MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

critical thinking

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Dr Gabriella Day is a GP in England who describes herself and her beliefs as follows: “I began training in homeopathy as it is clear that for many conditions conventional treatment options are not effective and can have unwanted side effects. It seemed to me that there must be another way to help people suffering from symptoms such as these… I believe in whole person medicine. No illness exists in isolation. The human body is immensely sophisticated and complicated and we do not understand it fully. Therefore the illness cannot be separated from the person suffering the disease. This may be as simple as stress impairing the immune system to far more complex interactions. Homeopathic treatment seeks to match the underlying disturbance in the system and stimulate the body to correct itself.”

I do not know Dr Day, but she caught my attention recently when she published an article in THE HIPPOCRATIC POST (I had never heard of this publication before!). It is, I think, sufficiently noteworthy to show you some excerpts (the references [in square brackets] were added by me, and they refer to my comments below):

START OF QUOTES

…Homeopathy can be helpful for pretty much any condition [1], whether as the main treatment [1], as a complement to a conventional treatment [2] to speed up the healing process [1], or to lessen the side-effects of a pharmacological medication [1]. It can be helpful in the treatment of emotional problems [1], physical problems [1] and for multi-morbidity patients [1]. I find it an invaluable tool in my GP’s toolbox and regularly see the benefits of homeopathy in the patients I treat [3]…

There are many conditions for which I have found homeopathy to be effective [1]… There are, however, a multitude of symptomatic treatments available to suppress symptoms, both on prescription and over-the-counter. Most symptoms experienced by patients in this context result from the body’s attempt to eliminate the infection. Our immune systems have spent thousands of years refining this response; therefore it seems counter-intuitive to suppress it [4].
For these types of acute conditions homeopathy can work with the body to support it [1]. For instance, homeopathic Arsenicum album (arsenic) is a classic remedy for diarrhoea and vomiting that can be taken alongside essential oral rehydration [1]. And in influenza I’ve found Eupatorium perfoliatum (ague or feverwort) to be very helpful if the patient is suffering with bony pain [3].
…Unless it is clinically imperative for a pharmacological intervention, I will always consider homeopathy first [5] and have successfully prescribed the homeopathic remedy Nux vomica (strychnine) for women suffering from morning sickness [5]. Problems associated with breastfeeding such as mastitis have also responded well to the classic remedies Belladonna (deadly nightshade) and Phytolacca (pokeweed), while I have found Urtica urens (dog nettle) effective in switching off the milk supply to prevent engorgement when the mother stops breastfeeding [3].
…“heart sink” patients are clearly suffering from pain and discomfort, which is blighting their lives. This is understandably frustrating for them, for they know full well something is awry but there is no medical evidence for this… Homeopathy affords me another approach in trying to help these patients [1,3]. It doesn’t work for them all, but I’m frequently surprised at how many it does help [3].

Positive side-effects

The beauty of homeopathy is that it combines mental and emotional symptoms with physical symptoms [3]. When the right remedy is found it appears to stimulate the body to recognise how it is being dysfunctional and corrects this, with no suppression, just a correction of the underlying disturbance [3]. Thus homeopathy not only eliminates unwanted symptoms [1], it dramatically improves a patient’s overall well-being [1].
…homeopathy… enables me to reduce the number of painkillers and other drugs I’m prescribing [1,3]. This is particularly true for older multi-morbidity, polypharmacy patients [1] who are often taking huge amounts of medication.
Contrary to what most homeopaths will tell you, I believe homeopathic treatment does have side-effects – positive side-effects! [1] It fosters an enhanced doctor patient relationship [1]. The process of eliciting the relevant information to select a remedy enables me to better understand the patient’s condition and helps me to get to know them better [3]. And the patient, seeing that the doctor is interested in the idiosyncrasies and detail of their disease, finds themselves heard and understood [3]. In short, since training in homeopathy I enjoy my job as a GP and my relationship with patients so much more [3].
Dr Gabriella Day BSc, MBBS, MRCP, DCH, MRCGP, MFHom

END OF QUOTES

MY COMMENTS:

  1. statement without good evidence,
  2. Hahnemann was vehemently against combining homeopathy with other treatments and called clinicians who disregarded this ‘traitors’,
  3. statement of belief,
  4. wrong assumption,
  5. questionable ethics.

I have recently attempted to slip into the brain of lay-homeopaths and shown how illogical, misguided and wrong the arguments of such enthusiasts really are. Surely, the logic of a doctor homeopath must be better, I then thought. Once you have studied medicine, you have learnt an awful lot of things about the body, disease, therapy, etc., etc., I felt.

Judging from the above article, I might have been wrong.

Alternative medicine differs from conventional medicine in numerous ways. One important difference is that patients often opt to try this or that product without consulting any healthcare professional at all. In such cases, the pharmacist might be the ONLY professional who can advise the patient who is about to purchase such a product.

This is why the role of the pharmacist in alternative medicine is crucial, arguably more so than in conventional medicine. And this is why I am banging on about pharmacists who far too often behave like shop-keepers and not like ethical healthcare professionals. A new review addresses these issues and provides relevant information.

Pharmacists from the University of Macau in Macau, China conducted a literature review to extract publications from 2000 to 2015 that related pharmacist to alternative medicine products. 41 publications which reported findings from exploratory studies or discussed pharmacists’ responsibilities towards such products were selected for inclusion.

Seven major responsibilities emerged:

  • to acknowledge the use of alternative medicine products;
  • to be knowledgeable about such products;
  • to ensure safe use of such products;
  • to document the use of such products;
  • to report ADRs related to such products;
  • to educate about such products;
  • to collaborate with other health care professionals in respect to such products.

One point that is not directly covered here is the duty of pharmacists to comply with their own ethical codes. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, this would mean in many instances to not sell alternative medicine products at all, because there is no good evidence to show that they are generating more good than harm and thus are potentially harmful as well as wasteful.

Some pharmacists have realised that there is a problem. Some pharmacists are trying to initiate discussions about these issues within their profession. Some pharmacists are urging to change things. Some pharmacists are well-aware that healthcare ethics are being violated on a daily basis.

All this has been going on now for well over a decade.

And has there been any noticeable change?

Not as far as I can see!

Perhaps it is time to realise that not merely the sale of bogus medicines by pharmacists is unethical, but so is dragging one’s feet in initiating improvements.

 

“Highly diluted homeopathic remedies cannot possibly work beyond a placebo effect because there is nothing in them”. This is the argument, we often hear. It is, I think correct. But homeopaths have always disagreed. Hahnemann claimed that the healing power of his remedies was due to a ‘vital force’, and for a long time his followers repeated this mantra. Nowadays, it sounds too obsolete to be taken seriously, and homeopaths came up with new theories as to how their remedies work. The current favourite is the ‘nano-theory’.

This article explains it quite well: “… some of the most exciting findings have been in the world of tiny nano-particles.   Nano-particles are described as particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size.  For an idea of scale, a nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.  A single atom is one-tenth of a nanometer, and subatomic particles are still smaller than that.  Quantum mechanics (the study of these very small particles) has shown that these tiny particles can and do have impact our macro world, and can be useful in everything from medical PET scans to quantum computing. But the breakthrough that I’m most excited about is the latest study around nano-particles which has shown that at the very highest prescription strength dilutions of a homeopathic substance (50M) there are still nano-particles of the original substance that exist.  Further, not only did researchers discover that these particles exist, but they showed that they had demonstrable effects when tests were run on homeopathic dilutions versus a control substance…”

Right!

So, the claim is that, during the process of potentisation of a homeopathic remedy, nano-particles of the original stock are formed. Therefore, even ultra-molecular dilutions are not devoid of material but do contain tiny bits of what is says on the bottle. This is the reason why homeopaths now claim WE WERE RIGHT ALL ALONG; HOMEOPATHY WORKS!!!

I Have several problems with this assumption:

  • The nano-particles have been shown by just 1 or 2 research groups. I would like to see independent confirmations of their findings because I am not convinced that this is not simply an artefact without real meaning.
  • Even if we accept the ‘nano-theory’ for a moment, there are numerous other issues.
  • What about the many homeopathic remedies that use stock which is not material by nature, for instance, X-ray, luna, etc.? Do we need to assume that there are also nano-particles of non-materials?
  • And for remedies that are based on a material stock (like arnica or nux vomica, or Berlin Wall, for instance), how do the nano-particles generate heath effects? How do a few nano-particles of arnica make cuts and bruises heal faster? How do nano-particles of nux vomica stop a patient from vomiting? How do nano-particles of the Berlin Wall do anything at all?

If the ‘nano-theory’ were true (which I doubt very much), it totally fails to provide an explanation as to how homeopathy works. This explanation would still need to be identified for each of the thousands of different remedies in separate investigations.

If nano-particles are truly generated during the potentisation process, it proves almost nothing. All it would show is that shaken water differs from unshaken water. The water in my kitchen sink also differs from pure water; this, however, does not mean that it has healing properties.

My conclusion: there is no plausible mode of action of highly diluted homeopathic remedies.

The ‘Daily Mail’ is not a paper famed for its objective reporting. In politics, this can influence elections; in medicine, it can endanger public health.

A recent article is a case in point, I think.

START OF QUOTE

Traditional Chinese medicines could help prevent heart disease and the progression of pre-diabetes, according to research. Some herbal treatments proved as effective in lowering blood pressure as Western drugs and improved heart health by lowering cholesterol, scientists found. Certain alternative medicines could lower blood sugar and insulin levels, too.

Chinese medicines could be used alongside conventional treatments, say researchers from Shandong University Qilu Hospital in China. Or they can be beneficial as an alternative for patients intolerant of Western drugs, they said in their review of medical studies over a ten-year period. Senior review author from the university’s department of traditional Chinese medicine said: ‘The pharmacological effects and the underlying mechanisms of some active ingredients of traditional Chinese medications have been elucidated. Thus, some medications might be used as a complementary and alternative approach for primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease.”

It’s potentially good news for people living with diabetes, which is now a global epidemic and has proved a tricky condition to manage for many people. High blood pressure is very common too, affecting more than one in four adults in the UK,  although many won’t show symptoms and realise it. If untreated, it increases your risk of serious problems including heart disease, the number one killer globally.

The Chinese have used herbs for treating diseases for thousands of years and have become increasingly popular in Europe and North America, mainly as complement to Western medicine. But the researchers also warn that much of the research conducted have limitations and so their long-term effects are not proven.

Key findings  

Herbs for high blood pressure

The blood pressure-lowering effect of herb zhongfujiangya was found to be similar to that of oral anti-hypertension medication benazeprilm, which goes by the brand name Lotensin. Similarly, patients treated for eight weeks with herbal tiankuijiangya had a lower reading than those given a placebo. Herbal Jiangya tablets were found to ‘significantly lower’ systolic blood pressure, that is the amount of pressure in your arteries during contraction of your heart muscle compared to a fake treatment. The herb Jiangyabao also had a significant effect compared to a placebo, but just at night. But overall, compared to the drug Nimodipine, a calcium channel blocker, it worked just as well. Qiqilian capsules also proved more effective compared to a placebo.

Herbs for diabetes

The team report some Chinese medicines medications – such as xiaoke, tangminling, jinlida, and jianyutangkang – have a ‘potent’ effect on lowering blood sugar levels and b-cell function, which controls the release of insulin. Some remedies – such as tangzhiping and tianqi – might prevent the progression of pre-diabetes to diabetes, they note.

Herbs for cholesterol 

The researchers looked at research on dyslipidemia, the term for unbalanced or unhealthy cholesterol levels. They found that jiangzhitongluo, salviamiltiorrhiza and pueraria lobata, and zhibitai capsule all have a ‘potent lipid-lowing effect’.

Herbs for heart disease

Some traditional Chinese medicines such as qiliqiangxin, nuanxin, shencaotongmai, and yangxinkang, might be effective in improving function in patients with chronic heart failure, they wrote.

Limitations with trials

But Western scientists often reject Chinese medicine for specific reasons, warned Dr Zhao’s team. Chinese medicines are frowned upon because they do not go through the same exhaustive approval process as trials conducted domestically, they pointed out. Plus, one treatment can be made of many different ingredients with various chemical compounds, making it hard to pinpoint how their benefits work. ‘One should bear in mind that traditional Chinese medicine medications are usually prescribed as complex formulae, which are often further manipulated by the practitioner on a personalized basis,’ said Dr Zhao.

END OF QUOTE

Apart from the fact that this article is badly written, it is also misleading to the point of being outright dangerous. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that Chinese research is everything but reliable; there are practically no Chinese TCM-trials that report negative results. Furthermore, the safety of Chinese herbal preparations is as good as unknown and they are often contaminated with toxic substances as well as adulterated with synthetic drugs. Most of these preparations are also unavailable outside China. Moreover, Chinese herbal treatments are usually individualised (mixtures are tailor-made for each individual patient), and there is no good evidence that this approach is effective. Crucially, the trial evidence is often of such poor quality that it would be a dangerous mistake to trust these findings.

None of these important caveats, it seems, are important enough to get a mention in the Daily Mail.

Don’t let the truth get in the way of a sensational story!

Let’s just for a moment imagine what would happen if people took the Mail article seriously (is there anyone out there who does take the Mail seriously?). In a best case scenario, they would take Chinese herbs in addition to their prescribed medication. This might case plenty of unwanted side-effects and herb-drug interactions. In addition, people would lose a lot of their hard-earned cash. In a worst case scenario, they would abandon their prescribed medication for dubious Chinese herbal mixtures. This could cause thousands of premature deaths.

With just a little research, I managed to find the original article on which the Mail’s report was based. Here is its abstract:

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has more than 2,000 years of history and has gained widespread clinical applications. However, the explicit role of TCM in preventing and treating cardiovascular disease remains unclear due to a lack of sound scientific evidence. Currently available randomized controlled trials on TCM are flawed, with small sample sizes and diverse outcomes, making it difficult to draw definite conclusions about the actual benefits and harms of TCM. Here, we systematically assessed the efficacy and safety of TCM for cardiovascular disease, as well as the pharmacological effects of active TCM ingredients on the cardiovascular system and potential mechanisms. Results indicate that TCM might be used as a complementary and alternative approach to the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. However, further rigorously designed randomized controlled trials are warranted to assess the effect of TCM on long-term hard endpoints in patients with cardiovascular disease.

In my view, the authors of this review are grossly over-optimistic in their conclusions (but nowhere near as bad as the Mail journalist). If the trials are of poor quality, as the review-authors admit, no firm conclusions should be permissible about the usefulness of the therapies in question.

As the Mail article is obviously based on a press release (several other papers worldwide reported about the review as well), it seems interesting to note what the editor of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (the journal that published the review) recently had to say about the responsibility of journalists and researchers:

START OF QUOTE

…I would like to suggest that journalists and researchers must share equally in shouldering the burden of responsibility to improve appropriate communication about basic and clinical research.

First, there is an obligation on the part of the researchers not to inflate the importance of their findings. This has been widely recognized as damaging, especially if bias is introduced in the paper…

Second, researchers should take some responsibility for the creation of the press release about their research, which is written by the media or press relations department at their hospital or society. Press releases are often how members of the media get introduced to a particular study, and these releases can often introduce errors or exaggerations. In fact, British researchers evaluated 462 press releases on biomedical and health-related science issued by 20 leading U.K. universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer-reviewed research papers and the news stories that followed (n = 668). They found that 40% of the press releases contained exaggerated advice, 33% contained exaggerated causal claims, and 36% contained exaggerated inference to humans from animal research. When press releases contained such exaggeration, 58%, 81%, and 86% of news stories, respectively, contained further exaggeration, compared with rates of 17%, 18%, and 10% in the news when the press releases were not exaggerated. Researchers should not be excused from being part of the press release process, as the author(s) should at least review the release before it gets disseminated to the media. I would even encourage researchers to engage in the process at the writing stage and to not allow their hospital’s or society’s public relations department to extrapolate their study’s results. Ultimately, the authors and the journals in which the studies are published will be held accountable for the information that trickles into the headlines, not the public relations departments, so we must make sure that the information is accurate and representative of the study’s actual findings.

END OF QUOTE

Sound advice indeed.

Now we only need to ALL follow it!!!

Quackademia is an apt term for the teaching or promotion of quackery in universities. Sadly, this is a serious problem, and we have therefore discussed it already several times (see here, here and here). If you have read my memoir, you know that I had my fair share of quackademia ‘hands-on’, so to speak. This article from Australia has more on the subject:

START OF QUOTE

Friends of Science in Medicine have complained that alternative practitioners who speak at events were then using the names and logos of universities on their promotional material. Edith Cowan University recently cancelled a workshop promoting pranic crystal healing — which claims to use crystals to energise and heal the body — after complaints from FSM that it had no scientific basis. The university also cancelled Brisbane-based nutrition author Christine Cronau, who was due to promote her low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet on June 25. In response to a website petition calling on the university to cancel Cronau’s seminar, ECU said it rejected the booking because “it does not align with our evidence-based approach to dietetics teaching and research”.

The talk has been moved to Murdoch University, which, despite being lobbied to cancel the booking, said in a statement this week that it would go ahead. Murdoch said it promoted critical thinking and learning through discussion, debate and exposure to alternatives points of view. “One way to achieve this is to welcome other voices on campus in the form of guest speakers or visiting lecturers,” the statement said. “The university takes a common sense approach to the debate of controversial issues and we encourage respectful and insightful debate of thought- provoking topics.”

FSM president John Dwyer said universities should review the content of external health seminars before they hired out their venues. “We don’t have an issue with free speech, but some of the material is just not scientific,” Professor Dwyer said. “Often universities don’t know about the nature of the pseudo-scientific events they are hosting.”

Cronau said she was disappointed ECU had cancelled her talk but her faith in common sense had been restored by Murdoch University. “My approach has actually become a lot less controversial, so I don’t know why it has generated such comments,” she said.

END OF QUOTE

I find this story interesting. It reveals several things:

  • Quacks love to infiltrate universities; this gives them a veneer of respectability, they think.
  • This discloses their schizophrenic attitude to the ‘scientific establishment’ in an exemplary fashion: they often are fiercely against science but, at the same time, they are only too happy to jump at opportunities of decorating themselves with scientific feathers.
  • Universities are run like businesses these days. They tend to take the money where they can get it. Issues like scientific credibility rarely figure high on the agenda.
  • When challenged, universities claim they are favouring free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate.
  • This usually is but a lame excuse.

I remember protesting while at Exeter against a weekend course of pure quackery which the organisers were advertising under the logo of my university. My protest fell on deaf ears, and my peers pretended to favour free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate. After I had retired, the University of Exeter even allowed quacks to infiltrate and made this surprising announcement: Our complementary therapists will be offering 15-20 minute taster sessions in our complementary therapies yurt. The therapy taster sessions on offer will include: shaitsu bodywork, reflexology, indian head Massage, seated back massage and much more. To take advantage of these free taster sessions just pop along to the yurt on the day of the festival.

But the Australian events also offer a glimmer of hope in this usually bleak situation. Sometimes our protests do have an effect! I therefore urge everyone to not give up. Quackademia is a pest, and for the sake of future generations, we must not allow it to infest our universities.

According to Wikipedia, “the Bundesverband der Pharmazeutischen Industrie (BPI) with headquarters in Berlin is an Eingetragener Verein and the German industry association/trade group for the pharmaceutical industry. It represents 240 German pharmaceutical and Biotech companies in with altogether approximately 70,000 employees. BPI has an office in Brussels. The focus of the BPI is on political consulting and public relations on the EU-level.” 

The BPI has recently published a remarkable press-release about homeopathy. As it is in German, I will translate it for you (and append the original text for those who can read German).

HERE WE GO:

Homeopathy is a recognised and proven therapy for patients in Germany [1]. This is demonstrated by a new, BPI-sponsored survey [2]. About half of all questioned had experience with homeopathic remedies [3]. More than 70% of those people are satisfied or very satisfied with their effectiveness and safety [4].

“Homeopathic remedies are important for many patients in Germany”[3], says Dr. Norbert Gerbsch, deputy chair of the BPI. ” If therapists and patients use them correctly, they can support the therapeutic success [5]. Therefore, they should be recognised by conventional medicine as an integrative medicine [5] – that is what patients in Germany clearly want [6].”

Two thirds of the people surveyed think it is important or very important, that therapies like anthroposophical medicine and homeopathy are supported politically next to conventional medicine [7]. More than 70% find it personally important or very important that health insurances pay for selected anthroposophical and homeopathic services [8]. More than 80% said they would favour this. Thus, the majority is for keeping homeopathy amongst the services that can be chosen by the insurances for reimbursement [8].

Dr. Norbert Gerbsch: “The survey proves that very many individuals integrate, use and treasure homeopathy as an additional and usually safe therapy [3]. Those who aim at curtailing therapeutic freedom patronise numerous patients in Germany who can benefit from it [9]. There are numerous diseases for which homeopathy can be used as an integrative therapeutic option [10]. Thus, many conventional physicians employ homeopathic and anthroposophic remedies in parallel to guideline-orientated medicine [3, 11].”

(Homöopathie ist eine anerkannte und bewährte Therapieform für Patienten in Deutschland. Das belegt eine neue, vom BPI beauftragte Forsa-Umfrage. Rund die Hälfte der Befragten hat demnach bereits Erfahrung mit homöopathischen Arzneimitteln. Über 70 Prozent von ihnen sind zufrieden oder sehr zufrieden mit der Wirksamkeit und Verträglichkeit.

„Homöopathische Arzneimittel haben für viele Patienten in Deutschland einen hohen Stellenwert“, sagt Dr. Norbert Gerbsch, stellvertretender BPI-Hauptgeschäftsführer. „Wenn Behandler und Patienten sie richtig und verantwortungsvoll einsetzen, kann sie den Therapieerfolg unterstützen. Sie sollte insofern als wichtige Ergänzung der Schulmedizin im Sinne einer Integrativen Medizin anerkannt werden – das wünschen sich die Patienten in Deutschland eindeutig.“

Fast zwei Drittel der von Forsa Befragten finden es wichtig bis sehr wichtig, dass sich die Politik neben schulmedizinischen Behandlungsmethoden auch aktiv für Heilmethoden wie etwa Homöopathie oder Anthroposophische Medizin einsetzt. Über 70 Prozent finden es persönlich wichtig bis sehr wichtig, dass Krankenkassen ihren Versicherten auch die Kosten für ausgewählte Leistungen aus dem Bereich der homöopathischen Medizin erstatten. Mit über 80 Prozent überdurchschnittlich häufig plädieren Befragte mit Homöopathie-Erfahrung für die Kostenübernahme ausgewählter Leistungen durch die Krankenkassen. Damit stimmt die Mehrheit für den Erhalt der Homöopathie im Rahmen von sogenannten Satzungsleistungen, die von den Krankenkassen individuell festgelegt werden können.

Dr. Norbert Gerbsch: „Die Umfrage belegt, dass sehr viele Menschen Homöopathie als ergänzende und in der Regel nebenwirkungsarme Therapieoption in die Behandlung integrieren, sie nutzen und achten. Wer die Therapiefreiheit und -vielfalt beschneiden will, bevormundet zahlreiche Patienten in Deutschland, die davon profitieren können. Es gibt eine Vielzahl an Erkrankungen, bei denen homöopathische Arzneimittel als integraler Bestandteil von Therapien einsetzbar sind. So nutzen viele Schulmediziner neben dem gesamten Spektrum der leitlinienorientierten Medizin gleichzeitig die integrativen Angebote der Homöopathie und Anthroposophischen Medizin.“)

I DO APPOLOGISE FOR MY POOR TRANSLATION; I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND THAT IT IS VERY HARD TO TRANSLATE SOMETHING THAT SIMPLY DOES NOT MAKE SENSE!

I have rarely seen such an unscientific, irrational, nonsensical and promotional comment from an organisation and an individual that should know better. Mr. Gerbsch studied biotechnology and graduated in 1997 in bioprocess engineering. He headed a scientific team following his promotion to director of a trans-departmental research topic with 13 professorships at the Technical University of Berlin. He later took on responsibilities as commissioner, officer and director of various companies. Since 2006, Mr. Gerbsch works as department manager of biotechnology / research & development at BPI and is responsible for the biotechnology department and innovation & research committee.

Here are just a few short points of criticism referring to the numbers I have added in my translation:

  1. Homeopathy is recognised and proven to be a pure placebo-therapy.
  2. A survey of this nature can at best gauge the current opinion.
  3. Fallacy: appeal to popularity.
  4. Perceived effectiveness/safety is not the same as true effectiveness/safety.
  5. There is no good evidence for this statement.
  6. What patients want might be interesting, but it cannot determine what they need; medicine is not a supermarket!
  7. I suspect this is the result of a leading question.
  8. This is where the BPI discloses the aim of the survey and their comment about it: they want the German health insurances to continue paying for homeopathic and anthroposophical placebos because some of their member companies earn their money selling them. In other words, the BPI actively hinder progress.
  9. No, those who advocate not paying for placebos want to encourage progress in healthcare for the benefit of patients and society.
  10. “Can be used” is an interesting phraseology! It is true, one can use homeopathy – but one cannot use it effectively because it has no effect beyond placebo.
  11. Yes, many physicians are sadly more focussed on their own cash-flow than on the best interest of their patients. Not all that different from the BPI, it seems.

It is beyond me how an organisation like the BPI can produce such shamefully misleading, dangerous and unethical drivel. Not one word about the fact that all international bodies have condemned homeopathy as being a useless and dangerous placebo-therapy! Who ever thought that the BPI was an independent organisation (homeopathy manufacturers belong to its membership) has been proven wrong by the above press-release.

The BPI clearly needs reminding of their duty to inform the public responsibly. I recommend that the leading heads of this organisation urgently attend one course on critical thinking followed by another on medical ethics.

Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true: this is the 1000th post on this blog.

Form the outset, I intended to critically comment on as many alternative modalities (treatments and diagnostic methods) as I can. This is the (probably not totally complete) list of what we covered:

Acupressure

Acupuncture

Agrohomeopathy

Anthroposophic medicine

Alexander technique

Alkaline diet

Aloe vera

Antioxidants

Applied kinesiology

Arnica

Aromatherapy

Autogenic training

Ayurveda

Bach flower remedies

Bioresonance

Biopuncture

Bowen technique

Calcium supplements

Cancer diets

Chelation therapy

Chinese herbal medicine

Chiropractic

Chondroitin

Colloidal silver

Copper chloride biocrystallisation

Cranio-sacral therapy

Crystal healing

Cupping

Detox

Dietary supplements

Distant healing

Ear candles

Emotional freedom techniques

Energy healing

Eurythmy

Evening primrose oil

Faith healing

Feverfew

Fish oil

Ginkgo biloba

Ginseng

Glucosamine

Gua sha

Heilpraktiker

Herbal medicine

Holistic dentistry

Homeopathy

Homeoprohylaxis

Homeotoxicology

Hypnotherapy

Integrative medicine

Iridology

Johrei healing

Kampo

Khalifa therapy

Kinesiology tape

Laetrile

Leech therapy

Lymph-drainage

Marijuana

Massage

Mind-body therapies

Mindfulness-based stress reduction

Mistletoe

Moxibustion

Mushrooms

Naturopathy

Neutraceuticals

Oscillococcinum

Osteopathy

Paleo diet

Pilates

Placebo

Plant sterols

Pranic healing

Prayer

Qigong

Reiki

Reflexology

Rhino horn

Shiatsu

Self-Reiki

Shujing massage

Slimming aids

Slapping therapy

Soy

Spinal manipulation

Spinal mobilisation

Spiritual healing

St Johns Wort

Tai chi

TCM

Therapeutic Touch

Transcendental meditation

Tui na

Tumeric

Urine therapy

Veterinary homeopathy

Vibrational medicine

Vitamin C

Yoga

IMPRESSIVE?

In addition, we discussed all sorts of general issues which are not directly related to one specific modality. Most importantly, we had plenty of discussions and debates – not always as well-mannered as I had hoped (my mistake entirely) but usually instructive and interesting. Today, there were almost 30 000 comments!!!

The comments are the most important feature of this blog, I feel. And because they are so crucial, I would like to say to all commenters: MANY THANKS, WITHOUT YOU THIS WOULD NOT BE HALF AS MUCH FUN!

And here is my promise on this day of celebration: I will continue to do my best to amuse, entertain and inform you with my comments, rants and ramblings.  As the subject of alternative medicine is not going to disappear in a hurry, I am not worried to run out of exciting material.

…and now, let’s find the champagne bottle!

 

 

Currently, over 50 000 000 websites promote alternative medicine, and consumers are bombarded with information not just via the Internet, but also via newspapers, magazines and other sources. This has the potential of needlessly separating them from their cash or even seriously harming their health. As there is little that protects us from greedy entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic therapists, we should think about protecting ourselves. Here I will provide five simple tips that may fortify you against fake news in the realm of alternative medicine.

Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are exited by this news. Before you now rush to the next health shop or alternative medicine centre, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the claim plausible? As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.
  • What is the evidence for the claim? In the case of CARCTOL, the claim was based on a UK doctor apparently observing that, in several patients, tumours had been melting like butter in the sun after they took this herbal mixture. One particularly irresponsible headline read: “I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor.” This, however, is no evidence but mere anecdotes, and we confuse the two at our peril. Remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence. With anecdotes, we can never be sure about cause and effect. Therapeutic claims must be based on good evidence, e.g. controlled clinical trials.
  • Who is behind the claim? In the UK, the CARCTOL claim emerged around 2004 and originated mainly from Dr Rosy Daniel. In the above newspaper article, she was called ‘a respected cancer doctor’. Personally, I do NOT ‘respect’  someone who makes claims of this nature without having good evidence. And a ‘cancer doctor’ is usually understood to be an oncologist; to the best of my knowledge, Dr Daniel is NOT an oncologist. In fact, she now calls herself a ‘Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine Consultant’. Faced with an important new health claim, one should always check who is behind it. Check out whether this person is reputable and free of conflicts of interest. An affiliation to a reputable university is usually more convincing than being a director of your own private heath centre.
  • Where was the claim published? The CARCTOL story had been published in newspapers – and nowhere else! Even today, there is only one Medline-listed publication on the subject. It is my own review of the evidence which, in 2004, concluded that “The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.”   *** If important new therapeutic claims like ‘therapy xy cures cancer’ are reported in the popular media, you should always check where they were first published (or simply dismiss it without researching it). It is unthinkable that such an important claim is not made first in a proper, peer-reviewed article in a good medical journal. Go on ‘Medline’, conduct a quick search and find out whether the new findings have been published. If the claim does not come from peer-reviewed journals, forget about it. If it has been published in any journal that has alternative, complementary, integrative or similar terms in its name, take it with a good pinch of salt.
  • Is there money involved? In the case of CARCTOL, the costs were high. I was called once by a woman who had read my article telling me that she was pursued by the doctor who had treated her husband. Tragically, the man had nevertheless died of his cancer, and the widow was now pursued for £8 000 which she understandably was reluctant to pay. Many new treatments are expensive. So, high costs are not necessarily suspicious. Still, I advise you to be extra cautious in situations where there is the potential for someone to make a fast buck. Financial exploitation is sadly rife in the realm of alternative medicine.

A similar checklist originates from a team of experts. Researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, worked to identify the most important ideas a person would need to grasp thinking critically about health claims. They came up with excellent points:

  1. Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
  2. New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
  3. Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
  4. Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
  5. Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
  6. Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.

Alternative medicine can easily turn into a jungle or even a nightmare. Before you fall for any dubious claim that THERAPY XY is good for you, please go through the simple sets of questions above. This might protect you from getting ripped off or – more importantly – from getting harmed.

 

*** After this article had been published, I received letters from layers threatening me with legal action unless I withdrew the paper. I decided to ignore them, and no legal action followed.

In their now famous 1998 NEJM editorial about alternative medicine, Angell and Kassirer concluded that “It is time for the scientific community to stop giving alternative medicine a free ride. There cannot be two kinds of medicine — conventional and alternative. There is only medicine that has been adequately tested and medicine that has not, medicine that works and medicine that may or may not work. Once a treatment has been tested rigorously, it no longer matters whether it was considered alternative at the outset. If it is found to be reasonably safe and effective, it will be accepted. But assertions, speculation, and testimonials do not substitute for evidence. Alternative treatments should be subjected to scientific testing no less rigorous than that required for conventional treatments.”

Then and today, I entirely agree(d) with these sentiments. Years later, the comedian Tim Minchin brought it to the point: “You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? – Medicine.”  So, comedians have solved the terminology problem, but we, the experts, have not managed to get rid of the notion that there is another type of medicine. Almost 20 years after the above editorial, we still struggle to find the ideal name.

Despite their desperate demand ‘THERE CANNOT BE TWO KINDS OF MEDICINE’, Angell and Kassirer still used the word ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE. On this blog, I usually do the same. But there are many terms, and it is only fair to ask: which one is the most suitable?

  1. ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE is strictly speaking an umbrella term for modalities (therapy or diagnostic technique) employed as a replacement of conventional medicine; more commonly the term is used for all heterodox modalities.
  2. CHARLATANERY treatment by someone who professes to have expertise that he does not have.
  3. COMPLEMENTATY MEDICINE is an umbrella term for modalities usually employed as an adjunct to conventional healthcare.
  4. COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE (CAM) an umbrella term for both 1 and 3 often used because the same alternative modality  can be employed either as a replacement of or an add-on to conventional medicine.
  5. COMPLEMENTARY AND INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE (CIM) a nonsensical term recently created by authors of an equally nonsensical BMJ review.
  6. DISPROVEN MEDICINE is an umbrella term for treatments that have been shown not to work (as proving a negative is usually impossible, there are not many such therapies).
  7. FRINGE MEDICINE is the term formerly used for alternative medicine.
  8. HETERODOX MEDICINE is the linguistically correct term for unorthodox medicine (this could be the most correct term but has the disadvantage that consumers are not familiar with it).
  9. HOLISTIC MEDICINE is healthcare that emphasises whole patient care (as all good medicine is by definition holistic, the term seems problematic).
  10. INTEGRATED MEDICINE describes the use of treatments that allegedly incorporate ‘the best of both worlds’, i.e. the best of alternative and conventional healthcare (integrated medicine can be shown to be little more than a smokescreen for adopting bogus treatments in conventional medicine).
  11. INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE is the same as 10 (10 is more common in the UK, 11 is more common in the US).
  12. NATURAL MEDICINE is healthcare exclusively employing the means provided by nature for treating disease.
  13. QUACKERY is the deliberate misinterpretation of the ability of a treatment or diagnostic technique to treat or diagnose disease (quackery exists in all types of healthcare).
  14. TRADITIONAL MEDICINE is healthcare that has been in use before the scientific era (the assumption is that such treatments have stood the test of time).
  15. UNCONVENTIONAL MEDICINE is healthcare not normally used in conventional medicine (this would include off-label use of drugs, for instance, and therefore does not differentiate well).
  16. UNORTHODOX MEDICINE the linguistically incorrect but often used term for healthcare that is not normally used in orthodox medicine.
  17. UNPROVEN MEDICINE is healthcare that lacks scientific proof (many conventional therapies fall in this category too).

These terms and explanations (mostly my own) are meant to bring out clearly that:

  • none of them is perfect,
  • none has ever been clearly defined,
  • none describes the area completely,
  • none is without considerable overlap to other terms,
  • none is really useful.

My conclusion, after pondering about these terms for many years (it can be an intensely boring issue!), is that the best solution would be to abandon all umbrella terms (see Angell and Kassirer above). Alas, that hardly seems practical when running a blog on the subject. I think therefore that I will continue to (mostly) use the term ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE (consumers understand it best, in my experience) … unless, of course, someone has a better idea.

Since more than 20 years, I have been writing about the risks of alternative therapies. One of my first papers on this issue was published in 1995 and focussed on acupuncture. Here is its abstract:

The use of acupuncture is widespread. The procedure is often claimed to be totally, or at least reasonably, safe. The published evidence regarding its potential risks is reviewed. The repeated and/or inappropriate use of an acupuncture needle carries the risk of infections. Amongst others, AIDS and hepatitis have been transmitted. Acupuncture needles may also traumatise tissues and organs. Pneumothorax is the most frequent complication caused in this way. Finally, needles may break and fragments can be dislodged into distant organs. A serious and more general concern related to the safety of acupuncture is the competence of the therapist, whether or not medically qualified. The “philosophy” of acupuncture is not in line with orthodox diagnostic skills; therefore acupuncturists can be dangerously unconcerned with diagnostic categories. Thus indirect risks might add significantly to the direct risks of acupuncture. It is concluded that the true risk of acupuncture cannot be estimated. Whatever its extent, it could and probably should be lowered by enforcing educational and clinical standards.

My reason for banging on about the potential harms (direct and indirect risks) of alternative medicine is fairly obvious: I want to alert healthcare professionals and consumers to the fact that these treatments may not be as harmless as they are usually advertised to be. Yet, I have often be called an alarmist fear-monger. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.

Thinking about fear-mongering, I began to ask myself whether those who regularly accuse me are the ones guilty of the deed. Are alternative practitioners fear-mongers? Surely not all of them, but some clearly are. Here are a few of the strategies they use for their fear-mongering.

NON-EXISTING DIAGNOSES

Perhaps the most obvious way to instil fear into people is to tell them that they are affected by a disease or condition they do not have. Many alternative practitioners do exactly that!

  • A chiropractor might tell you that you have a subluxation in your spine.
  • A naturopath would inform you that your body is full of toxins.
  • An acupuncturist will tell you that your life energy is blocked.
  • A homeopath might warn you that your vital force is too low.

These diagnoses have one thing in common: they do not exist. They are figments of the therapist’s imagination. And they have another thing in common: the abnormalities need to be corrected, and – surprise, surprise – the very therapy that the practitioner specialises in happens to be just the ticket for that purpose.

  • The chiropractor will tell you that a simple spinal adjustment will solve the problem.
  • The naturopath will inform you that a bit of detox will eliminate the toxins.
  • The acupuncturist will tell you that his needles will de-block your chi.
  • The homeopath will persuade you that he can find the exact remedy to revive your vital force.

And there we have the third thing these diagnoses have in common: they are all treatable, will all result in a nice bill, and will all improve the cash-flow of the therapist.

MEDICALIZING TRIVIALITIES

But often, it is not even necessary for an alternative therapist to completely invent a diagnosis. Patients usually consult an alternative practitioner with some sort of symptom – frequently with what one might call a medical triviality that does not need any treatment at all but can be dealt with differently, for instance, by issuing some life-style advice or just simple re-assurance that nothing major is amiss. But for the fear-monger, this is not enough. He feels the need to administer his therapy, and for that purpose he needs to medicalize trivialities :

  • A low mood thus becomes a clinical depression.
  • A sore back is turned into a nasty lumbago.
  • A tummy upset morphs into a dangerous gastritis.
  • Abdominal unrest is diagnosed to be a leaky gut syndrome.
  • A food aversion turns into a food intolerance, etc., etc.

The common denominator is again the fact that fear is instilled into the patient. And again, a useless therapy is administered, if at all possible in the form of a lengthy series of treatments. This, of course, generates significant benefit – not therapeutic, but financial!

DEMONIZING CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE

But there is always the risk that the patient is wiser than expected. She might be so scared learning of her condition that she decides to see her doctor. That would mean a loss of income which has to be avoided! The trick to achieve this is usually not difficult: conventional healthcare professionals must be demonized.

  • They are not treating the root cause of the problem.
  • They are in the pocket of BIG PHARMA.
  • They prescribe medicines with terrible side-effects.
  • They have no idea about holism.
  • They never have enough time to listen, etc., etc.

I know, some of these criticisms are not entirely incorrect (for instance, many conventional medicines do have serious side-effects but, as I try to point out ad nauseam, we need to consider their risk/benefit balance). But that is hardly the point here; the point is to scare the patient off conventional medicine. Only a person who is convinced that the ‘medical mafia’ is out to get her, will prove to be a loyal customer of all things alternative.

DISEASE PREVENTION

And a loyal customer is someone who comes not just once or twice but regularly, ideally from cradle to grave. The way to achieve this ultimate stimulus of the practitioners cash flow is to convince the patient that she needs regular treatments, even when she feels perfectly alright. The magic word here is PREVENTION! The masters here are the chiropractors, I guess; they promote what they call ‘maintenance care’, i.e. the regular treatment of healthy individuals to keep their spines subluxation-free. It goes without saying that maintenance care is a money-making scam.

The strategy requires two little lies, but that’s forgivable considering the good cause, boosting the income of the practitioner:

  1. Conventional doctors don’t do prevention.
  2. The alternative treatment is an effective preventative.

The first statement can be shown to be an obvious lie. All we know about effective disease prevention today comes from conventional medicine and science; nothing originates from the realm of alternative medicine. Remarkably, the most efficacious preventative measure of all times, immunisation, is frequently defamed and neglected by alternative practitioners.

The second statement is a necessary lie; how else would a patient agree to pay regularly for the practitioner’s services? I am not aware of any alternative therapy that can effectively prevent any disease.

CONCLUSIONS

  • Some alternative practitioners regularly instil fear into consumers.
  • Several strategies are being used for this purpose.
  • They have the aim of maximising the therapists’ income.
  • Fear-mongering is unethical and despicable.
  • Pointing out that a certain therapy might fail to generate more good than harm is not fear-mongering.
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