Believe it or not, but my decision – all those years ago – to study medicine was to a significant degree influenced by a somewhat naive desire to, one day, be able to save lives. In my experience, most medical students are motivated by this wish – “to save lives” in this context stands not just for the dramatic act of administering a life-saving treatment to a moribund patient but it is meant as a synonym for helping patients in a much more general sense.
I am not sure whether, as a young clinician, I ever did manage to save many lives. Later, I had a career-change and became a researcher. The general view about researchers seems to be that they are detached from real life, sit in ivory towers and write clever papers which hardly anyone understands and few people will ever read. Researchers therefore cannot save lives, can they?
So, what happened to those laudable ambitions of the young Dr Ernst? Why did I decide to go into research, and why alternative medicine; why did I not conduct research in more the promotional way of so many of my colleagues (my life would have been so much more hassle-free, and I even might have a knighthood by now); why did I feel the need to insist on rigorous assessments and critical thinking, often at high cost? For my many detractors, the answers to these questions seem to be more than obvious: I was corrupted by BIG PHARMA, I have an axe to grind against all things alternative, I have an insatiable desire to be in the lime-light, I defend my profession against the concurrence from alternative practitioners etc. However, for me, the issues are a little less obvious (today, I will, for the first time, disclose the bribe I received from BIG PHARMA for criticising alternative medicine: the precise sum was zero £ and the same amount again in $).
As I am retiring from academic life and doing less original research, I do have the time and the inclination to brood over such questions. What precisely motivated my research agenda in alternative medicine, and why did I remain unimpressed by the number of powerful enemies I made pursuing it?
If I am honest – and I know this will sound strange to many, particularly to those who are convinced that I merely rejoice in being alarmist – I am still inspired by this hope to save lives. Sure, the youthful naivety of the early days has all but disappeared, yet the core motivation has remained unchanged.
But how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?
Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:
Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.
For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.
Several months ago, my co-workers and I once again re-visited the contentious issue of acupuncture’s safety. We published several articles on the topic none of which, I am afraid to say, was much appreciated by the slightly myopic world of acupuncture. The paper which created overt outrage and prompted an unprecedented amount of hate-mail was the one on deaths after acupuncture. This publication reported that around 90 fatalities associated with acupuncture had been documented in the medical literature.
The responses from acupuncturists ranged from disbelief to overt hostility. Acupuncturists the world over seemed to agree that there was something profoundly wrong with me personally and with my research; they all knew that acupuncture was entirely safe and that I was maliciously incorrect and merely out to destroy their livelihood.
So, am I alarmist or am I just doing my duty in reporting important facts? Two new articles might go some way towards answering this intriguing question.
The first is a review by Chinese acupuncturists who summarised all the adverse events published in the Chinese literature, a task which my article may have done only partially. The authors found 1038 cases of serious adverse events, including 35 fatalities. The most frequent non-fatal adverse events were syncope (468 cases), pneumothorax (307 cases), and subarachnoid hemorrhage (64 cases). To put this into context, we ought to know that the Chinese literature is hopelessly biased in favour of acupuncture. Thus the level of under-reporting can be assumed to be even larger than in English language publications.
The second new article is by a Swedish surgeon who aimed at systematically reviewing the literature specifically on vascular injuries caused by acupuncture. His literature searches found 31 such cases; the majority of these patients developed symptoms in direct connection with the acupuncture treatment. Three patients died, two from pericardial tamponade and one from an aortoduodenal fistula. There were 7 more tamponades, 8 pseudoaneurysms, two with ischemia, two with venous thrombosis, one with compartment syndrome and 7 with bleeding (5 in the central nervous system). The two patients with ischemia suffered lasting sequeleae.
The answer to the question asked above seems thus simple: the Chinese authors, the Swedish surgeon (none of whom I know personally or have collaborated with) and I are entirely correct and merely report the truth. And the truth is that acupuncture can cause severe complications through any of the following mechanisms:
1) puncturing the lungs resulting in a pneumothorax,
2) puncturing the heart causing a cardiac tamponade,
3) puncturing blood vessels causing haemorrhage,
4) injuring other vital structures in the body,
5) introducing bacteria or viruses resulting in infections.
Any of these complications can be severe and might, in dramatic cases, even lead to the death of the patient.
But we have to have the right perspective! These are extremely rare events! Most other treatments used in medicine are much much more risky! To keep banging on about such exotic events is not helpful! I can hear the acupuncture world shout in unison.
True, these are almost certainly rare events – but we have no good idea how rare they are. There is no adverse event reporting scheme in acupuncture, and the published cases are surely only the tip of the ice-berg. True, most other medical treatments carry much greater risks! And true, we need to have the right perspective in all of this!
So let’s put this in a reasonable perspective: with most other treatments, we know how effective they are. We can thus estimate whether the risks outweigh the benefit, and if we find that they do, we should (and usually do) stop using them. I am not at all sure that we can perform similar assessments in the case of acupuncture.