment. It cannot fail because it follows the notorious A+B versus B design (I know, I have mentioned this several times before on this blog, but it is really important, I think): both patient groups receive the essential mainstream treatment, and the experimental group receives a useless but pleasant alternative treatment in addition. The alternative treatment involves touch, time, compassion, empathy, expectations, etc. All of these elements will inevitably have positive effects, and they can even be used to increase the patients’ compliance with the conventional treatments that is being applied in parallel. Thus all outcome measures will be better in the experimental compared to the control group.

The overall effect is pure magic: even an utterly ineffective treatment will appear as being effective – the perfect method for producing false-positive results.

And now we hopefully all understand why this study design is so very popular in alternative medicine. It looks solid – after all, it’s an RCT!!! – and it thus convinces even mildly critical experts of the notion that the useless treatment is something worth while. Consequently the useless treatment will become accepted as ‘evidence-based’, will be used more widely and perhaps even reimbursed from the public purse. Business will be thriving!

And why did I employ reflexology for diabetic neuropathy? Is that example not a far-fetched? Not a bit! I used it because it describes precisely a study that has just been published. Of course, I could also have taken the chiropractic trial from my last post, or dozens of other studies following the A+B versus B design – it is so brilliantly suited for misleading us all.

On this blog, I have often pointed out how dismally poor most of the trials of alternative therapies frequently are, particularly those in the realm of chiropractic. A brand-new study seems to prove my point.

The aim of this trial was to determine whether spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) plus home exercise and advice (HEA) compared with HEA alone reduces leg pain in the short and long term in adults with sub-acute and chronic back-related leg-pain (BRLP).

Patients aged 21 years or older with BRLP for least 4 weeks were randomised to receive 12 weeks of SMT plus HEA or HEA alone. Eleven chiropractors with a minimum of 5 years of practice experience delivered SMT in the SMT plus HEA group. The primary outcome was subjective BRLP at 12 and 52 weeks. Secondary outcomes were self-reported low back pain, disability, global improvement, satisfaction, medication use, and general health status at 12 and 52 weeks.

Of the 192 enrolled patients, 191 (99%) provided follow-up data at 12 weeks and 179 (93%) at 52 weeks. For leg pain, SMT plus HEA had a clinically important advantage over HEA (difference, 10 percentage points [95% CI, 2 to 19]; P = 0.008) at 12 weeks but not at 52 weeks (difference, 7 percentage points [CI, -2 to 15]; P = 0.146). Nearly all secondary outcomes improved more with SMT plus HEA at 12 weeks, but only global improvement, satisfaction, and medication use had sustained improvements at 52 weeks. No serious treatment-related adverse events or deaths occurred.

The authors conclude that, for patients with BRLP, SMT plus HEA was more effective than HEA alone after 12 weeks, but the benefit was sustained only for some secondary outcomes at 52 weeks.

This is yet another pragmatic trial following the notorious and increasingly popular A+B versus B design. As pointed out repeatedly on this blog, this study design can hardly ever generate a negative result (A+B is always more than B, unless A has a negative value [which even placebos don't have]). Thus it is not a true test of the experimental treatment but all an exercise to create a positive finding for a potentially useless treatment. Had the investigators used any mildly pleasant placebo with SMT, the result would have been the same. In this way, they could create results showing that getting a £10 cheque or meeting with pleasant company every other day, together with HEA, is more effective than HEA alone. The conclusion that the SMT, the cheque or the company have specific effects is as implicit in this article as it is potentially wrong.

The authors claim that their study was limited because patient-blinding was not possible. This is not entirely true, I think; it was limited mostly because it failed to point out that the observed outcomes could be and most likely are due to a whole range of factors which are not directly related to SMT and, most crucially, because its write-up, particularly the conclusions, wrongly implied cause and effect between SMT and the outcome. A more accurate conclusion could have been as follows: SMT plus HEA was more effective than HEA alone after 12 weeks, but the benefit was sustained only for some secondary outcomes at 52 weeks. Because the trial design did not control for non-specific effects, the observed outcomes are consistent with SMT being an impressive placebo.

No such critical thought can be found in the article; on the contrary, the authors claim in their discussion section that the current trial adds to the much-needed evidence base about SMT for subacute and chronic BRLP. Such phraseology is designed to mislead decision makers and get SMT accepted as a treatment of conditions for which it is not necessarily useful.

Research where the result is known before the study has even started (studies with a A+B versus B design) is not just useless, it is, in my view, unethical: it fails to answer a real question and is merely a waste of resources as well as an abuse of patients willingness to participate in clinical trials. But the authors of this new trial are in good and numerous company: in the realm of alternative medicine, such pseudo-research is currently being published almost on a daily basis. What is relatively new, however, that even some of the top journals are beginning to fall victim to this incessant stream of nonsense.

Most of the underlying assumptions of alternative medicine (AM) lack plausibility. Whenever this is the case, so the argument put forward by an international team of researchers in a recent paper, there are difficulties involved in obtaining a valid statistical significance in clinical studies.

Using a mostly statistical approach, they argue that, since the prior probability of a research hypothesis is directly related to its scientific plausibility, the commonly used frequentist statistics, which do not account for this probability, are unsuitable for studies exploring matters in various degree disconnected from science. Any statistical significance obtained in this field should be considered with great caution and may be better applied to more plausible hypotheses (like placebo effect) than the specific efficacy of the intervention.

The researchers conclude that, since achieving meaningful statistical significance is an essential step in the validation of medical interventions, AM practices, producing only outcomes inherently resistant to statistical validation, appear not to belong to modern evidence-based medicine.

To emphasize their arguments, the researchers make the following additional points:

  • It is often forgotten that frequentist statistics, commonly used in clinical trials, provides only indirect evidence in support of the hypothesis examined.
  • The p-value inherently tends to exaggerate the support for the hypothesis tested, especially if the scientific plausibility of the hypothesis is low.
  • When the rationale for a clinical intervention is disconnected from the basic principles of science, as in case of complementary alternative medicines, any positive result obtained in clinical studies is more reasonably ascribable to hypotheses (generally to placebo effect) other than the hypothesis on trial, which commonly is the specific efficacy of the intervention.
  • Since meaningful statistical significance as a rule is an essential step to validation of a medical intervention, complementary alternative medicine cannot be considered evidence-based.

Further explanations can be found in the discussion of the article where the authors argue that the quality of the hypothesis tested should be consistent with sound logic and science and therefore have a reasonable prior probability of being correct. As a rule of thumb, assuming a “neutral” attitude towards the null hypothesis (odds = 1:1), a p-value of 0.01 or, better, 0.001 should suffice to give a satisfactory posterior probability of 0.035 and 0.005 respectively.

In the area of AM, hypotheses often are entirely inconsistent with logic and frequently fly in the face of science. Four examples can demonstrate this instantly and sufficiently, I think:

  • Homeopathic remedies which contain not a single ‘active’ molecule are not likely to generate biological effects.
  • Healing ‘energy’ of Reiki masters has no basis in science.
  • Meridians of acupuncture are pure imagination.
  • Chiropractic subluxation have never been shown to exist.

Positive results from clinical trials of implausible forms of AM are thus either due to chance, bias or must be attributed to more credible causes such as the placebo effect. Since the achievement of meaningful statistical significance is an essential step in the validation of medical interventions, unless some authentic scientific support to AM is provided, one has to conclude that AM cannot be considered as evidence-based.

Such arguments are by no means new; they have been voiced over and over again. Essentially, they amount to the old adage: IF YOU CLAIM THAT YOU HAVE A CAT IN YOUR GARDEN, A SIMPLE PICTURE MAY SUFFICE. IF YOU CLAIM THERE IS A UNICORN IN YOUR GARDEN, YOU NEED SOMETHING MORE CONVINCING. An extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary proof! Put into the context of the current discussion about AM, this means that the usual level of clinical evidence is likely to be very misleading as long as it totally neglects the biological plausibility of the prior hypothesis.

Proponents of AM do not like to hear such arguments. They usually insist on what we might call a ‘level playing field’ and fail to see why their assumptions require not only a higher level of evidence but also a reasonable scientific hypothesis. They forget that the playing field is not even to start with; to understand the situation better, they should read this excellent article. Perhaps its elegant statistical approach will convince them – but I would not hold my breath.

Medical treatments with no direct effect, such as homeopathy, are surprisingly popular. But how does a good reputation of such treatments spread and persist? Researchers from the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution in Stockholm believe that they have identified the mechanism.

They argue that most medical treatments result in a range of outcomes: some people improve while others deteriorate. If the people who improve are more inclined to tell others about their experiences than the people who deteriorate, ineffective or even harmful treatments would maintain a good reputation.

They conducted a fascinating study to test the hypothesis that positive outcomes are overrepresented in online medical product reviews, examined if this reputational distortion is large enough to bias people’s decisions, and explored the implications of this bias for the cultural evolution of medical treatments.

The researchers compared outcomes of weight loss treatments and fertility treatments as evidenced in clinical trials to outcomes reported in 1901 reviews on Amazon. Subsequently, in a series of experiments, they evaluated people’s choice of weight loss diet after reading different reviews. Finally, a mathematical model was used to examine if this bias could result in less effective treatments having a better reputation than more effective treatments.

The results of these investigations confirmed the hypothesis that people with better outcomes are more inclined to write reviews. After 6 months on the diet, 93% of online reviewers reported a weight loss of 10 kg or more, while just 27% of clinical trial participants experienced this level of weight change. A similar positive distortion was found in fertility treatment reviews. In a series of experiments, the researchers demonstrated that people are more inclined to begin a diet that was backed by many positive reviews, than a diet with reviews that are representative of the diet’s true effect. A mathematical model of medical cultural evolution suggested that the size of the positive distortion critically depends on the shape of the outcome distribution.

The authors concluded that online reviews overestimate the benefits of medical treatments, probably because people with negative outcomes are less inclined to tell others about their experiences. This bias can enable ineffective medical treatments to maintain a good reputation.

To me, this seems eminently plausible; but there are, of course, other reasons why bogus treatments survive or even thrive – and they may vary in their importance to the overall effect from treatment to treatment. As so often in health care, things are complex and there are multiple factors that contribute to a phenomenon.

Twenty years ago, when I started my Exeter job as a full-time researcher of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), I defined the aim of my unit as applying science to CAM. At the time, this intention upset quite a few CAM-enthusiasts. One of the most prevalent arguments of CAM-proponents against my plan was that the study of CAM with rigorous science was quite simply an impossibility. They claimed that CAM included mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and other complex interventions which cannot not be put into the ‘straight jacket’ of conventional research, e. g. a controlled clinical trial. I spent the next few years showing that this notion was wrong. Gradually and hesitantly CAM researchers seemed to agree with my view – not all, of course, but first a few and then slowly, often reluctantly the majority of them.

What followed was a period during which several research groups started conducting rigorous tests of the hypotheses underlying CAM. All too often, the results turned out to be disappointing, to say the least: not only did most of the therapies in question fail to show efficacy, they were also by no means free of risks. Worst of all, perhaps, much of CAM was disclosed as being biologically implausible. The realization that rigorous scientific scrutiny often generated findings which were not what proponents had hoped for led to a sharp decline in the willingness of CAM-proponents to conduct rigorous tests of their hypotheses. Consequently, many asked whether science was such a good idea after all.

But that, in turn, created a new problem: once they had (at least nominally) committed themselves to science, how could they turn against it? The answer to this dilemma was easier that anticipated: the solution was to appear dedicated to science but, at the same time, to argue that, because CAM is subtle, holistic, complex etc., a different scientific approach was required. At this stage, I felt we had gone ‘full circle’ and had essentially arrived back where we were 20 years ago – except that CAM-proponents no longer rejected the scientific method outright but merely demanded different tools.

A recent article may serve as an example of this new and revised stance of CAM-proponents on science. Here proponents of alternative medicine argue that a challenge for research methodology in CAM/ICH* is the growing recognition that CAM/IHC practice often involves complex combination of novel interventions that include mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and others. Critics argue that the reductionist placebo controlled randomized control trial (RCT) model that works effectively for determining efficacy for most pharmaceutical or placebo trial RCTs may not be the most appropriate for determining effectiveness in clinical practice for either CAM/IHC or many of the interventions used in primary care, including health promotion practices. Therefore the reductionist methodology inherent in efficacy studies, and in particular in RCTs, may not be appropriate to study the outcomes for much of CAM/IHC, such as Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM) or other complex non-CAM/IHC interventions—especially those addressing comorbidities. In fact it can be argued that reductionist methodology may disrupt the very phenomenon, the whole system, that the research is attempting to capture and evaluate (i.e., the whole system in its naturalistic environment). Key issues that surround selection of the most appropriate methodology to evaluate complex interventions are well described in the Kings Fund report on IHC and also in the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) guidelines for evaluating complex interventions—guidelines which have been largely applied to the complexity of conventional primary care and care for patients with substantial comorbidity. These reports offer several potential solutions to the challenges inherent in studying CAM/IHC. [* IHC = integrated health care]

Let’s be clear and disclose what all of this actually means. The sequence of events, as I see it, can be summarized as follows:

  • We are foremost ALTERNATIVE! Our treatments are far too unique to be subjected to reductionist research; we therefore reject science and insist on an ALTERNATIVE.
  • We (well, some of us) have reconsidered our opposition and are prepared to test our hypotheses scientifically (NOT LEAST BECAUSE WE NEED THE RECOGNITION THAT THIS MIGHT BRING).
  • We are dismayed to see that the results are mostly negative; science, it turns out, works against our interests.
  • We need to reconsider our position.
  • We find it inconceivable that our treatments do not work; all the negative scientific results must therefore be wrong.
  • We always said that our treatments are unique; now we realize that they are far too holistic and complex to be submitted to reductionist scientific methods.
  • We still believe in science (or at least want people to believe that we do) – but we need a different type of science.
  • We insist that RCTs (and all other scientific methods that fail to demonstrate the value of CAM) are not adequate tools for testing complex interventions such as CAM.
  • We have determined that reductionist research methods disturb our subtle treatments.
  • We need pragmatic trials and similarly ‘soft’ methods that capture ‘real life’ situations, do justice to CAM and rarely produce a negative result.

What all of this really means is that, whenever the findings of research fail to disappoint CAM-proponents, the results are by definition false-negative. The obvious solution to this problem is to employ different (weaker) research methods, preferably those that cannot possibly generate a negative finding. Or, to put it bluntly: in CAM, science is acceptable only as long as it produces the desired results.

Readers of this blog will know that few alternative treatments are more controversial and less plausible than homeopathy. Therefore they might be interested to read about the latest attempt of homeopathy-enthusiasts to convince the public that, despite all the clinical evidence to the contrary, homeopathy does work.

The new article was published in German by Swiss urologist and is a case-report describing a patient suffering from paralytic ileus. This condition is a typical complication of ileocystoplasty of the bladder, the operation the patient had undergone. The patient had also been suffering from a spinal cord injury which, due to a pre-existing neurogenic bowel dysfunction, increases the risk of paralytic ileus.

The paraplegic patient developed a massive paralytic ileus after ileocystoplasty and surgical revision. Conventional stimulation of bowel function was unsuccessful. But after adjunctive homeopathic treatment normalization of bowel function was achieved.

The authors conclude that adjunctive homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment option in patients with complex bowel dysfunction after abdominal surgery who do not adequately respond to conventional treatment.

YES, you did read correctly: homeopathic therapy is a promising treatment

In case anyone doubts that this is more than a trifle too optimistic, let me suggest three much more plausible reasons why the patient’s bowel function finally normalised:

  • It could have been a spontaneous recovery (in most cases, even severe ones, this is what happens).
  • It could have been all the conventional treatments aimed at stimulating bowel function.
  • It could have been a mixture of the two.

The article made me curious, and I checked whether the authors had previously published other material on homeopathy. Thus I found two further articles in a very similar vein:

Article No 2 (dated 2014):

We present the clinical course of a patient with an epididymal abscess caused by multiresistant bacteria. As the patient declined surgical intervention, a conservative approach was induced with intravenous antibiotic treatment. As the clinical findings did not ameliorate, adjunctive homeopathic treatment was used. Under combined treatment, laboratory parameters returned to normal, and the epididymal abscess was rapidly shrinking. After 1 week, merely a subcutaneous liquid structure was detected. Fine-needle aspiration revealed sterile purulent liquid, which was confirmed by microbiological testing when the subcutaneous abscess was drained. Postoperative course was uneventful.

As the risk for recurrent epididymitis is high in persons with spinal cord injury, an organ-preserving approach is justified even in severe cases. Homeopathic treatment was a valuable adjunctive treatment in the above-mentioned case. Therefore, prospective studies are needed to further elucidate the future opportunities and limitations of classical homeopathy in the treatment of urinary tract infections.

Article No 3 (dated 2012):

Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI) in patients with spinal cord injury are a frequent clinical problem. Often, preventive measures are not successful. We present the case reports of five patients with recurrent UTI who received additional homeopathic treatment. Of these patients, three remained free of UTI, whereas UTI frequency was reduced in two patients. Our initial experience with homeopathic prevention of UTI is encouraging. For an evidence-based evaluation of this concept, prospective studies are required.

It seems clear that all of the three more plausible explanations for the patients’ recovery listed above also apply to these two cases.

One might not be far off speculating that J Pannek, the first author of all these three articles, is a fan of homeopathy (this suspicion is confirmed by a link between him and the HOMEOPATHY RESEARCH INSTITUE: Prof Jürgen Pannek on the use of homeopathy for prophylaxis of UTI’s in patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction). If that is so, I wonder why he does not conduct a controlled trial, rather than publishing case-report after case-report of apparently successful homeopathic treatments. Does he perhaps fear that his effects might dissolve into thin air under controlled conditions?

Case-reports of this nature can, of course, be interesting and some might even deserve to be published. But it would be imperative to draw the correct conclusions. Looking at the three articles above, I get the impression that, as time goes by, the conclusions of Prof Pannek et al (no, I know nobody from this group of authors personally) are growing more and more firm on less and less safe ground.

In my view, responsible authors should have concluded much more cautiously and reasonably. In the case of the paralytic ileus, for instance, they should not have gone further than stating something like this: adjunctive homeopathic therapy might turn out to be a promising treatment option for such patients. Despite the implausibility of homeopathy, this case-report might deserve to be followed up with a controlled clinical trial. Without such evidence, firm conclusions are clearly not possible.

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