commercial interests

In my last post and several others before, I have stated that consumers are incessantly being mislead about the value of alternative medicine. This statement requires evidence, and I intend to provide it – not just in one post but in a series of posts following in fast succession.

I start with an investigation we did over a decade ago. Its primary aim was to determine which complementary therapies are believed by their respective representing UK professional organizations to be suited for which medical conditions.

For this purpose, we sent out 223 questionnaires to CAM organizations representing a single CAM therapy (yes, amazingly that many such institutions exist just in the UK!). They were asked to list the 15 conditions which they felt benefited most from their specific CAM therapy, as well as the 15 most important contra-indications, the typical costs of initial and any subsequent treatments and the average length of training required to become a fully qualified practitioner. The conditions and contra-indications quoted by responding CAM organizations were recorded and the top five of each were determined. Treatment costs and hours of training were expressed as ranges.

Only 66 questionnaires were returned. Taking undelivered questionnaires into account, the response rate was 34%. Two or more responses were received from CAM organizations representing twelve therapies: aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies, Bowen technique, chiropractic, homoeopathy, hypnotherapy, magnet therapy, massage, nutrition, reflexology, Reiki and yoga.

The top seven common conditions deemed to benefit from all twelve therapies, in order of frequency, were: stress/anxiety, headaches/migraine, back pain, respiratory problems (including asthma), insomnia, cardiovascular problems and musculoskeletal problems. It is perhaps important at this stage to point out that some of these conditions are serious, even life-threatening. Aromatherapy, Bach flower remedies, hypnotherapy, massage, nutrition, reflexology, Reiki and yoga were all recommended as suitable treatments for stress/anxiety. Aromatherapy, Bowen technique, chiropractic, hypnotherapy, massage, nutrition, reflexology, Reiki and yoga were all recommended for headache/migraine. Bowen technique, chiropractic, magnet therapy, massage, reflexology and yoga were recommended for back pain. None of the therapies cost more than £60 for an initial consultation and treatment. No correlation between length of training and treatment cost was noted.

I think, this article provides ample evidence to show that, at least in the UK, professional organisations of alternative medicine readily issue statements about the effectiveness of specific alternative therapies which are not supported by evidence. Several years later, Simon Singh noted that phenomenon in a Guardian-comment and wrote about the British Chiropractic Association “they happily promote bogus claims”. He was famously sued for libel but won the case. Simon had picked the BCA merely by chance. The frightening thought is that he could have targeted any other of the 66 organisations from our investigation: they all seem to promote bogus claims quite happily.

Several findings from our study stood out for being particularly worrying: according to the respective professional organisation, Bach Flower Remedies were deemed to be effective for cancer and AIDS, for instance. If their peers put out such irresponsible nonsense, we should not be amazed at the claims made by the practitioners. And if the practitioners tell such ‘tall tales’ to their clients, to journalists and to everyone else, how can we be amazed that we seem to be drowning in a sea of misinformation?

A single, tiny mosquito can make my life a misery. It can rob me of a night’s sleep and turn me into a frantic lunatic. But now there is a remedy that, according to its manufacturer, makes my mosquito-phobia a distant memory. Mosquito-maniacs like myself can finally breathe a sigh of relief!

According to the manufacturer’s web-site, Mozi-Q is formula to reduce the frequency of bites as well as the reactions that people have to bites. No more itching and big red bumps! No more smelly sprays or stinky coils…what a great ally for camping, golfing, hiking, biking. This could revolutionize the whole outdoor experience! Some of the product’s features include:

  • It works within 30 minutes of taking it.
  • There are no side effects.
  • It works on other bugs aside from mosquitoes like ticks and head lice.
  • Product can be taken every 3-5 hours starting right before you go outside.
  • There are no contraindications.
  • Homeopathic medicine is by definition non-toxic…

Mozi-Q is a formula containing five homeopathic remedies:

  • Staphysagria
  • Ledum palustre
  • Urtica urens
  • Cedron 
  • Grindelia

They are in low C and D potencies, thereby acting at the physical level for their common indication, to reduce the frequency and severity of insect bites….

I am sure that most readers will, by now, ask themselves: is there any good evidence for these claims? The manufacturer’s site is pretty affirmative:

In the ’60s a homeopath by the name of HR. Trexler studied Staphysagria for its effectiveness at preventing mosquito bites. In a study of 421 subjects over a 4 year period, he found this remedy to be 90% effective…We have tested this remedy in our clinic over four mosquito seasons and found the response from the public confirmatory of Trexler’s findings.

Sounds great? Yes, but it turns out that the Trexler trial did not test the mixture contained in Mozi-Q at all; it used just one of its ingredients. Moreover, it seemed to have lacked a control group and therefore constitutes no reliable evidence. And the manufacturer’s own tests? I don’t know, they tell us nothing about them.

At this stage, the mosquito-phobe is disappointed. It seems to me that this product is not supported by sound evidence – more trick than treatment.

And why would this important? Because some people like me might lose a bit of sleep? No! It is important because mosquitos, ticks and other insects transmit diseases, some of which can be deadly. If someone claims that there is a preparation which protects us from insect-bites, some consumers will inevitably trust this claim. And this would not just be unfortunate; it could be life-threatening.

One thing that unites all (well, almost all, in my experience) proponents of alternative medicine is their intense dislike for BIG PHARMA. Essentially, they see this sector as:

  1. Driven by profit
  2. Employing unethical means to maximise profit
  3. Not caring for the needs of patients
  4. Attacking alternative medicine for fear of losing profit

And, of course, they claim that alternative medicine, LITTLE ALT MED, is fundamentally different from the cynically capitalist, malign BIG PHARMA.

I have no intention to defend the ways of the pharmaceutical industry – neither on this blog nor anywhere else. This industry is usually responsible to their share-holders and that constellation can lead to excesses which are counter-productive to our needs, to put it mildly. However, what I will question is the notion that LITTLE ALT MED is fundamentally different from BIG PHARMA.

Ad 1

We all have to make a living; to some extend at least we are therefore all driven by our desire to earn money. In alternative medicine, there are certainly not as many mega-enterprises as in the pharmaceutical industry but nobody can deny that many sizable firms exist which make a profit selling alternative remedies of one type or another.

And those parts of alternative medicine which are not into the sale of remedies, you may well ask – think of acupuncture, for instance. Well, those therapists are not exempt either from the need to make a living. Sure, this is on a different scale from BIG PHARMA, but it constitutes still a need for profit. If we multiply the relatively small sums involved by the vast number of therapists, the grand total of LITTLE ALT MED might approach similar orders of magnitude as that of BIG PHARMA.

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Ok, but the alternative sector would not employ unethical means for securing or maximising profits! Wrong again, I am afraid.

My 20 years of experience of LITTLE ALT MED have let me witness several incidents which I would not hesitate to call unethical. One of the most recent and least pleasant, from my point of view, was the discovery that several German homeopathic manufacturers had given money to a ‘journalist’ who used these funds to systematically defame me.

Ad 3

What about the charge that BIG PHARMA does not care for the suffering patient? LITTLE ALT MED would never do that!!! Sadly this is a myth too.

Alternative practitioners and their organisations make a plethora of therapeutic claims which are not substantiated. Who would deny that misleading patients into making wrong health care decisions is not the opposite from ‘caring’? What seems even worse, in my view, is the behaviour that might follow the exposure of such behaviour. If someone is courageous enough to disclose the irresponsibility of bogus claims, he might be attacked or even taken to court by those who, in reality should be in the dock or, at least, do their utmost to get their house in order.

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Finally, we have the notion of BIG PHARMA trying to suppress LITTLE ALT MED. I call this a myth too because I see absolutely no evidence for this rumour. Even those who circulate it can, when challenged, not produce any.

And, anyway, we all know how many of the big pharmaceutical firms buy into the alternative medicine market as soon as they see a commercially viable opportunity. Does that look like suppression?

So, what is the conclusion? BIG PHARMA can behave badly, no doubt, and when they do, I am as disgusted as the next man. However, LITTLE ALT MED also can behave badly – in fact, wherever there is money to be made, some people will behave badly some of the time.

Perhaps we should not judge an entire sector just by the bad actions of some of its members, but perhaps we should also consider whether or not it has done any good. Who would doubt that BIG PHARMA has helped to save lives – millions of lives?!

And now ask yourself: can we honestly say the same about LITTLE ALT MED?

Hot flushes are a big problem; they are not life-threatening, of course, but they do make life a misery for countless menopausal women. Hormone therapy is effective, but many women have gone off the idea since we know that hormone therapy might increase their risk of getting cancer and cardiovascular disease. So, what does work and is also risk-free? Acupuncture?

Together with researchers from Quebec, we wanted to determine whether acupuncture is effective for reducing hot flushes and for improving the quality of life of menopausal women. We decided to do this in form of a Cochrane review which was just published.

We searched 16 electronic databases in order to identify all relevant studies and included all RCTs comparing any type of acupuncture to no treatment/control or other treatments. Sixteen studies, with a total of 1155 women, were eligible for inclusion. Three review authors independently assessed trial eligibility and quality, and extracted data. We pooled data where appropriate.

Eight studies compared acupuncture versus sham acupuncture. No significant difference was found between the groups for hot flush frequency, but flushes were significantly less severe in the acupuncture group, with a small effect size. There was substantial heterogeneity for both these outcomes. In a post hoc sensitivity analysis excluding studies of women with breast cancer, heterogeneity was reduced to 0% for hot flush frequency and 34% for hot flush severity and there was no significant difference between the groups for either outcome. Three studies compared acupuncture with hormone therapy, and acupuncture turned out to be associated with significantly more frequent hot flushes. There was no significant difference between the groups for hot flush severity. One study compared electro-acupuncture with relaxation, and there was no significant difference between the groups for either hot flush frequency or hot flush severity. Four studies compared acupuncture with waiting list or no intervention. Traditional acupuncture was significantly more effective in reducing hot flush frequency, and was also significantly more effective in reducing hot flush severity. The effect size was moderate in both cases.

For quality of life measures, acupuncture was significantly less effective than HT, but traditional acupuncture was significantly more effective than no intervention. There was no significant difference between acupuncture and other comparators for quality of life. Data on adverse effects were lacking.

Our conclusion: We found insufficient evidence to determine whether acupuncture is effective for controlling menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture, there was no evidence of a significant difference in their effect on menopausal vasomotor symptoms. When we compared acupuncture with no treatment there appeared to be a benefit from acupuncture, but acupuncture appeared to be less effective than HT. These findings should be treated with great caution as the evidence was low or very low quality and the studies comparing acupuncture versus no treatment or HT were not controlled with sham acupuncture or placebo HT. Data on adverse effects were lacking.

I still have to meet an acupuncturist who is not convinced that acupuncture is not an effective treatment for hot flushes. You only need to go on the Internet to see the claims that are being made along those lines. Yet this review shows quite clearly that it is not better than placebo. It also demonstrates that studies which do suggest an effect do so because they fail to adequately control for a placebo response. This means that the benefit patients and therapists observe in routine clinical practice is not due to the acupuncture per se, but to the placebo-effect.

And what could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, is my answer; here are just 4 things that immediately spring into my mind:

1) Arguably, it is dishonest and unethical to use a placebo on ill patients in routine clinical practice and charge for it pretending it is a specific and effective treatment.

2) Placebo-effects are unreliable, small and usually of short duration.

3) In order to generate a placebo-effect, I don’t need a placebo-therapy; an effective one administered with compassion does that too (and generates specific effects on top of that).

4) Not all placebos are risk-free. Acupuncture, for instance, has been associated with serious complications.

The last point is interesting also in the context of our finding that the RCTs analysed failed to mention adverse-effects. This is a phenomenon we observe regularly in studies of alternative medicine: trialists tend to violate the most fundamental rules of research ethics by simply ignoring the need to report adverse-effects. In plain English, this is called ‘scientific misconduct’. Consequently, we find very little published evidence on this issue, and enthusiasts claim their treatment is risk-free, simply because no risks are being reported. Yet one wonders to what extend systematic under-reporting is the cause of that impression!

So, what about the legion of acupuncturists who earn a good part of their living by recommending to their patients acupuncture for hot flushes?

They may, of course, not know about the evidence which shows that it is not more than a placebo. Would this be ok then? No, emphatically no! All clinicians have a duty to be up to date regarding the scientific evidence in relation to the treatments they use. A therapist who does not abide by this fundamental rule of medical ethics is, in my view, a fraud. On the other hand, some acupuncturists might be well aware of the evidence and employ acupuncture nevertheless; after all, it brings good money! Well, I would say that such a therapist is a fraud too.

The NHS tells us that our “choices include more than just which GP or hospital to use. You also have choices about your treatment decisions…”  In most other countries, similarly confusing statements about PATIENT CHOICE are being made almost on a daily basis, often by politicians who have more ambition to win votes than to understand the complex issues at hand. Consequently, patients and consumers might be forgiven to assume that PATIENT CHOICE means we are all invited to indulge in the therapy we happen to fancy, while society foots the bill. Certainly, proponents of alternative medicine are fond of the notion that the principle of PATIENT CHOICE provides a ‘carte blanche’ for everyone who wants it to have homeopathy, Reiki, Bach Flower Remedies, crystal healing, or other bogus treatments – paid for, of course, by the taxpayer.

Reality is, however, very different. Anyone who has actually tried to choose his/her hospital will know that this is far from easy. And deciding what treatment one might employ for this or that condition is even less straight forward. Choice, it turns out, is a big word, but often it is just that: a word.

Yet politicians love their new mantra of PATIENT CHOICE; it is politically correct as it might give the taxpayer the impression that he/she is firmly installed in the driving seat. Consequently PATIENT CHOICE has become a slogan that is used to score points in public debates but that, in fact, is frequently next to meaningless. More often than not, the illusion of being in control has to serve as a poor substitute for actually being in control.

To imply that patients should be able to choose their treatment has always struck me as a little naïve, particularly in the way this is often understood in the realm of alternative medicine. Imagine you have a serious condition, say cancer: after you have come over the shock of this diagnosis, you begin to read on the Internet and consider your options. Should you have surgery or faith healing, chemotherapy or homeopathy, radiotherapy or a little detox?

Clearly PATIENT CHOICE, as paid for by society, cannot be about choosing between a realistic option and an unrealistic one. It must be confined to treatments which have all been shown to be effective. Using scarce public funds for ineffective treatments is nothing short of unethical. If, for a certain condition, there happen to be 10 different, equally effective and safe options, we may indeed have a choice. Alas, this is not often the case. Often, there is just one effective treatment, and in such instances the only realistic choice is between accepting or rejecting it.

And, anyway, how would we know that 10 different treatments are equally effective and safe? After going on the Internet and reading a bit about them, we might convince ourselves that we know but, in fact, very few patients have sufficient knowledge for making complex decisions of this nature. We usually need an expert to help us. In other words, we require our doctor to guide us through this jungle of proven benefits and potential risks.

Once we accept this to be true, we have arrived at a reasonable concept of what PATIENT CHOICE really means in relation to deciding between two or more treatments: the principle of shared decision making. And this  is a  fundamentally different concept from the naïve view of those alternative medicine enthusiasts who promote the idea that PATIENT CHOICE opens the door to opting for any unproven or disproven pseudo-therapy.

To be meaningful, ethical and responsible, choice needs to be guided by sound evidence – if not, it degenerates into irresponsible arbitrariness, and health care deteriorates into some kind of Russian roulette. To claim, as some fans of alternative medicine do, that the principle of PATIENT CHOICE gives everyone the right to use unproven treatments at the expense of the taxpayer is pure nonsense. But some extreme proponents of quackery go even further; they claim that the discontinuation of payment for treatments that have been identified as ineffective amounts to a dangerous curtailment of patients’ rights. This, I think, is simply a cynical attempt to mislead the public for the selfish purpose of profit.

It hardly is a secret: we have a growing problem with obesity. Worldwide it is predicted to cause millions of premature deaths – unless, of course, we come up with a safe and effective treatment that patients find acceptable.

Many herbal remedies are being promoted as the solution to this serious problem. My team looked at the evidence for such treatments in much detail. Sadly the results were less than impressive.

But now, there seems to be new hope! Two recent studies of a specific herbal mixture report amazingly good results – or are they perhaps too good to be true?

Stern JS, Peerson J, Mishra AT, Sadasiva Rao MV and Rajeswari KP from the Department of Nutrition and the Department of Internal Medicine, University of California Davis, have just published an RCT in 60 subjects with body mass index (BMI) between 30 and 40 kg/square meter. Participants received either 400 mg herbal capsules with extracts from Sphaeranthus indicus and Garcinia mangostana or 400 mg placebo capsules twice daily. During the study period, participants consumed a standard diet (2,000 kcal per day) and walked 30 min 5 days per week.

After 8 weeks of this treatment, significant reductions in body weight (3.7 kg), BMI (1.6 kg/m2), and waist circumference (5.4 cm) were observed in the herbal group compared with placebo. Additionally, a significant increase in serum adiponectin concentration was found in the herbal group versus placebo. Adverse events were mild and were equally distributed between the two groups.

The authors’ conclusion leave no doubt: Supplementation with the herbal blend resulted in a greater degree of weight loss than placebo over 8 weeks.

As our own review had suggested that extracts of Garcinia cause small short-term weight reductions, the results did not come as a complete surprise to me. What did strike me as odd, however, was the fact that almost simultaneously another article was published. It was authored by Stern JS, Peerson J, Mishra AT, Mathukumalli VS and Konda PR from the Department of Nutrition, University of California-Davis, and it reported the pooled data from the above plus another, similarly designed trial.

The two studies together enrolled 100 patients who were treated either with the same herbal formula or with placebo. All subjects received 2000 kcal/day throughout the study and walked 5 days a week for 30 min. The primary outcome was the reduction in body weight. Secondary outcomes were reductions in BMI and in waist and hip circumference. Serum glycaemic, lipid, and adiponectin levels were also measured. Ninety-five subjects completed the trials, and the data from these two studies were pooled and analysed.

At study conclusion (8 weeks), statistically significant reductions in body weight (5.2 kg), BMI (2.2 kg/m2), as well as waist (11.9 cm) and hip circumferences (6.3 cm) were observed in the pooled herbal groups compared with placebo. A significant increase in serum adiponectin concentration was also found in the herbal groups versus placebo at study conclusion along with reductions in fasting blood glucose (12.2%), cholesterol (13.8%), and triglyceride (41.6%) concentrations. No changes were seen across organ function panels, multiple vital signs, and no major adverse events were reported. The minor adverse events were equally distributed between the two groups.

And what should be odd about that? Authors are entitled to pool the data of two of their own trials! Yes, of course, but what confuses me is the fact that the data from the second study of 40 patients cannot be found anywhere. I would have liked to see how it is possible that the results from just 40 more patients (actually just 35 seemed to have been included in the analysis) raise the average weight loss from 3.7 kg in the first RCT to a remarkable 5.2 kg in the two RCTs together. As a rough estimate, this means that, in the second trial, patients who took the herbal mixture must have lost about one kilo per week more than those who were on placebo. If true, this outcome is pretty sensational! It could signal the end of the obesity epidemic. It would also mean that the manufacturer of this herbal wonder mixture stands to earn billions.

Considering the potential importance of these findings, I would also like to know what precisely the Californian researchers’ involvement has been in these two studies. In the second article they state that: The two clinical trials were performed at Alluri Sitarama Raju Academy of Medical Sciences (ASRAM), Eluru, Andhra Pradesh, India from November 2009 to April 2010 (clinical trial registration number: ISRCTN45078827) and from March 2010 to July 2010 (clinical trial registration number: ISRCTN52261953). I find this puzzling.

Moreover, it would be interesting to learn what happened to the following co-authors of the first study: Sadasiva, Rao MV and Rajeswari KP. As authors of the largest of the two trials, I would have thought their names would have to be included in the article reporting the pooled data of the two studies.

Call me sceptical, perhaps even cynical, but I do wonder about trials which seem to beg so many intriguing questions. In case you want to know who funded these studies and who thus stands to make the above-named billions, the answer is provided in the second paper: This work was supported by an unrestricted grant from InterHealth Nutraceuticals Inc., Benicia, CA, to J.S.S.

So, do I think that we have finally identified a safe and effective treatment to combat the worldwide epidemic of obesity? Well….

S.O. Hansson from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden recently published an interesting comment on the law regulating the labelling of homeopathic products. In it he points out that, in the European Union (EU), all pre-packaged food products must contain a list of ingredients and their quantities. The list should be “accurate, clear and easy to understand for the consumer.” Similar requirements apply to pharmaceutical drugs and products – with one notable exception: homeopathic preparations.

For such products, the ingredients need not be disclosed on the label, which should instead specify “the scientific name of the stock or stocks followed by the degree of dilution.” The degree of homeopathic dilutions is, in turn, given in an understandable jargon, such as “C60”, which actually describes a dilution of 1:10120.

The point Hansson is trying to make is that very few health care professionals and even fewer consumers would understand such abbreviations and jargon. This means that, manufacturers of homeopathic products are legally permitted to hide the fact from their customers that their remedies typically contain no active ingredient at all. Considering that homeopathic products are typically bought ‘over the counter’ (OTC), i.e. without interference from a health care professional, just like food products, the exemption seems most surprising.

The most OTC homeopathic remedies are in the “C30” potency; this signifies a dilution of 1: 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000. The likelihood that any potency higher than “C12” might contain a single molecule of active ingredient is very close to zero. In order to comprehend the degree of dilution in homeopathy more fully, a visual approach might be best: for it to have a reasonable chance to contain just one single molecule of active ingredient, a homeopathic pill in a “C30” potency would need to have a diameter roughly equal to the distance between the earth and the sun. Homeopathy is truly impossible to swallow.

If homeopathic manufacturers were obliged to provide a description that is “accurate, clear and easy to understand for the consumer”, it would need to state that any dilution beyond “C12” contains no active molecule. It seems clear that such accurate, clear and understandable information would discourage most consumers to spend their hard-earned money for such nonsense. It seems thus to be obvious that the EU exemption of homeopathic remedies from honest labelling protects the interests of the homeopathic industry.

But surely, this is deeply wrong. Regulations in health care are not supposed to protect commercial interests, they should protect the consumer. In my view, it is time to change such profoundly misguided EU-regulation – in the interest of honesty, single standards, transparency and foremost in the interest of the patient and the consumer.

Sorry, but I am fighting a spell of depression today.

Why? I came across this website which lists the 10 top blogs on alternative medicine. To be precise, here is what they say about their hit-list: this list includes the top 10 alternative medicine bloggers on Twitter, ranked by Klout score. Using Cision’s media database, we compiled the list based on Cision’s proprietary research, with results limited to bloggers who dedicate significant coverage to alternative medicine and therapies…

And here are the glorious top ten:

Andrew WeilDr. Andrew Weil’s Daily Health Tips

Joy McCarthyJoyous Health Blog

Johanna BjörkGoodlifer

Stacey ChillemiStay Healthy and Cure Your Conditions Naturally

Eric GreyDeepest Health

Kristi ShmyrPrana Holistic Blog

Cathy WongAlternative Medicine Blog

Renee CanadaHartford Healthy Living Examiner

Dee BraunNatural Holistic Health Blog

Geo EspinosaDr. Geo’s Natural Health Blog

All of these sites are promotional and lack even the slightest hint of critical evaluation. All of them sell or advertise products and are thus out to make money. All of them are full of quackery, in my view. Some of the most popular bloggers are world-famous quacks!

What about impartial information for the public? What about critical review of the evidence? What about a degree of balance? What about guiding consumers to make responsible, evidence-based decisions? What about preventing harm? What about using scarce resources wisely?

I don’t see any of this on any of the sites.

You see, now I have depressed you too!

Quick, buy some herbal, natural, holistic and integrative anti-depressant! As it happens, I have some for sale….

Even after all these years of full-time research into alternative medicine and uncounted exchanges with enthusiasts involved in this sector, I find the logic that is often applied in this field bewildering and the unproductiveness of the dialogue disturbing.

To explain what I mean, it be might best to publish a (fictitious, perhaps slightly exaggerated) debate between a critical thinker or scientist (S) and an uncritical proponent (P) of one particular form of alternative medicine.

P: Did you see this interesting study demonstrating that treatment X is now widely accepted, even by highly critical GPs at the cutting edge of health care?

S: This was a survey, not a ‘study’, and I never found the average GP “highly critical”. Surveys of this nature are fairly useless and they “demonstrate” nothing of real value.

P: Whatever, but it showed that GPs accept treatment X. This can only mean that they realise how safe and effective it is.

S: Not necessarily, GPs might just give in to consumer demand, or the sample was cleverly selected, or the question was asked in a leading manner, etc.

P: Hardly, because there is plenty of good evidence for treatment X.

S: Really? Show me.

P: There is this study here which proves that treatment X works and is risk-free.

S: The study was far too small to demonstrate safety, and it is wide open to multiple sources of bias. Therefore it does not conclusively show efficacy either.

P: You just say this because you don’t like its result! You have a closed mind!

In any case, it was merely an example! There are plenty more positive studies; do your research properly before you talk such nonsense.

S: I did do some research and I found a recent, high quality systematic review that arrived at a negative conclusion about the value of treatment X.

P: That review was done by sceptics who clearly have an axe to grind. It is based on studies which do not account for the intrinsic subtleties of treatment X. Therefore they are unfair tests of treatment X. These trials don’t really count at all. Every insider knows that! The fact that you cite it merely confirms that you do not understand what you are talking about.

S: It seems to me, that you like scientific evidence only when it confirms your belief. This, I am afraid, is what quacks tend to do!

P: I strongly object to being insulted in this way.

S: I did not insult you, I merely made a statement of fact.

P: If you like facts, you have to see that one needs to have sufficient expertise in treatment X in order to apply it properly and effectively. This important fact is neglected in all of those trials that report negative results; and that’s why they are negative. Simple! I really don’t understand why you are too stupid to understand this. Such studies do not show that treatment X is ineffective, but they demonstrate that the investigators were incompetent or hired with the remit to discredit treatment X.

S: I would have thought they are negative because they minimised bias and the danger of generating a false positive result.

P: No, by minimising bias, as you put it, these trials eliminated the factors that are important elements of treatment X.

S: Such as the placebo-effect?

P: That’s what you call it because you irrationally believe in reductionist science.

S: Science requires no belief, I think you are the believer here.

P: The fact is that scientists of your ilk negate all factors related to human interactions. Patients are no machines, you know, they need compassion; we clinicians know that because we work at the coal face of health care. Scientists in their ivory towers have no idea about patient care and just want science for science sake. This is not how you help patients. Show some compassion man!

S: I do know about the importance of compassion and care, but here we are discussing an entirely different topic, namely tests the efficacy or effectiveness of treatments, not patient-care. Let’s focus on one issue at a time.

P: You cannot separate things in this way. We have to take a holistic view. Patients are whole individuals, and you cannot do them justice by running artificial experiments. Every patient is different; clinical trials fail to account for this fact and are therefore fairly irrelevant to us and to our patients. Real life is very different from your imagined little experiments, you know.

S: These are platitudes that are nonsensical in this context and do not contribute anything meaningful to the present discussion. You do not seem to understand the methodology or purpose of a clinical trial.

P: That is typical! Whenever you run out of arguments, you try to change the subject or throw a few insults at me.

S: Not at all, I thought we were talking about clinical trials evaluating the effectiveness of treatment X.

P: That’s right; and they do show that it is effective, provided you consider those which are truly well-done by experts who know about treatment X and believe in it.

S: Not true. Only if you cherry-pick the data will you be able to produce an overall positive result for treatment X.

P: In any case, the real world results of clinical practice show very clearly that it works. It would not have survived for so long, if it didn’t. Nobody can deny that, and nobody should claim that silly little trials done in artificial circumstances are more meaningful than a wealth of experience.

S: Experience has little to do with reliable evidence.

P: To deny the value of experience is just stupid and clearly puts you in the wrong. I have shown you plenty of reliable evidence but you just ignore everything I say that does not go along with your narrow-minded notions about science; science is not the only way of knowing or comprehending things! Stop being obsessed with science.

S: No, you show me rubbish data and have little understanding of science, I am afraid.

P: Here we go again! I have had about enough of that and your blinkered arguments. We are going in circles because you are ignorant and arrogant. I have tried my best to show you the light, but your mind is closed. I offer true insight and you pay me back with insults. You and your cronies are in the pocket of BIG PHARMA. You are cynical, heartless and not interested in the wellbeing of patients. Next you will tell me to vaccinate my kids!

S: I think this is a waste of time.

P: Precisely! Everyone who has followed this debate will see very clearly that you are obsessed with reductionist science and incapable of considering the suffering of whole individuals. You want to deny patients a treatment that  really helps them simply because you do not understand how treatment X works. Shame on you!!!

One of the best-selling supplements in the UK as well as several other countries is evening primrose oil (EPO). It is available via all sorts of outlets (even respectable pharmacies – or is that supposedly respectable?), and is being promoted for a wide range of conditions, including eczema. The NIH website is optimistic about its efficacy: “Evening primrose oil may have modest benefits for eczema.” Our brand-new Cochrane review was aimed at critically assessing the effects of oral EPO or borage oil (BO) on the symptoms of atopic eczema, and it casts considerable doubt on this somewhat uncritical view.

Here is what we did: We searched six databases as well as online trials registers and checked the bibliographies of included studies for further references to relevant trials. We corresponded with trial investigators and pharmaceutical companies to identify unpublished and ongoing trials. We also performed a separate search for adverse effects. All RCTs investigating oral intake of EPO or BO for eczema were included.

Two experts independently applied eligibility criteria, assessed risk of bias, and extracted data. We pooled dichotomous outcomes using risk ratios (RR), and continuous outcomes using the mean difference (MD). Where possible, we pooled study results using random-effects meta-analysis and tested statistical heterogeneity.

And here is what we found: 27 studies with a total of 1596 participants met our inclusion criteria: 19 studies tested EPO, and 8 studies assessed BO. A meta-analysis of results from 7 studies showed that EPO failed to improve global eczema symptoms as reported by participants and doctors. Treatment with BO also failed to improve global eczema symptoms. 67% of the studies had a low risk of bias for random sequence generation; 44%, for allocation concealment; 59%, for blinding; and 37%, for other biases.

Our conclusions were clear: Oral borage oil and evening primrose oil lack effect on eczema; improvement was similar to respective placebos used in trials. Oral BO and EPO are not effective treatments for eczema.

The very wide-spread notion that EPO is effective for eczema and a range of other conditions was originally promoted by the researcher turned entrepreneur, D F Horrobin, who claimed that several human diseases, including eczema, were due to a lack of fatty acid precursors and could thus be effectively treated with EPO. In the 1980s, Horrobin began to sell EPO supplements without having conclusively demonstrated their safety and efficacy; this led to confiscations and felony indictments in the US. As chief executive of Scotia Pharmaceuticals, Horrobin obtained licences for several EPO-preparations which later were withdrawn for lack of efficacy. Charges of mismanagement and fraud led to Horrobin being ousted as CEO by the board of the company. Later, Horrobin published a positive meta-analysis of EPO for eczema where he excluded the negative results of the largest published trial, but included results of 7 of his own unpublished studies. When scientists asked to examine the data, Horrobin’s legal team convinced the journal to refuse the request.

The evidence for EPO is negative not just for eczema. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single disease or symptom for which it demonstrably works. Our own review of the data concluded ” EPO has not been established as an effective treatment for any condition”

Our new Cochrane review might help to put this long saga to rest. In my view, it is a fascinating tale of a scientist being blinded by creed and ambition. The results of such errors can be dramatic. Horrobin misled all of us: patients, health care professionals, scientists, regulators, decision makers, businessmen. This caused unnecessary expense and set back research efforts in a multitude of areas. I find the tale also fascinating from other perspectives; for instance, it begs the question why so many ‘respectable’ manufacturers and retailers are still allowed to make money on EPO. Is it not time to debunk the EPO-myth and say it as clearly as possible: EPO helps only those who financially profit from misleading the public?

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