MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

commercial interests

Not much is known about the interactions of real doctors (by this I mean people who have been to medical school) and chiropractors who like to call themselves ‘doctors’ or ‘DCs’ but have never been to medical school. Therefore this recent article is of particular interest, in my view.

The purpose of this paper was to identify characteristics of Canadian chiropractors (DCs) associated with the number of patients referred by medical doctors (MDs). For this purpose, secondary data analyses were performed on the 2011 cross-sectional survey of the Canadian Chiropractic Resources Databank survey which included 81 questions about the practice of DCs. Of the 6533 mailed questionnaires, 2529 (38.7%) were returned and 489 did not meet our inclusion criteria. In total, the analysed sample included 2040 respondents.

The results show that, on average, DCs reported receiving 15.6 (SD 31.3) patient referrals from MDs per year. Nearly one-third of the respondents did not receive any. The type of clinic (multidisciplinary with MD), the province of practice (Atlantic provinces), the number of treatments provided per week, the number of practicing hours, rehabilitation and sports injuries as the main sector of activity, prescription of exercises, use of heat packs and ultrasound, and the percentage of patients referred to other health care providers were associated with a higher number of MD referrals to DCs. The percentage of patients with somatovisceral conditions, using a particular chiropractic technique (hole in one and Thompson), taking own radiographs, being the client of a chiropractic management service, and considering maintenance/wellness care as a main sector of activity were associated with fewer MD referrals.

The authors concluded that Canadian DCs who interacted with other health care workers and who focus their practice on musculoskeletal conditions reported more referrals from MDs.

One could criticise this survey for a number of reasons, for instance:

  • the response rate was low,
  • the sample was small,
  • the data are now 4 years old and might be obsolete.

Despite these flaws, the paper does seem to reveal some relevant things. What I find especially interesting is that:

  • the level of referrals from doctors to chiropractors seems exceedingly low,
  • dubious chiropractic activities such as maintenance therapy or treatment of non-spinal conditions led to even less referrals.

To me, that implies that Canadian doctors are, on the one hand, willing to co-operate with chiropractors. On the other hand, they remain cautious about the high level of quackery in this profession.

All this means really is that Canadian doctors are responsible and aim to adhere to evidence-based practice…in contrast to many chiropractors, I hasten to add.

This is a question which I have asked myself more often than I care to remember. The reason is probably that, in alternative medicine, I feel surrounded by so much dodgy research that I simply cannot avoid asking it.

In particular, the co-called ‘pragmatic’ trials which are so much ‘en vogue’ at present are, in my view, a reason for concern. Take a study of cancer patients, for instance, where one group is randomized to get the usual treatments and care, while the experimental group receives the same and several alternative treatments in addition. These treatments are carefully selected to be agreeable and pleasant; each patient can choose the ones he/she likes best, always had wanted to try, or has heard many good things about. The outcome measure of our fictitious study would, of course, be some subjective parameter such as quality of life.

In this set-up, the patients in our experimental group thus have high expectations, are delighted to get something extra, even more happy to get it for free, receive plenty of attention and lots of empathy, care, time, attention etc. By contrast, our poor patients in the control group would be a bit miffed to have drawn the ‘short straw’ and receive none of this.

What result do we expect?

Will the quality of life after all this be equal in both groups?

Will it be better in the miffed controls?

Or will it be higher in those lucky ones who got all this extra pampering?

I don’t think I need to answer these questions; the answers are too obvious and too trivial.

But the real and relevant question is the following, I think: IS SUCH A TRIAL JUST SILLY AND MEANINGLESS OR IS IT UNETHICAL?

I would argue the latter!

Why?

Because the results of the study are clearly known before the first patient had even been recruited. This means that the trial was not necessary; the money, time and effort has been wasted. Crucially, patients have been misled into thinking that they give their time, co-operation, patience etc. because there is a question of sufficient importance to be answered.

But, in truth, there is no question at all!

Perhaps you believe that nobody in their right mind would design, fund and conduct such a daft trial. If so, you assumed wrongly. Such studies are currently being published by the dozen. Here is the abstract of the most recent one I could find:

The aim of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of an additional, individualized, multi-component complementary medicine treatment offered to breast cancer patients at the Merano Hospital (South Tyrol) on health-related quality of life compared to patients receiving usual care only. A randomized pragmatic trial with two parallel arms was performed. Women with confirmed diagnoses of breast cancer were randomized (stratified by usual care treatment) to receive individualized complementary medicine (CM group) or usual care alone (usual care group). Both groups were allowed to use conventional treatment for breast cancer. Primary endpoint was the breast cancer-related quality of life FACT-B score at 6 months. For statistical analysis, we used analysis of covariance (with factors treatment, stratum, and baseline FACT-B score) and imputed missing FACT-B scores at 6 months with regression-based multiple imputation. A total of 275 patients were randomized between April 2011 and March 2012 to the CM group (n = 136, 56.3 ± 10.9 years of age) or the usual care group (n = 139, 56.0 ± 11.0). After 6 months from randomization, adjusted means for health-related quality of life were higher in the CM group (FACT-B score 107.9; 95 % CI 104.1-111.7) compared to the usual care group (102.2; 98.5-105.9) with an adjusted FACT-B score difference between groups of 5.7 (2.6-8.7, p < 0.001). Thus, an additional individualized and complex complementary medicine intervention improved quality of life of breast cancer patients compared to usual care alone. Further studies evaluating specific effects of treatment components should follow to optimize the treatment of breast cancer patients. 

The key sentence in this abstract is, of course: complementary medicine intervention improved quality of life of breast cancer patients… It provides the explanation as to why these trials are so popular with alternative medicine researchers: they are not real research but they are quite simply promotion! The next step would be to put a few of those pseudo-scientific trials together and claim that there is solid proof that integrating alternative treatments into conventional health care produces better results. At that stage, few people will bother asking whether this is really due to the treatments in questioning or to the additional attention, pampering etc.

My question is ARE SUCH TRIALS ETHICAL?

I would very much appreciate your opinion.

In the world of homeopathy, the truth is often much weirder than fiction. Take this recent article, for instance; it was published by the famous lay homeopath Alan Schmukler in the current issue of ‘HOMEOPATHY 4 EVERYONE’.

Before you read the text in question, it might be relevant to explain who Schmukler is: he attended Temple University, where he added humanistic psychology to his passions. After graduating Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa and President’s Scholar, he spent several years doing workshops in human relations. Alan also studied respiratory therapy and worked for three years at Einstein Hospital in Philadelphia. Those thousands of hours in the intensive care and emergency rooms taught him both the strengths and limitations of conventional medicine. Schmukler learned about homeopathy in 1991 when he felt he had been cured of an infection with Hepar sulph. He later founded the Homeopathic Study Group of Metropolitan Philadelphia, giving free lectures and hosting the areas best homeopaths to teach. He also helped found and edit Homeopathy News and Views, a popular culture newsletter on homeopathy. He taught homeopathy for Temple University’s Adult Programs, and has been either studying, writing, lecturing or consulting on homeopathy since 1991. He wrote Homeopathy An A to Z home Handbook, which is now available in five languages. Alan Schmukler has been practicing homeopathy for more than two decades and is Chief Editor of Hpathy.com and of Homeopathy4Everyone. He says that his work as Editor is one of his most rewarding experiences.

Now, brace yourself, here is the promised text/satire (in bold); I promise, I did not change a single word:

EIGHT REASONS TO VACCINATE YOUR CHILD

  1. Your child is deficient in Mercury, Aluminum, Formaldehyde, viruses, foreign DNA or other ingredients proven to cause neurological damage.
  2. Your child has an excess of healthy, functioning brain cells.
  3. You need more cash. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation program has paid out 2.8 billion dollars to parents of children injured or killed by vaccines.
  4. You and your husband are feeling alienated and you need a crisis to bring you together.
  5. You believe that pharmaceutical conglomerates which earn billions from vaccines are more credible than consumer groups.
  6. You think thousands of parents who report that their children became autistic two weeks after vaccination are lying.
  7. You don’t see a problem in logic when the government tells you that vaccines work, but that vaccinated children can catch diseases from unvaccinated children.
  8. You think the government should dictate which healing methods you and your children are allowed to use.

Funny? No!

Bad taste? Very much so!

Barmy? I think so!

Dangerous? Yes!

Irresponsible? Most certainly!

Unethical? Yes!

Characteristic for lay homeopathy? Possibly!

In my last post, I made a fairly bold statement without any evidence to support it: “[this] demonstrates once again that, in the realm of alternative medicine, organisations and individuals make statements that sound fine and are politically correct, while at the same time disregarding these pompous aims/visions/objectives by promoting outright quackery. This sort of thing is so wide-spread that most of us just take it for granted and very few have the nerve to object. The result of this collective behaviour is obvious: on the one hand, charlatans can claim to be entirely in line with public health, EBM etc.; on the other hand, they are free to exploit the public with their bogus treatments.”

I felt that my statement was supported by so many websites that it was almost self-evident. But, as it happens, I was alerted today to another website that provides impressive first had evidence of what I meant:

“The purpose of this site is to provide the public with information about Craniosacral Therapy

Craniosacral therapists recognise health as an active principle. This health is the expression of life – an inherent ordering force, a natural internal intelligence. Craniosacral Therapy is a subtle and profound healing form which assists this natural bodily intelligence.

It is clear that a living human organism is immensely complex and requires an enormous amount of internal organisation. Craniosacral Therapy helps nurture these internal ordering principles. It helps increase physical vitality and well-being, not only effecting structural change, but also having much wider implications e.g. improving interpersonal relationships, managing life more appropriately etc…

The work can address issues in whatever way the client wishes; physical aches and pains, acute and chronic disease, emotional or psychological disturbances, or simply developing well-being, health and vitality.

Craniosacral Therapy is so gentle that it is suitable for babies, children, and the elderly, as well as adults; and also in fragile or acutely painful conditions. As a whole-body therapy, treatment may aid almost every condition, raising the vitality and enabling the body’s own self-healing process to be utilised.”

I find this text rather typical and very revealing: the authors first make several bland statements which are little more that politically correct platitudes. Eventually, they try to tell us what their therapy is good for: it is suitable for babies adults and the elderly. In other words, it is for everyone!

And what is so truly brilliant, it can be used to treat acute and chronic conditions. In other words, it is effective for every disease afflicting mankind!

Once you have realised it, the strategy of such ‘position statements’ (or whatever they might call it) is all too obvious: behind a smokescreen of empty platitudes, quackery is being promoted for profit. The phraseology used is such that there can be little concrete objections in legal or regulatory terms. All the therapeutic claims are general, cleverly hidden and operate merely by implication.

Quackery? Yes, absolutely!

Craniosacral therapy has not been proven to be effective for anything and, as a therapy, it is therefore not ‘suitable’ for anyone. To me, this is almost the definition of quackery.

A recent post of mine prompted this categorical statement by one of the leading alt med researchers in Germany: naturopathy does not include homeopathy.” This caused several counter-comments claiming that homeopathy is an established part of naturopathy. Now a regular reader has alerted me to the current position paper on homeopathy by the ‘AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF NATUROPATHIC PHYSICIANS’ (AANP). It clarifies the issue fairly well, and I therefore take the liberty of citing it here in full:

“Overview of Naturopathic Medicine and Homeopathy

Homeopathy has been an integral part of naturopathic medicine since its inception and is a recognized specialty for which the naturopathic profession has created a distinct specialty organization, the Homeopathic Academy of Naturopathic Physicians. Homeopathy has been recognized, through rigorous testing and experimentation, as having significant scientific evidence supporting its efficacy and safety. Single medicines are given on the basis of an individual’s manifestation of a disease state in comparison to combination remedies which are given on the basis of a particular diagnostic category.

Homeopathic products are being subjected to intensified federal regulations and restrictions. Products are being promoted and marketed as “homeopathic” for a variety of uses ranging from weight-loss aids to immunizations. Many of these preparations are not homeopathic and many have not been satisfactorily proven to be efficacious. Homeopathy is practiced in a variety of traditional and non-traditional forms.

Position of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians:

  • Homeopathy is taught in the naturopathic colleges and its practice should be included in the naturopathic licensing laws. Naturopathic physicians recognize other licensed practitioners of the healing arts who are properly trained in homeopathy.
  • The naturopathic profession initiates more clinical trials and provings to further evaluate the effectiveness of homeopathy.
  • Naturopathic physicians shall be authorized to prescribe and dispense all products included in the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS).
  • Homeopathic products shall be subject to strict labeling requirements. Preparations which are not prepared in accord with the manufacturing principles in the HPUS should not use the term “homeopathic.” If parents choose homeopathic preparations for their children or their wards for the prophylaxis of infectious disease as an alternative to conventional immunizations, the physician should clearly state that they are unproven and that they are not legal substitutes for the state-mandated requirements.
  • Homeopathic prescriptions should be made with careful evaluation of their effect on the entire organism.
  • Electro-diagnostic testing is an investigational tool. Electro-diagnostic testing should be used according to accepted protocol and it is recommended that it not be relied on as the sole determinant in homeopathic prescribing.”

So, was Prof Michalsen wrong when he stated that “naturopathy does not include homeopathy. It is established in Germany as the application of nutritional therapy, exercise, herbal medicine, balneotherapy and stress reduction, defined by the German Board of Physicians. In conclusion, my general and last suggestion to these kinds of comments and blogs: Please first learn the facts and then comment.”? Not wrong, perhaps – but just a little Teutonic and provincial? The Germans like their own definitions which do not apply to the rest of the world. Nothing wrong with that, I think. But, in this case, they should make it clear that they are talking about something else than the international standard, and perhaps they should also publish their national drivel in their provincial journals in German language. This would avoid all sorts of misunderstandings, I am sure.

But this may just be a trivial aside. The more interesting issue here is the above AANP-statement itself. The AANP has the following vision: “Naturopathic physicians will guide and empower people to discover and experience improved health, optimal wellness, and effective management of disease through the principles and practices of naturopathic medicine.”

These are very nice words; but they are just that: WORDS. The AANP clearly does not believe in their own vision. If they did, they could never speak of ‘EFFECTIVE MANAGEMENT OF DISEASE’ while condoning the use of therapies that have been shown to be ineffective.

And this is where, in my view, the importance of their ‘position paper’ really lies: it demonstrates once again that, in the realm of alternative medicine, organisations and individuals make statements that sound fine and are politically correct, while at the same time disregarding these pompous aims/visions/objectives by promoting outright quackery. This sort of thing is so wide-spread that most of us just take it for granted and very few have the nerve to object. The result of this collective behaviour is obvious: on the one hand, charlatans can claim to be entirely in line with public health, EBM etc.; on the other hand, they are free to exploit the public with their bogus treatments.

Could this be the true common denominator of naturopathy in Germany and the rest of the world?

These days, I spend much of my time in France (my wife is French), and one striking thing about this country is the popularity of homeopathy. For instance, it is hard to find a pharmacy where the pharmacist does not approach you trying to sell you a homeopathic remedy for your health problem. But, of course, this is all far too anecdotal. The question therefore is, are there any reliable data on France’s usage of homeopathy?

The answer is YES: the aim of this new paper was to analyse data on medicines, prescribers and patients for homeopathic prescriptions that are reimbursed by French national health insurance.

The French national health insurance databases were used to analyse prescriptions of reimbursed homeopathic drugs or preparations in the overall French population, during the period July 2011-June 2012.

The results show that a total of 6,705,420 patients received at least one reimbursement for a homeopathic preparation during the 12-month period. This number equates to 10.2% of the French population, with a predominance in females (68%) and a peak frequency observed in children aged 0-4 years (18%). About one third of patients had only one reimbursement, and one half of patients had three or more reimbursements.

The cost of all homeopathic treatments prescribed during the 12-month period was approximately €279 million (based on the retail price). The observed mean reimbursement rate was 34%. This cost corresponded to nearly €98 million for the French national health insurance and amounted to 0.3% of France’s total drug bill. The most commonly prescribed stock was ‘Arnica montana’, followed by ‘Influenzinum’, Ignatia amara’ and ‘Gelsemium sempervirens’.

A total of 120,110 healthcare professionals (HCPs) prescribed at least one homeopathic drug or preparation. They represented 43.5% of the overall population of HCPs, nearly 95% of general practitioners, dermatologists and pediatricians, and 75% of midwives. Homeopathy accounted for 5% of the total number of drug units prescribed by HCPs. Conventional medicines were co-prescribed with 55% of homeopathic prescriptions.

From these data, the authors concluded that many HCPs occasionally prescribe reimbursed homeopathic preparations, representing however a small percentage of reimbursements compared to allopathic medicines. About 10% of the French population, particularly young children and women, received at least one homeopathic preparation during the year. In more than one half of cases, reimbursed homeopathic preparations are prescribed in combination with allopathic medicines.

So, my impression that homeopathy is much more popular in France than elsewhere was not entirely correct. Like in most other countries, it is used by a minority; but this minority is fairly vocal and gets plenty of press coverage. When discussing homeopathy with friends in France, I have regularly discovered that they have very little understanding about what homeopathy is truly about; they seem to favour it because it is heavily advertised as a harmless solution to benign health problems. In no other country have I seen regular TV commercials for homeopathy! The ones who earn by far the most from this is, of course, the pharmacist – in France, homeopathic products can only be found in pharmacies!

Seen from this angle, the French usage of homeopathy is a triumph of profit over reason: the two most popular preparations (Arnica and Influenzinum) are not just not evidence-based (like all other homeopathic remedies), they have been shown in systematic reviews not to work better than placebos.

Lyme disease, also known as Lyme borreliosis, is an infectious disease caused by Borrelia infection transmitted by ticks. The most common early sign is an expanding area of redness beginning at the site of a bite about a week after a tick-bite. Fever, tiredness and headaches often follow. Later stages are characterised by more severe and remarkably variable illness.

Patients with medically unexplained or vague symptoms are sometimes told that they suffer from Lyme disease. These patients are commonly targeted by providers of alternative therapies who promise hope by claiming that their particular brand of quackery is effective for this chronic condition.

A recent review was designed to identify and characterize the range of unorthodox alternative therapies advertised to patients with a diagnosis of Lyme disease.

Internet searches using the Google search engine were performed to identify the websites of clinics and services that marketed non-antimicrobial therapies for Lyme disease. Subsequently the PubMed search engine was employed to identify any scientific studies evaluating such treatments for Lyme disease. Websites were included in this review, if they advertised a commercial, non-antimicrobial product or service that specifically mentioned utility for Lyme disease. Websites with patient testimonials (such as discussion groups) were excluded unless the testimonial appeared as marketing on a commercial site.

More than 30 different alternative treatments were identified. They fell into several broad categories: these included oxygen and reactive oxygen therapy; energy and radiation-based therapies; nutritional therapies; chelation and heavy metal therapies; and biological and pharmacological therapies ranging from certain medications without recognized therapeutic effects on Borrelia burgdorgeri to stem cell transplantation. The review of the medical literature did not substantiate efficacy or, in most cases, any rationale for the advertised treatments.

The authors concluded that providers of alternative therapies commonly target patients who believe they have Lyme disease. The efficacy of these unconventional treatments for Lyme disease is not supported by scientific evidence, and in many cases they are potentially harmful.

Being a bacterial infection, Lyme disease can be successfully treated with oral or intra-venous antibiotics. But, of course, patients need to have the infection in order to benefit from antibiotic treatment. Those patients who don’t are easy targets for charlatans promising help from bogus treatments. It seems that an entire, profitable industry has developed around this situation.

The task of UK Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) is to ensure NHS funds are spent as effectively and responsibly as possible. This is particularly important in the current financial climate, as NHS budgets are under enormous pressure. For that reason, The Good Thinking Society (GTS, a pro-science charity) invited Liverpool CCG to reconsider whether the money (~ £ 30,000 pa) they spend on homeopathy represents good service to the public. Recently the CCG agreed to make a fresh decision on this contentious issue.

The GTS would prefer to see limited NHS resources spent on evidence-based medicine rather than on continued funding of homeopathy which, as readers of this blog will know, has repeatedly failed to demonstrate that it is doing more good than harm. It is encouraging to see Liverpool CCG take a first step in the right direction by agreeing to properly consider the best evidence and expertise on this issue.

Supporters of homeopathy frequently cite the concept of patient choice and claim that, if patients want homeopathy, they should have it free on the NHS. The principle is obviously important, but it is crucial that this choice is an informed one. The best evidence has conclusively shown that homeopathy is not an effective treatment, and to continue to offer ineffective treatments under the guise of patient choice raises troubling questions about the important concept of informed choice, and indeed of informed consent as well as medical ethics.

The GTS were represented by Salima Budhani and Jamie Potter of Bindmans LLP. Salima said: “This case underlines the necessity of transparent and accountable decision making by the controllers of health budgets, particularly in the light of the current financial climate in the NHS. CCGs have legal obligations to properly consider relevant evidence, as well as the views of experts and residents, in deciding how precious NHS resources are to be spent. It is essential that commissioning decisions are rational and evidence-based. Liverpool CCG’s decision to reconsider its position on the funding of homeopathy in these circumstances is to be welcomed.

“Our client has also called upon the Secretary of State for Health to issue guidance on the funding of homeopathy on the NHS. Public statements by the Secretary of State indicate that he does not support ongoing funding, yet he has so far declined to ask NICE to do any work on this issue. The provision of such guidance would be of significant benefit to CCGs in justifying decisions to terminate funding.”

Commenting on their decision, a Liverpool CCG spokesperson said: “Liverpool CCG currently resources a small homeopathy contract to the value of £30,000 per year that benefits a small number of patients in the city who choose to access NHS homeopathy care and treatment services. The CCG has agreed with the Good Thinking Society to carry out further engagement with patients and the general public to inform our future commissioning intentions for this service.”

Over the last two decades, prescriptions fulfilled in community pharmacies for homeopathy on the NHS in England have fallen  by over 94% and homeopathic hospitals have seen their funding reallocated. This reduction indicates that the majority of doctors and commissioning bodies have acted responsibly by terminating funding for homeopathic treatments.

The GTS are currently fundraising in order to fund further legal challenges – donate now to support our campaign at justgiving.com/Good-Thinking-Society-Appeal/.

The Paleo diet is based on the evolutionary discordance hypothesis, according to which departures from the nutrition and activity patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors have contributed greatly and in specifically definable ways to the endemic chronic diseases of modern civilization. The assumption is that during the Paleolithic era — a period lasting around 2.5 million years that ended about 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and domestication of animals — humans evolved nutritional needs specific to the foods available at that time, and that the nutritional needs of modern humans remain best adapted to the diet of their Paleolithic ancestors. Today’s humans are said to be not well adapted to eating foods such as grain, legumes, and dairy, and in particular the high-calorie processed foods. Proponents claim that modern humans’ inability to properly metabolize these comparatively new types of food has led to modern-day problems such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. They furthermore claim that followers of the Paleolithic diet may enjoy a longer, healthier, more active life.

The Paleo Diet is alleged to work by two fundamental principles:

  •  Put the optimal nutrition into your body.
  •  Reduce or eliminate toxins and “interference”.

And what are the results, as claimed by those who promote (and profit from) the Paleo diet? The alleged benefits include:

  • Leaner, Stronger Muscles
  • Increased Energy
  • Significantly More Stamina
  • Clearer, Smoother Skin
  • Weight Loss Results
  • Better Performance and Recovery
  • Stronger Immune System
  • Enhanced Libido
  • Greater Mental Clarity
  • No More Hunger/Cravings
  • Thicker, Fuller Hair
  • Clear Eyes

Critics of the Paleo diet point towards abundant evidence that paleolithic humans did, in fact, eat grains and legumes. They also stress that humans are much more nutritionally flexible than previously thought, that the hypothesis that Paleolithic humans were genetically adapted to specific local diets is unproven, that the Paleolithic period was extremely long and saw a variety of forms of human settlement and subsistence in a wide variety of changing nutritional landscapes, and that currently very little is known for certain about what Paleolithic humans ate.

So, the theories behind the Paleo diet are flimsy and naïve; the most crucial question, however, is does it work?

Overall there is little solid evidence; unsurprisingly, some studies have shown that cardiovascular risk factors can be positively influenced, for instance, in patients with diabetes. But the more specific claims, like the ones above, are not supported by good clinical evidence.

It seems that, yet again, less than responsible entrepreneurs have jumped on a popular band-wagon to exploit the often hopelessly gullible public.

The Telegraph today reports that, despite relentless lobbying from the Prince of Wales, UK  herbalists will not, after all, be regulated by statute. Here are the most important statements from this article:

Prof David Walker, deputy chief medical officer, said he had taken the decision because there was insufficient evidence that the alternative therapy works, making it impossible to set standards of good practice. Three years ago ministers had pledged to bring in an official register of practitioners of herbal and Chinese medicines, which would see therapists regulated alongside other health workers, such as physiotherapists and speech therapists…But ministers blocked the proposals, instead setting up a new committee, led by the NHS deputy chief medical officer – which has now ruled against statutory regulation. The decision came despite lobbying from Prince Charles, a keen advocate of complementary medicines, and a supporter of regulation, who held a meeting with Jeremy Hunt in 2013 in which his concerns were raised…Prof Walker said that although most herbal practitioners were in favour of regulation, those opposed to it feared it would “confer an inappropriate level of legitimacy on herbal practice which was poorly supported by scientific evidence.” He said the decision to rule against regulation was “undoubtedly the most contentious area” addressed by the working party, which also looked at the safety of herbal medicine products. Instead, the report calls for a review of all ingredients sold in such medicines, to check their safety, with a “voluntary register” for practitioners who use them. It says there is too little evidence to show that herbal medicines improve health outcomes, making it “difficult to establish the boundaries of good practice” in regulating practitioners. It also says there is very little understanding of the risks posed to patients from current practices in herbal medicine…Prof Walker’s recommendation has triggered an immediate rift among the 26 members of his working party. Twelve members of the working party have written to Dr Dan Poulter, health minister, alleging that the decision will put the safety of the public at risk, because anyone will be able to promote themselves as an expert in herbal medicine, without any training. Research suggests around three million Britons a year consult herbal practitioners, operating in shops, online and in private clinics, with up to one in 12 of all adults using a herbal medicine at some stage. Michael McIntyre, chairman of the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association, said the decision not to regulate practitioners could put the public at risk from rogue operators, with no training. The herbal practitioner, who was a member of the DoH working party, said: “We are deeply disappointed by this. We feared this issue was going to be kicked into the long grass, by quietly putting something out just before the election – and that is exactly what has happened.” He said the public needed the reassurance of statutory regulation, to know that any herbal doctor who is practising had received some training. The association disputed claims there was insufficient evidence to show that herbal medicines worked, saying that several trials had shown its impact for a number of conditions, but that the sector had less money than the pharmaceutical industry had to undertake mass research. The report says that although ministers promised “some form of regulation of herbal practitioners” this only committed the working party to consider the options, and that the introduction of regulation would require the sector to be “more science and evidence-based”.

Perhaps I should first state that I was not involved in any way in this process. Furthermore, I must say that I do think it is the right decision. To understand it better, I need to refer to several previous posts: yes, some herbal medicines are demonstrably effective. But the regulation in question is NOT about herbal medicines; it is about herbal practitioners, and the two are not necessarily related. UK herbal practitioners practice within a range of  traditions including traditional European herbalism, TCM, or other schools of thought. They differ vastly but have one characteristic in common: they individualise their prescriptions according to the specific characteristics of the patient. Thus they would rarely prescribe the evidence-based herbal medicines but mix up prescriptions composed of several herbal ingredients. The problems with this approach are numerous:

  • there is no good evidence that this approach of individualised herbalism is effective;
  • the safety of the herbs used by traditional herbalists is often unknown;
  • traditional herbalists tend to use obsolete diagnostic techniques, false-positive and false-negative diagnoses are thus inevitable;
  • some of the herbal mixtures have been shown to be contaminated with toxic ingredients;
  • some mixtures are adulterated with powerful prescription drugs;
  • the herbal ingredients could interact with each other in an unpredictable manner;
  • the herbal mixtures might interact with prescribed drugs.

The long and short of it is that nobody knows whether the treatments of traditional herbalists generate more good than harm. Regulating these professions by statute would merely give them a level of credibility that they do not deserve. As with the regulation of chiropractors or osteopaths in the UK, the regulation of herbalists would simply misled the public about the value of traditional herbalism, and it most likely would have prompted the herbalists to happily rest on their assumed merits claiming that their effectiveness and safety has been officially acknowledged and is therefore no longer in doubt.

In a nutshell: THE ‘PROPER’ REGULATION OF NONSENSE GENERATES PROPER NONSENSE

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