MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

economic evaluation

Now, here is a surprise, at least for me it was one: I just came across a website [url deleted by Admin as potential phishing site] claiming that the estimated value of this blog is $21,928.77.

How on earth do they calculate this?

What does it mean?

How can you put a monetary value on a blog like mine?

I have to admit, I fail to know the answers to any of these questions. What I do know, however, is that, over the last few years, many complete strangers have assured me that my blog is ‘invaluable’. And comments like these are for me the sole reason for writing it.

If I did it for money, I would need quite a bit more than the above sum. When, a few years ago, I wrote a regular column and later blog for the Guardian, they paid me £ 250 for each article [if I remember correctly]. So, multiply the well over 500 posts on my blog by £ 250, and you arrive at an approximate value for it…something around £ 150 000.

Yes, I know, this is not realistic, in fact, it is barmy!

And therefore I prefer to attribute no monetary value to my blog and receive zero funds from anyone for my work here. People who occasionally tell me that it is invaluable is plenty of reward for me!

A recent article in the LIVERPOOL ECHO caught my eye. It is about the possibility that the NHS in Liverpool might stop funding their homeopathy service . Maybe I should read the LIVERPOOL ECHO more often, because the short article is most revealing.

It first cites the chairman of the local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group, Dr Nadim Fazlani saying that “There is little evidence that homeopathy has a clinical benefit so, as a governing body, our preferred option would be to stop commissioning this service. However, it is important that the people have an opportunity to provide their views before a decision is made.”

Fair enough!

I would like to mention, however, that health care is not a beauty contest or a supermarket shelve. We don’t have popular votes for bone marrow transplants or bypass surgery either. Why? Not because we don’t believe in democracy but because the general public cannot possibly understand medicine well enough. This is why we send some of our kids to medical school and other institutions to help us comprehend and eventually take responsible decisions for us. It is, I think, an ethical imperative to base important health care decisions of this nature on the best evidence and expertise, and it seems foolish to expect the public to have either.

Then the article in the LIVERPOOL ECHO quotes a statement of the Liverpool homeopathy service which is run by GPs Dr Hugh Nielsen and Dr Sue de Lacy: “The patients we see generally have long-standing, complex conditions that are often difficult to treat with conventional medicine. Yet regular audits of our clinic show a very high level of patient satisfaction, with patients consistently reporting an improvement in their health. As experienced doctors trained in homeopathy we see it working every day and that is why we believe Liverpool CCG – and more importantly the patients the CCG serves – is getting excellent value for the relatively small amount of funding the service receives.”

I find this interesting, not least because the arguments used by these two GPs are, in my view, miles better than those we have seen on this blog recently by Christian Boiron, Dana Ullman, Dr Michael Dixon or the Queen’s homeopath Dr Fisher all put together. At least they do not contain blatant lies!

This does not mean, however, that the arguments of the two homeopaths from Liverpool are convincing. They are not – for the following 4 reasons:

  1. True, long-standing, complex conditions are often difficult to treat with conventional medicine. But if they are difficult to treat with real medicine, they surely are even more difficult to treat with fake medicine.
  2. I have no problem believing that their audits show high level of patient satisfaction, with patients consistently reporting an improvement in their health. But we need to be quite clear that these effects are not brought about by the homeopathic remedies which contain zero active ingredients. They are due to the compassion shown by these homeopath. If they prescribed real medicine in addition to providing compassion, their results would in all likelihood be even better.
  3. It is also true that an experienced doctor trained in homeopathy will see it working every day. But the ‘it’ refers not to the remedy, it relates to the compassion – and to convey compassion, we do not need bogus treatments.
  4. It is a little misleading to claim that homeopathy is ‘excellent value’. The remedies contain nothing but lactose, and £ 5-10 for a gram or two of lactose is jolly expensive! So, the remedies are over-priced placebos, and the consultations might be good value.

Despite these counter-arguments, I must congratulate these two GPs from Liverpool: they seem to be so much more honest and intelligent than the defenders of homeopathy mentioned above.

The notion that the use homeopathy instead of real medicine might save money (heavily promoted by homeopaths and their followers, often to influence health politics) has always struck me as being utterly bizarre: without effectiveness, it is hard to imagine cost-effectiveness. Yet the Smallwood report (in)famously claimed that the NHS would save lots of money, if GPs were to use more homeopathy. At the time, I thought this was such a serious and dangerous error that I decided to do something about it. My objection to the flawed report might have prevented it being taken seriously by anyone with half a brain, but sadly it also cost me my job (the full story can be read here).

Later publications perpetuated the erroneous idea of homeopathy’s cost-effectiveness. For instance, an Italian analysis (published in the journal ‘Homeopathy’) concluded that homeopathic treatment for respiratory diseases (asthma, allergic complaints, Acute Recurrent Respiratory Infections) was associated with a significant reduction in the use and costs of conventional drugs. Costs for homeopathic therapy are significantly lower than those for conventional pharmacological therapy. Again, this paper was so badly flawed that, other than some homeopaths, nobody seemed to have taken the slightest notice of it.

Now a new article has been published on this very subject. The aim of this study was to compare the health care costs for patients using additional homeopathic treatment (homeopathy group) with the costs for those receiving usual care (control group).

Cost data provided by a large German statutory health insurance company were retrospectively analysed from the societal perspective (primary outcome) and from the statutory health insurance perspective. Patients in both groups were matched using a propensity score matching procedure based on socio-demographic variables as well as costs, number of hospital stays and sick leave days in the previous 12 months. Total cumulative costs over 18 months were compared between the groups with an analysis of covariance (adjusted for baseline costs) across diagnoses and for six specific diagnoses (depression, migraine, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and headache).

Data from 44,550 patients (67.3% females) were available for analysis. From the societal perspective, total costs after 18 months were higher in the homeopathy group (adj. mean: EUR 7,207.72 [95% CI 7,001.14-7,414.29]) than in the control group (EUR 5,857.56 [5,650.98-6,064.13]; p<0.0001) with the largest differences between groups for productivity loss (homeopathy EUR 3,698.00 [3,586.48-3,809.53] vs. control EUR 3,092.84 [2,981.31-3,204.37]) and outpatient care costs (homeopathy EUR 1,088.25 [1,073.90-1,102.59] vs. control EUR 867.87 [853.52-882.21]). Group differences decreased over time. For all diagnoses, costs were higher in the homeopathy group than in the control group, although this difference was not always statistically significant.

The authors of this paper (who have a long track record of being pro-homeopathy) concluded that, compared with usual care, additional homeopathic treatment was associated with significantly higher costs. These analyses did not confirm previously observed cost savings resulting from the use of homeopathy in the health care system.

The next time someone does a (no doubt costly) cost-effectiveness analysis of an ineffective treatment, it would be good (and cost-effective) to remember: WITHOUT EFFECTIVENESS, THERE CAN BE NO COST-EFFECTIVENESS.

“So what? We all know that homeopathy is nonsense,” I hear some people argue, “at the same time, it is surely trivial. Let those nutters do what they want; at least it is not harmful!”

If you are amongst the many consumers who think so, please read this announcement that arrived in my inbox today:

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  • Ananda More (Canada) – “In Search of Evidence” movie
     
  • And special guest, Dr Andrew Wakefield

I THINK I CAN REST MY CASE.

We all know, I think, that chronic low back pain (CLBP) is common and causes significant suffering in individuals as well as cost to society. Many treatments are on offer but, as we have seen repeatedly on this blog, not one is convincingly effective and some, like chiropractic, is associated with considerable risks.

Enthusiasts claim that hypnotherapy works well, but too little is known about the minimum dose needed to produce meaningful benefits, the roles of home practice and hypnotizability on outcome, or the maintenance of treatment benefits beyond 3 months. A new trial was aimed at addressing these issues.

One hundred veterans with CLBP participated in a randomized, four parallel group study. The groups were (1) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention without audio recordings for home practice; (2) an eight-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings; (3) a two-session self-hypnosis training intervention with recordings and brief weekly reminder telephone calls; and (4) an eight-session active (biofeedback) control intervention.

Participants in all four groups reported significant pre- to post-treatment improvements in pain intensity, pain interference and sleep quality. The three hypnotherapy groups combined reported significantly more pain intensity reduction than the control group. There was no significant difference among the three hypnotherapy groups. Over half of the participants who received hypnotherapy reported clinically meaningful (≥30%) reductions in pain intensity, and they maintained these benefits for at least 6 months after treatment. Neither hypnotizability nor amount of home practice was associated significantly with treatment outcome.

The authors conclude that two sessions of self-hypnosis training with audio recordings for home practice may be as effective as eight sessions of hypnosis treatment. If replicated in other patient samples, the findings have important implications for the application of hypnosis treatment for chronic pain management.

Even though this trial has several important limitations, I do agree with the authors: these results would be worth an independent replication – not least because self-hypnosis is cheap and does not carry great risks. What would be interesting, in my view, are studies that compare several alternative LBP therapies (e.g. chiropractic, osteopathy, acupuncture, massage, various form of exercise and hypnotherapy) in terms of cost, risks, long-term effectiveness and patients’ preference. I somehow feel that the results of such comparative trials might overturn the often issued recommendations for spinal manipulation, i.e. chiropractic or osteopathy.

The dismal state of chiropractic research is no secret. But is anything being done about it? One important step would be to come up with a research strategy to fill the many embarrassing gaps in our knowledge about the validity of the concepts underlying chiropractic.

A brand-new article might be a step in the right direction. The aim of this survey was to identify chiropractors’ priorities for future research in order to best channel the available resources and facilitate advancement of the profession. The researchers recruited 60 academic and clinician chiropractors who had attended any of the annual European Chiropractors’ Union/European Academy of Chiropractic Researchers’ Day meetings since 2008. A Delphi process was used to identify a list of potential research priorities. Initially, 70 research priorities were identified, and 19 of them reached consensus as priorities for future research. The following three items were thought to be most important:

  1.  cost-effectiveness/economic evaluations,
  2.  identification of subgroups likely to respond to treatment,
  3.  initiation and promotion of collaborative research activities.

The authors state that this is the first formal and systematic attempt to develop a research agenda for the chiropractic profession in Europe. Future discussion and study is necessary to determine whether the themes identified in this survey should be broadly implemented.

Am I the only one who finds these findings extraordinary?

The chiropractic profession only recently lost the libel case against Simon Singh who had disclosed that chiropractors HAPPILY PROMOTE BOGUS TREATMENTS. One would have thought that this debacle might prompt the need for rigorous research testing the many unsubstantiated claims chiropractors still make. Alas, the collective chiropractic wisdom does not consider such research as a priority!

Similarly, I would have hoped that chiropractors perceive an urgency to investigate the safety of their treatments. Serious complications after spinal manipulation are well documented, and I would have thought that any responsible health care profession would consider it essential to generate reliable evidence on the incidence of such events.

The fact that these two areas are not considered to be priorities is revealing. In my view, it suggests that chiropractic is still very far from becoming a mature and responsible profession. It seems that chiropractors have not learned the most important lessons from recent events; on the contrary, they continue to bury their heads in the sand and carry on seeing research as a tool for marketing.

As mentioned several times on this blog, homeopathy lacks a solid evidence base (to put it mildly). There are powerful organisations which attempt to mislead the public about this fact, but most homeopathy-fans know this only too well, in my opinion. Some try to bypass this vexing fact by trying to convince us that homeopathy is value for money, never mind the hard science of experimental proof of its principles or the complexity of the clinical data. They might feel that politicans would take notice, if homeopathy would be appreciated as a cheap form of health care. In this context, it is worth mentioning that researchers from Sheffield have just published a systematic review of economic evaluations of homeopathy

They included 14 published assessments in their review. Eight studies found cost savings associated with the use of homeopathy. Four investigations suggested that improvements in homeopathy patients were at least as good as in control group patients, at comparable costs. Two studies found improvements similar to conventional treatment, but at higher costs. The researchers also noted that studies were highly heterogeneous and had numerous methodological weaknesses.

The authors concluded that “although the identified evidence of the costs and potential benefits of homeopathy seemed promising, studies were highly heterogeneous and had several methodological weaknesses. It is therefore not possible to draw firm conclusions based on existing economic evaluations of homeopathy“.

Thre are, of course, several types of economic evaluations of medical interventions; the most basic of these simply compares the cost of one medication with those of another. In such an analysis, homeopathy would normally win against conventional tratment, as homeopathic remedies are generally inexpensive. If one adds the treatment time into the equation, things become a little more complex; homeopathic consultations tend to be considerably longer that conventional ones, and if the homeopaths’ time is costed at the same rate as the time of conventional doctors, it is uncertain whether homeopathy would still be cheaper.

Much more relevant, in my view, are cost-effective analyses which compare the relative costs and outcomes of two or more treatments. The results of such evaluations are often expressed in terms of a ratio where the denominator is a gain in health from a treatment and the numerator is the cost associated with the health gain. The most common measure used to express this is the QUALY.

Any cost-effective analysis can only produce meaningfully positive results, if the treatment in question supported by sound evidence for effectivenes. A treatment that is not demonstrably effective cannot be cost-effective! And this is where the principal problem with any cost-effectiveness analysis of homeopathy lies. Homeopathic remedies are placebos and thus can be neither effective nor cost-effective. Arguments to the contrary are in my view fallacious.

The authors of the new article say they have  identified evidence of the potential benefits of homeopathy. How can this be? They based this conclusion only on the 14 studies included in their review. But this is only about 5% of the total available data. Reliable estimates of effectiveness should be based on the totality of the available evidence and not on a selection thereof.

I therefore think it is wise to focus on the part of the authors’ conclusion that does make sense: ” It is… not possible to draw firm conclusions based on existing economic evaluations of homeopathy“. In plain English: economic evaluations of  homeopathy fail to show that it is value for money.

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