conflict of interest
Nobody really likes criticism, I suppose. Yet everyone with a functional brain agrees that criticism is a precondition to making progress. So most of us do listen to it, introspect and try to learn a lesson.
Not so in alternative medicine! The last post by Preston Long was a summary of constructive criticism of his own profession; it brought that message home to me much clearer than previous discussions on this blog (probably because it did not directly concern me) and, after some reflection, I realised that apologists of alternative medicine have developed five distinct strategies to avoid progress that otherwise might develop from criticism (alright, these strategies do exist in other fields too, but I think that many of the comments on this blog demonstrate that they are particularly evident in alternative medicine).
We could also call this method ‘The Prince of Wales Technique of Avoiding Progress’ because HRH is famous for making statements ‘ex cathedra’ without ever defending them or facing his critics or allowing others to directly challenge him. When he advocated the Gerson diet for cancer, for instance, Prof Baum challenged him in an open letter asking him to use his influence more wisely. Like with all other criticism directed to him, he decided to ignore it. This strategy is a safe bet for stalling progress and it has the added advantage that it does not require anything other than ignorance.
As it requires some basic understanding of the issues at hand, this method is a little more demanding. You need to look closely at the criticism and subsequently shoot holes in it. If you cannot find any, invent some. For instance, you might state that your critic misquoted the evidence. Very few people will bother to read up the original data, and you are likely to get away even with fairly obvious lies. To beef your response up a bit, pretend that there is plenty of good evidence demonstrating exactly the opposite of what your critic has said. If asked to provide actual references or sources for your claims, don’t listen. An extreme example of the bluff-method is to sue your critic for libel – but be careful, this can backfire in a major way!
A very popular method is to claim that the critic is not actually competent to criticise. The discussion of Long’s post demonstrated that technique in a classic fashion. His detractors argued that he was a failed chiropractor who had an axe to grind and thus had no right to criticise chiropractic (“Preston H Long you are a disgrace to the chiropractic profession…take off your chiropractic hat, you dont deserve to wear it. YOU sir are a shame and a folly!!”). Of course, you need to be a bit simple in order to agree with this type of logic, but lots of people seem to be just that!
Even more popular is the blame-game. It involves arguing that, ok not all is rosy on your side of the fence, but the other side is so, so much worse. Before they dare to challenge you, they should look at their own mess; and while it is not sorted, they must simply shut up. For instance, if the criticism is that chiropractors have put hundreds of their patients into wheelchairs with their neck-manipulations, you must point out that doctors with their nasty drugs are much, much worse (“Long discounts the multitudes that chiropractic has… saved from dangerous drugs and surgery. As far as risks of injury from seeing a chiropractor vs. medicine, all one needs to do is compare malpractice insurance rates to see that insurance carriers rate medicine as an exponentially more dangerous undertaking”). Few people will realise that this is a fallacy and that the risks of any therapy must be seen in relation to its potential benefits.
When criticised, you are understandably annoyed; most people will therefore forgive you calling your critic names which are not normally used in polite circles (“who is this idiot, who wouldnt know the first thing about chiropractic”). Ad hominem attacks are the last resort of apologists of alternative medicine which emerges with depressing regularity when they have run out of rational arguments; they are signs of victories of reason over unreason. In the case of those chiropractors who were unable to stomach Long’s critique, the insults were coming thick and fast. The reason for only very few being visible is quite simple: I often delete the worst excesses of such primitive reactions.
The following is a guest post by Preston H. Long. It is an excerpt from his new book entitled ‘Chiropractic Abuse—A Chiropractor’s Lament’. Preston H. Long is a licensed chiropractor from Arizona. His professional career has spanned nearly 30 years. In addition to treating patients, he has testified at about 200 trials, performed more than 10,000 chiropractic case evaluations, and served as a consultant to several law enforcement agencies. He is also an associate professor at Bryan University, where he teaches in the master’s program in applied health informatics. His new book is one of the very few that provides an inside criticism of chiropractic. It is well worth reading, in my view.
Have you ever consulted a chiropractor? Are you thinking about seeing one? Do you care whether your tax and health-care dollars are spent on worthless treatment? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, there are certain things you should know.
1. Chiropractic theory and practice are not based on the body of knowledge related to health, disease, and health care that has been widely accepted by the scientific community.
Most chiropractors believe that spinal problems, which they call “subluxations,” cause ill health and that fixing them by “adjusting” the spine will promote and restore health. The extent of this belief varies from chiropractor to chiropractor. Some believe that subluxations are the primary cause of ill health; others consider them an underlying cause. Only a small percentage (including me) reject these notions and align their beliefs and practices with those of the science-based medical community. The ramifications and consequences of subluxation theory will be discussed in detail throughout this book.
2. Many chiropractors promise too much.
The most common forms of treatment administered by chiropractors are spinal manipulation and passive physiotherapy measures such as heat, ultrasound, massage, and electrical muscle stimulation. These modalities can be useful in managing certain problems of muscles and bones, but they have little, if any, use against the vast majority of diseases. But chiropractors who believe that “subluxations” cause ill health claim that spinal adjustments promote general health and enable patients to recover from a wide range of diseases. The illustrations below reflect these beliefs. The one to the left is part of a poster that promotes the notion that periodic spinal “adjustments” are a cornerstone of good health. The other is a patient handout that improperly relates “subluxations” to a wide range of ailments that spinal adjustments supposedly can help. Some charts of this type have listed more than 100 diseases and conditions, including allergies, appendicitis, anemia, crossed eyes, deafness, gallbladder problems, hernias, and pneumonia.
A 2008 survey found that exaggeration is common among chiropractic Web sites. The researchers looked at the Web sites of 200 chiropractors and 9 chiropractic associations in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Each site was examined for claims suggesting that chiropractic treatment was appropriate for asthma, colic, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain, whiplash, headache/migraine, and lower back pain. The study found that 95% of the surveyed sites made unsubstantiated claims for at least one of these conditions and 38% made unsubstantiated claims for all of them.1 False promises can have dire consequences to the unsuspecting.
3. Our education is vastly inferior to that of medical doctors.
I rarely encountered sick patients in my school clinic. Most of my “patients” were friends, students, and an occasional person who presented to the student clinic for inexpensive chiropractic care. Most had nothing really wrong with them. In order to graduate, chiropractic college students are required to treat a minimum number of people. To reach their number, some resort to paying people (including prostitutes) to visit them at the college’s clinic.2
Students also encounter a very narrow range of conditions, most related to aches and pains. Real medical education involves contact with thousands of patients with a wide variety of problems, including many severe enough to require hospitalization. Most chiropractic students see patients during two clinical years in chiropractic college. Medical students also average two clinical years, but they see many more patients and nearly all medical doctors have an additional three to five years of specialty training before they enter practice.
Chiropractic’s minimum educational standards are quite low. In 2007, chiropractic students were required to evaluate and manage only 15 patients in order to graduate. Chiropractic’s accreditation agency ordered this number to increase to 35 by the fall of 2011. However, only 10 of the 35 must be live patients (eight of whom are not students or their family members)! For the remaining cases, students are permitted to “assist, observe, or participate in live, paper-based, computer-based, distance learning, or other reasonable alternative.”3 In contrast, medical students see thousands of patients.
Former National Council Against Health Fraud President William T. Jarvis, Ph.D., has noted that chiropractic school prepares its students to practice “conversational medicine”—where they glibly use medical words but lack the knowledge or experience to deal appropriately with the vast majority of health problems.4 Dr. Stephen Barrett reported a fascinating example of this which occurred when he visited a chiropractor for research purposes. When Barrett mentioned that he was recovering from an attack of vertigo (dizziness), the chiropractor quickly rattled off a textbook-like list of all the possible causes. But instead of obtaining a proper history and conducting tests to pinpoint a diagnosis, he x-rayed Dr. Barrett’s neck and recommended a one-year course of manipulations to make his neck more curved. The medical diagnosis, which had been appropriately made elsewhere, was a viral infection that cleared up spontaneously in about ten days.5
4. Our legitimate scope is actually very narrow.
Appropriate chiropractic treatment is relevant only to a narrow range of ailments, nearly all related to musculoskeletal problems. But some chiropractors assert that they can influence the course of nearly everything. Some even offer adjustments to farm animals and family pets.
5. Very little of what chiropractors do has been studied.
Although chiropractic has been around since 1895, little of what we do meets the scientific standard through solid research. Chiropractic apologists try to sound scientific to counter their detractors, but very little research actually supports what chiropractors do.
6. Unless your diagnosis is obvious, it’s best to get diagnosed elsewhere.
During my work as an independent examiner, I have encountered many patients whose chiropractor missed readily apparent diagnoses and rendered inappropriate treatment for long periods of time. Chiropractors lack the depth of training available to medical doctors. For that reason, except for minor injuries, it is usually better to seek medical diagnosis first.
7. We offer lots of unnecessary services.
Many chiropractors, particularly those who find “subluxations” in everyone, routinely advise patients to come for many months, years, and even for their lifetime. Practice-builders teach how to persuade people they need “maintenance care” long after their original problem has resolved. In line with this, many chiropractors offer “discounts” to patients who pay in advance and sign a contract committing them for 50 to 100 treatments. And “chiropractic pediatric specialists” advise periodic examinations and spinal adjustments from early infancy onward. (This has been aptly described as “womb to tomb” care.) Greed is not the only factor involved in overtreatment. Many who advise periodic adjustments are “true believers.” In chiropractic school, one of my classmates actually adjusted his newborn son while the umbilical cord was still attached. Another student had the school radiology department take seven x-rays of his son’s neck to look for “subluxations” presumably acquired during the birth process. The topic of unnecessary care is discussed further in Chapter 8.
8. “Cracking” of the spine doesn’t mean much.
Spinal manipulation usually produces a “popping” or “cracking” sound similar to what occurs when you crack your knuckles. Both are due to a phenomenon called cavitation, which occurs when there is a sudden decrease in joint pressure brought on by the manipulation. That allows dissolved gasses in the joint fluid to be released into the joint itself. Chiropractors sometimes state that the noise means that something therapeutic has taken place. However, the noise has no health-related significance and does not indicate that anything has been realigned. It simply means that gas was allowed to escape under less pressure than normal. Knuckles do not “go back into place” when you crack them, and neither do spinal bones.
9. If the first few visits don’t help you, more treatment probably won’t help.
I used to tell my patients “three and through.” If we did not see significant objective improvement in three visits, it was time to move on.
10. We take too many x-rays.
No test should be done unless it is likely to provide information that will influence clinical management of the patient. X-ray examinations are appropriate when a fracture, tumor, infection, or neurological defect is suspected. But they are not needed for evaluating simple mechanical-type strains, such as back or neck pain that develops after lifting a heavy object.
The average number of x-rays taken during the first visit by chiropractors whose records I have been asked to review has been about eleven. Those records were sent to me because an insurance company had flagged them for investigation into excessive billing, so this number of x-rays is much higher than average. But many chiropractors take at least a few x-rays of everyone who walks through their door.
There are two main reasons why chiropractors take more x-rays than are medically necessary. One is easy money. It costs about 35¢ to buy an 8- x 10-inch film, for which they typically charge $40. In chiropractic, the spine encompasses five areas: the neck, mid-back, low-back, pelvic, and sacral regions. That means five separate regions to bill for—typically three to seven views of the neck, two to six for the low back, and two for each of the rest. So eleven x-ray films would net the chiropractor over $400 for just few minutes of work. In many accident cases I have reviewed, the fact that patients had adequate x-ray examinations in a hospital emergency department to rule out fractures did not deter the chiropractor from unnecessarily repeating these exams.
Chiropractors also use x-ray examinations inappropriately for marketing purposes. Chiropractors who do this point to various things on the films that they interpret as (a) subluxations, (b) not enough spinal curvature, (c) too much spinal curvature, and/or (d) “spinal decay,” all of which supposedly call for long courses of adjustments with periodic x-ray re-checks to supposedly assess progress. In addition to wasting money, unnecessary x-rays entail unnecessary exposure to the risks of ionizing radiation.
11. Research on spinal manipulation does not reflect what takes place in most chiropractic offices.
Research studies that look at spinal manipulation are generally done under strict protocols that protect patients from harm. The results reflect what happens when manipulation is done on patients who are appropriately screened—usually by medical teams that exclude people with conditions that would make manipulation dangerous. The results do not reflect what typically happens when patients select chiropractors on their own. The chiropractic marketplace is a mess because most chiropractors ignore research findings and subject their patients to procedures that are unnecessary and/or senseless.
12. Neck manipulation is potentially dangerous.
Certain types of chiropractic neck manipulation can damage neck arteries and cause a stroke. Chiropractors claim that the risk is trivial, but they have made no systematic effort to actually measure it. Chapter 9 covers this topic in detail.
13. Most chiropractors don’t know much about nutrition.
Chiropractors learn little about clinical nutrition during their schooling. Many offer what they describe as “nutrition counseling.” But this typically consists of superficial advice about eating less fat and various schemes to sell you supplements that are high-priced and unnecessary.
14. Chiropractors who sell vitamins charge much more than it costs them.
Chiropractors who sell vitamins typically recommend them unnecessarily and charge two to three times what they pay for them. Some chiropractors center their practice around selling vitamins to patients. Their recommendations are based on hair analysis, live blood analysis, applied kinesiology muscle-testing or other quack tests that will be discussed later in this book. Patients who are victimized this way typically pay several dollars a day and are encouraged to stay on the products indefinitely. In one case I investigated, an Arizona chiropractor advised an 80+-year-old grandma to charge more than $10,000 for vitamins to her credit cards to avoid an impending stroke that he had diagnosed by testing a sample of her pubic hair. No hair test can determine that a stroke is imminent or show that dietary supplements are needed. Doctors who evaluated the woman at the Mayo Clinic found no evidence to support the chiropractor’s assessment.
15. Chiropractors have no business treating young children.
The pediatric training chiropractors receive during their schooling is skimpy and based mainly on reading. Students see few children and get little or no experience in diagnosing or following the course of the vast majority of childhood ailments. Moreover, spinal adjustment has no proven effectiveness against childhood diseases. Some adolescents with spinal stiffness might benefit from manipulation, but most will recover without treatment. Chiropractors who claim to practice “chiropractic pediatrics” typically aim to adjust spines from birth onward and are likely to oppose immunization. Some chiropractors claim they can reverse or lessen the spinal curvature of scoliosis, but there is no scientific evidence that spinal manipulation can do this.6
16. The fact that patients swear by us does not mean we are actually helping them.
Satisfaction is not the same thing as effectiveness. Many people who believe they have been helped had conditions that would have resolved without treatment. Some have had treatment for dangers that did not exist but were said by the chiropractor to be imminent. Many chiropractors actually take courses on how to trick patients to believe in them. (See Chapter 8)
17. Insurance companies don’t want to pay for chiropractic care.
Chiropractors love to brag that their services are covered by Medicare and most insurance companies. However, this coverage has been achieved though political action rather than scientific merit. I have never encountered an insurance company that would reimburse for chiropractic if not forced to do so by state laws. The political pressure to mandate chiropractic coverage comes from chiropractors, of course, but it also comes from the patients whom they have brainwashed.
18. Lots of chiropractors do really strange things.
The chiropractic profession seems to attract people who are prone to believe in strange things. One I know of does “aura adjustments” to treat people’s “bruised karma.” Another rents out a large crystal to other chiropractors so they can “recharge” their own (smaller) crystals. Another claims to get advice by “channeling” a 15th Century Scottish physician. Another claimed to “balance a woman’s harmonics” by inserting his thumb into her vagina and his index finger into her anus. Another treated cancer with an orange light that was mounted in a wooden box. Another did rectal exams on all his female patients. Even though such exams are outside the legitimate scope of chiropractic, he also videotaped them so that if his bills for this service were questioned, he could prove that he had actually performed what he billed for.
19. Don’t expect our licensing boards to protect you.
Many chiropractors who serve on chiropractic licensing boards harbor the same misbeliefs that are rampant among their colleagues. This means, for example, that most boards are unlikely to discipline chiropractors for diagnosing and treating imaginary “subluxations.”
20. The media rarely look at what we do wrong.
The media rarely if ever address chiropractic nonsense. Reporting on chiropractic is complicated because chiropractors vary so much in what they do. (In fact, a very astute observer once wrote that “for every chiropractor, there is an equal and opposite chiropractor.”) Consumer Reports published superb exposés in 1975 and 1994, but no other print outlet has done so in the past 35 years. This lack of information is the main reason I have written this book.
1. Ernst E, Gilbey A. Chiropractic claims in the English-speaking world. New Zealand Medical Journal 123:36–44, 2010.
2. Bernet J. Affidavit, April 12, 1996. Posted to Chirobase Web site.
3. Standards for Doctor of Chiropractic Programs and Requirements for Institutional Status. Council on Chiropractic Education, Scottsdale, Arizona, Jan 2007.
4. Jarvis WT. Why becoming a chiropractor may be risky. Chirobase Web site, October 5, 1999.
5. Barrett S. My visit to a “straight” chiropractor. Quackwatch Web site, Oct 10, 2002.
6. Romano M, Negrini S. Manual therapy as a conservative treatment for idiopathic scoliosis: A review. Scoliosis 3:2, 2008.
I regularly used to ask alternative practitioners what diseases they are good at treating. In fact, we once ran an entire research project dedicated to this question and found that their own impressions were generally based on wishful thinking rather than on evidence. The libel case of the BCA versus Simon Singh then brought this issue into the focus of the public eye, and consequently several professional organisations of alternative practitioners seem to have advised their members to be cautious about making unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. This could have been an important step into the right direction – unless, of course, a clever trick had not been devised to bypass the need for evidence. Today, when I ask alternative practitioners ‘what do you treat effectively?’ I tend to get answers like:
- Alternative practitioners, unlike conventional clinicians, do not treat diseases.
- I treat the whole person, not just the disease.
- I treat people and their specific set of signs and symptoms, rather than disease labels (this actually is a quote from the comments section of one of my recent posts).
- I focus on the totality of the symptoms; disease labels are irrelevant in the realm of my therapy.
- Chiropractors adjust subluxations which are the root cause for most diseases.
- Acupuncturists re-balance life energies which is a precondition for healing to commence irrespective of the disease.
- Homeopaths treat the totality of symptoms so that the patient’s vital force can do the healing.
- etc. etc.
All of these statements are deeply rooted in the long obsolete notions of vitalism, i.e. the assumption that a vital energy flows in all living organisms and is responsible for our health irrespective of the disease we happen to suffer from. But what do the answers to my question ‘what do you treat?’ really mean? If we analyse the above responses critically, they seem to imply that:
- Conventional clinicians do not treat patients but merely disease labels.
- Alternative practitioners can successfully treat any disease or condition.
Ad 1 In my view, it is arrogant and grossly unfair to claim that alternative practitioners work holistically, while conventional health care professionals do not. I have pointed out repeatedly that any good medicine always has been and always will be holistic. High-jacking holism as a specific characteristic for alternative medicine is misleading and an insult to all conventional clinicians who do their best to practice good medicine.
Ad 2 By claiming that they treat the whole person irrespective of her disease, alternative practitioners effectively try to give themselves a ‘carte blanche’ for treating any disease or any condition or any symptom. If a child has asthma, a chiropractor will find a subluxation, adjust it with spinal manipulation, and claim that the child’s condition will improve as a consequence of his treatment – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a person wants to give up smoking, an acupuncturist will use acupuncture to re-balance her yin and yang claiming that this intervention will make smoking cessation more successful – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a patient suffers from cancer, a homeopath might find a remedy that promotes her vital energy claiming that the cancer will subsequently be cured – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE which in all of the three cases is negative.
The claim of alternative practitioners to not treat disease labels but the whole patient is doubtlessly attractive to consumers and it is also extremely good for business. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be a distraction from the fact that alternative practitioners treat everything and anything, usually without the slightest evidence that their interventions generates more good than harm. It allows alternative practitioners to live in a fool’s paradise of quackery where they believe themselves to be protected from any challenges and demands for evidence.
Homeopaths can bear criticism only when it is highly diluted. Any critique from the ‘outside’ is therefore dismissed by insisting that the author fails to understand the subtleties of homeopathy. And criticism from the ‘inside’ does not exist: by definition, a homeopath does not criticise his/her own trade. Through these mechanisms, homeopaths have more or less successfully shielded themselves from all arguments against their activities and have, for the last 200 years, managed to survive in a world of make-belief.
As I will show below, I started my professional life on the side of the homeopaths – I am not proud of this fact, but there is no use denying it. When the evidence told me more and more clearly that I had been wrong, about 10 years ago, I began expressing serious doubts about the plausibility, efficacy and safety of using homeopathic remedies to treat patients in need. Homeopaths reacted not just with anger, they were also at a loss.
Their little trick of saying ‘He does not understand homeopathy and therefore his critique is invalid’ could not possibly work in my case – I had been one of them: I had attended their meetings, chaired some of their sessions, edited a book on homeopathy, accepted an invitation to join the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY‘ as well as a EU-panel investigating homeopathy, conducted trials, systematic reviews and meta-analyses, published over 100 articles on the subject, accepted money from Prince Charles as well as from the ‘ueber-homeopath’ George Vithoulkas for my research, and even contributed to THE INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF HOMEOPATHY. It would have not looked reasonable to suddenly deny my previously accepted expertise. Homeopaths thus found themselves in a pickle: critique from the ‘inside’ is not what they were used to or could easily cope with.
The homeopathic idyll was under threat, and a solution to the problem had to be found with some urgency. And soon enough, it was found. Homeopaths from across the world started claiming that I had been telling porkies about my training/qualifications in homeopathy: “Edzard Ernst has admitted that he has over the years lied or supported a lie about having homeopathic training. In reality he has had none at all! The leading so-called ‘expert’ and critic of homeopathy, Professor Edzard Ernst, has admitted that he has no qualifications in homeopathy. etc. etc. Diluting the truth to the extreme, they almost unanimously insisted that, contrary to my previous assertions, I had no training/qualifications in homeopathy. Thus, they began to argue, that I was an imposter and had insufficient knowledge, expertise and experience after all: Professor Edzard Ernst the leading ‘authority’ on homeopathy, and perhaps its most referenced critic, has no qualifications in homeopathy. William Alderson of HMC21 also claims that Ernst’s book Trick or Treatment? shows Ernst to be unreliable as a researcher into homeopathy. Opposition to homeopathy is based on propaganda, they stated. Others wrote that Edzard Ernst’ failure as a homeopath only proves he lacked some basic qualities essential to become a successful homeopath. He failed as a homeopath, and then turned a skeptic. His failure is only his failure- it does not disprove homeopathy by any way. Once he failed in putting a mark as a successful homeopath or CAM practitioner, he just tried the other way to become famous and respectable- he converted himself into a skeptic, which provided him with ample opportunities to appear on ‘anti-homeopathy’ platforms’ as an ‘authority’, ‘expert’ and ‘ex-homeopath’! Some went even further claiming that I had also lied about my medical qualifications.
These notions has been going around the internet for several years now and conveniently served as a reason to re-categorise me into the camp of the homeopathically unqualified pseudo-experts: ‘We believe that it is time to recognise that opposition to homeopathy is largely based on the opinions of individuals who are unqualified or unwilling to judge the evidence fairly’. I, by contrast, believe it is time that I disclose the full truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’. What exactly is my background in this area? Have I really been found out to be a confidence-trickster?
THE HOMEOPATHIC CLINICIAN
I graduated from medical school in Munich in the late 1970s and, looking for a job, I realised that there weren’t any. At the time, Germany had a surplus of doctors and all the posts I wanted were taken. Eventually, I found one in the only hospital that was run almost entirely homoeopathically, the KRANKENHAUS FUER NATURHEILWEISEN in Munich. Within about half a year, I learned how to think like a homeopath, diagnose like a homeopath and treat patients like a homeopath. I never attended formal courses or aspired to get a certificate; as far as I remember, none of the junior doctors working in the homeopathic hospital did that either. We were expected to learn on the job, and so we did.
Our teachers at medical school had hardly ever mentioned homeopathy, but one thing they had nevertheless made abundantly clear to us: homeopathy cannot possibly work; there is nothing in these pills and potions! To my surprise, however, my patients improved, their symptoms subsided and, in general, they were very happy with the treatment we provided. My professors had told me that homeopathy was rubbish, but they had forgotten to teach me a much more important lesson: critical thinking. Therefore, I might be forgiven for proudly assuming that my patients’ improvement was due to my skilful homeopathic prescriptions.
But then came another surprise: the boss of the homeopathic hospital, Dr Zimmermann, took me under his wings, and we had occasional discussions about this and that and, of course, about homeopathy. When I shyly mentioned what I had been told at medical school ( about homeopathy being entirely implausible), he agreed! I was speechless. Crucially, he considered that there were other explanations: “Our patients might improve because we look after them well and we discontinue all the unnecessary medication they come in with; perhaps the homeopathic remedies play only a small part”, he said.
THE INVESTIGATOR OF HOMEOPATHY
This may well have been the first time I started looking critically at homeopathy and my own clinical practice – and this is roughly where I left things as far as homeopathy is concerned until, in 1993, it became my job to research alternative therapies systematically and rigorously. Meanwhile I had done a PhD and tried my best to learn the skills of critical analysis. As I began to investigate homeopathy scientifically, I found that my former boss had been right: patients do indeed improve because of a multitude of factors: placebo-effects, natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean, to mention just three of a multitude of phenomena. At the same time, he had not been entirely correct: homeopathic remedies are pure placebos; they do not play a ‘small part’ in patients’ improvement, they play no part in this process.
As I began to state this more and more clearly, all sorts of ad hominem attacks were hauled in my direction, and recently I was even fired from the editorial board of the journal ‘HOMEOPATHY’ because allegedly I “…smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine…” I don’t mind any of that – but I do think that the truth about ‘my double-life as a homeopath’ should not be diluted like a homeopathic remedy until it suits those who think they can defame me by claiming I am a liar and do not know what I am talking about.
This rather depressing story shows, I think, that some homeopaths, rather than admitting they are in the wrong, are prepared to dilute the truth until it might be hard for third parties to tell who is right and who is wrong. But however they may deny it, the truth is still the truth: I have been trained as a homeopath.
I have said it so often that I hesitate to state it again: an uncritical researcher is a contradiction in terms. This begs the question as to how critical the researchers of alternative medicine truly are. In my experience, most tend to be uncritical in the extreme. But how would one go about providing evidence for this view? In a previous blog-post, I have suggested a fairly simple method: to calculate an index of negative conclusions drawn in the articles published by a specific researcher. This is what I wrote:
If we calculated the percentage of a researcher’s papers arriving at positive conclusions and divided this by the percentage of his papers drawing negative conclusions, we might have a useful measure. A realistic example might be the case of a clinical researcher who has published a total of 100 original articles. If 50% had positive and 50% negative conclusions about the efficacy of the therapy tested, his trustworthiness index (TI) would be 1.
Depending on what area of clinical medicine this person is working in, 1 might be a figure that is just about acceptable in terms of the trustworthiness of the author. If the TI goes beyond 1, we might get concerned; if it reaches 4 or more, we should get worried.
An example would be a researcher who has published 100 papers of which 80 are positive and 20 arrive at negative conclusions. His TI would consequently amount to 4. Most of us equipped with a healthy scepticism would consider this figure highly suspect.
So how would alternative medicine researchers do, if we applied this method for assessing their trustworthiness? Very poorly, I fear – but that is speculation! Let’s see some data. Let’s look at one prominent alternative medicine researcher and see. As an example, I have chosen Professor George Lewith (because his name is unique which avoids confusion with researchers), did a quick Medline search to identify the abstracts of his articles on alternative medicine, and extracted the crucial sentence from the conclusions of the most recent ones:
- The study design of registered TCM trials has improved in estimating sample size, use of blinding and placebos
- Real treatment was significantly different from sham demonstrating a moderate specific effect of PKP
- These findings highlight the importance of helping patients develop coherent illness representations about their LBP before trying to engage them in treatment-decisions, uptake, or adherence
- Existing theories of how context influences health outcomes could be expanded to better reflect the psychological components identified here, such as hope, desire, optimism and open-mindedness
- …mainstream science has moved on from the intellectual sterility and ad hominem attacks that characterise the sceptics’ movement
- Trustworthy and appropriate information about practitioners (e.g. from professional regulatory bodies) could empower patients to make confident choices when seeking individual complementary practitioners to consult
- Comparative effectiveness research is an emerging field and its development and impact must be reflected in future research strategies within complementary and integrative medicine
- The I-CAM-Q has low face validity and low acceptability, and is likely to produce biased estimates of CAM use if applied in England, Romania, Italy, The Netherlands or Spain
- Our main finding was of beta power decreases in primary somatosensory cortex and SFG, which opens up a line of future investigation regarding whether this contributes toward an underlying mechanism of acupuncture.
- …physiotherapy was appraised more negatively in the National Health Service than the private sector but osteopathy was appraised similarly within both health-care sectors
This is a bit tedious, I agree, so I stop after just 10 articles. But even this short list does clearly indicate the absence of negative conclusions. In fact, I see none at all – arguably a few neutral ones, but nothing negative. All is positive in the realm of alternative medicine research then? In case you don’t agree with that assumption, you might prefer to postulate that this particular alternative medicine researcher somehow avoids negative conclusions. And if you believe that, you are not far from considering that we are being misinformed.
Alternative medicine is not really a field where one might reasonably expect that rigorous research generates nothing but positive results; even to expect 50 or 40% of such findings would be quite optimistic. It follows, I think, that if researchers only find positives, something must be amiss. I have recently demonstrated that the most active research homeopathic group (Professor Witt from the Charite in Berlin) has published nothing but positive findings; even if the results were not quite positive, they managed to formulate a positive conclusion. Does anyone doubt that this amounts to misinformation?
So, I do have produced at least some tentative evidence for my suspicion that some alternative medicine researchers misinform us. But how precisely do they do it? I can think of several methods for avoiding publishing a negative result or conclusion, and I fear that all of them are popular with alternative medicine researchers:
- design the study in such a way that it cannot possibly give a negative result
- manipulate the data
- be inventive when it comes to statistics
- home in on to the one positive aspect your generally negative data might show
- do not write up your study; like this nobody will ever see your negative results
And why do they do it? My impression is that they use science not for testing their interventions but for proving them. Critical thinking is a skill that alternative medicine researchers do not seem to cultivate. Often they manage to hide this fact quite cleverly and for good reasons: no respectable funding body would give money for such an abuse of science! Nevertheless, the end-result is plain to see: no negative conclusions are being published!
There are at least two further implications of the fact that alternative medicine researchers misinform the public. The first concerns the academic centres in which these researchers are organised. If a prestigious university accommodates a research unit of alternative medicine, it gives considerable credence to alternative medicine itself. If the research that comes out of the unit is promotional pseudo-science, the result, in my view, amounts to misleading the public about the value of alternative medicine.
The second implication relates to the journals in which researchers of alternative medicine prefer to publish their articles. Today, there are several hundred journals specialised in alternative medicine. We have shown over and over again that these journals publish next to nothing in terms of negative results. In my view, this too amounts to systematic misinformation.
My conclusion from all this is depressing: the type of research that currently dominates alternative medicine is, in fact, pseudo-research aimed not at rigorously falsifying hypotheses but at promoting bogus treatments. In other words alternative medicine researchers crucially contribute to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area.
It almost goes without saying that alternative practitioners contribute importantly to the ‘sea of misinformation’ about alternative medicine. Again, I could write books about this subject but have to refrain myself and therefore will merely put quick spotlights on several types of practitioners, mostly drawing from my own research on these subjects.
A survey of more than 9000 patients of U.K. non-medically trained acupuncturists showed that a considerable number had received advice from their therapists about prescribed medicines. Since these acupuncturists hold no medical qualifications, they are not qualified to issue such advice. It is therefore clear to me that the advice given is likely to be misleading. In 2000, we directly asked the U.K. acupuncturists’ advice about electro-acupuncture treatment for smoking cessation, a treatment which we previously had identified to be ineffective. The advice we received was frequently not based on current best evidence and some of it also raised serious safety concerns (Schmidt, K., & Ernst, E. Internet advice by acupuncturists—a risk factor for cardiovascular patients? Perfusion,2002, 15: 44-50. Article not Medline-listed).
Many chiropractors from the UK and other countries make unsustainable therapeutic claims on their websites. In 2002, at the height of the ‘‘MMR scare’’ in Britain, we conducted a study revealing that a sizable proportion of U.K. chiropractors advised mothers against having the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) jab for their children. A survey of the U.K. chiropractors demonstrated that an alarming percentage of the U.K. chiropractors fail to provide advice about the risks of spinal manipulation before commencing treatment. As these risks are, in fact, considerable, this behaviour amounts to misinformation and is an obvious violation of medical ethics.
With osteopaths, it is a very similar story; the main difference is that there are far less investigations than for chiropractors. This may be due to the fact that, in the US, osteopaths are not alternative but conventional clinicians with much the same training and skills as proper doctors. But in Europe, they are strictly alternative and make as many bogus claims as chiropractors. Systematic investigations are rare, but I only need to remind us of my recent blog-post where I pointed out that:
Most osteopaths treat children for a wide range of conditions and claim that their interventions are helpful. They believe that children are prone to structural problems which can be corrected by their interventions. Here is an example from just one of the numerous promotional websites on this topic:
STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS, such as those affecting the proper mobility and function of the body’s framework, can lead to a range of problems. These may include:
- Postural – such as scoliosis
- Respiratory – such as asthma
- Manifestations of brain injury – such as cerebral palsy and spasticity
- Developmental – with delayed physical or intellectual progress, perhaps triggering learning behaviour difficulties
- Infections – such as ear and throat infections or urinary disturbances, which may be recurrent.
OSTEOPATHY can assist in the prevention of health problems, helping children to make a smooth transition into normal, healthy adult life.
Encouraging evidence exists for some specific herbs in the treatment of some specific conditions. Yet, virtually no good evidence exists to suggest that the prescriptions of individualized herbal mixtures by traditional herbalists across the globe generate more good than harm. Despite this lack of evidence, herbalists do not seem to offer this information voluntarily to his or her patients. When we directly asked the UK herbalists for advice on a clinical case, we found that it was ‘‘misleading at best and dangerous at worst’’ . In other words, herbalists misinform their patients and the public about the value of their treatments.
Many non-medically trained homeopaths advise their clients against the immunization of children. Instead, these practitioners often recommend using ‘‘homeopathic vaccinations’’ for which no good evidence exists. For instance, the vice-chair of the board of directors of ‘‘The Society of Homeopaths’’ had a site with the following statements: ‘‘Homeopathic alternatives to children’s immunisation are now available.’’ ‘‘Our clinic offers alternative immunisation programmes for the whole family.’’ Such statements amounts to misinformation which puts children’s health at risk.
Other alternative practitioners
I have chosen the above-listed professions almost at random and could have selected any other type as well. Arguably, all alternative practitioners who employ unproven treatments – and that must be the vast majority – misinform their patients to some extend. The only way to avoid this is to say: ‘look, I am going to give you a therapy for which there is no good evidence – I hope you don’t mind’. If they did that, they would be out of business in a flash. It follows, I think, that being in business is tantamount to misleading patients.
And there is, of course, another way of misinforming patients which is often forgotten yet very important: withholding essential information. In all of health care, informed consent is a ‘sine qua non’. Alternative practitioners very rarely obtain informed consent from their patients. The reason seems obvious (see above). I would argue that not informing people when they should be informed is a form of misinformation.
In this context, it is worth mentioning an investigation we did in 2009: We obtained the ethical codes of the following bodies: Association of Naturopathic Practitioners, Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (UK), Ayurvedic Practitioners Association, British Acupuncture Council, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, European Herbal Practitioners Association, General Chiropractic Council, General Osteopathic Council, General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies, National Institute of Medical Herbalists, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, Society of Homeopaths, UK Healers, Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners. We then extracted the statements from these codes referring to evidence-based practice (EBP). The results showed that only the General Chiropractic Council, the General Osteopathic Council and the General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies oblige their members to adopt EBP.
It seems that misinformation is an alternative practitioner’s daily bread. Without it, alternative therapists would need to confine their practice to the few treatments/conditions for which the evidence is positive. If they ever followed this strategy, they would hardly be able to earn a living.
Where can someone turn to who wants reliable information on alternative medicine? Many consumers and patients who ask themselves this question might already be somewhat weary of the Internet; everybody should by now know that websites can be dangerously misleading and usually commercially driven. What about books then? People still tend to trust books; they are written by experts, published by responsible enterprises, and sold through respectable outlets. Surely we can trust books, or can’t we?
The first thing that strikes you when you look into the subject is the fact that there are thousands of books on alternative medicine. You only need to visit a major book shop in your high street and admire the rows and rows of these volumes. Since many years, I have been evaluating such volumes, for instance, for our journal FACT where we regularly publish reviews of new material. Through this and other work, I have gained the impression, that most of these books are not worth the paper they are printed on and constitute a major contributor to the misinformation bombarding the consumer in this area. But that was just an impression, hard data would be better.
In 1998, we assessed for the first time the quality of books on alternative medicine ( Int J Risk Safety Med 1998, 11: 209-215. [For some reason, this article is not Medline-listed]). We chose a random sample of 6 such books all published in 1997, and we assessed their contents according to pre-defined criteria. The findings were sobering: the advice given in these volumes was frequently misleading, not based on good evidence and often inaccurate. If followed, it would have caused significant harm to patients.
In 2006, we conducted a similar investigation which we then reported in the first and second editions of our book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE. This time, we selected 7 best-sellers in alternative medicine and scrutinised them in much the same way. What we found was revealing. Almost every treatment seemed to be recommended for almost every condition. There was no agreement between the different books which therapy might be effective for which condition. Some treatments were even named as indications for a certain condition, while, in other books, they were listed as contra-indications for the same problem. A bewildering plethora of treatments was recommended for most conditions, for instance:
- addictions: 120 different treatments
- arthritis: 131 different treatments
- asthma: 119 different treatments
- cancer: 133 different treatments
- etc. etc.
This experience, which we published as a chapter in our book entitled AN EPITAPH TO OPINION-BASED MEDICINE, confirmed our suspicion that books on alternative medicine are a major contributor to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in this area – and, as they are read by many people, a significant risk factor to public health.
Why do publishers allow such rubbish to be printed? Why do so many authors spend their time misleading the public with their dangerous half-knowledge? Why do consumers buy such overtly uncritical nonsense? I do not know the answers, I must admit. But I know that books of this nature do a disservice to everyone involved, including the few respectable aspect of alternative medicine which might actually exist.
Has the situation changed since 2006? We cannot be sure; there is, to the best of my knowledge, no hard data; and nobody has repeated our investigations. But my impression from regularly reviewing new books for FACT and other journals is far from encouraging. I fear that our ‘epitaph to opinion-based medicine’ might have been a little premature.
The WHO is one of the most respected organisations in all of health care. It therefore might come as a surprise that it features in my series of institutions contributing to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in the area of alternative medicine. I have deliberately selected the WHO from many other organisations engaging in similarly misleading activities in order to show that even the most respectable bodies can have little enclaves of quackery hidden in their midst.
In 2006, the WHO invited Prince Charles to elaborate on his most bizarre concepts in relation to ‘integrated medicine’. He told the World Health Assembly in Geneva: “The proper mix of proven complementary, traditional and modern remedies, which emphasises the active participation of the patient, can help to create a powerful healing force in the world…Many of today’s complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world…Much of this knowledge, often based on oral traditions, is sadly being lost, yet orthodox medicine has so much to learn from it.” He urged countries across the globe to improve the health of their populations through a more integrated approach to health care. What he failed to mention is the fact that integrating disproven therapies into our clinical routine, as proponents of ‘integrated medicine’ demonstrably do, will not render medicine better or more compassionate but worse and less evidence-based. Or as my more brash US friends often point out: adding cow pie to apple pie is no improvement.
For many years during the early 2000s, the WHO had also been working on a document that would have promoted homeopathy worldwide. They had convened a panel of ‘experts’ including the Queen’s homeopath Peter Fisher. They advocated using this disproven treatment for potentially deadly diseases such as malaria, childhood diarrhoea, or TB as an alternative to conventional medicine. I had been invited to comment on a draft version of this document, but judging from the second draft, my criticism had been totally ignored. Fortunately, the publication of this disastrous advice could be stopped through a concerted initiative of concerned scientists who protested and pointed out that the implementation of this nonsense would kill millions.
In 2003, the WHO had already published a very similar report: a long consensus document on acupuncture. It includes the following list of diseases, symptoms or conditions for which acupuncture has been proved-through controlled trials-to be an effective treatment:
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Dysentery, acute bacillary
Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
Induction of labour
Low back pain
Malposition of fetus, correction of
Nausea and vomiting
Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
Periarthritis of shoulder
If we compare these claims to the reliable evidence on the subject, we find that the vast majority of these indications is not supported by sound data (a fuller discussion on the WHO report and its history can be found in our book TRICK OR TREATMENT…). So, how can any organisation as well-respected globally as the WHO arrive at such outrageously misleading conclusions? The recipe for achieving this is relatively simple and time-tested by many similarly reputable institutions:
- One convenes a panel of ‘experts’ all or most of whom have a known preconceived opinion in the direction on has decided to go.
- One allows this panel to work out their own methodology for arriving at the conclusion they desire.
- One encourages cherry-picking of the data.
- One omits a meaningful evaluation of the quality of the reviewed studies.
- One prevents any type of critical assessment of the report such as peer-review by sceptics.
- If criticism does emerge nevertheless, one ignores it.
I should stress again that the WHO is, on the whole, a very good and useful organisation. This is precisely why I chose it for this post. As long as it is big enough, ANY such institution is likely to contain a little niche where woo and anti-science flourishes. There are far too many examples to mention, e.g. NICE, the NIH, UK and other governments. And this is the reason we must be watchful. It is all to human to assume that information is reliable simply because it originates from an authoritative source; the appeal to authority is appealing, of course, but it also is fallacious!
Colonic irrigation is the alternative therapy of celebrities (and those who like to imitate them): they tend to use it for all sorts of ailments, predominantly for loosing weight. And it works! When they have paid for the session, they are relieved of some cash as well as of about half a kilo of body weight. By the time they wake up the next morning, the money is still gone, but the weight is back. This is a most effective method for getting rid of some £s, but NOT an effective way for shedding a few pounds.
Numerous synonyms for colonic irrigation exist, e.g. colonic treatment, colon cleansing, rectal irrigation, colon therapy, colon hydrotherapy, colonic. The treatment is based on the ancient but obsolete theory of ‘autointoxication’, i.e. the body is assumed to poison itself with, ‘autotoxins’ which, in turn, cause various illnesses. So, it is implausible and there is also no evidence to suggest it is effective. But this does not stop professional organisations to make claims which are good for business.
My analysis of the claims made by professional organisations of practitioners of colonic irrigation across the globe aimed at assessing the therapeutic claims made by these institutions. Six such organisations were identified, and the contents of their websites were studied. The results showed that all of the six organisations make therapeutic claims on their websites. Frequently mentioned themes are ‘detoxification’, normalisation of intestinal functions, treatment of inflammatory bowel diseases and body weight reduction. The claims are mostly confined to symptomatic improvements – but there are exceptions, e.g. prevention of bowel cancer or sorting out Irritable Bowel Syndrome ‘once and for all’ . Other therapeutic claims pertain to asthma, menstrual irregularities, circulatory disorders, skin problems, improvement in energy levels and no longer requiring pharmacotherapy. All these claims represent testable hypotheses.
The question therefore arises whether these hypotheses have been tested and, if so, what the results of such investigations suggest? The use of colonic irrigation by alternative practitioners for any indications is not supported by any sound evidence at all. There are simply no trials to show effectiveness. Even worse is the fact that, although touted as safe, colonic irrigation can lead to serious complications.
The conclusion is therefore simple: colonic irrigation is neither demonstrably effective nor safe, and the information supplied by its professional organisations is therefore a significant contributor to the sea of misinformation in the realm of alternative medicine.
One thing that unites all (well, almost all, in my experience) proponents of alternative medicine is their intense dislike for BIG PHARMA. Essentially, they see this sector as:
- Driven by profit
- Employing unethical means to maximise profit
- Not caring for the needs of patients
- Attacking alternative medicine for fear of losing profit
And, of course, they claim that alternative medicine, LITTLE ALT MED, is fundamentally different from the cynically capitalist, malign BIG PHARMA.
I have no intention to defend the ways of the pharmaceutical industry – neither on this blog nor anywhere else. This industry is usually responsible to their share-holders and that constellation can lead to excesses which are counter-productive to our needs, to put it mildly. However, what I will question is the notion that LITTLE ALT MED is fundamentally different from BIG PHARMA.
We all have to make a living; to some extend at least we are therefore all driven by our desire to earn money. In alternative medicine, there are certainly not as many mega-enterprises as in the pharmaceutical industry but nobody can deny that many sizable firms exist which make a profit selling alternative remedies of one type or another.
And those parts of alternative medicine which are not into the sale of remedies, you may well ask – think of acupuncture, for instance. Well, those therapists are not exempt either from the need to make a living. Sure, this is on a different scale from BIG PHARMA, but it constitutes still a need for profit. If we multiply the relatively small sums involved by the vast number of therapists, the grand total of LITTLE ALT MED might approach similar orders of magnitude as that of BIG PHARMA.
Ok, but the alternative sector would not employ unethical means for securing or maximising profits! Wrong again, I am afraid.
My 20 years of experience of LITTLE ALT MED have let me witness several incidents which I would not hesitate to call unethical. One of the most recent and least pleasant, from my point of view, was the discovery that several German homeopathic manufacturers had given money to a ‘journalist’ who used these funds to systematically defame me.
What about the charge that BIG PHARMA does not care for the suffering patient? LITTLE ALT MED would never do that!!! Sadly this is a myth too.
Alternative practitioners and their organisations make a plethora of therapeutic claims which are not substantiated. Who would deny that misleading patients into making wrong health care decisions is not the opposite from ‘caring’? What seems even worse, in my view, is the behaviour that might follow the exposure of such behaviour. If someone is courageous enough to disclose the irresponsibility of bogus claims, he might be attacked or even taken to court by those who, in reality should be in the dock or, at least, do their utmost to get their house in order.
Finally, we have the notion of BIG PHARMA trying to suppress LITTLE ALT MED. I call this a myth too because I see absolutely no evidence for this rumour. Even those who circulate it can, when challenged, not produce any.
And, anyway, we all know how many of the big pharmaceutical firms buy into the alternative medicine market as soon as they see a commercially viable opportunity. Does that look like suppression?
So, what is the conclusion? BIG PHARMA can behave badly, no doubt, and when they do, I am as disgusted as the next man. However, LITTLE ALT MED also can behave badly – in fact, wherever there is money to be made, some people will behave badly some of the time.
Perhaps we should not judge an entire sector just by the bad actions of some of its members, but perhaps we should also consider whether or not it has done any good. Who would doubt that BIG PHARMA has helped to save lives – millions of lives?!
And now ask yourself: can we honestly say the same about LITTLE ALT MED?