This press-release caught my eye today. It relates to an article that does not seem to be available yet (at least when I looked it was not on Medline). As it is highly relevant to issues that we have repeatedly discussed on this blog, let me quote the important sections of the press-release instead:
To investigate alternative medicine use and its impact on survival compared to conventional cancer treatment, the researchers studied 840 patients with breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal cancer in the National Cancer Database (NCDB) — a joint project of the Commission on Cancer of the American College of Surgeons and the American Cancer Society. The NCDB represents approximately 70% of newly diagnosed cancers nationwide. Researchers compared 280 patients who chose alternative medicine to 560 patients who had received conventional cancer treatment.
The researchers studied patients diagnosed from 2004 to 2013. By collecting the outcomes of patients who received alternative medicine instead of chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation, they found a greater risk of death. This finding persisted for patients with breast, lung, and colorectal cancer. The researchers concluded that patients who chose treatment with alternative medicine were more likely to die and urged for greater scrutiny of the use of alternative medicine for the initial treatment of cancer.
“We now have evidence to suggest that using alternative medicine in place of proven cancer therapies results in worse survival,” said lead author Dr. Skyler Johnson. “It is our hope that this information can be used by patients and physicians when discussing the impact of cancer treatment decisions on survival.”
Dr. Cary Gross, co-author of the study, called for further research, adding, “It’s important to note that when it comes to alternative cancer therapies, there is just so little known — patients are making decisions in the dark. We need to understand more about which treatments are effective — whether we’re talking about a new type of immunotherapy or a high-dose vitamin — and which ones aren’t, so that patients can make informed decisions.”
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Regular readers of my blog will not be surprised; we have discussed similar findings before:
Korean researchers evaluated whether complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) -use influenced the survival and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) of terminal cancer patients. From July 2005 to October 2006, they prospectively studied a cohort study of 481 cancer patients. During a follow-up of 163.8 person-years, they identified 466 deceased patients. Their multivariate analyses of these data showed that, compared with non-users, CAM-users did not have better survival. Using mind-body interventions or prayer was even associated with significantly worse survival. CAM users reported significantly worse cognitive functioning and more fatigue than nonusers. In sub-group analyses, users of alternative medical treatments, prayer, vitamin supplements, mushrooms, or rice and cereal reported significantly worse HRQOL. The authors conclude that “CAM did not provide any definite survival benefit, CAM users reported clinically significant worse HRQOLs.”
A Norwegian study examined the association between CAM-use and cancer survival. Survival data were obtained with a follow-up of 8 years for 515 cancer patients. A total of 112 patients used CAM. During the follow-up period, 350 patients died. Death rates were higher in CAM-users (79%) than in those who did not use CAM (65%). The hazard ratio of death for CAM-use compared with no use was 1.30. The authors of this paper concluded that “use of CAM seems to predict a shorter survival from cancer.”
This study from the US was aimed at determining whether CAM use impacts on the prognosis of breast cancer patients. Health Eating, Activity, and Lifestyle (HEAL) Study participants (n = 707) were diagnosed with stage I-IIIA breast cancer. Participants completed a 30-month post-diagnosis interview including questions on CAM use (natural products such as dietary and botanical supplements, alternative health practices, and alternative medical systems), weight, physical activity, and comorbidities. Outcomes were breast cancer-specific and total mortality, which were ascertained from the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results registries in Western Washington, Los Angeles County, and New Mexico. Cox proportional hazards regression models were fit to data to estimate hazard ratios (HR) and 95 % confidence intervals (CI) for mortality. Models were adjusted for potential confounding by socio-demographic, health, and cancer-related factors. Among the 707 participants, 70 breast cancer-specific deaths and 149 total deaths were reported. 60.2 % of participants reported CAM use post-diagnosis. The most common CAM were natural products (51 %) including plant-based estrogenic supplements (42 %). Manipulative and body-based practices and alternative medical systems were used by 27 and 13 % of participants, respectively. No associations were observed between CAM use and breast cancer-specific (HR 1.04, 95 % CI 0.61-1.76) or total mortality (HR 0.91, 95 % CI 0.63-1.29). The authors concluded that CAM use was not associated with breast cancer-specific mortality or total mortality. Randomized controlled trials may be needed to definitively test whether there is harm or benefit from the types of CAM assessed in HEAL in relation to mortality outcomes in breast cancer survivors.
Some forms of CAM might be effective in supportive or palliative care of cancer patients. However, if it is used or recommended as a cancer therapy, our alarm bells should start ringing.
I just found the new article; here is its abstract:
There is limited available information on patterns of utilization and efficacy of alternative medicine (AM) for patients with cancer. We identified 281 patients with nonmetastatic breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer who chose AM, administered as sole anticancer treatment among patients who did not receive conventional cancer treatment (CCT), defined as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, and/or hormone therapy. Independent covariates on multivariable logistic regression associated with increased likelihood of AM use included breast or lung cancer, higher socioeconomic status, Intermountain West or Pacific location, stage II or III disease, and low comorbidity score. Following 2:1 matching (CCT = 560 patients and AM = 280 patients) on Cox proportional hazards regression, AM use was independently associated with greater risk of death compared with CCT overall (hazard ratio [HR] = 2.50, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.88 to 3.27) and in subgroups with breast (HR = 5.68, 95% CI = 3.22 to 10.04), lung (HR = 2.17, 95% CI = 1.42 to 3.32), and colorectal cancer (HR = 4.57, 95% CI = 1.66 to 12.61). Although rare, AM utilization for curable cancer without any CCT is associated with greater risk of death.
The Daily Star reported that 9 children have died in Tripura Para of Sitakunda during the last week. At least 46 other children in the remote hilly area are suffering from the same unidentified disease which has not yet been identified. The children aged between one and 12 suffer from fever and other symptoms include body rash, breathing problems, vomiting and blood in stool.
None of the fatalities was taken to a hospital, and two of them were treated homeopathically. The three-year-old Rupali had fever and a rash all over her body for three days. “We took her to a man who practices homeopathy. He lives some two kilometres away. He had given Rupali some medicines”, said her uncle. Asked why they did not take the child to a hospital, Pradip said the next health complex was 15 kilometres away from their home. Besides, they did not have money to buy medicines which would have been prescribed by doctors.
Shimal Tripura was also among the children who died. His father Biman Tripura said the two-year-old boy had been suffering from fever for six days. Shimal was also taken to a local man who practices homeopathy.
“The disease could not be identified immediately,” said a spokesperson. Asked whether the disease could be transmitted by mosquitoes, he said, “It does not seem so. If it was, then why only children were being affected?” A medical team from the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research in Dhaka was dispatched for Sitakunda, he said, adding that the local primary school was shut down to prevent the spread of the disease.
I have often pointed out that homeopathy can be deadly – not usually via its remedies (highly diluted homeopathic have no effects whatsoever) but via homeopaths who do not know what they are doing. It seems that here we have yet further tragic cases to confirm this point. Nine children were reported to have died. Two of them received homeopathic remedies and 7 seemed to have had no treatment at all. This looks like a very sad statistic indicating that homeopathy is as bad as no treatment at all.
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.
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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.
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.
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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:
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…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.
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Sound advice indeed.
Now we only need to ALL follow it!!!
The new guidelines by the American College of Physicians entitled ‘Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians’ have already been the subject of the previous post. Today, I want to have a closer look at a small section of these guidelines which, I think, is crucial. It is entitled ‘HARMS OF NONPHARMACOLOGIC THERAPIES’. I have taken the liberty of copying it below:
“Evidence on adverse events from the included RCTs and systematic reviews was limited, and the quality of evidence for all available harms data is low. Harms were poorly reported (if they were reported at all) for most of the interventions.
Low-quality evidence showed no reported harms or serious adverse events associated with tai chi, psychological interventions, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, ultrasound, acupuncture, lumbar support, or traction (9,95,150,170–174). Low-quality evidence showed that when harms were reported for exercise, they were often related to muscle soreness and increased pain, and no serious harms were reported. All reported harms associated with yoga were mild to moderate (119). Low-quality evidence showed that none of the RCTs reported any serious adverse events with massage, although 2 RCTs reported soreness during or after massage therapy (175,176). Adverse events associated with spinal manipulation included muscle soreness or transient increases in pain (134). There were few adverse events reported and no clear differences between MCE and controls. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation was associated with an increased risk for skin site reaction but not serious adverse events (177). Two RCTs (178,179) showed an increased risk for skin flushing with heat compared with no heat or placebo, and no serious adverse events were reported. There were no data on cold therapy. Evidence was insufficient to determine harms of electrical muscle stimulation, LLLT, percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, interferential therapy, short-wave diathermy, and taping.”
The first thing that strikes me is the brevity of the section. Surely, guidelines of this nature must include a full discussion of the risks of the treatments in question!
The second thing that is noteworthy is the fact that the authors confirm the fact I have been banging on about for years: clinical trials of alternative therapies far too often fail to mention adverse effects. I have often pointed out that the failure to report adverse effects in clinical trials is an unacceptable violation of medical ethics. By contrast, the guideline authors seem not to feel strongly about this omission.
The third thing that is noteworthy is that the guidelines evaluate the harms of the treatments purely on the basis of the adverse effects reported in the clinical trials and systematic reviews included in their efficacy assessments. This is nonsensical for at least two reasons:
- The guideline authors themselves are aware that the trials very often fail to mention adverse effects.
- For any assessment of harm, one has to go far beyond the evidence of clinical trials, because trials tend to be too small to pick up rare adverse effects, and because they are always conducted under optimally controlled conditions where adverse effects are less likely to occur than in real life.
Together, these features of the assessment of harms explain why the guideline authors arrive at conclusions which are oddly misguided; I would even feel that they resemble a white-wash. Here are two of the most overt misjudgements:
- no harms associated with acupuncture,
- only trivial harm associated with spinal manipulations.
The best evidence we have today shows that acupuncture leads to mild adverse effects in about 10% of all cases and is also associated with very severe complications (e.g. pneumothorax, cardiac tamponade, infections, deaths) in an unknown number of patients. More details can be found for instance here, here, here and here.
And the best evidence available shows that spinal manipulation leads to moderately severe adverse effects in ~50% of all cases. In addition, we know of hundreds of cases of very severe complications resulting in stroke, permanent neurological deficits or deaths. More details can be found for instance here, here, here and here.
In the introduction, I stated that this small section of the guidelines is crucial.
The reason is simple: any responsible therapeutic decision has to be based not just on the efficacy of the treatment in question but on its risk/benefit balance. The evidence shows that the risks of some alternative therapies can be considerable, a fact that is almost totally neglected in the guidelines. Therefore, the recommendations of the new guidelines by the American College of Physicians entitled ‘Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians’ are in several aspects not entirely correct and need to be reconsidered.
Is spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) dangerous? This question has kept us on this blog busy for quite some time now. To me, there is little doubt that SMT can cause adverse effects some of which are serious. But many chiropractors seem totally unconvinced. Perhaps this new overview of reviews might help to clarify the issue. Its aim was to elucidate and quantify the risk of serious adverse events (SAEs) associated with SMT.
The authors searched five electronic databases from inception to December 8, 2015 and included reviews on any type of studies, patients, and SMT technique. The primary outcome was SAEs. The quality of the included reviews was assessed using a measurement tool to assess systematic reviews (AMSTAR). Since there were insufficient data for calculating incidence rates of SAEs, they used an alternative approach; the conclusions regarding safety of SMT were extracted for each review, and the communicated opinion were judged by two reviewers independently as safe, harmful, or neutral/unclear. Risk ratios (RRs) of a review communicating that SMT is safe and meeting the requirements for each AMSTAR item, were calculated.
A total of 283 eligible reviews were identified, but only 118 provided data for synthesis. The most frequently described adverse events (AEs) were stroke, headache, and vertebral artery dissection. Fifty-four reviews (46%) expressed that SMT is safe, 15 (13%) expressed that SMT is harmful, and 49 reviews (42%) were neutral or unclear. Thirteen reviews reported incidence estimates for SAEs, roughly ranging from 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 250,000,000 manipulations. Low methodological quality was present, with a median of 4 of 11 AMSTAR items met (interquartile range, 3 to 6). Reviews meeting the requirements for each of the AMSTAR items (i.e. good internal validity) had a higher chance of expressing that SMT is safe.
The authors concluded that it is currently not possible to provide an overall conclusion about the safety of SMT; however, the types of SAEs reported can indeed be significant, sustaining that some risk is present. High quality research and consistent reporting of AEs and SAEs are needed.
This article is valuable, if only for the wealth of information one can extract from it. There are, however, numerous problems. One is that the overview included mostly reviews of the effectiveness of SMT for various conditions. We know that studies of SMT often do not even mention AEs. If such studies are then pooled in a review, they inevitably generate an impression of safety. But this would, of course, be a false-positive result!
The authors of the overview are aware of this problem and address it in the following paragraph: “When only considering the subset of reviews, where the objective was to investigate AEs (37 reviews), then 8 reviews (22%) expressed that SMT is safe, 13 reviews (35%) expressed that SMT is harmful and 16 reviews (43%) were neutral or unclear regarding the safety of SMT. Hence, there is a tendency that a bigger proportion of these reviews are expressing that SMT is harmful compared to the full sample of reviews…”
To my surprise, I found several of my own reviews in the ‘neutral or unclear’ category. Here are the verbatim conclusions of three of them:
- It is concluded that serious cerebrovascular complications of spinal manipulation continue to be reported.
- The most common serious adverse events are vertebrobasilar accidents, disk herniation, and cauda equina syndrome.
- These data indicate that mild and transient adverse events seem to be frequent. Serious adverse events are probably rare but their incidence can only be estimated at present.
I find it puzzling how this could be classified as neutral or unclear. The solution of the puzzle might lie in the methodology used: “we appraised the communicated opinions of each review concerning the safety of SMT based on their conclusions regarding the AEs and SAEs. This was done by two reviewers independently (SMN, LK), who judged the communicated opinions as either ‘safe’, ‘neutral/unclear’ or ‘harmful’, based on the qualitative impression the reviewers had when reading the conclusions. The reviewers had no opinion about the safety/harmfulness of SMT before commencing the judgements. Cohen’s weighted Kappa was calculated for the agreement between the reviewers, with a value of 0.40–0.59 indicating ‘fair agreement’, 0.60–0.74 indicating ‘good agreement’ and ≥0.75 indicating ‘excellent agreement’. Disagreements were resolved by a third reviewer (MH).”
In other words, the categorisation was done on the basis of subjective judgements of two researchers. It seems obvious that, if their attitude was favourable towards SMT, their judgements would be influenced. The three examples from my own work cited above indicates to me that their verdicts were indeed far from objective.
So what is the main message here? In my view, it can be summarized in the following quote from the overview: “a bigger proportion of these reviews are expressing that SMT is harmful …”
Yes, yes, yes – I know that, if you are a chiropractor (or other practitioner using mostly SMT), you are unlikely to agree with this!
Perhaps you can agree with this statement then:
As long as there is reasonable doubt about the safety of SMT, and as long as we cannot be sure that SMT generates more good than harm, we should be very cautious using it for routine healthcare and do rigorous research to determine the truth (it’s called the precautionary principle and applies to all types of healthcare).
‘The use of a harmless alternative therapy is not necessarily wrong. Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it can help many patients. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject such therapies simply because they are not supported by sufficient scientific evidence’.
How often have I heard this notion in one or another form?
I hear such words almost every day.
Arguments along these lines are difficult to counter. Any attempt to do so is likely to make us look blinkered, high-handed and less than compassionate.
Yet we all – well almost all – know that the notion is wrong. Not only that, it can be dangerous.
I will try to explain this with a concrete example of a patient employing a harmless alternative remedy with great success… until… well, you’ll see.
The patient is a married women with two kids. She is well known to her doctor because she has suffered from a range of symptoms for years, and the doctor – despite extensive tests – could never find anything really wrong with her. He knows about his patient’s significant psychological problems and has, on occasion, been tempted to prescribe tranquilizers or anti-depressants. Before he does so, however, he tells her to try Rescue Remedies@ (homeopathically diluted placebos from the range of Bach Flower Remedies). The patient is generally ‘alternatively inclined’, seems delighted with this suggestion and only too keen to give it a try.
After a couple of weeks, she reports that the Rescue Remedies (RR) are helping her. She says she can cope much better with stressful situations and has less severe and less frequent headaches or other symptoms. As she embarks on a long period of taking RR more or less regularly, she becomes convinced that the RR are highly effective and uses them whenever needed with apparent success. This goes on for months, and everyone is happy: the patient feels she has finally found a ‘medication that works’, and the doctor (who knows only too well that RR are placebos) is pleased that his patient is suffering less without needing real medication.
Then, a few months later, the patient notices that the RR are becoming less and less effective. Not only that, she also thinks that her headaches have changed and are becoming more intense. As she has been conditioned to believe that the RR are highly effective, she continues to take them. Her doctor too agrees and encourages her to carry on as before. But the pain gets worse and worse. When she develops other symptoms, her doctor initially tries to trivialise them, until they cannot be trivialised any longer. He eventually sends her to a specialist.
The patient has to wait a couple of weeks until an appointment can be arranged. The specialist orders a few tests which take a further two weeks. Finally, he diagnoses a malignant, possibly fast growing brain tumour. The patient has a poor prognosis but nevertheless agrees to an operation. Thereafter, she is paralysed on one side, needs 24-hour care, and dies 4 weeks post-operatively.
The surgeon is certain that, had he seen the patient several months earlier, the prognosis would have been incomparably better and her life could have been saved.
I suspect that most seasoned physicians have encountered stories which are not dissimilar. Fortunately they often do not end as tragically as this one. We tend to put them aside, and the next time the situation arises where a patient reports benefit from a bogus treatment we think: ‘Even if the treatment itself is just a placebo, it might help. Some patients feel better with it, and it would be arrogant, high-handed and less than compassionate to reject this ‘feel-good factor’.
I hope my story might persuade you that this notion is not necessarily correct.
If you are unable to make your patient feel better without resorting to quackery, my advice is to become a pathologist!!!
I have published many articles on the risks of various alternative treatments (see for instance here, here, here, here, here and here) – not because I am alarmist but because I have always felt very strongly that, for a researcher into alternative medicine, the most important issue must be to make sure users of these therapies are as safe as possible. Usually I differentiated between direct and indirect risks. The former relate to the risks of the treatment and include, for instance, liver damage caused by a herbal remedy or stroke due to neck manipulation. The latter are mainly due to the poor, often irresponsible advice given by many therapists.
A recent article adopted the same terminology when reviewing the risks of alternative medicine specifically for cancer patients. As the indirect risks are often neglected, I will here quote the relevant section of this paper in full:
…Health care physicians and oncology experts have an ethical responsibility to initiate the communication regarding the use of complementary therapies with cancer patients. However, according to data obtained from this literature review, oncology doctors and physicians will discuss complementary therapies only when a patient him/herself raises this issue within a consultation. This passive attitude was linked to a lack of sufficient scientific evidence for positive outcomes of complementary therapies found in high quality randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Oncology nurses, on the other hand, sometimes actively promote complementary modalities that they find to correspond with their vision of holistic care.
According to the included studies, complementary providers often differ from conventional health care providers in their understanding of treatment concepts, philosophies and diagnostic procedures. This leads to different models of disease causality (cells, blood, nerves vs. energy, vital force, meridians) and treatment philosophy (reductionism vs. holism). As many complementary providers are philosophically oriented towards personal and spiritual growth, patients may feel guilty if the disease continues to advance despite the patients’ best spiritual and mental efforts. According to Broom and colleagues, such philosophies may also give patients false hope of recovery.
Another indirect risk connected to the combination of conventional and complementary treatment in cancer care is the lack of regulation and standardized education in many countries. Currently, there are, for example, no standard training requirements for complementary providers working in cancer care or any other health care setting in the EU. According to Mackareth et al., complementary providers in England need specific training to learn how to practice safely.
Moreover, there is a need for common medical terminology to bridge the communication gap between health care providers working outside the conventional health care system. Common medical terminology may reduce the existing communication gap between conventional and complementary providers about mutual patients. To minimize communication gap between physicians, oncology experts and complementary providers, a medical complementary record should include a treatment plan with conventional and complementary diagnosis, explanation of terminology, possible treatment interactions, description of the complementary treatment plan and goals. If possible, the quality of any complementary supplement given should be reported.
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As I said, I find it important to discuss the indirect risks of alternative medicine, and I am therefore pleased that the authors of this article addressed them. At the same time, I find their text remarkably tame.
Why are they not more open and forceful about what, after all, amounts to a serious public health issue? The answer might be simpler than expected: most of them are affiliated with the ‘National Research Center in Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NAFKAM), UiT The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway’. Could it be that open warnings about outright quackery is not what suits this unit?
So, what might be an open and frank approach to discussing the indirect risks of alternative medicine? In my view, it should make several points abundantly clear and transparent:
- Alternative practitioners (APs) are usually not trained to advise patients responsibly, particularly in cases serious disease.
- The training of APs is often inadequate and sometimes resembles more to brain-washing than to proper education.
- Consequently, APs often woefully over-estimate what their therapy can achieve.
- The patients of APs are often desperate and ready to believe even the tallest tales.
- APs have a huge conflict of interest – in order to make a living they need to treat as many patients as possible and are therefore not motivated to refer them to more suitable care.
- APs are frequently in denial when it comes to the risks of their treatments.
- APs are not educated such that they understand the full complexities of serious illness.
- As a result, APs far too often misguide their patients to make tragically wrong choices thus putting their health at serious risk.
- In most countries, the regulators turn a blind eye to this huge problem.
These are by no means trivial points, and they have nothing to do with a ‘turf war’ between conventional and alternative medicine. They relate to our ethical duty to keep our patients as safe as we can. It has been estimated that, in oncology alone, 1 – 5% of deaths are due to patients opting to have alternative instead of conventional treatments. This amounts to an unbearably high absolute number of patients dying prematurely due to the indirect risks of alternative medicine.
It is high time, I think, that we tackle this issue systematically and seriously.
Stable angina is a symptom of coronary heart disease which, in turn, is amongst the most frequent causes of death in developed countries. It is an alarm bell to any responsible clinician and requires causal, often life-saving treatments of which we today have several options. The last thing a patient needs in this condition is ACUPUNCTURE, I would say.
Yet acupuncture is precisely the therapy such patients might be tempted to employ.
Because irresponsible or criminally naïve acupuncturists advertise it!
Take this website, for instance; it informs us that a meta-analysis of eight clinical trials conducted between 2000 and 2014 demonstrates the efficacy of acupuncture for the treatment of stable angina. In all eight clinical trials, patients treated with acupuncture experienced a greater rate of angina relief than those in the control group treated with conventional drug therapies (90.1% vs 75.7%)….
I imagine that this sounds very convincing to patients and I fear that many might opt for acupuncture instead of potentially invasive/unpleasant but life-saving intervention. The original meta-analysis to which the above promotion referred to is equally optimistic. Here is its abstract:
Angina pectoris is a common symptom imperiling patients’ life quality. The aim of this study is to evaluate the efficacy and safety of acupuncture for stable angina pectoris. Clinical randomized-controlled trials (RCTs) comparing the efficacy of acupuncture to conventional drugs in patients with stable angina pectoris were searched using the following database of PubMed, Medline, Wanfang and CNKI. Overall odds ratio (ORs) and weighted mean difference (MD) with their 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated by using fixed- or random-effect models depending on the heterogeneity of the included trials. Total 8 RCTs, including 640 angina pectoris cases with 372 patients received acupuncture therapy and 268 patients received conventional drugs, were included. Overall, our result showed that acupuncture significantly increased the clinical curative effects in the relief of angina symptoms (OR=2.89, 95% CI=1.87-4.47, P<0.00001) and improved the electrocardiography (OR=1.83, 95% CI=1.23-2.71, P=0.003), indicating that acupuncture therapy was superior to conventional drugs. Although there was no significant difference in overall effective rate relating reduction of nitroglycerin between two groups (OR=2.13, 95% CI=0.90-5.07, P=0.09), a significant reduction on nitroglycerin consumption in acupuncture group was found (MD=-0.44, 95% CI=-0.64, -0.24, P<0.0001). Furthermore, the time to onset of angina relief was longer for acupuncture therapy than for traditional medicines (MD=2.44, 95% CI=1.64-3.24, P<0.00001, min). No adverse effects associated with acupuncture therapy were found. Acupuncture may be an effective therapy for stable angina pectoris. More clinical trials are needed to systematically assess the role of acupuncture in angina pectoris.
In the discussion section of the full paper, the authors explain that their analysis has several weaknesses:
Several limitations were presented in this meta-analysis. Firstly, conventional drugs in control group were different, this may bring some deviation. Secondly, for outcome of the time to onset of angina relief with acupuncture, only one trial included. Thirdly, the result of some outcomes presented in different expression method such as nitroglycerin consumption. Fourthly, acupuncture combined with traditional medicines or other factors may play a role in angina pectoris.
However, this does not deter them to conclude on a positive note:
In conclusion, we found that acupuncture therapy was superior to the conventional drugs in increasing the clinical curative effects of angina relief, improving the electrocardiography, and reducing the nitroglycerin consumption, indicating that acupuncture therapy may be effective and safe for treating stable angina pectoris. However, further clinical trials are needed to systematically and comprehensively evaluate acupuncture therapy in angina pectoris.
So, why do I find this irresponsibly and dangerously misleading?
Here a just a few reasons why this meta-analysis should not be trusted:
- There was no systematic attempt to evaluate the methodological rigor of the primary studies; any meta-analysis MUST include such an assessment, or else it is not worth the paper it was printed on.
- The primary studies all look extremely weak; this means they are likely to be false-positive.
- They often assessed not acupuncture alone but in combination with other treatments; consequently the findings cannot be attributed to acupuncture.
- All the primary studies originate from China; we have seen previously (see here and here) that Chinese acupuncture trials deliver nothing but positive results which means that their results cannot be trusted: they are false-positive.
My conclusion: the authors, editors and reviewers responsible for this article should be ashamed; they committed or allowed scientific misconduct, mislead the public and endangered patients’ lives.
We have become used to bogus claims made by homeopaths – far too much so, I would argue. Therefore, we let the vast majority of their bogus claims pass without serious objections. Yet exposing bogus claims would be an important task, particularly when they relate to serious conditions. Doing this might even save lives!
According to the website of the ‘HOMEOPATHIC DOCTOR’, homeopathy is mild in nature and tends to modify the body’s natural immunity. It is the responsibility of the immune system of the body to protect it from all sorts of damage, whether from bacteria or viruses or from any other disease. It also helps in repairing any damage that may occur at any time. Homeopathic medicines help strengthen the natural immunity of the body so that it can perform its natural functions in a more efficient manner.
5 Best Homeopathic remedies for Ulcerative Colitis
In my experience, homeopathic medicines like Merc Sol, Baptisia, Nux Vomica, Arsenic Album and Phosphorus have been found to be quite effective in the treatment of Ulcerative Colitis…
Merc Sol- One of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis with blood and tenesmus
When there is too much bleeding with tenesmus and other symptoms, Merc Sol is one of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis. There are frequent stools with blood being discharged almost every time. The patient is a sweaty sort of patient who keeps on sweating most of the time. Creeping sort of chilliness may be felt in the back.
Nux Vomica- One of the best homeopathic remedies for ulcerative colitis due to high life
When the problem has occurred from living a high life, Nux Vomica is one of the best homeopathic remedies for ulcerative colitis. Excess of alcohol, stimulants like tea and coffee, late night partying and other habits incident to modern lifestyle can contribute to such a problem. The patient is usually a chilly sort of patient who cannot tolerate cold. He is unusually angry and that too at trifles.
Arsenic Album – One of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis with anxiety and restlesness
When the predominant symptoms are the mental symptoms of anxiety and restlessness, Arsenic Album is one of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis. The patient gets anxious, worried and restless for no rhyme or reason. There may be weakness which may be disproportionately more than the problem. There is increased thirst for water, though the patient takes a small quantity or a sip at a time.
Baptisia – One of the best homeopathic remedy for ulcerative colitis with low grade fever
When there is low grade fever present along with other symptoms, Baptisia is one of the best homeopathic remedy for ulcerative colitis. The patient has great muscular soreness all over the body as if bruised and beaten. Appetite is reduced or next to nil. At the same time, there is constant desire for water. Stools are very offensive, thin and watery.
Phosphorus – One of the best homeopathic medicine for ulcerative colitis with increased thirst for cold water
When there is intense thirst for cold water, Phosphorus is one of the best homeopathic medicine for ulcerative colitis. The patient is usually tall and thin. The diarrhoea is copious. Stool is watery and profuse bleeding may be present. Patient feels too weak and more so after passing a stool.
The ‘HOMEOPATHIC DOCTOR’s first statement was ‘in my experience…’? Unfortunately most patients will not understand what this expression truly means when written by a homeopath. It means THERE IS NOT A JOT OF EVIDENCE FOR ANY OF THIS. Had he stated this clearly, it would probably have been the only correct sentence in the whole article.
People who understand medicine a bit might laugh at such deluded clinicians and their weird, unethical recommendations. However, patients who are chronically ill and therefore desperate might take them seriously and follow their advice. Patients who suffer from potentially life-threatening diseases like ulcerative colitis might then cause serious damage to themselves or even die.
And this is precisely the reason why I will continue to expose these charlatans for what they are: irresponsible, unethical, uninformed, dangerous quacks
For far too many proponents of alternative medicine, belief in alternative methods seems disappointingly half-hearted. Not so for this enthusiast who invented an alternative form of resuscitation – but sadly failed.
This article explains:
A Russian woman spent more than 4 months trying to bring her dead husband back to life. How? With the help of holy water and prayer!
The retired therapist said she didn’t report the death of her 87-year-old husband because she believed she could revive him by sprinkling holy water on his body and reading prayers. The woman’s bizarre secret was revealed when she accidentally flooded the apartment below, and a neighbour forced his way into her home to turn off the water. He found the almost completely mummified husband laying on the living-room couch. Forensic pathologists determined that the man had been dead for 4 – 6 months, but found no traces of violence on his body and concluded he had died of natural causes.
Neighbours said that they did sense a strange smell coming out of the apartment, but didn’t think anything of it. The deceased had suffered a serious injury to his leg in 2015 and had been bed-ridden since then. Therefore his disappearance from public view went unnoticed. To make sure nobody interfered with her resuscitations, the woman told everyone that he was fine, but too tired for receiving guests. Even the couple’s children were asked not to visit.
The 76-year-old woman who had worked as a doctor for most of her life, became interested in the occult and obsessed with the work of Leonid Konovalov, a Russian psychic who stars in a television show where he tries to communicate with the dead. “When we started talking to the woman, it turned out that she was fascinated by alternative medicine and believed that, by sprinkling holy water on her husband, she would be able to bring him back, to revive him,” Chief investigator commented.
Is there a lesson in this story?
Perhaps this one: conviction in one’s methods might be good, but evidence is better.