MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

conflict of interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you believe herbalists, the Daily Mail or similarly reliable sources, you come to the conclusion that herbal medicines are entirely safe – after all they are natural, and everything that is natural must be safe. However, there is plenty of evidence that these assumptions are not necessarily correct. In fact, herbal medicines can cause harm in diverse ways, e. g. because:

  • one or more ingredients of a plant are toxic,
  • they interact with prescribed drugs,
  • they are contaminated, for instance, with heavy metals,
  • they are adulterated with prescription drugs.

There is no shortage of evidence for any of these 4 scenarios. Here are some very recent and relevant publications:

German authors reviewed recent case reports and case series that provided evidence for herbal hepatotoxicity caused by Chinese herbal mixtures. The implicated remedies were the TCM products Ban Tu Wan, Chai Hu, Du Huo, Huang Qin, Jia Wei Xia Yao San, Jiguja, Kamishoyosan, Long Dan Xie Gan Tang, Lu Cha, Polygonum multiflorum products, Shan Chi, ‘White flood’ containing the herbal TCM Wu Zhu Yu and Qian Ceng Ta, and Xiao Chai Hu Tang. the authors concluded that stringent evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio is essential to protect traditional Chinese medicines users from health hazards including liver injury.

A recent review of Nigerian anti-diabetic herbal remedies suggested hypoglycemic effect of over 100 plants. One-third of them have been studied for their mechanism of action, while isolation of the bioactive constituent(s) has been accomplished for 23 plants. Several plants showed specific organ toxicity, mostly nephrotoxic or hepatotoxic, with direct effects on the levels of some liver function enzymes. Twenty-eight plants have been identified as in vitro modulators of P-glycoprotein and/or one or more of the cytochrome P450 enzymes, while eleven plants altered the levels of phase 2 metabolic enzymes, chiefly glutathione, with the potential to alter the pharmacokinetics of co-administered drugs

US authors published a case of a 44-year-old female who developed subacute liver injury demonstrated on a CT scan and liver biopsy within a month of using black cohosh to resolve her hot flashes. Since the patient was not taking any other drugs, they concluded that the acute liver injury was caused by the use of black cohosh. The authors concluded: we agree with the United States Pharmacopeia recommendations that a cautionary warning about hepatotoxicity should be labeled on the drug package.

Hong Kong toxicologists recently reported five cases of poisoning occurring as a result of inappropriate use of herbs in recipes or general herbal formulae acquired from books. Aconite poisoning due to overdose or inadequate processing accounted for three cases. The other two cases involved the use of herbs containing Strychnos alkaloids and Sophora alkaloids. These cases demonstrated that inappropriate use of Chinese medicine can result in major morbidity, and herbal formulae and recipes containing herbs available in general publications are not always safe.

Finally, Australian emergency doctors just published this case-report: A woman aged 34 years presented to hospital with a history of progressive shortness of breath, palpitations, decreased exercise tolerance and generalised arthralgia over the previous month. A full blood count revealed normochromic normocytic anaemia and a haemoglobin level of 66 g/L. The blood film showed basophilic stippling, prompting measurement of lead levels. Her blood lead level (BLL) was 105 µg/dL. Mercury and arsenic levels were also detected at very low levels. On further questioning, the patient reported that in the past 6 months she had ingested multiple herbal preparations supplied by an overseas Ayurvedic practitioner for enhancement of fertility. She was taking up to 12 different tablets and various pastes and powders daily. Her case was reported to public health authorities and the herbal preparations were sent for analytical testing. Analysis confirmed high levels of lead (4% w/w), mercury (12% w/w), arsenic and chromium. The lead levels were 4000 times the maximum allowable lead level in medications sold or produced in Australia. Following cessation of the herbal preparations, the patient was commenced on oral chelation therapy, iron supplementation and contraception. A 3-week course of oral DMSA (2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid) was well tolerated; BLL was reduced to 13 µg/dL and haemoglobin increased to 99 g/L. Her symptoms improved over the subsequent 3 months and she remains hopeful about becoming pregnant.

So, how safe are herbal medicines? Unfortunately, the question is unanswerable. Some herbal medicines are quite safe, others are not. But always remember: whenever you administer a treatment you should ask yourself one absolutely crucial question: do the documented benefits outweigh the risks? There are several thousand different herbal medicines, and for less than a dozen of them can the honest answer to this question be YES.

When someone has completed a scientific project, it is customary to publish it ['unpublished science is no science', someone once told me many years ago]. To do so, he needs to write it up and submit it to a scientific journal. The editor of this journal will then submit it to a process called ‘peer review’.

What does ‘peer review’ entail? Well, it means that 2-3 experts are asked to critically assess the paper in question, make suggestions as to how it can be improved and submit a recommendation as to whether or not the article deserves to be published.

Peer review has many pitfalls but, so far, nobody has come up with a solution that is convincingly better. Many scientists are under pressure to publish ['publish or perish'], and therefore some people resort to cheating. A most spectacular case of fraudulent peer review has been reported recently in this press release:

SAGE statement on Journal of Vibration and Control

London, UK (08 July 2014) – SAGE announces the retraction of 60 articles implicated in a peer review and citation ring at the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC). The full extent of the peer review ring has been uncovered following a 14 month SAGE-led investigation, and centres on the strongly suspected misconduct of Peter Chen, formerly of National Pingtung University of Education, Taiwan (NPUE) and possibly other authors at this institution.

In 2013 the then Editor-in-Chief of JVC, Professor Ali H. Nayfeh,and SAGE became aware of a potential peer review ring involving assumed and fabricated identities used to manipulate the online submission system SAGE Track powered by ScholarOne Manuscripts™. Immediate action was taken to prevent JVC from being exploited further, and a complex investigation throughout 2013 and 2014 was undertaken with the full cooperation of Professor Nayfeh and subsequently NPUE.

In total 60 articles have been retracted from JVC after evidence led to at least one author or reviewer being implicated in the peer review ring. Now that the investigation is complete, and the authors have been notified of the findings, we are in a position to make this statement.

While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

Unbelievable? Perhaps, but sadly it is true; some scientists seem to be criminally ingenious when it comes to getting their dodgy articles into peer-reviewed journals.

And what does this have to do with ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, you may well ask. The Journal of Vibration and Control is not even medical and certainly would never consider publishing articles on alternative medicine. Such papers go to one of the many [I estimate more that 1000] journals that cover either alternative medicine in general or any of the modalities that fall under this wide umbrella. Most of these journals, of course, pride themselves with being peer-reviewed – and, at least nominally, that is correct.

I have been on the editorial board of most of the more important journals in alternative medicine, and I cannot help thinking that their peer review process is not all that dissimilar from the fraudulent scheme set up by Peter Chen and disclosed above. What happens in alternative medicine is roughly as follows:

  • a researcher submits a paper for publication,
  • the editor sends it out for peer review,
  • the peer reviewers are either those suggested by the original author or members of the editorial board of the journal,
  • in either case, the reviewers are more than likely to be uncritical and recommend publication,
  • in the end, peer review turns out to be a farcical window dressing exercise with no consequence,
  • thus even very poor research and pseudo-research are being published abundantly.

The editorial boards of journals of alternative medicine tend to be devoid of experts who are critical about the subject at hand. If you think that I am exaggerating, have a look at the editorial board members of ‘HOMEOPATHY’ (or any other journal of alternative medicine) and tell me who might qualify as a critic of homeopathy. When the editor, Peter Fisher, recently fired me from his board because he felt I had tarnished the image of homeopathy, this panel lost the only person who understood the subject matter and, at the same time, was critical about it (the fact that the website still lists me as an editorial board member is merely a reflection of how slow things are in the world of homeopathy: Fisher fired me more than a year ago).

The point I am trying to make is simple: peer review is never a perfect method but when it is set up to be deliberately uncritical, it cannot possibly fulfil its function to prevent the publication of dodgy research. In this case, the quality of the science will be inadequate and generate false-positive messages that mislead the public.

Times are hard, also in the strange world of chiropractic, I guess. What is therefore more understandable than the attempt of chiropractors to earn a bit of money from people who want to lose weight? If just some of the millions of obese individuals could be fooled into believing that chiropractic is the solution for their problem, chiropractors across the world could be laughing all the way to the bank.

But how does one get to this point? Easy: one only needs to produce some evidence suggesting that chiropractic care is effective in reducing body weight. An extreme option is the advice by one chiropractor to take 10 drops of a homeopathic human chorionic gonadotropin product under the tongue 5 times daily. But, for many chiropractors, this might be one step too far. It would be preferable to show that their hallmark therapy, spinal adjustment, leads to weight loss.

With this in mind, a team of chiropractors performed a retrospective file analysis of patient files attending their 13-week weight loss program. The program consisted of “chiropractic adjustments/spinal manipulative therapy augmented with diet/nutritional intervention, exercise and one-on-one counselling.”

Sixteen of 30 people enrolled completed the program. At its conclusion, statistically and clinically significant changes were noted in weight and BMI measures based on pre-treatment (average weight = 190.46 lbs. and BMI = 30.94 kg/m(2)) and comparative measurements (average weight = 174.94 lbs. and BMI = 28.50 kg/m(2)).

According to the authors of this paper, “this provides supporting evidence on the effectiveness of a multi-modal approach to weight loss implemented in a chiropractic clinic.”

They do not say so, but we all know it, of course: one could just as well combine knitting or crossword puzzles with diet/nutritional intervention, exercise and one-on-one counselling to create a multi-modal program for weight loss showing that knitting or crossword puzzles are effective.

With this paper, chiropractors are not far from their aim of being able to mislead the public by claiming that CHIROPRACTIC CARE IS A NATURAL, SAFE, DRUG-FREE AND EFFECTIVE OPTION IN THE MANAGEMENT OF OBESITY.

Am I exaggerating? No, of course not. There must be thousands of chiropractors who have already jumped on the ‘weight loss band-waggon’. If you don’t believe me, go on the Internet and have a look for yourself. One of the worst sites I have seen might be ‘DOCTORS GOLDMINE’ (yes, most chiropractors call themselves ‘doctor these days!) where a chiropractor promises his colleagues up to $100 000 per month extra income, if they subscribe to his wonderful weight-loss scheme.

It would be nice to be able to believe those who insist that these money-grabbing chiropractors are but a few rotten apples in a vast basket of honest practitioners. But I have problems with this argument – there seem to be far too many rotten apples and virtually no activity or even ambition to get rid of them.

Dr. Oz, famous through his TV show promoting all types of quackery, recently testified before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on protecting consumers from false and deceptive advertising of weight loss products. This event turned out to be less than flattering for Dr Oz. One journalist commented that he “might as well be a cowardly lion — sent home with his tail between his legs after being accused at a congressional hearing of lying on his show about weight-loss claims.”

“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff, because you know it’s not true,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, who led the commerce subcommittee hearing. “The scientific community is almost monolithically against you in terms of the efficacy of the products you called ‘miracles,’ ” the Democratic senator from Missouri told Oz. “It’s a major problem when people are spending more and more money and they’re gaining more and more weight,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar.“Either you don’t talk about these things at all, or you’re going to have to be more specific because right now . . . this is not working.”

A source close to Dr Oz said he was perplexed: “We were invited down to Washington to testify at a hearing about scams and instead it became all about how much we hate your show.” Oz himself testified that he “heard the message…I do personally believe in the items that I talk about.”

“I intensively study them. I have given my family these products. . . . If you can lose a pound a week more than you would have lost by using them, it jump-starts you and gets you going. I think it makes sense.” “I’m surprised you’re defending this,” McCaskill replied. “It’s something that gives people false hope. I don’t see why you need to go there.”

Another journalist commented that the Senators repeatedly placed him on the defense over his weight loss products: “I know you know how much power you have. I know you know that. You are very powerful and [with] power comes a great deal of responsibility,” Senator Claire McCaskill , who led the Senate’s consumer protection hearing titled “Protecting Consumers from False and Deceptive Advertising of Weight-Loss Products…You are being made an example of today because of the power you have in this space…We didn’t call this hearing to beat up on you but we did call this hearing to talk about a real crisis in consumer protection. You can either be part of the police here or you can be part of the problem.”

Oz insisted he was no huckster but admitted the products promoted on his show don’t always have “the scientific muster” to present their benefits as “fact…I actually do personally believe in the items that I talk about in the show. I passionately studied them. I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact but nevertheless I would give my audience the advice I give my family all the time. And I have given my family these products,” he said.

Dr Oz also said that some alternative treatments, such as prayer, cannot be tested scientifically. “I don’t think this ought to be a referendum on the use of alternative medical therapies. Because if that’s the case, listen, I’ve been criticized for having folks coming on my show talking about the power of prayer,” he said. “I can’t prove that prayer helps people survive an illness.”

No, Dr Oz! I know you are mistaken! I have done the research – both on alternative slimming aids and on spiritual healing. The results quite clearly show that these methods are not more effective than a placebo.

In the early 1920s, a French physician thought he had discovered the virus that caused the Spanish flu. It oscillated under his microscope, and he thus called it oscillococcus. Not only did it cause the flu, in the opinion of his discoverer, but it was also responsible for a whole host of other diseases, including cancer. In fact, the virus does not exist, or at least nobody ever confirmed it existed, but that fact did not stop our good doctor to make a homeopathic remedy from it which he thought would cure all these diseases. His remedy, Oscillococcinum, is made from the liver and heart of a duck because the imaginative inventor believed that the fictitious virus was present in these organs of this animal.

To understand all this fully, one needs to know that the duck organs are so highly diluted that no molecule of the duck is present in the remedy. It is sold in the C200 potency. This means that one part of organ extract is diluted 1: 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 (a note to Boiron’s legal team: I had a hell of a time getting all these zeros right; in case, I got it wrong after all, it is an honest error – please do not sue me for it!). The dilution is so extreme that it amounts to a single molecule per a multitude of universes.

Given these facts it seems unlikely that the remedy has any effects on human health which go beyond those of a placebo. Let’s see what the current Cochrane review says about its effectiveness: There is insufficient good evidence to enable robust conclusions to be made about Oscillococcinum(®) in the prevention or treatment of influenza and influenza-like illness. Our findings do not rule out the possibility that Oscillococcinum(®) could have a clinically useful treatment effect but, given the low quality of the eligible studies, the evidence is not compelling. There was no evidence of clinically important harms due to Oscillococcinum(®).

Considering that the first author of this review works for the British Homeopathic Association and the senior author is the homeopath of the Queen, this seems a pretty clear statement, don’t you think?

Regardless of the scientific evidence, Oscillococcinum made of ‘Anas Barbariae Hepatis et Cordis Extractum‘, as it is officially called, became a homeopathic best-seller. In the US alone Boiron, the manufacturer, is said to sell US$ 15 m per year of this product. Not only that, in France, where the remedy is a popular medicine sold in virtually all pharmacies and often recommended as soon as you walk into a pharmacy, it is hard to find anyone who does not swear by the ‘potentized‘ duck or is willing to discuss its merits critically.

The amazing duck, it seems, has turned into a ‘holy cow’.

If we search on ‘Medline’ for ‘complementary alternative medicine’ (CAM), we currently get about 13000 hits. A little graph on the side of the page demonstrates that, during the last 4 years, the number of articles on this subject has grown exponentially.

Surely, this must be very good news: such intense research activity will soon tell us exactly which alternative treatments work for which conditions and which don’t.

I beg to differ. Let me explain why.

The same ‘Medline’ search informs us that the majority of the recent articles were published in an open access journal called ‘Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ (eCAM). For example, of the 80 most recent articles listed in Medline (on 26/5/2014), 53 came from that journal. The publication frequency of eCAM and its increase in recent years beggars belief: in 2011, they published just over 500 articles which is already a high number, but, in 2012, the figure had risen to >800, and in 2013 it was >1300 (the equivalent 2013 figure for the BMJ/BMJ Open by comparison is 4, and that for another alt med journal, e.g. Forsch Komplement, is 10)

How do they do it? How can eCAM be so dominant in publishing alt med research? The trick seems to be fairly simple.

Let’s assume you are an alt med researcher and you have an article that you would like to see published. Once you submit it to eCAM, your paper is sent to one of the ~150 members of the editorial board. These people are almost all strong proponents of alternative medicine; critics are a true rarity in this group. At this stage, you are able to suggest the peer reviewers for your submission (all who ever accepted this task are listed on the website; they amount to several thousand!), and it seems that, with the vast majority of submissions, the authors’ suggestions are being followed.

It goes without saying that most researchers suggest colleagues for peer reviewing who are not going to reject their work (the motto seems to be “if you pass my paper, I will pass yours). Therefore even faily flimsy bits of research pass this peer review process and get quickly published online in eCAM.

This process explains a lot, I think: 1) the extraordinarily high number of articles published 2) why currently more than 50% of all alt med research originate from eCAM 3) why so much of it is utter rubbish.

Even the mere titles of some of the articles might demonstrate my point. A few examples have to suffice:

  • Color distribution differences in the tongue in sleep disorder
  • Wen-dan decoction improves negative emotions in sleep-deprived rats by regulating orexin-a and leptin expression.
  • Yiqi Huoxue Recipe Improves Heart Function through Inhibiting Apoptosis Related to Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress in Myocardial Infarction Model of Rats.
  • Protective Effects of Bu-Shen-Huo-Xue Formula against 5/6 Nephrectomy-Induced Chronic Renal Failure in Rats
  • Effects and Mechanisms of Complementary and Alternative Medicine during the Reproductive Process
  • Evidence-based medicinal plants for modern chronic diseases
  • Transforming Pain into Beauty: On Art, Healing, and Care for the Spirit

This system of uncritical peer review and fast online publication seems to suit many of the people involved in this process: the journal’s owners are laughing all the way to the bank; there is a publication charge of US$ 2000 per article, and, in 2013, the income of eCAM must therefore have been well over US$2 000 000. The researchers are equally delighted; they get even their flimsiest papers published (remember: ‘publish or perish’!). And the evangelic believers in alternative medicine are pleased because they can now claim that their field is highly research-active and that there is plenty of evidence to support the use of this or that therapy.

But there are others who are not served well by eCAM habit of publishing irrelevant, low quality articles:

  • professionals who would like to advance health care and want to see reliable evidence as to which treatments work and which don’t,
  • the public who, in one way or another, pay for all this and might assume that published research tends to be relevant and reliable,
  • the patients who have given their time to researchers in the hope that their gift will improve health care,
  • ill individuals who hope that alternative treatments might relieve their suffering,
  • politicians who rely on research to be reliable in order to arrive at the right decisions.

Come to think of it, the vast majority of people should be less than enchanted with eCAM and similar journals.

Boiron is the world’s biggest producer of homeopathic remedies. It also is a firm that is relatively active in research into homeopathy. Here is one of their investigations which I find most remarkable.

This study was designed to describe the sociodemographic and clinical characteristics of patients recommended allopathic and/or homeopathic medicines for influenza-like illness (ILI) or ear nose and throat ENT disorders by pharmacists in France and to investigate the effectiveness of these treatments.

The introduction of the article includes interesting information; it informs us that, although homeopathy is more popular in Europe than in the Unites States, sales of homeopathic medicines in the United States grew by more than 1,000% in the late 1970s and early 1980s and continue to grow. In parallel, the number of physicians specializing in homeopathy doubled between 1980 and 1982. In 2003, sales of homeopathic medicines in the United States were estimated to be between $300 and $450 million, with an average growth rate of approximately 8% per year. Homeopathic drugs are among the top 10 nonprescription products sold in the category of analgesics to treat coughs, colds, and flu. The sale of homeopathic medicines in the United States is controlled by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and regulations issued by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Homeopathic medicines in the United States are subject to well-controlled regulatory processes that closely resemble those used for allopathic medicines. FDA regulations for the sale of homeopathic medicines in the United States state that they can only be sold without prescription if they are for self-limiting conditions such as the common cold…

Am I mistaken, or does that paragraph read a bit like a text written by the marketing team of Boiron wanting to establish their products in the US?

Anyway, the methodology and results of the study are described in the abstract as follows:

A prospective, observational, multicenter study was carried out in randomly selected pharmacies across the 8 IDREM medical regions of France. Pharmacies that agreed to participate recruited male or female patients who responded to the following inclusion criteria: age ≥ 12 years presenting with the first symptoms of an ILI or ENT disorder that were 
present for less than 36 hours prior to the pharmacy visit. All medicines recorded in the study were recommended by the pharmacists. The following data were recorded at inclusion and after 3 days of treatment: the intensity of 13 symptoms, global symptom score, and disease impact on daily activities and sleep. Two groups of patients were compared: those recommended allopathic medicine only (AT group) and those recommended homeopathic medicine with or without allopathic medicine (HAT group). The number and severity of symptoms, change in global symptom score, and disease impact on daily activities and sleep were compared in the 2 treatment groups after 3 days of treatment. Independent predictors of recommendations for homeopathic medicine were identified by multi-
factorial logistic regression analysis.

A total of 242 pharmacies out of 4,809 (5.0%) contacted agreed to participate in the study, and 133 (2.8%) included at least 1 patient; 573 patients were analyzed (mean age: 42.5 ± 16.2 years; 61.9% female). Of these, 428 received allopathic medicines only (74.7%; AT group), and 145 (25.3%) received homeopathic medicines (HAT group) alone (9/145, 1.6%) or associated with allopathy (136/145, 23.7%). At inclusion, HAT patients were significantly younger (39.6 ± 14.8 vs. 43.4 ± 16.1 years; P  less than  0.05), had a higher mean number of symptoms (5.2 ± 2.5 vs. 4.4 ± 2.5; P  less than  0.01), and more severe symptoms (mean global symptom score: 24.3 ± 5.5 vs. 22.3 ± 5.8; P = 0.0019) than AT patients. After 3 days, the improvement in symptoms and disease impact on daily activities and sleep was comparable in both groups of patients.

From these findings, the authors draw the following conclusions: Patients recommended homeopathic medicine by pharmacists were younger and had more severe symptoms than those recommended allopathic medicine. After 3 days of treatment, clinical improvement was comparable in both treatment groups. Pharmacists have an important role to play in the effective management of ILI and ENT disorders.

And, to make perfectly clear what all this is about, the first sentence of the ‘discussion’ puts it to the point by stating that homeopathic medicine, with or without allopathic medicine, appears to be effective at alleviating the symptoms of ILI or ENT disorders.

Oh really?

As I have heard it said that Boiron seems to have the nasty habit of threatening their critics with legal action, I ought to be quite cautious in my assessment of this ‘masterpiece of promotion’. Yet a few comments must surely be permitted.

‘To describe the sociodemographic and clinical characteristics of patients recommended allopathic and/or homeopathic medicines’ is not what I personally find an interesting subject of research, nor is it anything that will affect health care meaningfully, I think. Yet ‘to investigate the effectiveness of these treatments’ is certainly interesting and important. I will therefore focus on this second aim of the study.

Hold on, was this really a ‘study’? On closer inspection, it seemed much more like a survey. People who felt that they were suffering from ILI and ENT disorders and thus went to a pharmacy to buy something for their problem were offered either homeopathic or conventional medicines. Those who accepted either of the recommendations were asked to fill out some self-assessment forms and received a phone call three days later to check their symptoms. 94% of all patients in the homeopathy group took homeopathic medicine in combination with ‘allopathic’ medicine (it is interesting, perhaps even telling, that this term used by the authors was invented by Hahnemann as an insult to conventional medicine!). There was no examination by a doctor to verify what condition the survey-participants were truly suffering from, and there was no verification that the information provided during the follow-up telephone call was in any way real. The most frequently recommended homeopathic medicine was Anas barbariae 200C (Oscillococcinum) which is Boiron’s famous homeopathically diluted (about one molecule per universe, I guess) duck-liver heavily promoted in France against colds and similar conditions.

As it turns out, those survey-participants who accepted the homeopathic recommendation were significantly younger than those who accepted the recommendation for a conventional treatment (many surveys confirm that younger people are more prone to trying alternative medicine than older ones). It stands to reason, that the younger (and therefore fitter) patients were in better general health and therefore might recover quicker than the older ones. But, in fact, they did not!

Could this be due to the homeopathic remedies actually delaying recovery? Of course not! Who would be silly enough to claim that homeopathy could have this (or any other) effect? According to the authors, it is due to the fact that this group ‘had more severe symptoms than those recommended allopathic medicine’. But, as I said, we have to take their word for it; there is no independent verification of this. It would, of course, be quite ridiculous to postulate that those survey-participants accepting homeopathy were also a little more introspective or concerned about their own health (perhaps even more gullible) and thus claimed more severe symptoms!

And what about the authors’ conclusion that clinical improvement was comparable in both treatment groups? Well, this is more than a little problematic, in my view: first, we have no independent verification of the ‘improvement’ in either group. Second, we don’t know that the conventional treatments actually worked, and it could well be that both approaches were similarly ineffective, and that the observed outcomes are merely a reflection of the natural history of the condition. And third, one might expect the homeopathic (younger) group to do not similarly well but slightly better, simply because the natural history of the illness would tend to be more benign in younger people.

Before I finish,I should make a brief comment about the authors’ courageous statement that  homeopathic medicine, with or without allopathic medicine, appears to be effective at alleviating the symptoms of ILI or ENT disorders. I think, for the reasons I already provided, this is extremely doubtful. In my view, more critical scientists would have phrased the conclusions differently:

THIS SURVEY SHOWS THAT EVALUATING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF MEDICAL INTERVENTIONS REQUIRES A MORE RIGOROUS METHODOLOGY THAN THAT OF A SURVEY.

But perhaps this would be asking a little too much of the authors; after all, at the end of the article, we find this telling footnote: Laboratoires Boiron provided financial support for the study. Cognet-Dementhon, Thevenard, Duru, and Allaert received consulting fees from Laboratoires Boiron for this study. Danno and Bordet are employees of Laboratoires Boiron.

The question whether infant colic can be effectively treated with manipulative therapies might seem rather trivial – after all, this is a benign condition which the infant quickly grows out of. However, the issue becomes a little more tricky, if we consider that it was one of the 6 paediatric illnesses which were at the centre of the famous libel case of the BCA against my friend and co-author Simon Singh. At the time, Simon had claimed that there was ‘not a jot of evidence’ for claiming that chiropractic was an effective treatment of infant colic, and my systematic review of the evidence strongly supported his statement. The BCA eventually lost their libel case and with it the reputation of chiropractic. Now a new article on this intriguing topic has become available; do we have to reverse our judgements?

The aim of this new systematic review was to evaluate the efficacy or effectiveness of manipulative therapies for infantile colic. Six RCTs of chiropractic, osteopathy or cranial osteopathy alone or in conjunction with other interventions were included with a total of 325 infants. Of the 6 included studies, 5 were “suggestive of a beneficial effect” and one found no evidence of benefit. Combining all the RCTs suggested that manipulative therapies had a significant effect. The average crying time was reduced by an average of 72 minutes per day. This effect was sustained for studies with a low risk of selection bias and attrition bias. When analysing only those studies with a low risk of performance bias (i.e. parental blinding) the improvement in daily crying hours was no longer statistically significant.

The quality of the studies was variable. There was a generally low risk of selection bias but a high risk of performance bias. Only one of the studies recorded adverse events and none were encountered.

From these data, the authors drew the following conclusion: Parents of infants receiving manipulative therapies reported fewer hours crying per day than parents whose infants did not and this difference was statistically significant. Most studies had a high risk of performance bias due to the fact that the assessors (parents) were not blind to who had received the intervention. When combining only those trials with a low risk of such performance bias the results did not reach statistical significance.

Does that mean that chiropractic does work for infant colic? No, it does not!

The first thing to point out is that the new systematic review included not just RCTs of chiropractic but also osteopathy and cranio-sacral therapy.

The second important issue is that the effects disappear, once performance bias is being accounted for which clearly shows that the result is false positive.

The third relevant fact is that the majority of the RCTs were of poor quality. The methodologically best studies were negative.

And the fourth thing to note is that only one study mentioned adverse effects, which means that the other 5 trials were in breach of one of rather elementary research ethics.

What makes all of this even more fascinating is the fact that the senior author of the new publication, George Lewith, is the very expert who advised the BCA in their libel case against Simon Singh. He seems so fond of his work that he even decided to re-publish it using even more misleading language than before. It is, of course, far from me to suggest that his review was an attempt to white-wash the issue of chiropractic ‘bogus’ claims. However, based on the available evidence, I would have formulated conclusions which are more than just a little different from his; something like this perhaps:

The current best evidence suggests that the small effects that emerge when we pool the data from mostly unreliable studies are due to bias and therefore not real. This systematic review therefore fails to show that manipulative therapies are effective. It furthermore points to a serious breach of research ethics by the majority of researchers in this field.

Imagine an area of therapeutics where 100% of all findings of hypothesis-testing research is positive, i.e. comes to the conclusion that the treatment in question is effective. Theoretically, this could mean that the therapy is a miracle cure which is useful for every single condition in every single setting. But sadly, there are no miracle cures. Therefore something must be badly and worryingly amiss with the research in an area that generates 100% positive results.

Acupuncture is such an area; we and others have shown that Chinese trials of acupuncture hardly ever produce a negative finding. In other words, one does not need to read the paper, one already knows that it is positive – even more extreme: one does not need to conduct the study, one already knows the result before the research has started. But you might not believe my research nor that of others. We might be chauvinist bastards who want to discredit Chinese science. In this case, you might perhaps believe Chinese researchers.

In this systematic review, all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture published in Chinese journals were identified by a team of Chinese scientists. A total of 840 RCTs were found, including 727 RCTs comparing acupuncture with conventional treatment, 51 RCTs with no treatment controls, and 62 RCTs with sham-acupuncture controls. Among theses 840 RCTs, 838 studies (99.8%) reported positive results from primary outcomes and two trials (0.2%) reported negative results. The percentages of RCTs concealment of the information on withdraws or sample size calculations were 43.7%, 5.9%, 4.9%, 9.9%, and 1.7% respectively.

The authors concluded that publication bias might be major issue in RCTs on acupuncture published in Chinese journals reported, which is related to high risk of bias. We suggest that all trials should be prospectively registered in international trial registry in future.

I applaud the authors’ courageous efforts to conduct this analysis, but I do not agree with their conclusion. The question why all Chinese acupuncture trials are positive has puzzled me since many years, and I have quizzed numerous Chinese colleagues why this might be so. The answer I received was uniformly that it would be very offensive for Chinese researchers to conceive a study that does not confirm the views held by their peers. In other words, acupuncture research in China is conducted to confirm the prior assumption that this treatment is effective. It seems obvious that this is an abuse of science which must cause confusion.

Whatever the reasons for the phenomenon, and we can only speculate about them, the fact has been independently confirmed several times and is now quite undeniable: acupuncture trials from China – and these constitute the majority of the evidence-base in this area – cannot be trusted. The only way to adequately deal with this problem that I can think of is to discard them outright.

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