MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

bias

I hear this argument so regularly that it might be worth analysing it (yet again) a bit closer.

It is used with the deepest of convictions by proponents of all sorts of quackery who point out that science does not know or explain everything – and certainly not their (very special) therapy. Science is just not sophisticated enough, they say; in fact, a few years ago, it could not even explain how Aspirin works. And just like Aspirin, their very special therapy – let’s call it energy healing (EH) for the sake of this post – does definitely and evidently work. There even is ample proof:

  • Patients get better after using EH, and surely patients don’t lie.
  • Patients pay for EH, and who would pay for something that does not work?
  • EH has survived hundreds of years, and ineffective therapies don’t.
  • EH practitioners have tons of experience and therefore know best.
  • They are respected by very important people and organisations.
  • EH is even reimbursed by some insurance companies.

You have all heard the argument, I’m sure.

How to respond?

The ‘proofs’ listed above are simply fallacies; as such they do not need more detailed discussions, I hope.

But how can we refute the notion that science is not yet sufficiently advanced to explain EH?

The simplest approach might be to explain that science has already tested EH and found it to be ineffective. There really is nothing more to say. And the often-quoted example of Aspirin does clearly not wash. True, a few decades ago, we did not know how it worked. But we always knew that it worked because we conducted clinical trials, and they generated positive results. These findings we the main reasons why scientists wanted to find out how it works, and eventually they did (and even got a Nobel Prize for it). Had the clinical trials not shown effectiveness, nobody would have been interested in alleged mechanisms of action.

With EH, things are different. Rigorous clinical trials of EH have been conducted, and the totality of this evidence fails to show that EH works. Therefore, chasing after a mechanism of action would be silly and wasteful. It’s true, science cannot explain EH, but this is not because it is not yet sophisticated enough; it is because there is nothing to explain. EH has been disproven, and waffling about ‘science is not yet able to explain it’ is either a deliberate lie or a serious delusion.

So far so good. But what if EH had not been submitted to clinical trials?

In such cases, the above line of argument would not work very well.

For instance, as far as I know, there is not a single rigorous clinical trial of crystal healing (CH). Does that mean that perhaps CH-proponents are correct when claiming that it does evidently work and science simply cannot yet understand how?

No, I don’t think so.

Like most of the untested alternative therapies, CH is not based on plausible assumptions. In fact, the implausibility of the underlying assumptions is the reason why such treatments have not and probably never will be submitted to rigorous clinical trials. Why should anyone waste his time and our money running expensive tests on something that is so extremely unlikely? Arguably doing so would even be unethical.

With highly implausible therapies we need no trials, and we do not need to fear that science is not yet sufficiently advance to explain them. In fact, science is sufficiently advanced to be certain that there can be no explanation that is in line with the known laws of nature.

Sadly, some truly deluded fans of CH might still not be satisfied and respond to our reasoning that we need a ‘paradigm shift’. They might say that science cannot explain CH because it is stuck in the straightjacket of an obsolete paradigm which does not cater for phenomena like CH.

Yet this last and desperate attempt of the fanatics is not a logical refuge. Paradigm shifts are not required because some quack thinks so, they are needed only if data have been emerging that cannot possibly be explained within the current paradigm. But this is never the case in alternative medicine. We can explain all the experience of advocates, positive results of researchers and ‘miracle’ cures of patients that are being reported. We know that the experiences are real, but are sure that their explanations of the experience are false. They are not due to the treatment per se but to other phenomena such as placebo effects, natural history, regression towards the mean, spontaneous recovery, etc.

So, whichever way we turn things, and whichever way enthusiasts of alternative therapies twist them, their argument that ‘SCIENCE IS NOT YET ABLE TO EXPLAIN’ is simply wrong.

The UK ‘COLLEGE OF MEDICINE’ has recently (and very quietly) renamed itself; it now is THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE AND INTEGRATED HEALTH (COMIH). This takes it closer to its original intentions of being the successor of the PRINCE OF WALES FOUNDATION FOR INTEGRATED MEDICINE (PWFIM), the organisation that had to be shut down amidst charges of fraud and money-laundering. Originally, the name of COMIH was to be COLLEGE OF INTEGRATED HEALTH (as opposed to disintegrated health?, I asked myself at the time).

Under the leadership of Dr Michael Dixon, OBE (who also led the PWFIM into its demise), the COMIH pursues all sots of activities. One of them seems to be publishing ‘cutting-edge’ articles.

A recent and superb example is on the fascinating subject of ‘holistic dentistry‘:

START OF QUOTE

Professor Sonia Williams … explores how integrated oral health needs to consider the whole body, not just the dentition…

Complementary and alternative approaches can also be considered as complementary to ‘mainstream’ care, with varying levels of evidence cited for their benefit.

Dental hypnosis (British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis) can help support patients including those with dental phobia or help to reduce pain experience during treatment.

Acupuncture in dentistry (British Society of Dental Acupuncture) can, for instance, assist with pain relief and allay the tendency to vomit during dental care.  There is also a British Homeopathic Dental Association.

For the UK Faculty of General Dental Practitioners, holistic dentistry refers to strengthening the link between general and oral health.

For some others, the term also represents an ‘alternative’ form of dentistry, which may concern itself with the avoidance and elimination of ‘toxic’ filling materials, perceived potential harm from fluoride and root canal treatments and with treating dental malocclusion to put patients back in ‘balance’.

In the USA, there is a Holistic Dental Association, while in the UK, there is the British Society for Mercury-free Dentistry. Unfortunately the evidence base for many of these procedures is weak.

Nevertheless, pressure to avoid mercury in dental restorative materials is becoming mainstream.

In summary, integrated health and care in dentistry can mean different things to different people. The weight of evidence supports the contention that the mouth is an integral part of the body and that attention to the one without taking account of the other can have adverse consequences.

END OF QUOTE

Do I get this right? ‘Holistic dentistry’ in the UK means the recognition that my mouth belongs to my body, and the adoption of a few dubious treatments with w ‘weak’ evidence base?

Well, isn’t this just great? I had no idea that my mouth belongs to my body. And clearly the non-holistic dentists in the UK are oblivious to this fact as well. I am sooooooo glad we got this cleared up.

Thanks COMIH!!!

And what about the alternative treatments used by holistic dentists?

The British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis (Scotland) inform us on their website that a trained medical and dental hypnotherapists can help you to deal with a large variety of challenges that you face in your everyday life e.g.

Asthma Migraines
Anxiety & Stress Smoking Cessation
Dental Problems Insomnia
Weight Problems Psychosexual Disorders
Depression Pain Management
Irritable Bowel  And many other conditions

I hasten to add that, for most of these conditions, the evidence fails to support the claims.

The British Society of Dental Acupuncture claim on their website that the typical conditions that may be helped by acupuncture are:

  • TMJ (jaw joint) problems
  • Facial pain
  • Muscle spasm in the head and neck
  • Stress headaches & Migraine
  • Rhinitis & sinusitis
  • Gagging
  • Dry mouth problems
  • Post-operative pain
  • Dental anxiety

I hasten to add that, for most of these conditions, the evidence fails to support the claims.

The British Homeopathic Dental Association claim on their website that studies have shown improved bone healing around implants with Symphytum and reduced discomfort and improved healing time with ulcers and beneficial in oral lichen planus.

I hasten to add that none of these claims are not supported by sound evidence.

The COMIH article is entitled “The mouth reflects whole body health – but what does integrated care mean for dentists?’ So, what does it mean? Judging from this article, it means an amalgam (pun intended) of platitudes, bogus claims and outright nonsense.

Pity that they did not change their name to College of Medicine and Integrated Care – I could have abbreviated it as COMIC!

This week, I find it hard to decide where to focus; with all the fuzz about ‘Homeopathy Awareness Week’ it is easy to forget that our friends, the chiros are celebrating  Chiropractic Awareness Week (9-15 April). On this occasion, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), for instance, want people to keep moving to make a positive impact on managing and preventing back and neck pain.

Good advice! In a recent post, I even have concluded that people should “walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of their preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.” The reason for my advice is based on the fact that there is precious little evidence that the spinal manipulations of chiropractors make much difference plus some worrying indications that they may cause serious damage.

It seems to me that, by focussing their PR away from spinal manipulations and towards the many other things chiropractors sometimes do – they often call this ‘adjunctive therapies’ – there is a tacit admission here that the hallmark intervention of chiros (spinal manipulation) is of dubious value.

A recent article entitled ‘Spinal Manipulative Therapy and Other Conservative Treatments for Low Back Pain: A Guideline From the Canadian Chiropractic Guideline Initiative’ seems to confirm this impression. Its objective was to develop a clinical practice guideline on the management of acute and chronic low back pain (LBP) in adults. The specific aim was to develop a guideline to provide best practice recommendations on the initial assessment and monitoring of people with low back pain and address the use of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) compared with other commonly used conservative treatments.

The topic areas were chosen based on an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality comparative effectiveness review, specific to spinal manipulation as a non-pharmacological intervention. The panel updated the search strategies in Medline and assessed admissible systematic reviews and randomized controlled trials. Evidence profiles were used to summarize judgments of the evidence quality and link recommendations to the supporting evidence. Using the Evidence to Decision Framework, the guideline panel determined the certainty of evidence and strength of the recommendations. Consensus was achieved using a modified Delphi technique. The guideline was peer reviewed by an 8-member multidisciplinary external committee.

For patients with acute (0-3 months) back pain, we suggest offering advice (posture, staying active), reassurance, education and self-management strategies in addition to SMT, usual medical care when deemed beneficial, or a combination of SMT and usual medical care to improve pain and disability. For patients with chronic (>3 months) back pain, we suggest offering advice and education, SMT or SMT as part of a multimodal therapy (exercise, myofascial therapy or usual medical care when deemed beneficial). For patients with chronic back-related leg pain, we suggest offering advice and education along with SMT and home exercise (positioning and stabilization exercises).

The authors concluded that a multimodal approach including SMT, other commonly used active interventions, self-management advice, and exercise is an effective treatment strategy for acute and chronic back pain, with or without leg pain.

I find this paper most interesting and revealing. Considering that it originates from the ‘Canadian Chiropractic Guideline Initiative’, it is remarkably shy about recommending SMT – after all their vision is “To enhance the health of Canadians by fostering excellence in chiropractic care.” They are thus not likely to be overly critical of the treatment chiropractors use most, i. e. SMT.

Perhaps this is also the reason why, in their conclusion, they seem to have rather a large blind spot, namely the risks of SMT. I have commented on this issue more often than I care to remember. Most recently, I posted this:

The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.

 

HAPPY CHIROPRACTIC AWARENESS WEEK EVERYONE!

Today, enthusiasts of homeopathy celebrate the start of the HOMEOPATHY AWARENESS WEEK. Let’s join them by re-addressing one of their favourite themes: their personal experience with homeopathy.

Most homeopathy-fans argue that the negative scientific evidence must be wrong because they have had positive experiences. Whenever I give a lecture, for instance, there will be at least one person in the audience who presents such an experience (and I too could contribute a few such stories from my own past). Such ‘case reports’ can, of course, be interesting, illuminating or leading to further research, but they can never be conclusive.

This concept is often profoundly confusing for patients and consumers. They tend to feel that I am doubting their words, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their experience is certainly true – what might be false is their interpretation of it. I think, I better explain this in more detail using a concrete, published example.

After the publication of our 2003 RCT of homeopathic Arnica which showed that two different potencies have effects that do not differ from those of placebo, I received lots of angry responses from people who told me that they had the opposite experience or observed positive outcomes on their pets. In my subsequent publication in the journal ‘Homeopathy‘ entitled ‘The benefits of Arnica: 16 case reports‘, I have tried my best to explain their experiences in the light of our finding that highly diluted homeopathic Arnica is a placebo:

Sixteen case reports of the apparent benefits of Arnica … raise several relevant points. Firstly, topical Arnica preparations are often wrongly equated with homeopathic Arnica, the subject of our trial. The former are herbal preparations (ie not homeopathically diluted), which have undisputed pharmacological activity. Taken orally they would even be toxic. Thus all Arnica for oral administration must be highly diluted and has therefore no pharmacological effects. The case reports show that many lay people seem to be unclear about the difference between herbal and homeopathic Arnica.

Secondly, if animals seem to respond to homeopathic Arnica, as claimed in several of the case reports, this is not necessarily a proof of its effectiveness. Animals are not immune to placebo effects. Think of Pavlov’s experiments and the fact that conditioning is clearly an element in the placebo response.

Thirdly, the natural history of the condition can mimic clinical improvement caused by therapy. Many of the 16 cases summarized can be explained through a placebo response or the natural history of disease or the combination of both phenomena…

Many of the letters I received were outspoken to say the least. The authors stated that they were ‘appalled’, ‘saddened and angry’ by our research. Others implied that I was paid by the pharmaceutical industry to abolish homeopathy in the UK. One person felt that ‘it is highly irresponsible to dismiss a natural healing remedy with no evidence at all’. I believe the case reports … convey an important message about the power of belief, anecdotes, placebos and expectation.

END OF QUOTE

The thing about case reports and personal experiences is quite simply this: they may seem almost overwhelmingly convincing, but they can NEVER serve as a proof that the treatment in question was effective. The reason for this fact could not be more simple. Any therapeutic response is due to a complex combination of factors: placebo effects, natural history of the condition, regression to the mean, etc.

See it this way: you wake up one morning with an enormous hangover. You try to identify the cause of it. Was it the beer you had in the pub? The wine you drank before you went out? Or the whiskey you consumed before you went to bed? Perhaps you think it was the Cognac you enjoyed at a friend’s house? Only one thing is for sure: it was not the glass of shaken water you drank during the night.

 

Since many months, I have noticed a proliferation of so-called pilot studies of alternative therapies. A pilot study (also called feasibility study) is defined as a small scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate feasibility, time, cost, adverse events, and improve upon the study design prior to performance of a full-scale research project. Here I submit that most of the pilot studies of alternative therapies are, in fact, bogus.

To qualify as a pilot study, an investigation needs to have an aim that is in line with the above-mentioned definition. Another obvious hallmark must be that its conclusions are in line with this aim. We do not need to conduct much research to find that even these two elementary preconditions are not fulfilled by the plethora of pilot studies that are currently being published, and that proper pilot studies of alternative medicine are very rare.

Three recent examples of dodgy pilot studies will have to suffice (but rest assured, there are many, many more).

Foot Reflexotherapy Induces Analgesia in Elderly Individuals with Low Back Pain: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Controlled Pilot Study

The aim of this study was to evaluate the effects of foot reflexotherapy on pain and postural balance in elderly individuals with low back pain. And the conclusions drawn by its authors were that this study demonstrated that foot reflexotherapy induced analgesia but did not affect postural balance in elderly individuals with low back pain.

Effect of Tai Chi Training on Dual-Tasking Performance That Involves Stepping Down among Stroke Survivors: A Pilot Study.

The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of Tai Chi training on dual-tasking performance that involved stepping down and compared it with that of conventional exercise among stroke survivors. And the conclusions read: These results suggest a beneficial effect of Tai Chi training on cognition among stroke survivors without compromising physical task performance in dual-tasking.

The Efficacy of Acupuncture on Anthropometric Measures and the Biochemical Markers for Metabolic Syndrome: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Study.

The aim of this study was to evaluate the efficacy [of acupuncture] over 12 weeks of treatment and 12 weeks of follow-up. And the conclusion: Acupuncture decreases WC, HC, HbA1c, TG, and TC values and blood pressure in MetS.

It is almost painfully obvious that these studies are not ‘pilot’ studies as defined above.

So, what are they, and why are they so popular in alternative medicine?

The way I see it, they are the result of amateur researchers conducting pseudo-research for publication in lamentable journals in an attempt to promote their pet therapies (I have yet to find such a study that reports a negative finding). The sequence of events that lead to the publication of such pilot studies is usually as follows:

  • An enthusiast or a team of enthusiasts of alternative medicine decide that they will do some research.
  • They have no or very little know-how in conducting a clinical trial.
  • They nevertheless feel that such a study would be nice as it promotes both their careers and their pet therapy.
  • They design some sort of a plan and start recruiting patients for their trial.
  • At this point they notice that things are not as easy as they had imagined.
  • They have too few funds and too little time to do anything properly.
  • This does, however, not stop them to continue.
  • The trial progresses slowly, and patient numbers remain low.
  • After a while the would-be researchers get fed up and decide that their study has enough patients to stop the trial.
  • They improvise some statistical analyses with their results.
  • They write up the results the best they can.
  • They submit it for publication in a 3rd class journal and, in order to get it accepted, they call it a ‘pilot study’.
  • They feel that this title is an excuse for even the most obvious flaws in their work.
  • The journal’s reviewers and editors are all proponents of alternative medicine who welcome any study that seems to confirm their belief.
  • Thus the study does get published despite the fact that it is worthless.

Some might say ‘so what? no harm done!’

But I beg to differ: these studies pollute the medical literature and misguide people who are unable or unwilling to look behind the smoke-screen. Enthusiasts of alternative medicine popularise these bogus trials, while hiding the fact that their results are unreliable. Journalists report about them, and many consumers assume they are being told the truth – after all it was published in a ‘peer-reviewed’ medical journal!

My conclusions are as simple as they are severe:

  • Such pilot studies are the result of gross incompetence on many levels (researchers, funders, ethics committees, reviewers, journal editors).
  • They can cause considerable harm, because they mislead many people.
  • In more than one way, they represent a violation of medical ethics.
  • The could be considered scientific misconduct.
  • We should think of stopping this increasingly common form of scientific misconduct.

In recent days, journalists across the world had a field day (mis)reporting that doctors practising integrative medicine were doing something positive after all. I think that the paper shows nothing of the kind – but please judge for yourself.

The authors of this article wanted to determine differences in antibiotic prescription rates between conventional General Practice (GP) surgeries and GP surgeries employing general practitioners (GPs) additionally trained in integrative medicine (IM) or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) (referred to as IM GPs) working within National Health Service (NHS) England.

They conducted a retrospective study on antibiotic prescription rates per STAR-PU (Specific Therapeutic group Age–sex weighting Related Prescribing Unit) using NHS Digital data over 2016. Publicly available data were used on prevalence of relevant comorbidities, demographics of patient populations and deprivation scores. setting Primary Care. Participants were 7283 NHS GP surgeries in England. The association between IM GPs and antibiotic prescribing rates per STAR-PU with the number of antibiotic prescriptions (total, and for respiratory tract infection (RTI) and urinary tract infection (UTI) separately) as outcome. results IM GP surgeries (n=9) were comparable to conventional GP surgeries in terms of list sizes, demographics, deprivation scores and comorbidity prevalence.

Statistically significant fewer total antibiotics  were prescribed at NHS IM GP surgeries compared with conventional NHS GP surgeries. In contrast, the number of antibiotics prescribed for UTI were similar between both practices.

The authors concluded that NHS England GP surgeries employing GPs additionally trained in IM/CAM have lower antibiotic prescribing rates. Accessibility of IM/CAM within NHS England primary care is limited. Main study limitation is the lack of consultation data. Future research should include the differences in consultation behaviour of patients self-selecting to consult an IM GP or conventional surgery, and its effect on antibiotic prescription. Additional treatment strategies for common primary care infections used by IM GPs should be explored to see if they could be used to assist in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

The study was flimsy to say the least:

  • It was retrospective and is therefore open to no end of confounders.
  • There were only 9 surgeries in the IM group.

Moreover, the results were far from impressive. The differences in antibiotic prescribing between the two groups of GP surgeries were minimal or non-existent. Finally, the study was financed via an unrestricted grant of WALA Heilmittel GmbH, Germany (“approx. 900 different remedies conforming to the anthroposophic understanding of man and nature”) and its senior author has a long track record of publishing papers promotional for anthroposophic medicine.

Such pseudo-research seems to be popular in the realm of CAM, and I have commented before on similarly futile projects. The comparison, I sometimes use is that of a Hamburger restaurant:

Employees by a large Hamburger chain set out to study the association between utilization of Hamburger restaurant services and vegetarianism. The authors used a retrospective cohort design. The study population comprised New Hampshire residents aged 18-99 years, who had entered the premises of a Hamburger restaurant within 90 days for a primary purpose of eating. The authors excluded subjects with a diagnosis of cancer. They measured the likelihood of  vegetarianism among recipients of services delivered by Hamburger restaurants compared with a control group of individuals not using meat-dispensing facilities. They also compared the cohorts with regard to the money spent in Hamburger restaurants. The adjusted likelihood of being a vegetarian was 55% lower among the experimental group compared to controls. The average money spent per person in Hamburger restaurants were also significantly lower among the Hamburger group.

To me, it is obvious that such analyses must produce a seemingly favourable result for CAM. In the present case, there are several reasons for this:

  1. GPs who volunteer to be trained in CAM tend to be in favour of ‘natural’ treatments and oppose synthetic drugs such as antibiotics.
  2. Education in CAM would only re-inforce this notion.
  3. Similarly, patients electing to consult IM GPs tend to be in favour of ‘natural’ treatments and oppose synthetic drugs such as antibiotics.
  4. Such patients might be less severely ill that the rest of the patient population (the data from the present study do in fact imply this to be true).
  5. These phenomena work in concert to generate less antibiotic prescribing in the IM group.

In the final analysis, all this finding amounts to is a self-fulfilling prophecy: grocery shops sell less meat than butchers! You don’t believe me? Perhaps you need to read a previous post then; it concluded that physicians practicing integrative medicine (the 80% who did not respond to the survey were most likely even worse) not only use and promote much quackery, they also tend to endanger public health by their bizarre, irrational and irresponsible attitudes towards vaccination.

What is upsetting with the present paper, in my view, are the facts that:

  • a reputable journal published this junk,
  • the international press has a field-day reporting this study implying that CAM is a good thing.

The fact is that it shows nothing of the kind. Imagine we send GPs on a course where they are taught to treat all their patients with blood-letting. This too would result in less prescription of antibiotics, wouldn’t it? But would it be a good thing? Of course not!

True, we prescribe too much antibiotics. Nobody doubts that. And nobody doubts that it is a big problem. The solution to this problem is not more CAM, but less antibiotics. To realise the solution we do not need to teach GPs CAM but we need to remind them of the principles of evidence-based practice. And the two are clearly not the same; in fact, they are opposites.

 

An announcement (it’s in German, I’m afraid) proudly declaring that ‘homeopathy fulfils the criteria of evidence-based medicine‘ caught my attention.

Here is the story:

In 2016, Dr. Melanie Wölk, did a ‘Master of Science’* at the ‘Donau University’ in Krems, Austria investigating the question whether homeopathy follows the rules of evidence-based medicine (EBM). She arrived at the conclusion that YES, IT DOES! This pleased the leading Austrian manufacturer of homeopathics (Dr Peithner) so much and so durably that, on 23 March 2018, he gave her a ‘scientific’ award (the annual Peithner award) for her ‘research’.

So far so good.

Her paper is unpublished, or at least not available on Medline; therefore, I am unable to evaluate it directly. All I know about it from the announcement is that she did her ‘research at the ‘Zentrum für Traditionelle Chinesische Medizin und Komplementärmedizin‘ of the said university. A quick Medline search revealed that this unit has never published anything, not a single paper, it seems! Disappointed I search for Dr. Christine Schauhuber, the leader of the unit; and again I find no Medline-listed publications in her name. My interim conclusion is thus that this institution might not be at the cutting edge of science.

But what do we know about Dr. Melanie Wölk’s award-winning master thesis *?

The announcement tells us that she investigated all RCTs published between 2010 and 2016. In addition, she evaluated:

On that basis, she arrived at her positive verdict – not just tentatively, but without doubt (“Das Ergebnis steht fest”).

Dr Peithner, the owner of the company and awarder of the prize, was quoted stating that this is a very important piece of work for homeopathy; it shows yet again what we see in our daily routine, namely that homeopathics are effective. Wölk’s investigation demonstrates furthermore that high-quality trials of homeopathy do exist, and that it is time to end the witch-hunt aimed at discrediting an effective therapy. Conventional medicine and homeopathy ought to finally work hand in hand – for the benefit of our patients. (“Für die Homöopathie ist das eine sehr wichtige Arbeit, die wieder zeigt, was wir in der ärztlichen Praxis täglich erleben, nämlich dass homöopathische Arzneimittel wirken. Wölks Untersuchung zeigt weiters deutlich, dass es sehr wohl hochqualitative Homöopathie-Studien gibt und es an der Zeit ist, die Hexenjagd zu beenden, mit der eine wirksame medizinische Therapie diskreditiert werden soll. Konventionelle Medizin und Homöopathie sollten endlich Hand in Hand arbeiten – zum Wohle der Patientinnen und Patienten.”)

I do hope that Dr Wölk uses the prize money (by no means a fortune; see photo) to buy some time for publishing her work (one of my teachers, all those years ago, used to say ‘unpublished research is no research’) so that we can all benefit from it. Until it becomes available, I should perhaps mention that the description of her methodology (publications between 2010 and 2016 [plus a few other papers that nicely fitted the arguments?]; including one Linde review and not his more recent re-analysis [see above]) does not inspire me to think that Dr Wölk’s research was anywhere near rigorous, systematic or complete. In the same vein, I am tempted to point out that the Swiss report is probably the very last document I would select, if I wanted to generate an objective picture about the value of homeopathy.

Taking all this into account, I conclude that we seem to be dealing here with a

  • pseudo-prize (given by a commercial firm to further its business) for a piece of
  • pseudo-research (the project seems to have been aimed to white-wash homeopathy) into
  • pseudo-medicine (a treatment that has been tested extensively but has not been shown to work beyond placebo).

*Wölk, Melanie: Eminenz oder Evidenz: Die Homöopathie auf dem Prüfstand der Evidence based Medicine. Masterarbeit zur Erlangung des akademischen Abschlusses Master of Science im Universitätslehrgang Natural Medicine. Donau-Universität Krems, Department für Gesundheitswissenschaften und Biomedizin. Krems, Mai 2016.

Chiropractors are fast giving up the vitalistic and obsolete concepts of their founding fathers, we are told over and over again. But are these affirmations true? There are good reasons to be sceptical. Take this recent paper, for instance.

The objective of this survey was to investigate the proportion of Australian chiropractic students who hold non-evidence-based beliefs in the first year of study and to determine the extent to which they may be involved in non-musculoskeletal health conditions.

Students from two Australian chiropractic programs were invited to answer a questionnaire on how often they would give advice on 5 common health conditions in their future practices, as well as to provide their opinion on whether chiropractic spinal adjustments could prevent or help seven health-related conditions.

The response rate of this survey was 53%. Students were highly likely to offer advice on a range of non-musculoskeletal conditions. The proportions were lowest in first year and highest the final year. For instance, 64% of students in year 4/5 believed that spinal adjustments improve the health of infants. Also, high numbers of students held non-evidence-based beliefs about ‘chiropractic spinal adjustments’ which tended to occur in gradually decreasing in numbers in sequential years, except for 5th and final year, when a reversal of the pattern occurred.

The authors concluded that new strategies are required for chiropractic educators if they are to produce graduates who understand and deliver evidence-based health care and able to be part of the mainstream health care system.

This is an interesting survey, but I think its conclusion is wrong!

  • Educators do not require ‘new strategies’, I would argue; they simply need to take their duty of educating students seriously – educating in this context does not mean brain-washing, it means teaching facts and evidence-based practice. And this is were any concept of true education would run into problems: it would teach students that chiropractic is built on sand.
  • Conclusions need to be based on the data presented. Therefore, the most fitting conclusion, in my view, is that chiropractic students are currently being educated such that, once let loose on the unsuspecting and often all too gullible public, they will be a menace and a serious danger to public health.

You might say that this survey is from Australia and that the findings therefore do not necessarily apply to other countries. Correct! However, I very much fear that elsewhere the situation is similar or perhaps even worse. And my fear does not come out of thin air, it is based on things we have discussed before; see for instance these three posts:

Chiropractic education seems to be a form of religious indoctrination

What are the competencies of a ‘certified paediatric doctor of chiropractic’?

Educating chiros

But I would be more than willing to change my mind – provided someone can show me good evidence to the contrary.

An article in yesterday’ Times makes the surprising claim that ‘doctors turn to herbal cures when the drugs don’t work’. As the subject is undoubtedly relevant to this blog and as the Times is a highly respected newspaper, I think this might be important and will therefore comment (in normal print) on the full text of the article (in bold print):

GPs are increasingly dissatisfied with doling out pills that do not work for illnesses with social and emotional roots, and a surprising number of them end up turning to alternative medicine.

What a sentence! I would have thought that GPs have always been ‘dissatisfied’ with treatments that are ineffective. But who says they turn to alternative medicine in ‘surprising numbers’ (our own survey does not confirm the notion)? And what is a ‘surprising number’ anyway (zero would be surprising, in my view)?

Charlotte Mendes da Costa is unusual in being both an NHS GP and a registered homeopath. Her frustration with the conventional approach of matching a medicine to a symptom is growing as doctors increasingly see the limits, and the risks, of such a tactic.

Do we get the impression that THE TIMES does not know that homeopathy is not herbal medicine? Do they know that ‘matching a medicine to a symptom’ is what homeopaths believe they are doing? Real doctors try to find the cause of a symptom and, whenever possible, treat it.

She asks patients with sore throats questions that few other GPs pose: “What side is it? Is it easier to swallow solids or liquids? What time of day is it worst?” Dr Mendes da Costa is trying to find out which homeopathic remedy to prescribe. But when NHS guidance for sore throats aims mainly to convince patients that they will get better on their own, her questions are just as important as her prescription.

This section makes no sense. Sore throats do get better on their own, that’s a fact. And empathy is not a monopoly of homeopaths. But Dr Mendes Da Costa might be somewhat detached from reality; she once promoted the nonsensical notion that “up to the end of 2010, 156 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in homeopathy had been carried out with 41% reporting positive effects, whereas only 7% have been negative. The remainder were non-conclusive.” (see more on this particular issue here)

“It’s very difficult to disentangle the effect of listening to someone properly, in a non-judgmental way, and taking a real rather than a superficial interest,” she says. “With a sore throat [I was trained] really only to be interested in, ‘Do they need antibiotics or not?’ ”

In this case, she should ask her money back; her medical school seems to have been rubbish in training her adequately.

This week a Lancet series on back pain said that millions of patients were getting treatments that did them no good. A government review is looking into how one in 11 people has come to be on potentially addictive drugs such as tranquillisers, opioid painkillers and antidepressants.

Yes, and how is that an argument for homeopathy? It isn’t! It seems to come from the textbook of fallacies.

And this week a BMJ Open study found that GPs with alternative training prescribed a fifth fewer antibiotics.

That study was akin to showing that butchers sell less vegetables than green-grocers. It provided no argument at all for implying that homeopathy is a valuable therapy.

Doctors seem receptive to alternative approaches: in a poll on its website 70 per cent agreed that doctors should recommend acupuncture to patients in pain. The Faculty of Homeopathy now counts 400 doctors among its 700 healthcare professional members.

Wow! Does the Times journalist know that the ‘Faculty of Homeopathy’ is primarily an organisation for doctor homeopaths? If so, why are these figures anything to write home about? And does the author appreciate that the pole was open not just to doctors but to to anyone (particularly those who were motivated, like acupuncturists)?

This horrifies many academics, who say that there is almost no evidence that complementary therapies work.

It horrifies nobody, I’d say. It puzzles some people, and not just academics. And their claim of a lack of sound evidence is evidence-based.

“It’s a false battle”, says Michael Dixon, a GP who chairs the College of Medicine, which is trying to broaden the focus on treatment to patients’ whole lives. “GPs are practical. If a patient gets better that’s all that matters.”

Here comes the inevitable Dr Dixon (the ‘pyromaniac in a field of straw-men’) with the oldest chestnut in town. But repeating a nonsense endlessly does not render it sensible.

Dr Dixon says there are enormous areas of illness ranging from chronic pain to irritable bowels where few conventional treatments have been shown to be particularly effective, so why not try alternatives with fewer side effects?

Unable to diagnose and treat adequately, let’s all do the next worst thing and apply some outright quackery?!? Logic does not seem to be Dixon’s strong point, does it?

He recommends herbal remedies such as pelargonium — “like a geranium, quite a pretty little flower” — acupressure, and techniques such as self-hypnosis. To those who say these are placebos he replies: so what?

So what indeed! There are over 200 species of pelargonium; only 2 or 3 of them are used in herbal medicine. I don’t suppose Dr Dixon wants to poison us?

“Aromatherapy does work, but only if you believe in it, that’s the way you have to look at it, like a mother kissing knees better.” He continues: “We are healers. That’s what we do as doctors. You can call it theatrical or you can call it a relationship. A lot of patients come in with a metaphor — a headache is actually unhappiness — and the treatment is symbolic.”

It frightens me to know that there are doctors out there who think like this!

What if a patient is seriously ill?

A cancer is a metaphor for what exactly?

As doctors, we have the ethical duty to apply BOTH the science and the art of medicine, BOTH efficacious, evidence-based therapies AND compassion. Can I be so bold as to recommend our book about the ethics of alternative medicine to Dixon?

Such talk makes conventional doctors very nervous. Yet acupuncture illustrates their dilemma. It used to be recommended by the NHS for back pain because patients did improve. Now it is not, after further evidence suggested that patients given placebo “sham acupuncture” did just as well.

No, acupuncture used to be recommended by NICE because there was some evidence; when subsequently more rigorous trials emerged showing that it does NOT work, NICE stopped recommending it. Real medicine develops – it’s only alternative medicine and its proponents that seem to be stuck in the past and resist progress.

Martin Underwood, of the University of Warwick, asks: “So are you going to say, ‘Well, patients get better than they would do otherwise’? Or say it’s all theatrical placebo because it shows no benefit over sham treatment? That’s the question for society.”

Society has long answered it! The answer is called evidence-based medicine. We are not content using quackery for its placebo response; we know that effective treatments do that too, and we want to make progress and improve healthcare of tomorrow.

Although many doctors agree that they need to look at patients more broadly, they insist they do not need to turn to unproven treatments. The magic ingredient, they say, is not an alternative remedy, but time. Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Practices which offer alternative therapies tend to spend longer with patients . . . allowing for more in-depth conversations.”


I am sorry, if this post turned into a bit of a lengthy rant. But it was needed, I think: if there ever was a poorly written, ill focussed, badly researched and badly argued article on alternative medicine, it must be this one.

Did I call the Times a highly respected paper?

I take it back.

The media have (rightly) paid much attention to the three Lancet-articles on low back pain (LBP) which were published this week. LBP is such a common condition that its prevalence alone renders it an important subject for us all. One of the three papers covers the treatment and prevention of LBP. Specifically, it lists various therapies according to their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. The authors of the article base their judgements mainly on published guidelines from Denmark, UK and the US; as these guidelines differ, they attempt a synthesis of the three.

Several alternative therapist organisations and individuals have consequently jumped on the LBP  bandwagon and seem to feel encouraged by the attention given to the Lancet-papers to promote their treatments. Others have claimed that my often critical verdicts of alternative therapies for LBP are out of line with this evidence and asked ‘who should we believe the international team of experts writing in one of the best medical journals, or Edzard Ernst writing on his blog?’ They are trying to create a division where none exists,

The thing is that I am broadly in agreement with the evidence presented in Lancet-paper! But I also know that things are a bit more complex.

Below, I have copied the non-pharmacological, non-operative treatments listed in the Lancet-paper together with the authors’ verdicts regarding their effectiveness for both acute and persistent LBP. I find no glaring contradictions with what I regard as the best current evidence and with my posts on the subject. But I feel compelled to point out that the Lancet-paper merely lists the effectiveness of several therapeutic options, and that the value of a treatment is not only determined by its effectiveness. Crucial further elements are a therapy’s cost and its risks, the latter of which also determines the most important criterion: the risk/benefit balance. In my version of the Lancet table, I have therefore added these three variables for non-pharmacological and non-surgical options:

EFFECTIVENESS ACUTE LBP EFFECTIVENESS PERSISTENT LBP RISKS COSTS RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE
Advice to stay active +, routine +, routine None Low Positive
Education +, routine +, routine None Low Positive
Superficial heat +/- Ie Very minor Low to medium Positive (aLBP)
Exercise Limited +/-, routine Very minor Low Positive (pLBP)
CBT Limited +/-, routine None Low to medium Positive (pLBP)
Spinal manipulation +/- +/- vfbmae
sae
High Negative
Massage +/- +/- Very minor High Positive
Acupuncture +/- +/- sae High Questionable
Yoga Ie +/- Minor Medium Questionable
Mindfulness Ie +/- Minor Medium Questionable
Rehab Ie +/- Minor Medium to high Questionable

Routine = consider for routine use

+/- = second line or adjunctive treatment

Ie = insufficient evidence

Limited = limited use in selected patients

vfbmae = very frequent, minor adverse effects

sae = serious adverse effects, including deaths, are on record

aLBP = acute low back pain

The reason why my stance, as expressed on this blog and elsewhere, is often critical about certain alternative therapies is thus obvious and transparent. For none of them (except for massage) is the risk/benefit balance positive. And for spinal manipulation, it even turns out to be negative. It goes almost without saying that responsible advice must be to avoid treatments for which the benefits do not demonstrably outweigh the risks.

I imagine that chiropractors, osteopaths and acupuncturists will strongly disagree with my interpretation of the evidence (they might even feel that their cash-flow is endangered) – and I am looking forward to the discussions around their objections.

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