conflict of interest
A recent article in the LIVERPOOL ECHO caught my eye. It is about the possibility that the NHS in Liverpool might stop funding their homeopathy service . Maybe I should read the LIVERPOOL ECHO more often, because the short article is most revealing.
It first cites the chairman of the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group, Dr Nadim Fazlani saying that “There is little evidence that homeopathy has a clinical benefit so, as a governing body, our preferred option would be to stop commissioning this service. However, it is important that the people have an opportunity to provide their views before a decision is made.”
I would like to mention, however, that health care is not a beauty contest or a supermarket shelve. We don’t have popular votes for bone marrow transplants or bypass surgery either. Why? Not because we don’t believe in democracy but because the general public cannot possibly understand medicine well enough. This is why we send some of our kids to medical school and other institutions to help us comprehend and eventually take responsible decisions for us. It is, I think, an ethical imperative to base important health care decisions of this nature on the best evidence and expertise, and it seems foolish to expect the public to have either.
Then the article in the LIVERPOOL ECHO quotes a statement of the Liverpool homeopathy service which is run by GPs Dr Hugh Nielsen and Dr Sue de Lacy: “The patients we see generally have long-standing, complex conditions that are often difficult to treat with conventional medicine. Yet regular audits of our clinic show a very high level of patient satisfaction, with patients consistently reporting an improvement in their health. As experienced doctors trained in homeopathy we see it working every day and that is why we believe Liverpool CCG – and more importantly the patients the CCG serves – is getting excellent value for the relatively small amount of funding the service receives.”
I find this interesting, not least because the arguments used by these two GPs are, in my view, miles better than those we have seen on this blog recently by Christian Boiron, Dana Ullman, Dr Michael Dixon or the Queen’s homeopath Dr Fisher all put together. At least they do not contain blatant lies!
This does not mean, however, that the arguments of the two homeopaths from Liverpool are convincing. They are not – for the following 4 reasons:
- True, long-standing, complex conditions are often difficult to treat with conventional medicine. But if they are difficult to treat with real medicine, they surely are even more difficult to treat with fake medicine.
- I have no problem believing that their audits show high level of patient satisfaction, with patients consistently reporting an improvement in their health. But we need to be quite clear that these effects are not brought about by the homeopathic remedies which contain zero active ingredients. They are due to the compassion shown by these homeopath. If they prescribed real medicine in addition to providing compassion, their results would in all likelihood be even better.
- It is also true that an experienced doctor trained in homeopathy will see it working every day. But the ‘it’ refers not to the remedy, it relates to the compassion – and to convey compassion, we do not need bogus treatments.
- It is a little misleading to claim that homeopathy is ‘excellent value’. The remedies contain nothing but lactose, and £ 5-10 for a gram or two of lactose is jolly expensive! So, the remedies are over-priced placebos, and the consultations might be good value.
Despite these counter-arguments, I must congratulate these two GPs from Liverpool: they seem to be so much more honest and intelligent than the defenders of homeopathy mentioned above.
Homeopathy seems to attract some kind of miracle worker. Elsewhere I have, for instance, reported the curious case of Prof Claudia Witt who published more than anyone on homeopathy in recent years without hardly ever arriving at a negative conclusion. Recently, I came across a researcher with an even better track record: Prof Michael Frass.
Wikipedia describes his achievements as follows: “Michael Frass studied medicine from 1972 to 1978 at the Medical University of Vienna followed by visits abroad at the Pasteur Institute, Paris and at the Porter Memorial Hospital (USA). Since March 2004 he directs the Outpatients Unit of Homeopathy for Malign Diseases at the Department Clinic for Internal of Medicine I at the Medical University of Vienna. Since 2005 Frass also works as a coordinator of the lecture series Homeopathy at the Medical University of Vienna. Beginning with the winter semester 2001/02 he is the coordinator of a lecture series Basics and practise of complementary medical methods at the Medical University of Vienna. From 2002 to 2005 he led the Ludwig Boltzmanm Institute of Homeopathy. Since 2005 Frass is president of the Institute for Homeopathic Research. Actually he works at the Division of Oncology at the Department of Medicine I in Vienna. He is First Chairman of the Scientific Society for Homeopathy (WissHom), founded in 2010, president of the Umbrella organization of Austrian Doctors for Holistic Medicine.”
He directs the WHAT? The Outpatients Unit of Homeopathy for Malign Diseases at the Department Clinic for Internal of Medicine I at the Medical University of Vienna? This is my former medical school, and I had no idea that such a unit even existed – but, of course, I left in 1993 for Exeter (a few months ago, I followed an invitation to give a lecture on homeopathy at the Medical University of Vienna ; sadly neither Prof Frass nor anyone of his team attended).
And what about the Scientific Society for Homeopathy? I am sure that the name of this organisation will make some people wonder. From the society’s website, we learn that “the intention of WissHom is to contribute to the progress of medicine and to the collective good. To this end, WissHom intents to further develop homeopathy both practically and theoretically. It will be WissHom’s task to breathe life into this committed objective.”
Breathing life into homeopathy seems exactly what Prof Frass does. He seems to have found his way to homeopathy relatively late in his career (the 1st Medline-listed article was published only in 2003) but he has nevertheless published many studies on this subject (I use the term ‘study’ here to describe both clinical, pre-clinical and basic research papers); in total, I found 12 such articles on Medline. They cover extremely diverse areas and a wide range of methodologies. Yet they all have one remarkable feature in common: they arrive at positive conclusions.
You find this hard to believe? Join the club!
But it is undeniably true, here are the conclusions (or the bit that comes close to a conclusion) from the Medline-listed abstracts (only the headings in capital letters are mine, and they simply depict the nature of the paper)
Results suggest that the global health status and subjective wellbeing of cancer patients improve significantly when adjunct classical homeopathic treatment is administered in addition to conventional therapy.
Based on the 2 cases, including 1 extreme situation, we suggest that adjunctive homeopathic treatment has a role in the treatment of acute Amanita phalloides-induced toxicity following mushroom poisoning. Additional studies may clarify a more precise dosing regimen, standardization, and better acceptance of homeopathic medicine in the intensive care setting.
Extended survival time in this sample of cancer patients with fatal prognosis but additive homeopathic treatment is interesting. However, findings are based on a small sample, and with only limited data available about patient and treatment characteristics. The relationship between homeopathic treatment and survival time requires prospective investigation in larger samples possibly using matched-pair control analysis or randomized trials.
The symptoms of patients undergoing homeopathic treatment were shown to improve substantially and conventional medication dosage could be substantially reduced. While the real-life effect assessed indicates that there is a potential for enhancing therapeutic measures and reducing healthcare cost, it does not allow to draw conclusions as to the efficacy of homeopathic treatment per se.
The data suggest that both drugs prepared in ethanolic solution are potent inhibitors of H. pylori induced gene expression.
Most of these clinical studies have been deemed to be high quality trials, according to the three most commonly referenced meta-analyses of homeopathic research. Basic in vitro experimental studies also provide evidence that the effects of homeopathy differ from placebo.
This study is based on 25 well documented reports of cases which responded well to treatment with Petroleum.
Animals treated with the standard test solution thyroxine 10(-30) metamorphosed more slowly than the control animals, ie the effect of the homeopathically prepared thyroxine was opposed to the usual physiological effect of molecular thyroxine.
Our report suggests that homeopathy may be applicable even for critically ill patients.
Our data suggest that homeopathic treatment may be a useful additional therapeutic measure with a long-term benefit for severely septic patients admitted to the intensive care unit. A constraint to wider application of this method is the limited number of trained homeopaths.
These data suggest that potentized (diluted and vigorously shaken) potassium dichromate may help to decrease the amount of stringy tracheal secretions in COPD patients.
These animals reacted to the homeopathically prepared thyroxine with a slowing down of metamorphosis, even when they had not been prestimulated with a molecular dose of the hormone. This effect was observed in all 3 laboratories and is consistent with the results of previous studies.
So am I!
How can homeopathy produce nothing but positive results in the hands of this researcher? How can it work in so many entirely different conditions? How is it possible that homeopathic remedies are better than placebo regardless of the methodology used? Why does homeopathy, in the hands of Prof Frass, not even once produce a result that disappoints the aspirations of homeopaths and its advocates? Why are these sensational results almost invariably published in very minor journals? Crucially, why has not one of the findings (as far as I can see) ever been independently reproduced?
I do not know the answers to these questions.
If anyone does, I would like to hear them.
Homeopathy has its fair share of lunes who are unable to make a reasonable case for it without telling overt falsehoods; we have seen some of then on this blog, for sure. Therefore I was encouraged to finally find a well-argued, rational defence of homeopathy. It comes from an unlikely source – Christian Boiron (CB) is the General Manager of the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathics ‘BOIRON’ with a turn-over of more than 600 million Euros annually. Some would have thought he could be a trifle biased, but no – judge for yourself.
In a recent, short interview (unfortunately it is in French, so you have to trust my translations) CB rightly pointed out that “Il y a un Ku Klux Klan contre l’homéopathie” THERE IS A KU KLUX KLAN AGAINST HOMEOPATHY. About time that someone calls a spade a spade, I’d say. I think others have previously called those who doubt the miracle of homeopathy ‘fascists’ – but ‘KKK’ is much better, more to the point. Sceptics have indeed a long and infamous habit of stringing everyone who disagrees with their views up on a tree.
The interview refers to the report from the Australian NHMRC which showed that homeopathy is not effective and can even be dangerous. How can this be? Fortunately CB knows the answer: “…personne ne comprend rien”. The panel members were all ignorant! Thanks for clearing that up CB; were they also members of the KKK?
After all, homeopathy is 200 years old, it is now well-grounded in science and accepted throughout the world (“L’homéopathie, qui a 200 ans, évolue avec les connaissances de la science. La France l’a relancée dans un axe totalement scientifique et lui a donné une reconnaissance mondiale”) That surely needed to be said, and don’t you KKK members dare pointing out the occasional fallacy here! Because CB is the first to be critical (“Je suis le premier à être le plus critique”).
What about studies of homeopathy that fail to be as convincingly positive as CB might have hoped? “Quand on dit qu’il faut démontrer en médecine et que la médecine est une pratique scientifique ce sont deux idioties.” Yes, well said CB, the assumption that medicine should become scientific is indeed idiotic. Medicine is about individuals, not statistics; Hahnemann realised this, of course, and thus showed us the way to the future in health care.
And to finish this elating encounter with one of the brightest buttons in any homeopathic drawer: “On croit savoir énormément de choses alors qu’il y a beaucoup qu’on méconnait”. ONE THINKS ONE KNOWS A LOT BUT THERE IS PLENTY ONE MISUNDERSTANDS”
I think even those terrible KKK members amongst my readers might agree with CB here, particularly if this remark introspectively refers to himself.
***a note to homeopaths and their libel lawyers: this post is SATIRE
We could have expected it, couldn’t we? With so much homeopathy in the press lately, Dr Dixon (we have seen him on this blog before, for instance here, here and here) had to comment. His article in yesterday’s NURSING IN PRACTICE is far too perfect to abbreviate it; I just have to cite it in full (only the reference numbers are mine and refer to my comments below).
HERE WE GO
Should homeopathy be blacklisted in general practice?
I have not prescribed them myself but I know of many GPs and patients who find homeopathic preparations helpful, especially in clinical areas where there is no satisfactory conventional treatment . They are cheap and entirely safe , which cannot always be said of conventional treatment . Is the concern about cost? That is implausible as GP prescriptions cost a mere £100,000 per annum, approximately £10 per UK General Practice but effectively less as some patients will be paying for them and they may reduce other prescriptions or medical costs . Is it about evidence?  Possibly, and that is because the necessary pragmatic trials on comparative cost effectiveness have never been done . Homeopathy thus joins the frequently quoted 25% of general practice activity that has an insufficient evidence base… So, why not do the research rather than single out homeopathy for blacklisting ? Apparently, because it irritates a powerful fraternity of “scientists”  with a narrow biomedical perspective on health and healing, who feel the need to impose their atheism  on others. They seem opposed to “patient-centred medicine” which factors in the mindset, culture, history, wishes and hopes of each patient, and a wider concept of science that might take account of them . Led by the World Health Organization, many countries are examining the appropriate role of complementary and traditional medicine (CAM). Indian Prime Minister Modi has created the first minister for medicine in this area (called AYUSH with the “H” standing for homeopathy). Australia, whose government and medical deans (unlike the UK ) are not intimidated by this breed of scientific fundamentalism, has invested money in research, regulated its herbal  practitioners and created important trade links with China in this area . Meanwhile the UK invests 0% of its research budget on CAM and appears to have a closed mind . General practice is at its best a subtle and complex blend of science and art combined in a heady mixture, which recognises personal belief and perspective and respects differences . Blacklisting homeopathy would be the thin edge of the wedge. It would be a mean-minded act of outside interference by many who do not treat patients themselves, denying patient choice and signifying a new age of intolerance and interference . It is a threat to the autonomy of general practice that should concern every GP and patient whatever their views on homeopathy .
About the Author
Chairman of the NHS Alliance and a GP
Mike Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance and a GP at College Surgery in Cullompton, Devon and a Royal College of General Practitioners presidential candidate.
END OF QUOTE AND BEGINNING OF MY DELIBERATELY BRIEF COMMENTS
- Whenever this argument comes up, people fail to cite an example. Are they afraid that we would point out what can be done for such a patient other than prescribing placebos?
- Actually, they are extremely expensive considering that they are just lactose or water. And the claim that homeopathy is safe merely displays an embarrassing lack of knowledge; see the many posts on this blog that deal with this issue.
- Classical ‘tu quoque’ fallacy; display of the ignorance of the risk/benefit concept for judging the value of medical interventions.
- Display of ignorance regarding the actual evidence, see here, for instance.
- Yes, it’s the evidence but also it’s the biological implausibility and the fact that disregarding it undermines rationality in general.
- Pure ignorance again, see my point 4.
- Are ~ 300 clinical trials and about 100 systematic reviews not enough? How much more money needs to be wasted?
- It seems that Dixon has a problem with science and those who pursue it to improve future health care for the benefit of patients.
- Does Dixon admit that homeopathy is a religion?
- Patient-centred medicine which factors in the mindset, culture, history, wishes and hopes of each patient, and a wider concept of science that might take account of them – does Dixon not know that all good medicine fits this description, but homeopathy certainly does not?
- Every one with an IQ above 50 knows by now that herbal is not homeopathic; is Dixon the exception?
- What about the Australian report which concluded that “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.”
- This is simply not true, and Dixon should know it.
- No reason to include disproven nonsense like homeopathy.
- Intolerance is on Dixon’s side, I think. Improving health care by abandoning disproven therapies in favour of evidence-based treatments is no interference, it’s progress.
- This can only be true, if we misunderstand autonomy as arbitrariness without rules, checks, ethics and controls. Good general practice has, like all medicine, be in the best interest of patients. An obsolete, expensive, unsafe, ineffective and implausible treatment is clearly not.
Not long ago, Peter Fisher fired me from the editorial board of ‘his’ journal ‘HOMEOPATHY’. I thought that this was a surprisingly daft move, particularly as we used to have respect for each other and even published together as co-authors (for instance here). But perhaps I should not have been surprised because, already in 2007, he published an important, potentially libellous falsehood about me.
In this article which he published as Dr. Peter Fisher, Homeopath to Her Majesty, the Queen, he wrote: There is a serious threat to the future of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital (RLHH), and we need your help…Lurking behind all this is an orchestrated campaign, including the ’13 doctors letter’, the front page lead in The Times of 23 May 2006, Ernst’s leak of the Smallwood report (also front page lead in The Times, August 2005), and the deeply flawed, but much publicised Lancet meta-analysis of Shang et al…
If you have read my memoir, you will know that even the hostile 13-months investigation by my own university did not find me guilty of the ‘leak’. The Times journalist who interviewed me about the Smallwood report already had the document on his desk when we spoke, and I did not disclose any contents of the report to him. But the truth in homeopathy seems often highly diluted.
More recently, Peter Fisher could be heard on UK radio and TV (for instance here) making further claims which, in my view, are false. Specifically, I am thinking of two of his statements which would mislead the public, if they stood uncorrected:
- He said that the studies unanimously show that integrating homeopathy into conventional medicine improves outcomes and saves money.
- He also claimed that most of the homeopathic remedies available in the high street still contain small amounts of active ingredients.
POINT NUMBER 1
It seems obvious that adding homeopathy with its lengthy, compassionate encounters to conventional care can easily generate positive outcomes. But costs? I don’t see unanimously positive evidence here at all.
Dr Fisher must know the literature on homeopathy very well. Therefore I assume that he is aware of the most up-to-date systematic review of economic evaluations of this subject. Its authors from the ‘School of Health and Related Research’, University of Sheffield concluded that “it is… not possible to draw firm conclusions based on existing economic evaluations of homeopathy“.
Fisher knows and likes to quote Claudia Witt’s work on homeopathy. Why does he not cite this recent paper then?
The aim of this study was to compare the health care costs for patients using additional homeopathic treatment (homeopathy group) with the costs for those receiving usual care (control group).
Cost data provided by a large German statutory health insurance company were retrospectively analysed from the societal perspective (primary outcome) and from the statutory health insurance perspective. Patients in both groups were matched using a propensity score matching procedure based on socio-demographic variables as well as costs, number of hospital stays and sick leave days in the previous 12 months. Total cumulative costs over 18 months were compared between the groups with an analysis of covariance (adjusted for baseline costs) across diagnoses and for six specific diagnoses (depression, migraine, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and headache).
Data from 44,550 patients (67.3% females) were available for analysis. From the societal perspective, total costs after 18 months were higher in the homeopathy group (adj. mean: EUR 7,207.72 [95% CI 7,001.14-7,414.29]) than in the control group (EUR 5,857.56 [5,650.98-6,064.13]; p<0.0001) with the largest differences between groups for productivity loss (homeopathy EUR 3,698.00 [3,586.48-3,809.53] vs. control EUR 3,092.84 [2,981.31-3,204.37]) and outpatient care costs (homeopathy EUR 1,088.25 [1,073.90-1,102.59] vs. control EUR 867.87 [853.52-882.21]). Group differences decreased over time. For all diagnoses, costs were higher in the homeopathy group than in the control group, although this difference was not always statistically significant.
Compared with usual care, additional homeopathic treatment was associated with significantly higher costs. These analyses did not confirm previously observed cost savings resulting from the use of homeopathy in the health care system.
To speak about unanimously positive evidence is simply not true! And Fisher, I suspect, must know it.
POINT NUMBER 2
This point is even clearer, I think. The most commonly used homeopathic potency is surely a ’30C’ – it was already Hahnemann’s favourite. A small statistic proves my point: of the 24 products listed on the Nelson site, 21 are ’30C’ and just three are ‘6C’. For Ainsworths, all 33 of their listed standard products are ’30C’. Helios have 70 ’30C’ products and 27 ‘200C’ products
The likelihood that a ’30C’ contains a single molecule of what it says on the bottle is precisely zero. In fact, this applies already to all remedies beyond ’12C’. Fisher knows that, of course, I assume; if not he should not be a homeopath.
MY CONCLUSION OF ALL THIS
I do not take any pleasure in calling anyone a liar – and it is, of course, far from me to use this word in connection with the Queen’s homeopath. Therefore, in the interest of the scientific truth, medical ethics and honesty, I would like to give Dr Fisher the opportunity to comment on the above issues and herewith invite him to correct the three errors/falsehoods/inaccuracies/misunderstandings mentioned above by supplying the evidence for his statements or by withdrawing them. Then we won’t have to call him names which he might feel are hurtful.
Anyone who has read ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’ will know that I stood up for science more than once in my life. In fact, I strongly believe that this is what scientists ought to do, and I frequently get irritated to see that some of my colleagues seem to disagree [if not even we scientists can stick our necks out for science, how can we expect others to do it?]. Being thus convinced, I surprised myself recently when I was invited to do my bid for science – and declined to comply. Here is the story:
On 16 October, I received the following invitation by email out of the blue:
Hi Dr. Ernst,
My name is John Jackson. I am Executive Director of the Adolph Coors Foundation in Denver, the charitable arm of the Coors family (not the brewery).
I would like to invite your participation in a debate on integrative medicine which will be held Sunday evening, March 20, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. The debate will be the keynote event of our Pioneers in Health conference. Your debate partner will be Dr. Andrew Weil. As our conference precedes Dr. Weil’s annual Nutrition and Health Conference, we expect excellent attendance of 700-800, possibly more.
The debate topic: “Fad or the Future: Will Integrative Medicine Play a Growing Role in the Future of Health Care?”
If you are willing to join us, we plan the following debate format: Opening statements with responses by each of you, questions put to each other, and responses by each of you to pre-submitted questions from the audience and, finally, closing statements. (Audience participation will be limited to questions submitted via an app, not by microphone.) We intend to invite a prominent journalist/business leader to moderate. Dr. Weil has recommended CNN’s health reporter but this has not been confirmed.
I have read numerous articles you have authored on this website and feel you would offer an excellent counterpoint to Dr. Weil. Indeed, Dr. Weil also feels you would be an ideal debate partner. I have also read your ground rules for debate (on this website). Dr. Weil and our foundation share your insistence on respect and politeness, whether it’s a blog post or a public debate.
In the interest of full disclosure, our foundation funds several institutions which are studying various “alternative” practices, including the recent study of the use of electro-acupuncture for hypertension on which you and others have commented. We have also funded a project involving Dr. Weil and the University of Arizona. You can read more about our interest in integrative medicine and who we fund at www.coorsfoundation.org.
Of course, if you agree to participate, we would cover your travel, meals and lodging expenses and are willing to negotiate a reasonable honoraria.
If you would like to discuss this further by phone, please feel free to give me a call. I can be reached in Denver at 303-388-1636.
Thank you, Dr. Ernst. I look forward to your response.
Adolph Coors Foundation
I have to admit, I was flattered and tempted in equal measure. This could be a great occasion to reach a large US audience and get a few important points across. But, at the same time, I had my doubts, and these doubts grew faster by the minute. There were several hints in this seemingly innocent email to suggest that there was more to this story than a straight forward invitation. Was this a set-up to give integrative medicine more credibility than it deserves?
Being uncertain, I asked several American friends for advice. They all seemed horrified and very strongly advised me not to accept the invitation. But I was still not entirely convinced – even if these people are a bit strange, even if it is a set-up, even if I do not ‘win’ the debate, it might be an interesting experience and I might learn (and earn!) something.
I clearly needed to find out more. I know Andrew Weil, of course, and I had seen him twice before in similar public debates. So I had no illusions that his charisma and slick rhetoric, combined with an audience full of admirers, would win the day. But I did not necessarily mind all that much; it could still be an occasion to make my arguments known and it might turn out to be a fascinating experience.
However, I certainly did not want to lend, through my presence, undue credibility to people or organisations who don’t deserve it. So, what about the organisers? What do the Adolph Coors Foundation stand for, and who are they?
One of my US friends alerted me to an eye-opening website. Other websites were even less complimentary and mentioned homophobic, racist, and anti-labor practices in relation to the funders. This made up my mind, and I wrote the following response to Jackson’s invitation:
Dear Mr Jackson,
as you may know, I do like a challenge. Therefore I was very tempted to accept your offer to debate with Andrew.
On second thought, however, I developed doubts that the event outlined in your email can be a fair debate of the issues around integrative medicine. The audience gathered for Andrew’s conference would be entirely on the side of their ‘guru’, and even the moderator would be Andrew’s choice. It is notoriously problematic to discuss scientific evidence with quasi-religious believers pretending facts were a matter of opinion.
I fear that a life debate in Denver would be akin to a discussion between an evolutionary scientist and a crowd of rampant creationists.
Since you know my blog, I suggest we conduct such a debate in writing there. This would have the advantage of a much wider, more diverse audience and provide the opportunity to check the evidence for any claims made by the discussants.
Meanwhile, I thank you for this invitation but, unless you can convince me that my fears are unfounded, I have to decline.
I was not at all sure whether to expect a response. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised that, on 25 October, the following email reached me:
Thank you for your response to our invitation. I apologize for the tardy reply. I have been travelling and generally avoid using my iPhone to respond to important emails. I have been burned once-too-often by the iPhone’s embarrassing auto-INcorrections.
Your hesitation about participating in the debate is totally understandable and, frankly, I would have been surprised if you had NOT asked for more detail.
Dr. Weil certainly does have a substantial following of loyal and passionate followers. And there will be a healthy contingent of them in the audience. Dr. Weil’s team estimates that 200-300 of those attending his Nutrition and Health Conference will also attend our conference, including the debate. That means the remaining attendees (400-500) will be those who sign up through our public portal which will be launched in a few weeks. Our marketing is targeting Colorado’s health community, including medical providers. We also expect our conference cosponsor, Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), to attract attendees through their outreach efforts. AFPF is a grassroots organization that has virtually nothing to do with any kind of medicine, conventional or integrative. AFPF’s interest is promoting innovations in the delivery of health care (more health care choice) which will be the focus of a panel earlier in the day. For what it is worth, you are more than welcome to encourage your readers to attend. We plan to keep the conference fee very low (somewhere between $25 and $50), a figure that does not even cover the food and beverage costs. So, while I cannot guarantee applause for your debate points, I believe you will find our audience open to a wide range of perspectives on the future of integrative medicine.
With regard to the debate format and moderator, we believe the format is conducive to a healthy exchange of ideas. You both make opening statements, you both respond to each other’s opening statements, you ask each other questions, you both answer questions from the moderator and the audience and you both will be given equal time to offer closing statements. Our foundation — not Dr. Weil — will select the moderator. He recommended a health writer at CNN although he has not provided a specific name. If you want to suggest a name, please feel free. We may or may not choose a moderator that either of you recommend.
Long story short, the Coors Foundation shares your interest in having a robust debate on this topic. That is exactly why we tendered the invitation to you. We hope that you will reconsider your initial declination. Since we are nearing the date at which we will launch our registration portal and agenda, we respectfully request a response at your earliest possible convenience. If we have not heard from you by Wednesday, October 28, we will assume your initial decision stands and will extend the invitation to our second choice.
Thank you Dr. Ernst. We look forward to your reply.
Adolph Coors Foundation
I found it impossible to be convinced by Jackson’s arguments; on the contrary, some of my suspicions were confirmed, and I did a little further research – this time on the ‘Americans for Prosperity Foundation’. I found numerous websites about them and even a Wikipedia page. What I learnt in the course of my inquiries made my alarm bells ring loud and clear. I decided to sleep over it and then sent this email as my final response:
Dear Mr Jackson,
I am afraid your second email did not manage to change my mind.
It was important for me to learn about the co-sponsor of the event. I did some research on both your and the co-sponsoring organisations and found that I share virtually none of their views. I am reluctant to give credibility through my presence in Denver to two prominent right wing lobby groups.
Furthermore I am not at all convinced that the event is designed to generate a balanced debate. On the contrary, by your description of it, I might even fear for my personal safety after presenting facts which contradict or deride the opinions of large parts of the audience, the organisers and Dr Weil.
Lastly I am still convinced that factual issues around integrative medicine cannot be debated fruitfully by pretending they are merely matters of opinion. A debate in writing, where all the arguments can be checked for their evidential basis, would surely be much preferable. I find it regrettable that you do not even comment on my offer to conduct such a debate on my blog. The offer, however, still stands.
I thank you again for inviting me. I do like to stand up for science but, in this particular instance, I fear the costs would be too high.
So far, I have not had a reply, and I do not expect to receive one soon.
The whole affair is little more than a triviality, of course. Yet it raises at least two important questions, I think:
- Should we stand up for science wherever we can, or is the price occasionally simply too high?
- What are these mysterious links between alternative medicine in the US and the far right?
I would be most interested to hear your views.
On this blog, we have already discussed the good news that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is considering whether advertisements for homeopathic products have any evidence to back the numerous claims that are being made for them. A meeting took place on 21 September, and now the first details are emerging.
Michelle Rusk, senior staff attorney in the FTC advertising practices division, said in this public hearing on over-the-counter homeopathic products that advertisements lauding the health benefits of medical products need to be based on competent, reliable, and rigorous scientific support.
“As a general rule, for treatment claims, we expect randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled human clinical studies—not in vitro studies, not animal studies, not anecdotal evidence, no matter how compelling it is,” she said. “Second, we expect the studies to be internally valid. That means well-designed, reliably conducted, using procedures accepted in the field of research. It also means that results are not just statistically significant but also strong enough to be clinically meaningful. Third, the evidence has to match the product and the specific claim.”
In the context of any form of health care, such statements would amount to mere platitudes: the fact that we cannot possibly tolerate double standards in medicine is almost too obvious to mention. In the realm of homeopathy, however, these words amount to a revolution!
Could it be that the days of bogus claims for homeopathic products are counted?
Could it be that consumers might soon be protected from unscrupulous entrepreneurs exploiting the vulnerable?
Could it be that, one day, we will have one standard only?
The ‘INTERNATIONAL CHIROPRACTIC PEDIATRIC ASSOCIATION’ (ICPA) is, according to their website, ‘a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance chiropractic by establishing evidence informed practice, supporting excellence in professional skills and delivering educational resources to the public. It fulfills this mission by engaging and serving family chiropractors worldwide through research, training and public education.’
It fulfils its mission by, amongst other things, tweeting links to other pro-chiropractic activities. It is via such a tweet that I recently found the Pathways to Family Wellness (PFW). This is a quarterly print and digital magazine whose mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.
This sounds exciting, I thought, and decided to have a closer look. I found that, according to its website, the magazine ‘collaborates with consciousness leaders, cutting-edge scientists and researchers, families on their conscious path, holistic practitioners and dynamic non-profit organizations to bring the most current insights into wellness to our readers.’
The Executive Editor and Publisher of PFW is Dr. Jeanne Ohm. She has ‘practiced family wellness care since 1981 with her husband, Dr. Tom. They have six children who were all born at home and are living the chiropractic family wellness lifestyle. Ohm is an instructor, author, and innovator. Her passion is: training DC’s with specific techniques for care in pregnancy, birth & infancy, forming national alliances for chiropractors with like-minded perinatal practitioners, empowering mothers to make informed choices, and offering pertinent patient educational materials.’
My suspicion that this is an outlet of chiropractic nonsense is confirmed as I read an article by Bobby Doscher, D.C., N.D. on the subject of chiropractic treatment for children with neurological problems. The article itself is merely promotional and therefore largely irrelevant. But one short passage is interesting nevertheless, I thought:
Chiropractic Based on Scientific Fact
Since its beginning, chiropractic has been based on the scientific fact that the nervous system controls the function of every cell, tissue, organ and system of your body. While the brain is protected by the skull, the spinal cord is more vulnerable, covered by 24 moving vertebrae. When these bones lose their normal motion or position, they can irritate the nervous system. This disrupts the function of the tissues or organs these nerves control; this is called vertebral subluxation complex.
I thought this was as revealing as it was hilarious. Since such nonsensical notions are ubiquitous in the chiropractic literature, I am tempted to conclude that most chiropractors believe this sort of thing themselves. This makes them perhaps more honest but also more of a threat: sincere conviction renders a quack not less but more dangerous.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against systematic reviews. Quite to the contrary, I am sure they are an important source of information for patients, doctors, scientists, policy makers and others – after all, I have published more than 300 of such papers!
Having said that, I do dislike a certain type of systematic review, namely systematic reviews by Chinese authors evaluating TCM therapies and arriving at misleading conclusions. Such papers are currently swamping the marked.
At first glance, they look fine. On closer scrutiny, however, most turn out to be stereotypically useless, boring and promotional. The type of article I mean starts by stating its objective which usually is to evaluate the evidence for a traditional Chinese therapy as a treatment of a condition which few people in their right mind would treat with any form of TCM. It continues with details about the methodologies employed and then, in the results section, informs the reader that x studies were included in the review which mostly reported encouraging results but were wide open to bias. And then comes the crucial bit: THE CONCLUSIONS.
They are as predictable as they are misleading. let me give you two examples only published in the last few days.
The first review drew the following conclusions: This systematic review suggests that Chinese Herbal Medicine as an adjunctive therapy can improve cognitive impairment and enhance immediate response and quality of life in Senile Vascular Dementia patients. However, because of limitations of methodological quality in the included studies, further research of rigorous design is needed.
The second review concluded that the evidence that external application of traditional Chinese medicine is an effective treatment for venous ulcers is encouraging, but not conclusive due to the low methodological quality of the RCTs. Therefore, more high-quality RCTs with larger sample sizes are required.
Why does that sort of thing frustrate me so much? Because it is utterly meaningless and potentially harmful:
- I don’t know what treatments the authors are talking about.
- Even if I managed to dig deeper, I cannot get the information because practically all the primary studies are published in obscure journals in Chinese language.
- Even if I did read Chinese, I do not feel motivated to assess the primary studies because we know they are all of very poor quality – too flimsy to bother.
- Even if they were formally of good quality, I would have my doubts about their reliability; remember: 100% of these trials report positive findings!
- Most crucially, I am frustrated because conclusions of this nature are deeply misleading and potentially harmful. They give the impression that there might be ‘something in it’, and that it (whatever ‘it’ might be) could be well worth trying. This may give false hope to patients and can send the rest of us on a wild goose chase.
So, to ease the task of future authors of such papers, I decided give them a text for a proper EVIDENCE-BASED conclusion which they can adapt to fit every review. This will save them time and, more importantly perhaps, it will save everyone who might be tempted to read such futile articles the effort to study them in detail. Here is my suggestion for a conclusion soundly based on the evidence, not matter what TCM subject the review is about:
OUR SYSTEMATIC REVIEW HAS SHOWN THAT THERAPY ‘X’ AS A TREATMENT OF CONDITION ‘Y’ IS CURRENTLY NOT SUPPORTED BY SOUND EVIDENCE.
On the website of the Bristol University Hospital, it was just revealed that UK homeopathy seems to have suffered another blow:
“Homeopathic medicine has been available in Bristol since 1852, when Dr Black first started dispensing from premises in the Triangle. During the next 69 years the service developed and expanded culminating in the commissioning in 1921 of a new hospital in the grounds of Cotham House. The Bristol Homeopathic Hospital continued to provide a full range of services until 1986 when the in-patient facilities were transferred to the Bristol Eye Hospital, where they continue to be provided, and outpatient services were moved to the ground floor of the Cotham Hill site. In 1994, following the sale of the main building to the University by the Bristol and District Health Authority, a new purpose built Department was provided in the Annexe buildings of the main building, adjoining the original Cotham House. The NHS Homeopathic Service is now being delivered on behalf of University Hospital Bristol by the Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine (PCIM), a Community Interest Company.”
The Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine has joined Litfield House offering medical homeopathy with Dr Elizabeth Thompson. And this is how the new service is described [I have added references in the following unabridged quote in bold which refer to my comments below]:
Medical Homeopathy is a holistic  approach delivered by registered health care professionals that uses a low dose of an activated  natural  substance  to stimulate a self-healing response in the body . At the first appointment the doctor will take time to understand problem symptoms that might be physical, emotional or psychological and then a treatment plan will be discussed between the patient and the doctor , with homeopathic medicines chosen for you or your child on an individual basis.
WHAT CONDITIONS ARE SUITABLE FOR MEDICAL HOMEOPATHY?
Homeopathy can be safely  used to improve symptoms and well-being across a wide range of long term conditions: from childhood eczema  and ADHD ; to adults with medically unexplained conditions ; inflammatory bowel disease , cancer  or chronic fatigue syndrome ; and other medical conditions, including obesity  and depression . Some people use homeopathy to stay well  and others use it to help difficult symptoms and/ or the side effects of conventional treatments .
This looks like a fairly bland and innocent little advertisement at first glance. If we analyse it closer, however, we find plenty of misleading claims. Here are the ones that caught my eye:
- Homeopaths claim that their approach is holistic and thus aim at differentiating it from conventional health care. This is misleading because ALL good medicine is by definition holistic.
- Nothing is ‘activated’; homeopaths believe that succession releases the ‘vital force’ in a remedy – but this is little more than hocus-pocus from the dark ages of medicine.
- Nothing is natural about endlessly diluting and shaking a medicine, while pretending that this ritual renders it more active and effective. And nothing is natural about remedies such as ‘Berlin Wall’.
- It is misleading to speak about ‘substance’ in relation to homeopathic remedies, because they can be manufactured also from non-material stuff too; examples are remedies such as X-ray, sol [sun light] or lunar [moonlight].
- The claim that homeopathic remedies stimulate the self-healing properties of the body is pure phantasy.
- “The doctor will take time to understand problem symptoms that might be physical, emotional or psychological and then a treatment plan will be discussed between the patient and the doctor” – this also applies to any consultation with any health care practitioner.
- Homeopathy is not as safe as homeopaths try to make us believe; several posts on this blog have dealt with this issue.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- True, some people use anything for anything; but there is no sound evidence to show that homeopathy is an effective prophylactic intervention for any disease.
- Nor is there good evidence that it is effective to “help difficult symptoms and/ or the side effects of conventional treatments”.
So, what we have here is a short paragraph which, on closer inspection, turns out to be full of misleading statements, bogus claims and dangerous lies. Not a good start for a new episode in the life of the now dramatically down-sized homeopathic clinic in Bristol, I’d say. And neither is it a publication of which the Bristol University Hospital can be proud. I suggest they correct it as a matter of urgency; otherwise they risk a barrage of complaints to the appropriate regulators by people who treasure the truth a little more than they seem to do themselves.