MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

doctors

Alternative medicine suffers from what might be called ‘survey overload’: there are far too much such investigations and most of them are of deplorably poor quality producing nothing of value except some promotion for alternative medicine. Yet, every now and then, one finds a paper that is worth reading, and I am happy to say that this survey (even though it has several methodological shortcomings) belongs in this category.

This cross-sectional assessment of the views of general practitioners towards chiropractors and osteopaths was funded by the Department of Chiropractic at Macquarie University. It was designed as a quantitative descriptive study using an anonymous online survey that included closed and open-ended questions with opportunities provided for free text. The target population was Australian general practitioners. Inclusion criteria included current medical registration, membership of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and currently practicing as a general practitioner in Australia. The data being reported here were collected between May and December, 2014.

There were 630 respondents to the online survey during this period representing a response rate of 2.6 %. Results were not uniform for the two professions. More general practitioners believed chiropractic education was not evidence-based compared to osteopathic education (70 % and 50 % respectively), while the scope of practice was viewed as similar for both professions. A majority of general practitioners had never referred a patient to either profession (chiropractic: 60 %; osteopathy: 66 %) and indicated that they would not want to co-manage patients with either profession. Approximately two-thirds of general practitioners were not interested in learning more about their education (chiropractors: 68 %; osteopaths: 63 %).

The authors concluded that this study provides an indication of the current views of Australian general practitioners towards chiropractors and osteopaths. The findings suggest that attitudes may have become less favourable with a growing intolerance towards both professions. If confirmed, this has the potential to impact health service provision. The results from this cross-sectional study suggest that obtaining representative general practitioner views using online surveys is difficult and another approach is needed to supplement or replace the current recruitment strategy.

The authors do not speculate on the reasons why the attitudes of general practitioners towards chiropractic and osteopathy might have become more critical. Therefore I decided to offer a few possibilities here. The more negative views could be due to:

  • better education of general practitioners,
  • tightening of healthcare budgets,
  • recent ‘bad press’ and loss of reputation (for instance, the BCA’s libel action against Simon Singh),
  • the work of sceptics in informing the public about the numerous bogus claims made by osteopaths and chiropractors,
  • the plethora of overtly bogus claims which nevertheless continue to be made by these practitioners on a daily basis,
  • a more general realisation that these therapies can cause very serious harm,
  • a mixture of the above factors.

Whatever the reasons are, the finding that there now seems to be a growing scepticism (in Australia, but hopefully elsewhere as well) about the value of chiropractic and osteopathy is something that cheers me up no end.

WARNING: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE

My first ever scientific paper, a spin-off from my MD thesis, was published exactly 40 years ago. Since then, I have written many more articles. Readers of this blog might think that they are all on alternative medicine, but that is not the case. My most cited paper is (I think) one which combined my research in haemorheology with that in epidemiology. Yet, I would not consider it to be my most important article.

So, what is my most important publication?

It is one that relates to the history of medicine.

How come?

In 1990, I was appointed as chair of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Vienna. On the occasion of the official opening of the new 2000-bed university hospital in Vienna, I was asked to say a few words and thought that a review of the history of my department might be a fitting subject. But I was wrong. What I discovered while researching it turned out to be totally unfitting for the event; in fact, it contributed to my decision to leave Vienna in 1993. I did, however, summarize my findings in an article – and it is this paper that I consider my most important publication. Here is its abstract:

Misguided by the notion that the decline of the German race would be prevented by purifying “Aryan blood” and eliminating foreign, particularly Jewish, influences, the Nazis evicted all Jews from universities within their growing empire during the Third Reich. The Medical Faculty of Vienna suffered more than any other European faculty from “race hygiene.” Within weeks of the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, 153 of the Faculty’s 197 members were dismissed. By far the most frequent reason for dismissal was Jewish origin. Most victims managed to emigrate, many died in concentration camps, and others committed suicide. The “cleansing” process encountered little resistance, and the vacant posts were quickly filled with persons known not for their medical expertise but for their political trustworthiness. It was in this climate that medical atrocities could be committed. After the collapse of the Third Reich, most members of the Faculty were burdened with a Nazi past. Most remained in office, and those who had to leave were reinstituted swiftly. The Jews evicted in 1938 were discouraged from returning. These events have significantly–and with long-lasting effects–damaged the quality of a once-leading medical school. This story needs to be told to honor its victims and to fortify us so that history does not repeat itself.

As I pointed out in my memoir, it “was not published until 1995, by which time I was no longer at the University of Vienna but had left Austria and gone joyfully back to the U.K. to take up my post at the University of Exeter. When the paper was published, it had a considerable impact and important consequences. On the one hand, I received a torrent of hate-mail and threats, and was even accused by the more sensationalistic elements of the Austrian press of having stolen considerable amounts of money from my department at the University of Vienna – an entirely fabricated story, of course, and so ridiculous that I couldn’t even take it seriously enough to instigate legal action.”

So, what else happened as a consequence of the paper?

The answer is ‘lots’.

The Nazi-dean of the medical faculty in 1938, Eduard Pernkopf,  became the author of one of the world’s best anatomical atlas. Here is a short excerpt from a website on Pernkopf and his work which outlines some of the consequences of my paper:

START OF QUOTE

Following Dr. Edzard Ernst’s, revelations in the Annals of Internal Medicine (1995) about the source of Pernkopf’s “models,” Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Authority in Israel) requested that the Universities of Vienna and Insbruck conduct an independent inquiry to determine who the subjects in Pernkopf’s Atlas were and how they died. The request from Yad Vashem was initially denied; but the issue did not end. The following year, a letter by Dr. Seidelman and Dr. Howard Israel, an oral surgeon at Columbia University published in JAMA (November, 1996) in which they stated: “The abuses of medicine perpetrated during the Hitler regime pervaded the entire medical profession of the Third Reich including the academic elite. One legacy of the tragic era endures today through the continued publication of a critically acclaimed atlas, Pernkopf Anatomy…” Their letter prompted a report by the New York Times (1996).

In 1997, Alfred Ebenbauer, the rector of the University of Vienna, wrote to JAMA indicating that an investigation had been initiated and that preliminary findings indicated that the anatomy department had indeed, routinely received corpses of executed persons, among them renowned dissidents, and “brain preparations derived from children under the euthanasia program in psychiatric institutes were still stored there…” For the first time, he acknowledged publicly systematic suppression and even denial of the university’s Nazi past and its failure to conduct relevant investigations. Ebenbauer explained that this attitude had changed because of ‘‘increasing pressure from abroad’’ and a new political atmosphere in Austria (Ethics and Access…Pernkopf atlas, Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 2001; Hildebrandt, 2006).

Penkopf_Atlas Human Anatomy_neck-shoulderThe final report of University of Vienna investigation found that at least 1,377 bodies of executed victims (guillotined or shot by the Gestapo at a rifle range); about 7,000 bodies of fetuses and children; and “8 victims of Jewish origin” had been received by the Anatomy Institute. A statement for users of Pernkop’s Atlas sent out by the U of V to all libraries states: “it is therefore within the individual user’s ethical responsibility to decide whether and in which way he wishes to use this book.” (Hildebrandt, 2006). Hildebrandt states: “the influx of bodies from executions increased so much during the NS [Nazi] regime that the rooms of the anatomy institute were sometimes overfilled and executions had to be postponed because of this.” However, she notes that the true numbers are not known because of incomplete documentation.

Howard M. Spiro, M.D., director of Yale’s Program for Humanities in Medicine and professor of internal medicine, was among the noted speakers at the convocation in Vienna marking (1998) the 60th anniversary of the dismissal of Jewish faculty members from the Vienna Medical School. In his address The Silence of Words, Dr. Spiro said, “the things that we avoid and don’t talk about are the matters that mean the most to us. The shame that has no vent in words makes other organs weep.” Dr. Spiro acknowledged that current officials of the University of Vienna are attempting to recover information that has either been hidden or destroyed and trying to locate former faculty who were interned and exiled. “There is a new generation that has taken over, and they are not afraid to look into these atrocities.”

It is now understood that many of the incredibly detailed illustrations in Pernkopf’s atlas depicted the bodies of victims of Nazi terror.

END OF QUOTE

Why do I bring this up again today?

For two reasons: firstly, I have been invited to give two lecture about these events in recent weeks. Secondly and much more importantly, we seem to live in times when the threat of fascism in several countries has again become worrisomely acute, and I think reminding people of my conclusion drawn in 1995 might not be a bad idea:

This story needs to be told to honor its victims and to fortify us so that history does not repeat itself.

It would be wrong to call the Czech Republic the promised land for homeopathy. For instance, the only research paper by Czech authors related to the subject that I could locate was published in the Journal ‘Homeopathy‘ and, on even superficial reading, it has little to do with homeopathy. Here is the abstract:

We discovered a previously unknown phenomenon in liquid water, which develops over time when water is left to stand undisturbed, and which made precise gravimetric measurement impossible. We term this property autothixotropy (weak gel-like behaviour developing spontaneously over time) and propose a possible explanation. The results of quantitative measurements, performed by two different methods, are presented. We also report the newly discovered phenomenon of autothixotropy-hysteresis and describe the dependence of autothixotropy on the degree of molecular translative freedom. A very important conclusion is that the presence of very low concentration of salt ions, these phenomena do not occur in deionized water. Salt ions may be the determinative condition for the occurrence of the phenomena.

In fact, historically, homeopathy had had a hard time in this country. Until World War II only very few doctors practiced homeopathy on Czech territory. Dr. Quin, founder of British homeopathy, practiced a short time in the small town of Tisnov. A Catholic homeopathic hospital existed at Kromeriz since 1860. During the communist era of 1948-89, homeopathy was prohibited, and, until 1991, no books about homeopathy were available in the Czech language. More recently, about 20 titles were published by the Alternativa Publishing house. The Czech Homeopathic Medical Chamber is an organisation that only permits MDs and currently has about 1000 members. The Czech Medical Homeopathic Society has only about 300 members.

After the fall of the ‘iron curtain’, homeopathy evidently became more popular. It has recently been reported that the number of homeopathic remedies sold in the Czech Republic rose by over 50% during the past 15 years. Last year, Czechs bought homeopathic preparations for over 170 million crowns, which is 10% more than a year ago.  “The patients most frequently use homeopathics against the problems associated with common viral diseases,” said Ales Krebs, deputy chairman of the Czech Pharmacy Chamber.  The homeopathic flu remedy Oscillococcinum seems to be one of the most popular homeopathic preparation in the Czech Republic. Yet Czech chemists say that it is ‘absolute nonsense’.

Most physicians seem to be equally cynical about homeopathy and its practitioners: “Homeopathics are perfect drugs. The manufacturing is dirt cheap and they sell for 60 crowns. They cannot be forged because the fakes have the same effect as the original product,” Czech doctors joke about the growing interest in homeopathy. Stepan Svacina, chairman of the Czech Medical Society, says: “The doctor can use a placebo in a psychological therapy. It does not matter whether this may be a homeopathic preparation or jumping on one leg.” Another doctor is quoted as stating that “Advocates of homeopathy often argue with doctors’ conspiracy with pharmaceutical makers, but they themselves certainly do not offer their methods for free as a sort of philanthropy.”

The cost for a first consultation with a Czech homeopath ranges between 100 to 3,000 crowns. The patient pays another 800-1,000 crowns for each next examination. ($1 = 24.846 crowns)

In 2014, the Czech Republic Ministry of Health issued a press-release stating that…although the Ministry for Health of the Czech Republic does not perceive the evidence base for homeopathy to be strong enough yet, this does not prevent doctors from utilising this if it is desired and appropriate…

Because the use of homeopathy cannot ever be considered to be ‘appropriate’, this declaration could arguably be interpreted by those who insist on evidence as a new prohibition of homeopathy in the Czech Republic.

You have to excuse me, if I keep coming back to this theme: so-called ‘alternative cancer cures’ are truly dangerous. I have tried to explain this already many times, for instance here, here and here. And it is by no means just alternative therapists who make a living of such quackery. Sadly qualified medical doctors are often involved as well. As to prove my point, here is a tragic story that broke yesterday:

Former Miss New Hampshire, Rachel Petz Dowd, lost her battle with cancer on Sunday 12 June 2016 — a battle she fought publicly through personal writings in a blog in hopes of helping others on a similar journey toward healing. The singer/songwriter and mother of three from Auburn died about a month after traveling to Mexico for an aggressive form of alternative cancer treatment. She turned 47 last week. Dowd was diagnosed with stage 2 triple negative breast cancer in May 2014. The diagnosis led her to create a blog called “Rachel’s Healing” to document what she hoped would be a journey back to health. “I hope my readers can gain something from my journey and that they find their own personal way to combat this disease impacting too many women today,” she wrote. Dowd used the blog to share her experiences with traditional and natural medicine during her cancer fight.

On 5/3/16 Mrs Dowd wrote on her blog: “Well after some careful consideration and looking at different clinics and hospitals we’ve made a decision. Will be going to the CMN Hospital on the Yuma, Arizona border*. For 28 days of treatments. It’s not a day clinic but a full hospital servicing over the past 30 years. There’s a special wing dedicated to alternative cancer care and the treatment list is impressive.  Many treatments that are not available in this country. We feel this would be the best course of care daily for 28 days and then at the end of the 4 weeks I intend my immune system to be back on-line. I will be doing a stem cell boost of my bone marrow the last week. I know of a women, Shannon Knight, from The Truth About Cancer documentary, who had stage 4 metastasized into locations of her bones and her lungs and she came out of there completely cured. Her oncologist said it was nothing short of a miracle, but she said no it was just clean hard work!  She said no it was just clean the hard, aggressive treatments that only attack cancer, boost and prime your immune system, become a whole, healthy being once again:) It is possible and I am planning on being one of the exceptions like Shannon!”

  • The hospital is across the US border in Mexico; it is run by medically qualified personnel.

The hospital [“CMN Hospital’s facility is only 14 blocks away once you cross the border to begin your alternative cancer treatment”] has a website where they tell a somewhat confusing story about their treatment plans; here is a short but telling excerpt:

CMN’s protocols are individualized and comprehensive. You will benefit from oxidative therapies, IV minerals selenium and bicarbonate IV vitamins such as vitamin B-17 and IV vitamin C. Far infrared and others including MAHT, Cold Laser Therapy, Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy and Ozone Therapy are a daily part of your protocol. Ultraviolet Blood Irradiation is effective in destroying pathogens in your blood and slows the growth of cancer cell growth. CMN’s Stem cell therapy and Dendritic cell therapy are just two of the advanced cancer treatments applied to patients.”

And here is what they say about three therapies as examples of treatments that have discussed before on this blog: vitamin C, Laetrile and Essiac.

IV Vitamin C If large amounts of vitamin C are presented to cancer cells, large amounts will be absorbed. In these unusually large concentrations, the antioxidant vitamin C will start behaving as a pro-oxidant as it interacts with intracellular copper and iron. This chemical interaction produces small amounts of hydrogen peroxide. Because cancer cells are relatively low in an intracellular anti-oxidant enzyme called catalase, the high dose vitamin C induction of peroxide will continue to build up until it eventually lyses the cancer cell from the inside out!

IV Vitamin B17 / Laetrile Also known as amygdaline, Vitamin B-17 is a molecule made up of four parts: -2 parts Glucose -1 part Benzaldahyde-1 part Hydrogen Cyanide. Laetrile is found in at least 1200 different plants, including apricots, peaches, apple seeds, lentils, cashews, brown rice, millet, and alfalfa. Commercial preparations of laetrile are obtained from the kernels of apricots, peaches and bitter almonds. The body requires an enzyme called beta-glucosidase in order to process laetrile and release the cyanide. Studies have shown that cancer cells contain more of this enzyme than normal cells, which allows for a higher release of cyanide at tumor sites. Another enzyme known as rhodanese is important in this process. Normal healthy cells contain rhodanese which protects them from the activated cyanide. Most cancer cells are deficient in this enzyme, leaving them vulnerable to the poison. Tumor destruction begins once the cyanide is released within the malignancies, meaning laetrile therapy is selectively toxic to cancer cells while remaining non-toxic to normal cells.

Essiac Tea / Order Original Essiac Tea Essiac, given its name by Rene Caisse (“caisse” spelt backwards), consists of four main herbs that grow in the wilderness of Ontario, Canada. The original formula is believed to have its roots from the native Canadian Ojibway Indians. The four main herbs that make up Essiac are Burdock Root, Slippery Elm Inner Bark, Sheep Sorrel and Indian Rhubarb Root. Essiac tea helps release toxins that build up in fat and tissues into the blood stream where they can be filtered and excreted by the liver and kidneys.  Cleaning the body of toxins and impurities frees up the immune system to focus on killing cancer cells and protecting the body.

 

I think I will abstain from further comments, firstly because I want to avoid getting sued by these people and secondly because it seems all too depressingly obvious.

Lots of people are puzzled how healthcare professionals – some with sound medical training – can become convinced homeopaths. Having done part of this journey myself, I think I know one possible answer to this question. So, let me try to explain it to you in the form of a ‘story’ of a young doctor who goes through this development. As you may have guessed, some elements of this story are autobiographical but others are entirely fictional.

Here is the story:

After he had finished medical school, our young and enthusiastic doctor wanted nothing more than to help and assist needy patients. A chain of coincidences made him take a post in a homeopathic hospital where he worked as a junior clinician alongside 10 experienced homeopaths. What he saw impressed him: despite of what he had learnt at med school, homeopathy seemed to work quite well: patients with all sorts of symptoms improved. This was not his or anybody else’s imagination, it was an undeniable fact.

As his confidence and his ability to think clearly grew, the young physician began to wonder nevertheless: were his patients’ improvements really due to the homeopathic remedies, or were these outcomes caused by the kind and compassionate care he and the other staff provided?

To cut a long story short, when he left the hospital to establish his own practice, he certainly knew how to prescribe homeopathics but he was not what one might call a convinced homeopath. He decided to employ homeopathy in parallel with conventional medicine and it turned out that he made less and less use of homeopathy as the months went by.

One day, a young women consulted him; she had been unsuccessfully trying to have a baby for two years and was now getting very frustrated, even depressed, with her childlessness. All tests on her and her husband had not revealed any abnormalities. A friend had told her that homeopathy might help, and see had therefore made this appointment to consult a doctor who had trained as a homeopath.

Our young physician was not convinced that he could help his patient but, in the end, he was persuaded to give it a try. As he had been taught by his fellow homeopaths, he conducted a full homeopathic history to find the optimal remedy for his patient, gave her an individualised prescription and explained that any effect might take a while. The patient was delighted that someone had given her so much time, felt well-cared for by her homeopaths, and seemed full of optimism.

Months passed and she returned for several further consultations. But sadly she failed to become pregnant. About a year later, when everyone involved had all but given up hope, her periods stopped and the test confirmed: she was expecting!

Everyone was surprised, not least our doctor. This outcome, he reasoned, could not possibly be due to placebo, or the good therapeutic relationship he had been able to establish with his patient. Perhaps it was just a coincidence?

In the small town where they lived, news spread quickly that he was able to treat infertility with homeopathy. Several other women with the same problem liked the idea of having an effective yet risk-free therapy for their infertility problem. The doctor thus treated several infertile women, about 10, during the next months. Amazingly most of them got pregnant within a year or so. The doctor was baffled, such a series of pregnancies could not be a coincidence, he reasoned.

Naturally, the cases that were talked about were the women who had become pregnant. And naturally, these were the patients our doctor liked to remember. Slowly he became convinced that he was indeed able to treat infertility homeopathically – so much so that he published a case series in a homeopathic journal about his successes.

In a way, he had hoped that, perhaps, someone would challenge him and explain where he had gone wrong. But the article was greeted nationally with much applause by his fellow homeopaths, and he was even invited to speak at several conferences. In short, within a few years, he made himself a name for his ability to help infertile women.

Patients now travelled from across the country to see him, and some even came from abroad. Our physician had become a minor celebrity in the realm of homeopathy. He also, one has to admit, had started to make very good money; most of his patients were private patients. Life was good. It almost goes without saying that all his former doubts about the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies gradually vanished into thin air.

Whenever now someone challenged his findings with arguments like ‘homeopathics are just placebos’, he surprised himself by getting quite angry. How do they dare doubt my data, he thought. The babies are there, to deny their existence means calling me a liar!

OUR DOCTOR HAD BECOME AN EVANGELICALLY CONVINCED HOMEOPATH, AND NO RATIONAL ARGUMENT COULD DISSUADE HIM.

And what arguments might that be? Isn’t he entirely correct? Can dozens of pregnancies be the result of a placebo effect, the therapeutic relationship or coincidence?

The answer is NO! The babies are real, very real.

But there are other, even simpler and much more plausible explanations for our doctor’s apparent success rate: otherwise healthy women who don’t get pregnant within months of trying do very often succeed eventually, even without any treatment whatsoever. Our doctor struck lucky when this happened a few times after the first patient had consulted him. Had he prescribed non-homeopathic placebos, his success rate would have been exactly the same.

As a clinician, it is all too easy and extremely tempting not to adequately rationalise such ‘success’. If the ‘success’ then happens repeatedly, one can be in danger of becoming deluded, and then one almost automatically ‘forgets’ one’s failures. Over time, this confirmation bias will create an entirely false impression and often even a deeply felt conviction.

I am sure that this sort of thing happens often, very often. And it happens not just to homeopaths. It happens to all types of quacks. And, I am afraid, it also happens to many conventional doctors.

This is how ineffective treatments survive for often very long periods. This is how blood-letting survived for centuries. This is how millions of patients get harmed following the advice of their trusted physicians to employ a useless or even dangerous therapy.

HOW CAN THIS SORT OF THING BE STOPPED?

The answer to this most important question is very simple: health care professionals need to systematically learn critical thinking early on in their education. The answer may be simple but its realisation is unfortunately not.

Even today, courses in critical thinking are rarely part of the medical curriculum. In my view, they would be as important as anatomy, physiology or any of the other core subjects in medicine.

The BMJ is my favourite medical journal by far; I think it is full of good science as well as entertaining to read, and I look forward to finding it in my letter box every Friday. It is thus hard for me to criticise the BMJ, and this is not made easier by the fact that I am the author of one of the two pieces in question. However, the current ‘HEAD TO HEAD’ entitled ‘SHOULD DOCTORS RECOMMEND HOMEOPATHY’ does, in my view, not mark the finest hour of this journal. Let me explain why.

The first question that arises is whether homeopathy is a good subject for such a debate. As several commentators have pointed out, it is not – the debate has long been closed; to serious scientists and many doctors, homeopathy tends to be a subject that is nothing more than an odd, obsolete triviality that does not even deserve a mention in the BMJ or any other serious publication. In a way, this notion has almost been proven wrong by the high level of interest the subject quickly generated. So, I will not dwell on this point any longer.

The second issue that arises just from nothing more than merely reading the title of the debate is that the question posed is imprecise. ‘Homeopathy’ is too broad a term for a focussed discussion; it includes amongst other phenomena empathetic encounters, remedies with material doses of highly active ingredients (e.g. Arsenic D1) and remedies that contain absolutely nothing at all (any ‘potency’ beyond C12). In my piece, I tried to make it clear that I speak mostly about ultra-molecular dilutions. This is less obvious in Peter Fisher’s article, and there is doubtlessly a lot of confusion in the debate as well as the comments that follow.

The two articles had to be written without either author knowing the text of the other. Consequently the issues raised by one author were not necessarily addressed by the other. This is somewhat frustrating, as it fails to clarify issues that could easily have been dealt with. In a previous post, I have already explained that the peer-review process of the two articles was seriously flawed. It failed to correct the many misleading statements in Fisher’s piece, as Alan Henness has pointed out in his response both in the BMJ and on this blog. In fact, reading Fisher’s article, I fail to find a single passage that is not factually wrong or highly misleading (the accompanying podcast is even worse, in my view). To me it is obvious that the debate about homeopathy cannot advance, if one side continues to behave in this fashion.

Homeopaths are very adept at recruiting ‘grass roots’ for public relation activities. We know this from various previous experiences. It was therefore predictable that this would swiftly get organised also in this instance. I happen to know from more than one source that there was a highly active campaign by homeopaths trying to persuade their supporters to post responses on the BMJ site and to vote on the BMJ straw poll (scientists, by contrast, know that such polls are silly gadgets and tend to view homeopathy as a triviality that is not worth the effort). In this way, they try to generate the impression that the majority of the public stands firmly behind homeopathy and want doctors to recommend it. It does not need too much to realise that popularity is not a measure of efficacy. Homeopaths, however, tend to relish logical fallacies and therefore will rejoice at such nonsense and celebrate it as their very own victory.

So, was this ‘HEAD TO HEAD’ a mistake? Should I have refused to participate? With hindsight, perhaps. My main reason for accepting was that, had I declined the offer, someone else would have written the piece (there are plenty of excellent scientists who could do an excellent job at this). As sure as hell, that person would subsequently gotten attacked for not ever having researched and/or practiced homeopathy (in the podcast, Fisher even tried to undermine my authority by pointing out that 1) I have not worked as a clinician for decades and 2) I have no NHS contract). I think I may be one of the few critics of homeopathy who cannot possibly be accused of not knowing enough about homeopathy to discuss the subject.

My hope is that, because the BMJ is such an excellent journal, the two articles will survive the current hoo-hah and some people will read them carefully, look up and study the references, analyse all this critically and weigh the arguments responsibly. Then they must be able to discern the fiction from the facts. And in this case, perhaps it was worth it after all.

Many experts have argued that the growing popularity of alternative medicine (AM) mandates their implementation into formal undergraduate medical education. Most medical students seem to feel a need to learn about AM. Yet little is known about the student-specific need for AM education. The objective of this paper was address this issue, specifically the authors wanted to assess the self-reported need for AM education among Australian medical students.

Thirty second-year to final-year medical students participated in semi-structured interviews. A constructivist grounded theory methodological approach was used to generate, construct and analyse the data.

The results show that these medical students generally held favourable attitudes toward AM but had knowledge deficits and did not feel adept at counselling patients about AMs. All students were supportive of integrating AM into education, noting its importance in relation to the doctor-patient encounter, specifically with regard to interactions with medical management. Students recognised the need to be able to effectively communicate about AMs and advise patients regarding safe and effective AM use.

The authors of this survey concluded that Australian medical students expressed interest in, and the need for, AM education in medical education regardless of their opinion of it, and were supportive of evidence-based AMs being part of their armamentarium. However, current levels of AM education in medical schools do not adequately enable this. This level of receptivity suggests the need for AM education with firm recommendations and competencies to assist AM education development required. Identifying this need may help medical educators to respond more effectively.

One might object to such wide-reaching conclusions based on a sample size of just 30. However, there are several similar surveys from other parts of the world which seem to paint a similar picture: most medical students clearly do want to learn about AM. But this issue raises several important questions:

  • How can this be squeezed into the already over-full curriculum?
  • Should students learn about AM or should they learn how to practice AM?
  • Who should teach this subject?

In my view, students should learn the essentials about AM but not how to do this or that therapy. Most deans of medical schools seem to agree with me on that particular point.

The question as to who should teach students about AM is, however, much more contentious. Most conventional medical instructors have no interest in and/or no knowledge of the subject. Consequently, there is a tendency for medical schools to delegate AM by hiring a few alternative practitioners to cover AM. Thus we see homeopaths teaching medical students all (well, almost all) about homeopathy, acupuncturists teaching acupuncture, herbalists teaching herbal medicine etc. To many observers, this might sound right and reasonable – but I beg to differ resolutely.

Most alternative practitioners who I have met (and these were many over the last 20 years) are clearly not capable of teaching their own subject in a way that befits a medical school. They have little or no idea about the nature of scientific evidence and usually lack the slightest hint of critical analysis. Thus a homeopaths might teach homeopathy such that students get the impression that it is well grounded in evidence, for instance. Students who have been taught in this fashion are not likely to advise their future patients responsibly on the subject in question: THE TEACHING OF NONSENSE IS BOUND TO RESULT IN NONSENSICAL PRACTICE!

In my view, AM is an ideal subject to acquaint medical students with the concepts of critical thinking. In this respect, it offers an almost opportunity for medical schools to develop much-needed skills in their students. Sadly, however, this is not what is currently happening. All too often, medical school deans find themselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. In the end, they tend to delegate the subject of AM to people who are not competent and should not be let loose on impressionable students.

I fear that progress and care of future patients are bound to suffer.

 

As I grew up in Germany, it was considered entirely normal that I was given homeopathic remedies when ill. I often wondered whether, with the advent of EBM, this has changed. A recent paper provides an answer to this question.

In this nationwide German survey, data were collected from 3013 children on their utilization of medicinal products, including homeopathic and other alternative remedies.

In all, 26% of the reported 2489 drugs were from the realm of alternative medicine. The 4-week prevalence for homeopathy was 7.5%. Of the drugs identified as alternative, 53.7% were homeopathic remedies, and 30.8% were herbal drugs. Factors associated with higher medicinal use of alternative remedies were female gender, residing in Munich, and higher maternal education. A homeopathy user utilized on average homeopathic remedies worth EUR 15.28. The corresponding figure for herbal drug users was EUR 16.02, and EUR 18.72 for overall medicinal CAM users. Compared with data from 4 years before, the prevalence of homeopathy use had declined by 52%.

The authors concluded that CAM use among 15-year-old children in the GINIplus cohort is popular, but decreased noticeably compared with children from the same cohort at the age of 10 years. This is possibly mainly because German health legislation normally covers CAM for children younger than 12 years only.

The survey shows that homeopathy is still a major player in the health care of German children. From the point of view of a homeopath, this makes a lot of sense: children are supposed to respond particularly well to homeopathy. But is that really true? The short answer is NO.

Our systematic review of all relevant studies tells it straight: The evidence from rigorous clinical trials of any type of therapeutic or preventive intervention testing homeopathy for childhood and adolescence ailments is not convincing enough for recommendations in any condition.

In other words, the evidence is very much at odds with the practice. This begs the question, I think, HOW SHOULD WE INTERPRET THIS DISCREPANCY?

A few possibilities come into mind, and I would be grateful to hear from my readers which they think might be correct:

  • Homeopathy is used as a ‘benign placebo’ [clinicians know that most paediatric conditions are self-limiting and thus prefer to give placebos rather than drugs that can cause adverse effects].
  • Doctors prescribe homeopathy mainly because the kids’ parents insist on them.
  • Doctors believe that homeopathic remedies are more than just placebos [in which case they are clearly ill-informed].
  • German doctors do not believe in scientific evidence and prefer to rely on their intuition.
  • This high level of homeopathy usage misleads the next generation into believing in quackery.
  • It amounts to child abuse and should be stopped.

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.

Recently I came across an interesting speech on alternative medicine which impressed me for a number of reasons. It made me think of a little game: the first person who correctly guesses who its author is, and posts the right answer as a comment on this blog, will receive a free copy of my new book A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND.

Here are 2 paragraphs from the speech in question:

It is known that not just novel therapies but also traditional ones, such as homeopathy, suffer opposition and rejection by some doctors without having ever been subjected to serious tests. The doctor is in charge of medical treatment; he is thus responsible foremost for making sure all knowledge and all methods are employed for the benefit of public health…I ask the medical profession to consider even previously excluded therapies with an open mind. It is necessary that an unbiased evaluation takes place, not just of the theories but also of the clinical effectiveness of alternative medicine.

More often than once has science, when it relied on theory alone, arrived at verdicts which later had to be overturned – frequently this occurred only after long periods of time, after progress had been hindered and most acclaimed pioneers had suffered serious injustice. I do not need to remind you of the doctor who, more than 100 years ago, in fighting puerperal fever, discovered sepsis and asepsis but was laughed at and ousted by his colleagues throughout his lifetime.  Yet nobody would today deny that this knowledge is most relevant to medicine and that it belongs to the basis of medicine. Insightful doctors, some of whom famous, have, during the recent years, spoken openly about the crisis in medicine and the dead end that health care has maneuvered itself into. It seems obvious that the solution is going in directions which embrace nature. Hardly any other form of science is so tightly bound to nature as is the science occupied with healing living creatures. The demand for holism is getting stronger and stronger, a general demand which has already been fruitful on the political level. For medicine, the challenge is to treat more than previously by influencing the whole organism when we aim to heal a diseased organ.

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