MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

diagnostic method

During Voltaire’s time, this famous quote was largely correct. But today, things are very different, and I often think this ‘bon mot’ ought to be re-phrased into ‘The art of alternative medicine consists in amusing the patient, while medics cure the disease’.

To illustrate this point, I shall schematically outline the story of a patient seeking care from a range of clinicians. The story is invented but nevertheless based on many real experiences of a similar nature.

Tom is in his mid 50s, happily married, mildly over-weight and under plenty of stress. In addition to holding a demanding job, he has recently moved home and, as a consequence of lots of heavy lifting, his whole body aches. He had previous episodes of back trouble and re-starts the exercises a physio once taught him. A few days later, the back-pain has improved and most other pains have subsided as well. Yet a dull and nagging pain around his left shoulder and arm persists.

He is tempted to see his GP, but his wife is fiercely alternative. She was also the one who dissuaded  Tom from taking Statins for his high cholesterol and put him on Garlic pills instead. Now she gives Tom a bottle of her Rescue Remedy, but after a week of taking it Tom’s condition is unchanged. His wife therefore persuades him to consult alternative practitioners for his ‘shoulder problem’. Thus he sees a succession of her favourite clinicians.

THE CHIROPRACTOR examines Tom’s spine and diagnoses subluxations to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of spinal manipulations and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE ENERGY HEALER diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital energy as the root cause of his persistent pain. Tom thus receives a series of healing sessions and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE REFLEXOLOGIST examines Tom’s foot and diagnoses knots on the sole of his foot to cause energy blockages which are the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of most agreeable foot massages and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE ACUPUNCTURIST examines Tom’s pulse and tongue and diagnoses a chi deficiency to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of acupuncture treatments and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE NATUROPATH examines Tom and diagnoses some form of auto-intoxication as the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a full program of detox and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.

THE HOMEOPATH takes a long and detailed history and diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital force to be the root cause of his pain. Tom thus receives a homeopathic remedy tailor-made for his needs and feels a little improved after taking it for a few days. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore tries to make another appointment for him.

But this time, Tom had enough. His pain has not really improved and he is increasingly feeling unwell.

At the risk of a marital dispute, he consults his GP. The doctor looks up Tom’s history, asks a few questions, conducts a brief physical examination, and arranges for Tom to see a specialist. A cardiologist diagnoses Tom to suffer from coronary heart disease due to a stenosis in one of his coronary arteries. She explains that Tom’s dull pain in the left shoulder and arm is a rather typical symptom of this condition.

Tom has to have a stent put into the affected coronary artery, receives several medications to lower his cholesterol and blood pressure, and is told to take up regular exercise, lose weight and make several other changes to his stressful life-style. Tom’s wife is told in no uncertain terms to stop dissuading her husband from taking his prescribed medicines, and the couple are both sent to see a dietician who offers advice and recommends a course on healthy cooking. Nobody leaves any doubt that not following this complex (holistic!) package of treatments and advice would be a serious risk to Tom’s life.

It has taken a while, but finally Tom is pain-free. More importantly, his prognosis has dramatically improved. The team who now look after him have no doubt that a major heart attack had been imminent, and Tom could easily have died had he continued to listen to the advice of multiple non-medically trained clinicians.

The root cause of his condition was misdiagnosed by all of them. In fact, the root cause was the atherosclerotic degeneration in his arteries. This may not be fully reversible, but even if the atherosclerotic process cannot be halted completely, it can be significantly slowed down such that he can live a full life.

My advice based on this invented and many real stories of a very similar nature is this:

  • alternative practitioners are often good at pampering their patients;
  • this may contribute to some perceived clinical improvements;
  • in turn, this perceived benefit can motivate patients to continue their treatment despite residual symptoms;
  • alternative practitioner’s claims about ‘root causes’ and holistic care are usually pure nonsense;
  • their pampering may be agreeable, but it can undoubtedly cost lives.

An article by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times caught my eye. Here are a few excerpts:

“I am sorry, Mrs. Ploni, but the muscle testing we performed on you indicates that your compatibility with your spouse is a 1 out of a possible 10 on the scale.”

“Your son being around his father is bad for his energy levels. You should seek to minimize it.”

“Your husband was born normal, but something happened to his energy levels on account of the vaccinations he received as a child. It is not really his fault, but he is not good for you.”

Welcome to the world of Applied Kinesiology (AK) or health Kinesiology… Incredibly, there are people who now base most of their life decisions on something called “muscle testing.” Practitioners believe or state that the body’s energy levels can reveal remarkable information, from when a bride should get married to whether the next Kinesiology appointment should be in one week or two weeks. Prices for a 45 minute appointment can range from $125 to $250 a session. One doctor who is familiar with people who engage in such pursuits remarked, “You have no idea how many inroads this craziness has made in our community.”

… AK (applied kinesiology) is system that evaluates structural, chemical, and mental aspects of health by using “manual muscle testing (MMT)” along with other conventional diagnostic methods. The belief of AK adherents is that every organ dysfunction is accompanied by a weakness in a specific corresponding muscle… Treatments include joint manipulation and mobilization, myofascial, cranial and meridian therapies, clinical nutrition, and dietary counselling. A manual muscle test is conducted by having the patient resist using the target muscle or muscle group while the practitioner applies force the other way. A smooth response is called a “strong muscle” and a response that was not appropriate is called a “weak response.” Like some Ouiji board out of the 1970’s, Applied Kinesiology is used to ask “Yes or No” questions about issues ranging from what type of Parnassa courses one should be taking, to what Torah music tapes one should listen to, to whether a therapist is worthwhile to see or not.

“They take everything with such seriousness – they look at it as if it is Torah from Sinai,” remarked one person familiar with such patients. One spouse of an AK patient was shocked to hear that a diagnosis was made concerning himself through the muscle testing of his wife – without the practitioner having ever met him… And the lines at the office of the AK practitioner are long. One husband holds a crying baby for three hours, while his wife attends a 45 minute session. Why so long? The AK practitioner let other patients ahead – because of emergency needs…

END OF EXCERPTS

The article  is a reminder how much nonsense happens in the name of alternative medicine. AK is one of the modalities that is exemplary:

  • it is utterly implausible;
  • there is no good evidence that it works.

The only systematic review of AK was published in 2008 by a team known to be strongly in favour of alternative medicine. It included 22 relevant studies. Their methodology was poor. The authors concluded that there is insufficient evidence for diagnostic accuracy within kinesiology, the validity of muscle response and the effectiveness of kinesiology for any condition. 

Some AK fans might now say: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!!! There is no evidence that AK does not work, and therefore we should give it the benefit of the doubt and use it.

This, of course, is absolute BS! Firstly, the onus is on those who claim that AK works to prove their assumption. Secondly, in responsible healthcare, we are obliged to employ those modalities for which the evidence is positive, while avoiding those for which the evidence fails to be positive.

 

Acupuncture Today is a much-read online publication for people interested in acupuncture. It informs us that Chinese medicine is quite complex and can be difficult for some people to comprehend. This is because TCM is based, at least in part, on the Daoist belief that we live in a universe in which everything is interconnected. What happens to one part of the body affects every other part of the body. The mind and body are not viewed separately, but as part of an energetic system. Similarly, organs and organ systems are viewed as interconnected structures that work together to keep the body functioning.

To me, this sounds suspiciously woolly. Do they think that conventional healthcare professionals view the various body-parts as separate entities? Do they feel that conventional practitioners see the mind entirely separate from the body? Do they believe others fail to realize that what affects the brain does not affect the rest of the body? These common preconceptions have always puzzled me. Intrigued, I read on.

Elsewhere we learn that Acupuncture Today and acupuncturetoday.com are the only complete news sources in the profession and we don’t take this honor lightly. The acupuncture and Oriental medicine profession is a blend of ancient traditions, healing styles and modern therapies. We provide content that is comprehensive enough to appeal to each of the profession’s diverse groups. In addition, we provide a complete suite of additional products including newsletters, calendars and classifieds that provide our advertisers with the contextual platform they need to communicate with our readers, their customers.

Acupuncture Today seems to reflect a lot of what many acupuncturists want to hear – and thus it might provide us with an important insight into the mind-set of acupuncturists. On their website, I found an article which fascinated me:

START OF QUOTE

A more efficient method for diagnosis and treatment by remote medical dowsing has been found and used in acupuncture with great success. The procedure involves a pendulum, a picture of the patient, an anatomy book, a steel pointer, and a very thin bamboo pointer.

Being a dentist, orthodontist, acupuncturist and dowser, I like to take the liberty of treating a person affected with lockjaw or temporal-mandibular joint ailments via remote dowsing…

…When the mandible cannot open due to a spasm, the chief symptom is pain. Until energy is restored, the muscle cannot lengthen and pain cannot be eliminated. Acupuncture is a good way to correct this condition without the use of a dental appliance. Dentists specializing in treating TMJ use a computerized equipment scan (electrosonography), surface electromyography and the myomonitor to relax the muscles.

Another procedure to treat TMJ is using dowsing. At this point, I will talk about dowsing procedures and information needed to successfully carry out the procedures. Remote dowsing requires the use of the pendulum, a slender bamboo pointer, an anatomy book, a picture of the patient and a steel pointer.

To treat a TMJ patient, the picture of the patient is dowsed holding a pendulum in the right hand while the left hand uses a bamboo pointer to touch the closing and opening muscles individually in the anatomy book. The closing muscles will have good energy (as evidenced by the circular movement of the pendulum) while the lower head of the lateral pterygoid will have no energy (as evidenced by little or no movement of the pendulum). Having advance information on TMJ acupuncture points helps, but these points will have to be tested if needling will supply energy. Master Tong has suggested a point between Liver 2 and Liver 3. I find Spleen 2, a distal point related to the lower head of the lateral pterygoid, to be more effective. This can be checked by having the patient hold the point of the steel pointer so it touches Spleen 2 on the large toe.

To treat a TMJ patient, the picture of the patient is dowsed holding a pendulum in the right hand while the left hand uses a bamboo pointer to touch the closing and opening muscles individually in the anatomy book. The closing muscles will have good energy (as evidenced by the circular movement of the pendulum) while the lower head of the lateral pterygoid will have no energy (as evidenced by little or no movement of the pendulum). Having advance information on TMJ acupuncture points helps, but these points will have to be tested if needling will supply energy. Master Tong has suggested a point between Liver 2 and Liver 3. I find Spleen 2, a distal point related to the lower head of the lateral pterygoid, to be more effective. This can be checked by having the patient hold the point of the steel pointer so it touches Spleen 2 on the large toe.

By dowsing the picture of the patient with the right hand and using a bamboo pointer to touch the lower head of the pterygoid muscle in the anatomy book with the left hand, it will be evident by the circular movement of the pendulum that these muscles now have good energy. This is done before the needle is inserted. In this manner all points can be checked for ailments such as TMJ, stroke, backaches, and neck and shoulder problems before needling. When the needles are placed and after the needling procedure, energy can be checked using the pendulum. By being very accurate on the location of acupuncture points, less treatments will be needed to obtain results. Another point is Small Intestine 19, a local point which is also very effective. Good results are obtained by careful and accurate needling. Therefore, the number of visits are few…

Dowsing is a diagnostic aid that has been used for other situations and can be very helpful to acupuncturists. In conclusion, I feel that remote dowsing is a great approach to diagnosis and treatment.

END OF QUOTE

If I had not seen alternative practitioners doing this procedure with my own eyes, I might have thought the article is a hoax. Sadly, this is the ‘real world’ of alternative medicine.

I tried to find some acupuncturists who had objected to this intense nonsense, but I was not successful in this endeavour. The article was published 6 years ago (no, not on 1 April!), yet so far, nobody has objected.

I have also tried to see whether articles promoting quackery of this nature are rare exceptions in the realm of acupuncture, or whether they are regular occurrences. My impression is that the latter is the case.

What can be concluded from all this?

In a previous post about quackery in chiropractic, I have argued that the tolerance of quackery must be one of the most important hallmarks of a quack profession. As I still believe this to be true, I have to ask to which extend THE TOLERANCE OF SUCH EXTREME QUACKERY MAKES ACUPUNCTURISTS QUACKS?

[I would be most interested to have my readers’ views on this question]

The current ‘Acupuncture Awareness Week’ is perhaps a good occasion to look beyond acupuncture for humans. The ‘Chi Institute’ is an organisation that teaches TCM for animals. There you can specialise in all sorts of intriguing things that a critical mind would have never thought about. Take acupuncture for horses, for instance; on their website, the Institute informs us that:

The Equine Acupuncture Program…certifies students in veterinary acupuncture with an emphasis on horses. The program begins with an overview of fundamental aspects of Chinese Medicine, including Ying-Yang and Five Elements theory, which serve as a foundation for case diagnosis and treatment presented later in the class. A variety of acupuncture techniques are taught, including electro-acupuncture and moxibustion, in addition to conventional “dry” needling. Students of the program learn acupuncture points on large animals only, and horses are used for practice in the wet labs.

The program is presented in five sessions (two online and three on-site) over a period of six months. Online sessions are composed of lectures that students can stream at their own convenience. Afternoon wet-labs of on-site sessions give students the opportunity to learn acupuncture points on live animals in small lab groups of five to six students per instructor. A spring class and a fall class are held each year. Equine Acupuncture is offered to licensed veterinarians and veterinary school junior/senior students only.

Major Topics: 

  • Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) Principles: Five Elements, Yin-Yang, Eight Principles, Zang-Fu Physiology and Pathology, Meridians and Channels
  • Scientific Basis of Acupuncture
  • 200 Transpositional Equine Acupuncture Points (hands-on, wet-lab demos)
  • 70 Classical Equine Acupuncture Points (hands-on, wet-lab demos)
  • How to needle acupuncture points in horses
  • TCVM Diagnostic Systems, including Tongue and Pulse Diagnosis
  • How to integrate acupuncture into your practice
  • How to use veterinary acupuncture to diagnose and treat:
      1. Musculoskeletal conditions, lameness and neurological disorders
      2. Cardiovascular diseases and respiratory disorders
      3. Gastrointestinal disorders and behavioral problems
      4. Dermatological problems and immune-mediated diseases
      5. Renal & urinary disorders and reproductive disorders
  • Veterinary acupuncture techniques:
      1. Dry needle (conventional needling)
      2. Aqua-acupuncture (point injection)
      3. Electro-acupuncture
      4. Hemo-acupuncture
      5. Moxibustion

But is there not something missing, I asked myself when I read this. What about the evidence? What about the question whether there is any proof that any of this works?
As it happens, some time ago, we looked into this by conducting a systematic review. Here is our abstract ( I should mention that the first author of this paper was a vet who was very fond of acupuncture):

Acupuncture is a popular complementary treatment option in human medicine. Increasingly, owners also seek acupuncture for their animals. The aim of the systematic review reported here was to summarize and assess the clinical evidence for or against the effectiveness of acupuncture in veterinary medicine. Systematic searches were conducted on Medline, Embase, Amed, Cinahl, Japana Centra Revuo Medicina and Chikusan Bunken Kensaku. Hand-searches included conference proceedings, bibliographies, and contact with experts and veterinary acupuncture associations. There were no restrictions regarding the language of publication. All controlled clinical trials testing acupuncture in any condition of domestic animals were included. Studies using laboratory animals were excluded. Titles and abstracts of identified articles were read, and hard copies were obtained. Inclusion and exclusion of studies, data extraction, and validation were performed independently by two reviewers. Methodologic quality was evaluated by means of the Jadad score. Fourteen randomized controlled trials and 17 nonrandomized controlled trials met our criteria and were, therefore, included. The methodologic quality of these trials was variable but, on average, was low. For cutaneous pain and diarrhea, encouraging evidence exists that warrants further investigation in rigorous trials. Single studies reported some positive intergroup differences for spinal cord injury, Cushing’s syndrome, lung function, hepatitis, and rumen acidosis. These trials require independent replication. On the basis of the findings of this systematic review, there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.

What a pity that the pupils of the above course are not being told that THERE IS NO COMPELLING EVIDENCE that any of the tings they are about to learn has any value…but that would be bad for business, wouldn’t it? And we cannot have a bit of evidence jeopardize a nice little earner, can we?

Non-validated diagnostic methods, like those in abundant use in alternative medicine, run an unacceptably high risk of producing false positive or false negative diagnoses. The former would be a diagnosis that the patient is, in fact, not suffering from; this enables the charlatan to get rich on treating something that is not even there. The latter would be missing an illness that might even kill the patient. Thus both scenarios are unquestionably harmful.

It is now 21 years ago that I published a review of alternative diagnostic techniques entitled ‘WHICH CRAFT IS WITCHCRAFT?’. Here is the abstract:

The prevalence of complementary medicine in most industrialised countries is impressive and increasing. Discussions of the topic often focus on therapeutic approaches and neglect diagnostic methods specific for complementary medicine. The paper summarises the data available on such “alternative” diagnostics. Scientific evaluations of these are scant, and most techniques have never been properly validated. The ones that have can be demonstrated to be not reproducible, sensitive, or specific. The ones that have not should be regarded as such until shown otherwise by rigorous testing. Therefore it seems that “alternative” diagnostic methods may seriously threaten the safety and health of patients submitted to them. Orthodox doctors should be aware of the problem and inform their patients accordingly.

Exactly 15 years after the publication of this paper, PRINCE CHARLES published his book ‘HARMONY‘ where is covers amongst many other topic also the subject of alternative diagnostics. This is what he tells us about them:

I have also learn from leading experts how we can understand a great deal about the causes of ill health through more traditional methods of diagnosis – for example, through examination of the iris, ears, tongue, feet and pulse, very much the basis of the Indian Ayurvedic system. This is not to say that modern diagnostic techniques do not have a role, but let us not forget what we can gain by using the knowledge and wisdom accumulated over thousands of years by pioneers who did not have access to today’s technology. In fact, an over-reliance can often mean that the subtle signs of imbalance revealed by the examination of the eyes, pulse and tongue are totally missed. Including the fruits of such knowledge, gleaned over 8 000 years of studying the relationship of the human body to the rest of Nature and to the Universe, can but only provide an extra, valuable resource to doctors as they seek to make a full diagnosis. Why persist in denying the immense value of such accumulated wisdom when it can tell us so much about the whole person – mind, body and spirit? Employing the best of the ancient and modern in a truly integrated way is another example of harmony and balance at work.

Charles is talking here about iridology, amongst other methods. Iridologists try to diagnose disease or susceptibility to disease by analysing the colour pattern of a patient’s iris. It happens to be a technique that has repeatedly been put to the test. In 1999, I published a systematic review of the evidence and concluded that the validity of iridology as a diagnostic tool is not supported by scientific evaluations. Patients and therapists should be discouraged from using this method.

Given that the evidence for alternative diagnostic techniques is either negative or absent, why does the heir to the throne advocate using them? Does he not know that he has considerable influence and endangers the health of those who believe him? Why does he call this nonsense valuable? The answer probably is that he does not know better.

There is nothing wrong with Charles’ ignorance, of course. He is not a medic (if he were, his quackery might get him struck off the register!) and does not need to know such things! But, if he is ignorant about certain technicalities, should he write about them? At the very least, when giving such concrete medical advice about diagnostic methods, should he not recruit the expertise of people who do know about such matters?

In Charles’ defence, I should mention that apparently he did ask several physicians for help with his book. Two of those who he acknowledged in HARMONY have been mentioned on this blog before: Mosaraf Ali and Michael Dixon.

I MIGHT BE MISTAKEN, BUT IT SEEMS TO ME THAT CHARLES IS NOT JUST IGNORANT ABOUT MEDICINE BUT ALSO ABOUT THE ART OF CHOOSING EXPERTS.

Researching and reporting shocking stories like this one can only make me more enemies, I know. Yet I do think they need to be told; if we cannot learn from history, what hope is there?

I first became aware of Sigmund Rascher‘s work when I was studying the effects of temperature on blood rheology at the University of Munich. I then leant of Rascher’s unspeakably cruel experiments on exposing humans to extreme hypothermia in the Dachau concentration camp. Many of his ‘volunteers’ had lost their lives, and the SS-doctor Rascher later became the symbol of a ‘Nazi doctor from hell’. In 1990, R L Berger aptly described Rascher and his sadistic pseudo-science in his NEJM article:

“Sigmund Rascher was born in 1909. He started his medical studies in 1930 and joined both the Nazi party and the storm troopers (the SA) three years later. After a volunteer internship, Rascher served for three years as an unpaid surgical assistant. He was barred temporarily from the University of Munich for suspected Communist sympathies. In 1939, the young doctor denounced his physician father, joined the SS, and was inducted into the Luftwaffe. A liaison with and eventual marriage to Nini Diehl, a widow 15 years his senior who was a one-time cabaret singer but also the former secretary and possibly mistress of the Reichsführer, gained Rascher direct access to Himmler. A strange partnership evolved between the junior medical officer and one of the highest officials of the Third Reich. One week after their first meeting, Rascher presented a “Report on the Development and Solution to Some of the Reichsführer’s Assigned Tasks During a Discussion Held on April 24, 1939.” The title of this paper foretold the character of the ensuing relationship between the two men. Because of Rascher’s servile and ingratiating approach to Himmler, his “connections were so strong that practically every superior trembled in fear of the intriguing Rascher who consequently held a position of enormous power.

Rascher’s short investigative career included a leading role in the infamous high-altitude experiments on humans at Dachau, which resulted in 70 to 80 deaths. He was also involved in testing a plant extract as a cure for cancer. The genesis of this project illustrates Rascher’s style and influence. Professor Blome, the deputy health minister and plenipotentiary for cancer research, favored testing the extract in mice. Rascher insisted on experiments in humans. Himmler sided with Rascher. A Human Cancer Testing Station was set up at Dachau. The deputy health minister collaborated on the project, held approximately 20 meetings with Rascher, and visited the junior officer at Dachau several times.

Another of Rascher’s major research efforts focused on the introduction of a pectin-based preparation, Polygal, to promote blood clotting. He predicted that the prophylactic use of Polygal tablets would reduce bleeding from wounds sustained in combat or during surgical procedures. The agent was also recommended for the control of spontaneous gastrointestinal and pulmonary hemorrhages. Combat wounds were simulated by the amputation of the viable extremities of camp prisoners without anesthesia or by shooting the prisoners through the neck and chest.

Rascher also claimed that oral premedication with Polygal minimized bleeding during major surgical procedures, rendering hemostatic clips or ligatures unnecessary and shortening operating times. He published an enthusiastic article about his clinical experience with Polygal, without specifying the nature of some of the trials in humans. The paper concluded, “The tests of this medicine ‘Polygal 10’ showed no failures under the most varied circumstances.” Rascher also formed a company to manufacture Polygal and used prisoners to work in the factory. A prisoner who was later liberated testified that Rascher’s enthusiasm for Polygal’s antiinfectious properties was probably sparked by news of the introduction of penicillin by the Allies and by his eagerness to reap fame and receive the award established for inventing a German equivalent. He initiated experiments in humans apparently without any preliminary laboratory testing. In one experiment, pus was injected into the legs of prisoners. The experimental group was given Polygal. The controls received no treatment. Information filtered to Dr. Kurt Plotner, Rascher’s physician rival, that the controls were given large, deep subcutaneous inoculations, whereas the victims in the experiments received smaller volumes of pus injected intracutaneously. Plotner reportedly investigated the matter and discovered that the Polygal used was saline colored with a fluorescent dye.

The frequent references to Rascher in top-level documents indicate that this junior medical officer attracted extraordinary attention from Germany’s highest officials. His work was reported even to Hitler, who was pleased with the accounts. Rascher was not well regarded in professional circles, however, and his superiors repeatedly expressed reservations about his performance. In one encounter, Professor Karl Gebhardt, a general in the SS and Himmler’s personal physician, told Rascher in connection with his experiments on hypothermia through exposure to cold air that “the report was unscientific; if a student of the second term dared submit a treatise of the kind [Gebhardt] would throw him out.” Despite Himmler’s strong support, Rascher was rejected for faculty positions at several universities. A book by German scientists on the accomplishments of German aviation medicine during the war devoted an entire chapter to hypothermia but failed to mention Rascher’s name or his work.”

For those who can stomach the sickening tale, a very detailed biography of Rascher is available here.

I had hoped to never hear of this monster of a man again – yet, more recently, I came across Rascher in the context of alternative medicine. Rascher had been brought up in Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical tradition, and his very first ‘research’ project was on a alternantive blood test developed in anthroposophy.

A close friend of Rascher, the anthroposoph and chemist Ehrenfried Pfeiffer had developed a bizarre diagnostic method using copper chloride crystallization of blood and other materials. This copper chloride biocrystallization (CCBC) became the subject of Rascher’s dissertation in Munich. Rascher first tried the CCBC for diagnosing pregnancies and later for detecting early cancer (incidentally, he conducted this work in the very same building where I worked for many years, about half a century later). The CCBC involves a visual evaluation of copper crystals which form with blood or other fluids; the method is, of course, wide open to interpretation. Bizarrely, the CCBC is still used by some anthroposophical or homeopathic doctors today – see, for instance, this recent article or this website, this website or this website which explains:

“Hierbei werden einige Tropfen Blut mit Kupferchlorid in einer Klimakammer zur Kristallisation gebracht.
Jahrzehntelange Erfahrung ermöglicht eine ganz frühe Hinweisdiagnostik sowohl für alle Funktionsschwächen der Organe, auch z.B. der Drüsen, als auch für eine Krebserkrankung. Diese kann oft so früh erkannt werden, daß sie sich mit keiner anderen Methode sichern läßt.” My translation: “A few drops of blood are brought to crystallisation with copper chloride in a climate chamber. Decades of experience allow a very early diagnosis of all functional weaknesses of the organs and glands as well as of cancer. Cancer can often be detected earlier than with any other method.”

The reference to ‘decades of experience’ is more than ironic because the evidence suggesting that the CCBC might be valid originates from Rascher’s work in the 1930s; to the best of my knowledge no other ‘validation’ of the CCBC has ever become available. With his initial thesis, Rascher had produced amazingly positive results and subsequently lobbied to get an official research grant for testing the CCBC’s usefulness in cancer diagnosis. Intriguingly, he had to disguise the CCBC’s connection to anthroposophy; even though taken by most other alternative medicines, the Nazis had banned the Steiner cult.

Most but not all of Rascher’s research was conducted in the Dachau concentration camp where in 1941 a research unit was established in ‘block 5’ which, according to Rascher’s biographer, Sigfried Baer, contained his department and a homeopathic research unit led by Hanno von Weyherns and Rudolf Brachtel (1909-1988). I found the following relevant comment about von Weyherns: “Zu Jahresbeginn 1941 wurde in der Krankenabteilung eine Versuchsstation eingerichtet, in der 114 registrierte Tuberkulosekranke homöopathisch behandelt wurden. Leitender Arzt war von Weyherns. Er erprobte im Februar biochemische Mittel an Häftlingen.” My translation: At the beginning of 1941, an experimental unit was established in the sick-quarters in which 114 patients with TB were treated homeopathically. The chief physician was von Weyherns. In February, he tested Schuessler Salts [a derivative of homeopathy still popular in Germany today] on prisoners.

Today, all experts believe Rascher’s results, even those on CCBC, to be fraudulent. Rascher seems to have been not merely an over-ambitious yet mediocre physician turned sadistic slaughterer of innocent prisoners, he also was a serial falsifier of research data. It is likely that his fraudulent thesis on the anthroposophic blood test set him off on a life-long career of consummate research misconduct.

Before the end of the Third Reich, Rascher lost the support of Himmler and was imprisoned for a string of offences which were largely unrelated to his ‘research’. He was eventually brought back to the place of his worst atrocities, the concentration camp in Dachau. Days before the liberation of the camp by the US forces, Rascher was executed under somewhat mysterious circumstances. In my view, the CCBC should have vanished with him.

One of the most common claims of alternative practitioners is that they take a holistic approach to health care. And it is this claim which attracts many consumers. It also makes conventional medicine look bad, reductionist and inhuman, as it implies that mainstream medicine is non-holistic.

The claim can be easily disclosed to be a straw man, because all good medicine was, is and always will be holistic. Moreover, the claim amounts to a falsehood, because much of alternative medicine is everything but holistic. I will try to explain what I mean using the recent example of acupuncture for neck pain, but I could have used almost any other alternative treatment and any other human complaint/condition/disease:

  • chiropractic for back pain;
  • homeopathy for asthma;
  • energy healing for depression;
  • aromatherapy for jet lag;
  • etc. etc.

The recent trial found that adding acupuncture to usual care yields a slightly better outcome than usual care alone. This is hardly a big deal; adding a good cup of tea and a compassionate chat to usual care might have done a similar thing. Acupuncturists, however, will say that their holistic approach is successful.

How holistic is acupuncture?

A ‘Western’ acupuncturist would normally ask what is wrong with the patient; in the case of neck pain, he would probably ask several further questions about the history of the condition, when the pain occurs, what aggravates it etc. Then he might conduct a physical examination of his patient. Eventually, he would get out his needles and start the treatment.

A ‘traditional’ acupuncturist would ask similar questions, feel the pulse, look at the tongue and make a diagnosis in terms of yin and yang imbalance. Eventually, he too would get out his needles and start the treatment.

Is that holistic?

Certainly not! If we look at alternative practitioners in general, we cannot fail to notice that they tend to be the very opposite of holistic. They usually attribute a patients illness to one single cause such as yin/yang imbalance (acupuncture), subluxation (chiropractic), impediment of the life force (homeopathy), etc.

Holistic means that the patient is understood as a whole person. Our neck pain patient might have physical problems such as muscular tension; the acupuncturists might well have realised this and placed their needles accordingly. But neck pain, like most other symptoms, can have many other dimensions:

  • there could be stress;
  • there could be an ergonomically disadvantageous work place;
  • there could be a history of injury;
  • there could be a malformation of the spine;
  • there could be a tumour;
  • there could be an inflammation;
  • there could be many other specific diseases;
  • there could be relationship problems, et. etc.

Of course, the acupuncturists will claim that, during an acupuncture session, they will pick up on all of these. However, in my experience, this is little more than wishful thinking. And even if they did pick up other dimensions of the patient’s complaint, what can they do about it? They can (and often do) give rather amateur advice. This may be meant most kindly but it is rarely optimal.

And what about conventional practitioners, aren’t they even worse?

True, there often is far too much room for improvement. But at least the concept of multifactorial conditions and treatments is deeply ingrained in everyone who has been to medical school. We learn that symptoms/complaints/conditions/diseases are almost invariably multifactorial; they have many causes and contributing factors which can interact in complex ways. Therefore, responsible physicians always consider to treat patients in multifactorial ways; in the case of our neck pain patient:

  • the stress might need a relaxation programme,
  • the work place might need the input of an occupational therapist;
  • in case of an old injury, a physio might be needed;
  • specific conditions might need to be seen by a range of medical specialists;
  • muscular tension could be reduced by a massage therapist;
  • relationship problems might require the help of a psychologist; etc. etc.

I am NOT saying that all of this is necessary in each and every case. But I am saying that, in conventional medicine, both the awareness and the possibility for a professional multidisciplinary approach is well established. You don’t believe me? Ask a physiotherapist or an occupational therapist who refers more patients to them, an acupuncturist or a GP!

Alternative practitioners claim to be holistic and some might even be aware of the complexity of their patients’ symptoms. But, at best, they have an amateur approach to this complexity by dabbling themselves in issuing more or less suited advice. They are not adequately trained to do this job, and they refer very rarely.

My conclusion: professional multidiscipinarity is an approach deeply engrained in conventional medicine (we don’t often call it holism, perhaps because many doctors associate this term with charlatans), and it beats the mostly amateurish pseudo-holism of alternative practitioners any time.

In the past, I have been involved in several court cases where patients had complained about mistreatment by charlatans. Similarly I have acted as an expert witness for the General Medical Council in similar circumstances.

So, it is true, quacks are sometimes being held to account by their victims. But, generally speaking, patients seem to complain very rarely when they fall in the hands of even the most incompetent of quacks.

Here is one telling reminder showing how long it can take until a complaint is finally filed.

Dr Julian Kenyon is, according to his websitean integrated medicine physician and Medical Director of the Dove Clinic for Integrated Medicine, Winchester and London. Dr Julian Kenyon is Founder-Chairman of the British Medical Acupuncture Society in 1980 and Co-Founder of the Centre for the Study of Complementary Medicine in Southampton and London where he worked for many years before starting The Dove Clinic in 2000. He is also Founder/President of the British Society for Integrated Medicine and is an established authority in the field of complementary treatment approaches for a wide range of medical conditions. He has written approximately 20 books and has had many academic papers published in peer review journals* and has several patents to his name. He graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery and subsequently with a research degree, Doctor of Medicine. In 1972, he was appointed a Primary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

*[I found only 4 on Medline]

Kenyon has been on sceptics’ radar for a very long time. For instance, he is one of the few UK doctors who use ‘LIVE BLOOD ANALYSIS’, a bogus diagnostic method that can harm patients through false-negative or false-positive diagnoses. A 2003 undercover investigation for BBC 1 South’s ‘Inside Out’ accused Dr Julian Kenyon of using yet another spurious diagnostic test at his clinic near Winchester. Kenyon has, for many years, been working together with George Lewith, another of the country’s ‘leading’ complementary doctors. In 1994, the two published an article about their co-operation; here is its abstract:

This paper outlines the main research effort that has taken place within the Centre for the Study of Complementary Medicine over the last 10 years. It demonstrates the Centre’s expertise and interest in a whole variety of areas, including the social implications and development of complementary medicine, clinical trial methodology, the evaluation of complementary medical machinery, the effects of electromagnetic fields on health and the investigation of the subtle energetic processes involved in complementary medicine. Our future plans are outlined.

Lewith and Kenyon have been using a technique called electrodermal testing for more than 20 years. Considering the fact that the two doctors authored a BMJ paper which concluded that electrodermal machines couldn’t detect environmental allergies, this seems more than a little surprising.

Using secret filming, ‘Inside Out’ showed Dr Kenyon testing a six-year-old boy and then deciding that he is sensitive to dust mites. Later, Dr Kenyon insists that he made his diagnosis purely on the boy’s symptoms and that he didn’t use the machine to test for dust mites. The BBC then took the boy for a conventional skin prick test, which suggested he didn’t have any allergies at all. But Dr Kenyon then says the conventional test may not be accurate: “He may be one of the 10% who actually are negative to the skin tests but benefit from measures to reduce dust mite exposure.”

Despite this very public disclosure, Kenyon was able to practice unrestrictedly for many years.

In December 2014, it was reported in the Hampshire Chronicle that Dr Kenyon eventually did, after a complaint from a patient, end up in front of the General Medical Council’s conduct tribunal. The panel heard that, after a 20-minute consultation, which cost £300, Dr Kenyon told one terminally-ill man with late-stage cancer: “I am not claiming we can cure you, but there is a strong possibility that we would be able to increase your median survival time with the relatively low-risk approaches described here.” He also made bold statements about the treatment’s supposed benefits to an undercover reporter who posed as the husband of a woman with breast cancer.

After considering the full details of the case, Ben Fitzgerald, for the General Medical Council, had called for Dr Kenyon to be suspended, but the panel’s chairman Dr Surendra Kumar said Dr Kenyon’s misconduct was not serious enough to warrant a ban. The panel eventually imposed restrictions on Kenyon’s licence lasting for 12 months.

I estimate that patients are exposed to quackery from doctors and alternative practitioners thousands of times every day. Why then, I ask myself, do so few of them complain? Here are some of the possible answers to this important question:

  • They do not dare to.
  • They feel embarrassed.
  • They don’t know how to.
  • They cannot be bothered and fear the agro.
  • They fail to identify quackery and fall for the nonsense they are being told.
  • They even might perceive benefit from treatments which, in fact, are pure quackery.

Whatever the reasons, I think it is regrettable that not far more quacks are held to account – regardless of whether the charlatan in question as studied medicine or not. If you disagree, consider this: not filing a complaint means that many more patients will be put at risk.

Acupuncture seems to be as popular as never before – many conventional pain clinics now employ acupuncturists, for instance. It is probably true to say that acupuncture is one of the best-known types of all alternative therapies. Yet, experts are still divided in their views about this treatment – some proclaim that acupuncture is the best thing since sliced bread, while others insist that it is no more than a theatrical placebo. Consumers, I imagine, are often left helpless in the middle of these debates. Here are 7 important bits of factual information that might help you make up your mind, in case you are tempted to try acupuncture.

  1. Acupuncture is ancient; some enthusiast thus claim that it has ‘stood the test of time’, i. e. that its long history proves its efficacy and safety beyond reasonable doubt and certainly more conclusively than any scientific test. Whenever you hear such arguments, remind yourself that the ‘argumentum ad traditionem’ is nothing but a classic fallacy. A long history of usage proves very little – think of how long blood letting was used, even though it killed millions.
  2. We often think of acupuncture as being one single treatment, but there are many different forms of this therapy. According to believers in acupuncture, acupuncture points can be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Finally, some clinicians employ the traditional Chinese approach based on the assumption that two life forces are out of balance and need to be re-balanced, while so-called ‘Western’ acupuncturists adhere to the concepts of conventional medicine and claim that acupuncture works via scientifically explainable mechanisms that are unrelated to ancient Chinese philosophies.
  3. Traditional Chinese acupuncturists have not normally studied medicine and base their practice on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between yin and yang which has no basis in science. This explains why acupuncture is seen by traditional acupuncturists as a ‘cure all’ . In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological explanations as to how acupuncture might work. However, it is important to note that, even though they may appear plausible, these explanations are currently just theories and constitute no proof for the validity of acupuncture as a medical intervention.
  4. The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition affecting mankind; according to the more modern view, it is effective for a relatively small range of conditions only. On closer examination, the vast majority of these claims can be disclosed to be based on either no or very flimsy evidence. Once we examine the data from reliable clinical trials (today several thousand studies of acupuncture are available – see below), we realise that acupuncture is associated with a powerful placebo effect, and that it works better than a placebo only for very few (some say for no) conditions.
  5. The interpretation of the trial evidence is far from straight forward: most of the clinical trials of acupuncture originate from China, and several investigations have shown that very close to 100% of them are positive. This means that the results of these studies have to be taken with more than a small pinch of salt. In order to control for patient-expectations, clinical trials can be done with sham needles which do not penetrate the skin but collapse like miniature stage-daggers. This method does, however, not control for acupuncturists’ expectations; blinding of the therapists is difficult and therefore truly double (patient and therapist)-blind trials of acupuncture do hardly exist. This means that even the most rigorous studies of acupuncture are usually burdened with residual bias.
  6. Few acupuncturists warn their patients of possible adverse effects; this may be because the side-effects of acupuncture (they occur in about 10% of all patients) are mostly mild. However, it is important to know that very serious complications of acupuncture are on record as well: acupuncture needles can injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg.
  7. Given that, for the vast majority of conditions, there is no good evidence that acupuncture works beyond a placebo response, and that acupuncture is associated with finite risks, it seems to follow that, in most situations, the risk/benefit balance for acupuncture fails to be convincingly positive.

The question that I hear with unfailing regularity when talking about alternative medicine is WHY IS IT SO POPULAR? I always struggle to find a simple answer – mainly because there is no simple answer. The reasons for patients and consumers to use alternative medicine are complex and multiple. They range from dissatisfaction with conventional medicine to clinging to the last straw. However, one factor is very clearly always involved: the often bafflingly uncritical promotion of quackery by the daily papers – and that even includes those with a reputation for being respectable.

Yesterday’s article in THE TELEGRAPH is as good an example as any. In the following section, I quote excerpts from it and add my own comments in bold. 

It is perhaps easier to list what the naturopath Katrin Hempel doesn’t offer her clients than what she does. Bioresonance and live blood analysis, acupuncture, biopuncture, infusion therapy, oxyvenation…”

Katrin Hempel, B.H.Sc.,ND, Dipl.Ac. describes herself on her website as an energetic, enthusiastic and experienced natural therapist with a great passion and commitment to the health and well-being of her patients. She calls herself a ‘naturopathic doctor’. I am not sure what this actually is but I am fairly sure she has not studied medicine. I do not doubt her enthusiasm, but I do doubt that most of the methods listed above are anything else but pure quackery.

“Germany has a long tradition of natural medicine, so it’s more common to find conventional doctors who have also studied natural medicine and use these modalities. Here we are at least 20 years behind.” That is true only, if one regards the integration of quackery as progress.

“Every cell in the body puts out a certain electromagnetic frequency, that can be measured – a healthy stomach cell sounds different to a healthy brain cell – and the machine can put the right resonance back in, to trigger deep healing.”) This is pure pseudoscience; neither live blood analysis nor bioresonance are supported by good evidence (and don’t even ask about ‘biopuncture’).

The article goes on misleading the reader in the most scandalous way by promoting pure nonsense. To provide a flavour, I will merely cite a few quotes from the ‘naturopathic doctor’:

  • “If your digestion isn’t working properly there is a malabsorption of nutrients”
  • “Bioresonance can pick up a condition before it manifests as a disease.”
  • “Bioresonance measures the electromagnetic output of every cell in the body. If there’s any discrepancy with the healthy frequency for that kind of cell that gives a diagnosis.”
  • “Whatever the problem, at root it will be an imbalance in the cells.”

At no point in this article is there an attempt to challenge or critically analyse this bonanza in quackery; THE TELEGRAPH promotion of dangerous nonsense ends with the cheerful footnote informing the reader that one hour with the ‘naturopathic doctor’ will cost from £100. THE TELEGRAPH does not even shy away to print an address for booking a consultation with the ‘naturopathic doctor’.

But is it really all quackery? Yes it is! The article promotes so many unproven methods that I find it hard to choose one for demonstrating how irresponsible it really is. Let’s take life blood analysis (LBA), for instance; here is what I published about LBA some time ago:

The principle of LBA is fairly simple: a drop of blood is taken from your fingertip, put on a glass plate and viewed via a microscope on a video screen. Despite the claims made for it, LBA is by no means new; using his lately developed microscope, Antony van Leeuwenhoek observed in 1686 that living blood cells changed shape during circulation. Ever since, doctors, scientists and others have studied blood samples in this and other ways.

What is new, however, is what today’s “holistic practitioners” claim to be able to do with LBA. Proponents believe that the method provides information “about the state of the immune system, possible vitamin deficiencies, amount of toxicity, pH and mineral imbalance, areas of concern and weaknesses, fungus and yeast”, as another website puts it.

Others dare to be much more concrete and claim that they can “spot cancer and other degenerative immune system diseases up to two years before they would otherwise be detectable”; or say they can diagnose “lack of oxygen in the blood, low trace minerals, lack of exercise, too much alcohol or yeast, weak kidneys, bladder or spleen”. All this would amount to a remarkable discovery if it were true. But it’s not.

No credible scientific studies have demonstrated the reliability of LBA for detecting any of the above conditions. In what was, to the best of my knowledge, the first attempt to assess the value of this method, a practitioner with several years of experience in LBA tested the samples of 110 patients. Twelve had cancer and the task was to identify their samples without knowing further details. The results could hardly have been more disconcerting – just three of the 12 with confirmed cancer were detected, and the authors concluded that the method “does not seem to reliably detect cancer. Clinical use of the method can therefore not be recommended.”

And, in case you do not trust me, here is a recent Advertising Standards Authority ruling on LBA:

London Natural Therapies is in breach of the UK Advertising Standards Code for making unproven claims on its website about Live Blood Analysis. The CAP Compliance team has contacted London Natural Therapies several times about removing claims implying that Live Blood Analysis could be beneficial for Gastro Intestinal Tract Disorders, Allergies and Hormonal Imbalances after the ASA previously ruled that Live Blood Analysis was not effective in detecting/diagnosing those conditions. Despite repeated requests to remove the problem claims, London Natural Therapies continues to feature them on its website, www.londonnaturaltherapies.co.uk. Because of London Natural Therapies continued non-compliance we took the decision to place its details on this section of the ASA website on 26 June 2012. These details shall remain in place until such time as London Natural Therapies has removed or appropriately amended the claims on its website to ensure compliance with the CAP Code.

This is but one of many examples of truly shoddy journalism published in a daily paper that most people would call ‘respectable’. If anyone cares to look at the less respectable end to the journalistic spectrum, the picture gets even more horrific. The points I am trying to make are simple and, I think, important:

  1. Journalists and editors have a responsibility which, in the realm of alternative medicine, they often disregard most scandalously.
  2. Such poorly researched, unbalanced and uncritical articles can cause very serious harm.
  3. The promotion of quackery may be good for selling copy, but it can also quickly ruin the reputation of a paper.

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