MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

conflict of interest

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On this blog, we have discussed the Alexander Technique before; it is an educational method promoted for all sorts of conditions, including neck pain. The very first website I found when googling it stated the following: “Back and neck pain can be caused by poor posture.  Alexander Technique lessons help you to understand how to improve your posture throughout your daily activities.  Many people, even those with herniated disc or pinched nerve, experience relief after one lesson, often permanent relief after five or ten lessons.”

Sounds too good to be true? Is there any good evidence?

The aim of this study, a randomized controlled trial with 3 parallel groups, was to test the efficacy of the Alexander Technique, local heat and guided imagery on pain and quality of life in patients with chronic non-specific neck pain. A total of 72 patients (65 females, 40.7±7.9 years) with chronic, non-specific neck pain were recruited. They received 5 sessions of the Alexander Technique, while the control groups were treated with local heat application or guided imagery. All interventions were conducted once a week for 45 minutes each.

The primary outcome measure at week 5 was neck pain intensity quantified on a 100-mm visual analogue scale; secondary outcomes included neck disability, quality of life, satisfaction and safety. The results show no group differences for pain intensity for the Alexander Technique compared to local heat. An exploratory analysis revealed the superiority of the Alexander Technique over guided imagery. Significant group differences in favor of the Alexander Technique were also found for physical quality of life. Adverse events were mild and mainly included slightly increased pain and muscle soreness.

The authors concluded that Alexander Technique was not superior to local heat application in treating chronic non-specific neck pain. It cannot be recommended as routine intervention at this time. Further trials are warranted for conclusive judgment.

I am impressed with these conclusions: this is how results should be interpreted. The primary outcome measure failed to yield a significant effect, and therefore such a negative conclusion is  the only one that can be justified. Yet such clear words are an extreme rarity in the realm of alternative medicine. Most researchers in this area would, in my experience, have highlighted the little glimpses of the possibility of a positive effect and concluded that this therapeutic approach may be well worth a try.

In my view, this article is a fine example for demonstrating the difference between true scientists (who aim at testing the effectiveness of interventions) and pseudo-scientists (who aim at promoting their pet therapy). I applaud the authors of this paper!

Many experts have argued that the growing popularity of alternative medicine (AM) mandates their implementation into formal undergraduate medical education. Most medical students seem to feel a need to learn about AM. Yet little is known about the student-specific need for AM education. The objective of this paper was address this issue, specifically the authors wanted to assess the self-reported need for AM education among Australian medical students.

Thirty second-year to final-year medical students participated in semi-structured interviews. A constructivist grounded theory methodological approach was used to generate, construct and analyse the data.

The results show that these medical students generally held favourable attitudes toward AM but had knowledge deficits and did not feel adept at counselling patients about AMs. All students were supportive of integrating AM into education, noting its importance in relation to the doctor-patient encounter, specifically with regard to interactions with medical management. Students recognised the need to be able to effectively communicate about AMs and advise patients regarding safe and effective AM use.

The authors of this survey concluded that Australian medical students expressed interest in, and the need for, AM education in medical education regardless of their opinion of it, and were supportive of evidence-based AMs being part of their armamentarium. However, current levels of AM education in medical schools do not adequately enable this. This level of receptivity suggests the need for AM education with firm recommendations and competencies to assist AM education development required. Identifying this need may help medical educators to respond more effectively.

One might object to such wide-reaching conclusions based on a sample size of just 30. However, there are several similar surveys from other parts of the world which seem to paint a similar picture: most medical students clearly do want to learn about AM. But this issue raises several important questions:

  • How can this be squeezed into the already over-full curriculum?
  • Should students learn about AM or should they learn how to practice AM?
  • Who should teach this subject?

In my view, students should learn the essentials about AM but not how to do this or that therapy. Most deans of medical schools seem to agree with me on that particular point.

The question as to who should teach students about AM is, however, much more contentious. Most conventional medical instructors have no interest in and/or no knowledge of the subject. Consequently, there is a tendency for medical schools to delegate AM by hiring a few alternative practitioners to cover AM. Thus we see homeopaths teaching medical students all (well, almost all) about homeopathy, acupuncturists teaching acupuncture, herbalists teaching herbal medicine etc. To many observers, this might sound right and reasonable – but I beg to differ resolutely.

Most alternative practitioners who I have met (and these were many over the last 20 years) are clearly not capable of teaching their own subject in a way that befits a medical school. They have little or no idea about the nature of scientific evidence and usually lack the slightest hint of critical analysis. Thus a homeopaths might teach homeopathy such that students get the impression that it is well grounded in evidence, for instance. Students who have been taught in this fashion are not likely to advise their future patients responsibly on the subject in question: THE TEACHING OF NONSENSE IS BOUND TO RESULT IN NONSENSICAL PRACTICE!

In my view, AM is an ideal subject to acquaint medical students with the concepts of critical thinking. In this respect, it offers an almost opportunity for medical schools to develop much-needed skills in their students. Sadly, however, this is not what is currently happening. All too often, medical school deans find themselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. In the end, they tend to delegate the subject of AM to people who are not competent and should not be let loose on impressionable students.

I fear that progress and care of future patients are bound to suffer.

 

Distant healing is one of the most bizarre yet popular forms of alternative medicine. Healers claim they can transmit ‘healing energy’ towards patients to enable them to heal themselves. There have been many trials testing the effectiveness of the method, and the general consensus amongst critical thinkers is that all variations of ‘energy healing’ rely entirely on a placebo response. A recent and widely publicised paper seems to challenge this view.

This article has, according to its authors, two aims. Firstly it reviews healing studies that involved biological systems other than ‘whole’ humans (e.g., studies of plants or cell cultures) that were less susceptible to placebo-like effects. Secondly, it presents a systematic review of clinical trials on human patients receiving distant healing.

All the included studies examined the effects upon a biological system of the explicit intention to improve the wellbeing of that target; 49 non-whole human studies and 57 whole human studies were included.

The combined weighted effect size for non-whole human studies yielded a highly significant (r = 0.258) result in favour of distant healing. However, outcomes were heterogeneous and correlated with blind ratings of study quality; 22 studies that met minimum quality thresholds gave a reduced but still significant weighted r of 0.115.

Whole human studies yielded a small but significant effect size of r = .203. Outcomes were again heterogeneous, and correlated with methodological quality ratings; 27 studies that met threshold quality levels gave an r = .224.

From these findings, the authors drew the following conclusions: Results suggest that subjects in the active condition exhibit a significant improvement in wellbeing relative to control subjects under circumstances that do not seem to be susceptible to placebo and expectancy effects. Findings with the whole human database suggests that the effect is not dependent upon the previous inclusion of suspect studies and is robust enough to accommodate some high profile failures to replicate. Both databases show problems with heterogeneity and with study quality and recommendations are made for necessary standards for future replication attempts.

In a press release, the authors warned: the data need to be treated with some caution in view of the poor quality of many studies and the negative publishing bias; however, our results do show a significant effect of healing intention on both human and non-human living systems (where expectation and placebo effects cannot be the cause), indicating that healing intention can be of value.

My thoughts on this article are not very complimentary, I am afraid. The problems are, it seems to me, too numerous to discuss in detail:

  • The article is written such that it is exceedingly difficult to make sense of it.
  • It was published in a journal which is not exactly known for its cutting edge science; this may seem a petty point but I think it is nevertheless important: if distant healing works, we are confronted with a revolution in the understanding of nature – and surely such a finding should not be buried in a journal that hardly anyone reads.
  • The authors seem embarrassingly inexperienced in conducting and publishing systematic reviews.
  • There is very little (self-) critical input in the write-up.
  • A critical attitude is necessary, as the primary studies tend to be by evangelic believers in and amateur enthusiasts of healing.
  • The article has no data table where the reader might learn the details about the primary studies included in the review.
  • It also has no table to inform us in sufficient detail about the quality assessment of the included trials.
  • It seems to me that some published studies of distant healing are missing.
  • The authors ignored all studies that were not published in English.
  • The method section lacks detail, and it would therefore be impossible to conduct an independent replication.
  • Even if one ignored all the above problems, the effect sizes are small and would not be clinically important.
  • The research was sponsored by the ‘Confederation of Healing Organisations’ and some of the comments look as though the sponsor had a strong influence on the phraseology of the article.

Given these reservations, my conclusion from an analysis of the primary studies of distant healing would be dramatically different from the one published by the authors: DESPITE A SIZABLE AMOUNT OF PRIMARY STUDIES ON THE SUBJECT, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF DISTANT HEALING REMAINS UNPROVEN. AS THIS THERAPY IS BAR OF ANY BIOLOGICAL PLAUSIBILITY, FURTHER RESEARCH IN THIS AREA SEEMS NOT WARRANTED.

Twenty years ago, I published a short article in the British Journal of Rheumatology. Its title was ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, THE BABY AND THE BATH WATER. Reading it again today – especially in the light of the recent debate (with over 700 comments) on acupuncture – indicates to me that very little has since changed in the discussions about alternative medicine (AM). Does that mean we are going around in circles? Here is the (slightly abbreviated) article from 1995 for you to judge for yourself:

“Proponents of alternative medicine (AM) criticize the attempt of conducting RCTs because they view this is in analogy to ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’. The argument usually goes as follows: the growing popularity of AM shows that individuals like it and, in some way, they benefit through using it. Therefore it is best to let them have it regardless of its objective effectiveness. Attempts to prove or disprove effectiveness may even be counterproductive. Should RCTs prove that a given intervention is not superior to a placebo, one might stop using it. This, in turn, would be to the disadvantage of the patient who, previous to rigorous research, has unquestionably been helped by the very remedy. Similar criticism merely states that AM is ‘so different, so subjective, so sensitive that it cannot be investigated in the same way as mainstream medicine’. Others see reasons to change the scientific (‘reductionist’) research paradigm into a broad ‘philosophical’ approach. Yet others reject the RCTs because they think that ‘this method assumes that every person has the same problems and there are similar causative factors’.

The example of acupuncture as a (popular) treatment for osteoarthritis, demonstrates the validity of such arguments and counter-arguments. A search of the world literature identified only two RCTs on the subject. When acupuncture was tested against no treatment, the experimental group of osteoarthritis sufferers reported a 23% decrease of pain, while the controls suffered a 12% increase. On the basis of this result, it might seem highly unethical to withhold acupuncture from pain-stricken patients—’if a patient feels better for whatever reason and there are no toxic side effects, then the patient should have the right to get help’.

But what about the placebo effect? It is notoriously difficult to find a placebo indistinguishable to acupuncture which would allow patient-blinded studies. Needling non-acupuncture points may be as close as one can get to an acceptable placebo. When patients with osteoarthritis were randomized into receiving either ‘real acupuncture or this type of sham acupuncture both sub-groups showed the same pain relief.

These findings (similar results have been published for other AMs) are compatible only with two explanations. Firstly acupuncture might be a powerful placebo. If this were true, we need to establish how safe acupuncture is (clearly it is not without potential harm); if the risk/benefit ratio is favourable and no specific, effective form of therapy exists one might still consider employing this form as a ‘placebo therapy’ for easing the pain of osteoarthritis sufferers. One would also feel motivated to research this powerful placebo and identify its characteristics or modalities with the aim of using the knowledge thus generated to help future patients.

Secondly, it could be the needling, regardless of acupuncture points and philosophy, that decreases pain. If this were true, we could henceforward use needling for pain relief—no special training in or equipment for acupuncture would be required, and costs would therefore be markedly reduced. In addition, this knowledge would lead us to further our understanding of basic mechanisms of pain reduction which, one day, might evolve into more effective analgesia. In any case the published research data, confusing as they often are, do not call for a change of paradigm; they only require more RCTs to solve the unanswered problems.

Conducting rigorous research is therefore by no means likely to ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’. The concept that such research could harm the patient is wrong and anti-scientific. To follow its implications would mean neglecting the ‘baby in the bath water’ until it suffers serious damage. To conduct proper research means attending the ‘baby’ and making sure that it is safe and well.

In the realm of homeopathy there is no shortage of irresponsible claims. I am therefore used to a lot – but this new proclamation takes the biscuit, particularly as it currently is being disseminated in various forms worldwide. It is so outrageously unethical that I decided to reproduce it here [in a slightly shortened version]:

“Homeopathy has given rise to a new hope to patients suffering from dreaded HIV, tuberculosis and the deadly blood disease Hemophilia. In a pioneering two-year long study, city-based homeopath Dr Rajesh Shah has developed a new medicine for AIDS patients, sourced from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) itself.

The drug has been tested on humans for safety and efficacy and the results are encouraging, said Dr Shah. Larger studies with and without concomitant conventional ART (Antiretroviral therapy) can throw more light in future on the scope of this new medicine, he said. Dr Shah’s scientific paper for debate has just been published in Indian Journal of Research in Homeopathy…

The drug resulted in improvement of blood count (CD4 cells) of HIV patients, which is a very positive and hopeful sign, he said and expressed the hope that this will encourage an advanced research into the subject. Sourcing of medicines from various virus and bacteria has been a practise in the homeopathy stream long before the prevailing vaccines came into existence, said Dr Shah, who is also organising secretary of Global Homeopathy Foundation (GHF)…

Dr Shah, who has been campaigning for the integration of homeopathy and allopathic treatments, said this combination has proven to be useful for several challenging diseases. He teamed up with noted virologist Dr Abhay Chowdhury and his team at the premier Haffkine Institute and developed a drug sourced from TB germs of MDR-TB patients.”

So, where is the study? It is not on Medline, but I found it on the journal’s website. This is what the abstract tells us:

“Thirty-seven HIV-infected persons were registered for the trial, and ten participants were dropped out from the study, so the effect of HIV nosode 30C and 50C, was concluded on 27 participants under the trial.

Results: Out of 27 participants, 7 (25.93%) showed a sustained reduction in the viral load from 12 to 24 weeks. Similarly 9 participants (33.33%) showed an increase in the CD4+ count by 20% altogether in 12 th and 24 th week. Significant weight gain was observed at week 12 (P = 0.0206). 63% and 55% showed an overall increase in either appetite or weight. The viral load increased from baseline to 24 week through 12 week in which the increase was not statistically significant (P > 0.05). 52% (14 of 27) participants have shown either stability or improvement in CD4% at the end of 24 weeks, of which 37% participants have shown improvement (1.54-48.35%) in CD4+ count and 15% had stable CD4+ percentage count until week 24 week. 16 out of 27 participants had a decrease (1.8-46.43%) in CD8 count. None of the adverse events led to discontinuation of study.

Conclusion: The study results revealed improvement in immunological parameters, treatment satisfaction, reported by an increase in weight, relief in symptoms, and an improvement in health status, which opens up possibilities for future studies.”

In other words, the study had not even a control group. This means that the observed ‘effects’ are most likely just the normal fluctuations one would expect without any clinical significance whatsoever.

The homeopathic Ebola cure was bad enough, I thought, but, considering the global importance of AIDS, the homeopathic HIV treatment is clearly worse.

My memoir ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’  has already brought many surprises (and about 20 most flattering reviews). A few days ago, the German version was published entitled ‘NAZIS, NADELN UND INTRIGEN’ (people who have not read it might find this title puzzling). The German publisher reported that the first print-run was sold out in the first 4 days.

In order to tempt you to read my memoir, I publish here the final section of the book which affirms that the link between my rather diverse experiences boils down to ethics.

…the most important link between my research into alternative medicine and that related to the Third Reich was that of medical ethics.

It should be axiomatic that ethics is indispensable to the practice of medicine, and is not something that can just be switched off at will. No branch of health care, including alter-native medicine, can be considered exempt from it. But the subject of ethics is seldom even considered in alternative medicine; many alternative practitioners have never been taught medical ethics, and where training in this area does exist, it tends to be at best superficial. There are thousands of books on alternative medicine but hardly more than a handful cover the subject of medical ethics in any depth. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the principles of medical ethics are routinely ignored and frequently violated by promoters of alternative medicine.

Medical ethics seem to me to be violated, for example: when homeopaths prescribe or recommend homeopathic vaccinations for which there is not a shred of evidence; when chiropractors or other alternative practitioners happily promote bogus treatments for children with asthma or other serious conditions; when practitioners fail to obtain informed consent before commencing their treatments; when Prince Charles sells his “detox tincture” which is unable to eliminate poisons from your body, merely cash from your purse; when quacks inveigle desperate cancer patients by pretending they have found a cure; when pharmacists sell Bach Flower Remedies or other glorified placebos; when applied kinesiologists, iridologists, etc. claim that their baseless diagnostic tests are able to identify serious diseases; when pseudoscientists claim that certain alternative therapies are evidence-based because they managed to generate a false positive result purely by cherry-picking or massaging their data; when politicians who lack even the most basic understanding of science publicly support quackery, proclaiming that it is evidence-based.

And so on, and so on.

Some might criticize me here for claiming the moral high ground. But if I do so, it is for a good reason. Medical consultations are intrinsically unequal, with the clinician occupying a position of considerable power over often highly vulnerable patients. This places an important ethical onus on the caregiver to assist patients in making informed choices—an imperative and a trust that is breached each and every time that unproven nostrums born of ideology and wishful thinking are offered to people with assertions that they are an effective, valid approach to the treatment of disease.

When science is abused, hijacked or distorted in order to serve political or ideological belief systems, ethical standards will inevitably slip. The resulting pseudoscience is a deceit perpetrated on the weak and the vulnerable. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who come after us, to stand up for the truth, no matter how much trouble this might bring.

Today, I look back at the often stormy past from the peaceful vantage point of my retirement with a mixture of satisfaction and incredulity. The doctor and scientist may still be full of questions, but the musician in me breathes a sigh of relief that the performance, with all its impossible demands and fiendishly difficult passages, is finally over.

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

If we listen to acupuncturists and their supporters, we might get the impression that acupuncture is totally devoid of risk. Readers of this blog will know that this is not quite true. A recent case report is a further reminder that acupuncture can cause serious complications; in extreme cases it can even kill.

A male patient in his late forties died right after an acupuncture treatment. A medico-legal autopsy disclosed severe haemorrhaging around the right vagus nerve in the neck. All other organs were normal, and laboratory findings revealed nothing significant. Thus, the authors of this case-report concluded that the man most probably died from severe vagal bradycardia and/or arrhythmia resulting from vagus nerve stimulation following acupuncture: To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report of a death due to vagus nerve injury after acupuncture.

In total, around 100 deaths have been reported after acupuncture in the medical literature. ‘This is a negligible small figure’ claim acupuncture fans. True, it is a small number, but it could just be the tip of a much larger ice-berg: there is no reporting system that could possibly pick up severe complications, and in the absence of such a scheme, nobody can name reliable incidence rates. And even if the numbers of severe complications and deaths are small – even a single fatality would seem one too many.

The deaths that are currently on record are mostly due to bilateral pneumothorax or cardiac tamponade. The present case of vagus nerve injury seems to be ‘a first’. Perhaps we should watch out for similar events?

IF WE DON’T LOOK, WE DON’T SEE.

The other day, I received a request from THE GUARDIAN: could I write a piece on homeopathy in relation to the Australian report which had just come out; they gave me ~700 words and all of 3 hours to do it. I had an extremely busy day, but accepted the challenge nevertheless.

My article was published the next day and the ‘headliner’ at THE GUARDIAN had elected to call it There is no scientific case for homeopathy: the debate is over.

What followed was a flurry of debate – well over 2200 comments – which was more than a little ironic, considering the headline.

Essentially, my article had repeated the well-rehearsed arguments which have so often been made on this blog and elsewhere:

Our trials failed to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.

Our reviews demonstrated that the most reliable of the 230 or so trials of homeopathy ever published are also not positive.

Studies with animals confirmed the results obtained on humans.

Surveys and case reports suggested that homeopathy can be dangerous.

The claims made by homeopaths to cure conditions like cancer, asthma or even Ebola were bogus.

The promotion of homeopathy is not ethical.

The comments that followed were mixed, of course; those that disagreed with me used a range of counter-arguments; in no specific order, these were the following:

  1. For several reasons, I cannot be trusted.
  2. I even once stated that I have treated my wife homeopathically.
  3. The Australian report was neither thorough nor reliable.
  4. The Australian expert panel were bought by Big Pharma.
  5. Homeopathic treatment must be individualised and can therefore not be tested in RCTs.
  6. Just because we don’t understand how homeopathy works, we should not conclude that it is ineffective.
  7. 200 years of positive experience with homeopathy clearly prove that it works.
  8. The huge popularity of homeopathy worldwide demonstrated its effectiveness.
  9. The fact that some very clever people support homeopathy shows that it works.
  10. Homeopathy works in animals and little children, therefore it cannot be just a placebo.
  11. The Queen and my aunt Doris use homeopathy.
  12. Placebos work.
  13. Patients must be able to choose; patient choice is an important principle in all health care.
  14. There’s more to evidence than just RCTs.
  15. Homeopathy works like vaccines.

With such an abundance of counter-arguments, the debate is clearly NOT over! Or is it? Let’s see how solid the arguments really are.

1) I cannot be trusted

Ad hominem attacks are no arguments at all; they are merely a sign that the person using them has no real arguments left.

2) I treated my wife homeopathically

This is true. At one stage in my life, I treated anyone who couldn’t run fast enough to escape me with homeopathy. What does that show? It simply shows that I can make mistakes too.

3) The Australian report was flawed

Perhaps it was not entirely faultless (no report ever is), but it certainly was rigorous – more so than any previous document in the entire history of homeopathy. If it excluded certain types of evidence, like the observational studies (which are so much loved by homeopaths), it did so because such data are wide open to bias.

4) The panel was not independent

Yes, it was! It even included a homeopath. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is internationally highly respected, and to defame it without evidence is, in a way, just another ad hominem attack.

5) Homeopathy must be individualised

This is a half-truth: classical homeopathy is mostly individualised, but lots of homeopathic prescribing is not individualised. And in any case, we have recently seen how totally unconvincing the results of strictly individualised trials of homeopathy are. This argument turns out to be a red herring.

6) We currently don’t understand how homeopathy works

What we do understand perfectly well, however, is the fact that no explanation exists which would not require throwing over board big chunks of the laws of nature. But even if we accepted that the mode of action is unknown, this would not change the lack of homeopathy’s clinical effectiveness. Lots of treatments work without us understanding how.

7) Experience shows it works

Experience is a very unreliable indicator of effectiveness; there are simply far too many confounders such as placebo effects, regression towards the mean or natural history of the disease. This is why we need evidence to be sure, and historically medicine finally started making progress when this lesson had been learnt.

8) The amazing popularity of homeopathy is proof of its effectiveness

This is the ‘argumentum ad populum’ fallacy. Think of the popularity of blood-letting to see how wrong this argument can be.

9) Homeopathy is backed by some very clever people

So what? Clever people are not always correct – look at me (just joking!)

10) Homeopathy works in animals and little children which proves that it is more than a placebo

First, animals and children do also show placebo-responses.

Second, the animal owner/parent might respond to placebo and thus mimic a placebo-response in the patient.

Third, the evidence for homeopathy is not positive neither in animals nor in children.

11) The Queen swears by homeopathy

Yes, so much so that, as soon as she is really ill, she makes use of what the very best of conventional medicine has to offer.

12) Placebos work

For sure! But that does not mean that we should prescribe placebos. If an effective treatment is given with compassion and empathy, the patient will also profit from a placebo effect – in addition to the effect of the treatment. Merely administering placebos means withholding the latter and is thus not in the best interest of the patient.

13) Patient choice

Yes, patient choice is important. However, it only applies to the choice between treatments that are demonstrably effective – if not choice becomes arbitrariness.

14) Evidence is more than just RCTs

True, there are many study designs other than RCTs. They all have their place in research – but when the research question is to test whether a treatment is effective beyond placebo, they are all open to different types of bias. The one that minimises bias best and thus produces more reliable findings than any other study design is the placebo-controlled, double-blind RCT.

15) Homeopathy works like vaccines

No! The ‘like cures like principle’ appears to be similar to the principles of vaccination, but this appearance is misleading. Vaccines contain small amounts of active material, while the typical homeopathic remedy doesn’t. Vaccines use the substance that causes the illness, e. g. (parts of) a virus, while homeopathy doesn’t.

So, is there still a debate? Obviously there is – the Guardian headliner was wrong – but it is a debate without reasonable arguments. And in the public domain, the debate is dominated by enthusiasts who endlessly repeat nonsensical notions which have been shown to be wrong over and over again.

In a nutshell:

Yes, there continues to be a debate.

No, there is no reasonable debate.

 

I have argued since many years that pharmacists should not be selling or promoting homeopathic and other remedies for which there is no proof of efficacy – the last time I published my view on this matter is even less than a week ago: Personally, I would go another step further and remind pharmacists who sell homeopathic remedies to the unsuspecting public that it is unethical to pretend they are more than placebos.

Despite my insistence and despite the fact that many agree with me (at least privately), there are precious few pharmacists who actually do something meaningful about the current situation. And there is very little visible change: in the UK, it is currently hard to find a pharmacy where homeopathic remedies are not on the shelves, and certainly all the major chains seem to put money before health care ethics.

I am, of course, speaking about the situation in the UK, France, Germany and some other European countries. Perhaps elsewhere things are different?

A NZ website seems to indicate that ‘down under’ the pharmacists are getting more active. Some strongly argue against unproven or disproven remedies in pharmacies:

Firstly, …it’s not a case that “pharmacists ‘should’ only be selling health products for which there is credible evidence of efficacy” (alterations mine, emboldened) but that they are obliged to—but choose not to. Their ethical guidelines state –

[PHARMACISTS] MUST:… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

…Secondly, the argument that ‘other businesses sell junk remedies therefore we shall’ is unsound. One of the key points about the ethical regulations for pharmacies is that customers should be able to walk into a store and have an expectation that the remedies within the store are basically sound. If other businesses elect to be unsound, that’s poor health practice, but no justification to do likewise. On the face of it, it would seem that the profit motive is ruling over sound and ethical practice.

Thirdly, that some GPs subscribe placebos should have no standing in this. There is some arguments for GPs to prescribe placebo remedies in some cases; others would argue that education is a better response in most cases. Either way—and just my opinion—it seems to me that GPs prescribing homeopathic remedies encourages people to think these have real remedial effects. I don’t work within the industry, but I am sure are ways of offering placebos that avoid using off-the-shelf commercial products. One might be that patients only get placebo ‘treatments’ via prescription.

…Fourthly, Pharmacy Today encourages that “pharmacies need to reconsider their stance in the light of this report”***. While this is an excellent idea, and one I thoroughly support, I suspect the underlying driver isn’t the report, but media presence on the topic. There is a long trail of evidence over many years showing that homeopathic remedies are not effective for anything.

The Australian study*** that prompted the latest round of interest drew this statement,

Based on the assessment of the evidence of effectiveness of homeopathy, NHMRC concludes that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner.* Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.

The National Health and Medical Research Council expects that the Australian public will be offered treatments and therapies based on the best available evidence.

…Why were the relevant professional bodies not onto this evidence sooner?…

GOOD QUESTION!

I might add another one: why are the European professional bodies of pharmacy doing so little about this ongoing breach of their own ethical codes?

(*** the report that the author refers to is the one by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council we discussed on this blog a few days ago.)

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