MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

education

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Sorry, but something I stated in my last post was not entirely correct!

I wrote that “I could not find a single study on Schuessler Salts“.

Yet, I do know of a ‘study’ of Schuessler Salts after all; I hesitate to write about it because it is an exceedingly ugly story that goes back to the ‘Third Reich’, and some people do not seem to appreciate me reporting about my research on this period.

The truth, however, is that I already did mention the Schuessler salts before on this blog: “…in 1941 a research unit was established in ‘block 5’ [of the Dachau Concetration Camp] 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.”

Wikipedia provides further details: [Im Dritten Reich] konnten erstmals mit staatlicher Billigung und Förderung Untersuchungen durchgeführt werden, in denen die behauptete Wirksamkeit „biochemischer“ Arzneimittel überprüft wurde. Solche Versuche fanden auch in den Konzentrationslagern Dachau und Auschwitz statt, unter Leitung des Reichsarztes SS Ernst-Robert Grawitz. Dabei wurden unter anderem künstlich herbeigeführte Fälle von Blutvergiftung und Malaria weitgehend erfolglos behandelt. Für die Häftlinge nahmen diese Experimente in den meisten Fällen einen tödlichen Ausgang.

My translation: During the Third Reich, it became possible for the first time possible to conduct with governmental support investigations into the alleged effectiveness of ‘biochemical’ Schuessler Salts. Such tests were carried out in the concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz under the leadership of Reichsarzt SS Ernst-Robert Grawitz. They involved infecting prisoners with sepsis and malaria and treating them – largely without success. Most of the prisoners used for these experiments died.

I also found several further sources on the Internet. They confirm what was stated above and also mention the treatment of TB with Schuessler Salts. Furthermore, they state that the victims were mostly Polish priests:

The last source claims that at least 28 prisoners died as a result of these unspeakably cruel experiments.

The most detailed account (and even there, it is just 2 or 3 pages) about these experiments that I could find is in the superb and extremely well-researched book ‘AUSCHWITZ, DIE NS MEDIZIN UND IHRE OPFER’ by Ernst Klee. In it (p 146), Klee cites Grawitz’s correspondence with Himmler where Grawitz discloses that, prior to the Dachau ‘Schuessler experiments’, there were also some in Auschwitz where all three victims had died. Apparently Grawitz tried to persuade Himmler to stop these futile and (even for his standards) exceedingly cruel tests; the prisoners suffered unimaginable pain before their deaths. However, Himmler reprimanded him sharply and instructed him to continue. Dr Kiesswetter was subsequently recruited to the team because he was considered to be an expert on the clinical use of Schuessler Salts.

[Another book entitled Der Deutsche Zentralverein homöopathischer Ärzte im Nationalsozialismus‘ also mentions these experiments. Its author claims that Weyherns was not a doctor but a Heilpraktiker (all other sources agree that he was a medic). In general, the book seems to down-play this deplorable story and reads like an attempt to white-wash German homeopathy during the Third Reich] .

Klee concludes his chapter by reporting the post-war fate of all the doctors involved in the ‘Schuessler experiments’:

Dr Waldemar Wolter was sentenced to death and executed.

Dr Hermann Pape disappeared.

Dr Rudolf Kiesswetter disappeared.

Dr Babor fled to Addis Abeba.

Dr Laue died.

Dr Heinrich Schuetz managed to become a successful consultant in Essen. Only in 1972, he was charged and tried by a German court to 10 years of jail. Several of his colleagues, however, certify that he was too ill to be imprisoned, and Schuetz thus escaped his sentence.

Why do I dwell on this most unpleasant subject?

Surely, this has nothing to do with today’s use of Schuessler Salts!

Do I do it to “smear homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine with a ‘guilt by association’ argument, associating them with the Nazis“, as Peter Fisher once so stupidly put it?

No!

I have other, more important reasons:

  • I do not think that the evidence regarding Schuessler Salts is complete without these details.
  • I believe that these are important historical facts.
  • I feel that the history of alternative medicine during the Third Reich is under-researched and almost unknown (contrary to that of conventional medicine for which a very large body of published evidence is now available).
  • I feel it should be known and ought to be much better documented than it is today.
  • I fear that we live in times where the memory of such atrocities might serve as a preventative for a resurgence of fascism in all its forms.

The German Heilpraktiker (a phenomenon vaguely equivalent to the ‘naturopath’ in English speaking countries) has become a fairly regular feature on this blog – see, for instance here, here, and here. The nationally influential German Medical Journal, a weekly publication of the German Medical Association, recently published an article about the education of this profession.

In it, we are told that the German Ministry of Health has drafted a 9-page document to unify the examination of the Heilpraktiker throughout Germany. The German Medical Association, however, are critical about the planned reform. The draft document suggest that, in future, all Heilpraktiker should pass an exam consisting of 60 multiple choice questions, in addition to an oral examination in which 4 candidates are being interviewed simultaneously for one hour. The draft also stipulates that Heilpraktiker may only practice such that they present no danger for public health and only use methods they muster.

The German Medical Association feel that these reforms do not go far enough. They claim that the authors of the draft have ‘totally misunderstood the complexity of the medical context, particularly the amount of necessary knowledge necessary for risk-minimisation in clinical practice’. They furthermore feel that the document is ‘an effort that is in every respect insufficient for protecting the public or individuals from the practice of the Heilpraktiker’. They also state that it is unclear how the document might provide a means to test Heilpraktiker in respect of risk-minimisation. The Medical Association demands that ‘the practice of certain therapies by Heilpraktiker must be forbidden. Finally, they say that ‘the practice of invasive methods and the treatment of caner by Heilpraktiker must be urgently prohibited’.

The German Heilpraktiker has been a subject of much public debate recently, not least after the ‘Muenster Group’ suggested a comprehensive reform. (I reported about this at the time.)

For those who can read German, the original article from the German Medical Journal is copied below:

Das Bundesministerium für Gesundheit (BMG) will gemeinsam mit den Ländern die Heilpraktikerüberprüfung bundesweit vereinheitlichen und Patienten besser schützen. Dafür haben Bund und Länder einen neunseitigen Entwurf erarbeitet. Die Bundes­ärzte­kammer (BÄK) zeigt sich angesichts der Pläne besorgt und übt deutliche Kritik.

Der Entwurf sieht vor, dass zur Überprüfung der Kenntnisse von Heilpraktikern künftig eine Prüfung verpflichtend sein soll. Diese soll aus 60 Multiple-Choice-Fragen bestehen, von denen der Anwärter innerhalb von zwei Stunden 45 korrekt ankreuzen muss. Darüber hinaus ist ein mündlicher Prüfungsteil von einer Stunde vorgesehen – bei vier Prüflingen gleichzeitig.

Zusätzlich stellt der Entwurf klar, dass Heilpraktiker nur in dem Umfang Heilkunde ausüben dürfen, in dem von ihrer Tätigkeit keine Gefahr für die Gesundheit der Bevölkerung oder für Patientinnen und Patienten ausgeht. Sie müssten zudem „eventuelle Arztvorbehalte beachten und sich auf die Tätigkeiten beschränken, die sie sicher beherrschen“, heißt es in der Präambel des Bund-Länder-Entwurfes, der dem Deutschen Ärzteblatt vorliegt.

Der Bundes­ärzte­kammer geht der Text nicht weit genug. Die Autoren der Leitlinie für die Prüfung haben laut BÄK „die Komplexität des medizinischen Kontextes“ völlig verkannt, „insbesondere das Ausmaß des notwendigen medizinischen Wissens, das für eine gefahrenminimierte Ausübung der Heilkunde notwendig ist“, so die Kammer weiter. Die jetzt vorgelegten Leitlinien für die Überprüfung stelle „eine in jeder Hinsicht unzureichende Maßnahme zum Schutz der Bevölkerung oder gar einzelner Patienten vor möglichen Gesundheitsgefahren durch die Tätigkeit von Heilpraktikern dar.

Es sei nicht nachvollziehbar, „wie auf der Grundlage dieser Leitlinien eine Überprüfung von Heilpaktikeranwärtern unter dem Aspekt einer funktionierenden Gefahrenabwehr erfolgen soll“, so die Kammer weiter. Sie fordert, dass Heilpraktikern bestimmte Tätigkeiten verboten werden. „Konkret sieht die Bundes­ärzte­kammer insbesondere den Ausschluss aller invasiven Maßnahmen sowie der Behandlung von Krebserkrankungen als zwingend notwendig an“, heißt es in der Stellungnahme.

Der Bund-Länder-Entwurf ist Ergebnis einer Debatte darüber, was Heilpraktiker dürfen oder künftig nicht (mehr) dürfen sollten und wie die Regeln für den Gesundheitsberuf aussehen. Eine Expertengruppe, der „Münsteraner Kreis“, hatte unlängst Vorschläge für eine umfassende Reform erarbeitet. Das Thema war zuletzt in der Öffentlichkeit und auch der Ärzteschaft heftig diskutiert worden.

END OF QUOTE

So, how well should alt med practitioners be educated and trained?

The answer depends, I think, on what precisely they are allowed to do. Medical responsibility must always be matched to medical competence. If a massage therapist merely acts on the instructions of a doctor, she does not need to know the differential diagnosis of a headache, for instance.

If, however, practitioners independently diagnose diseases (and alt med practitioners often do exactly that!), they must have a knowledge-base similar to that of a GP. If they use potentially harmful treatments (and which therapy does not have the potential to do harm?), they must be aware of the evidence for or against these interventions, as well as the evidence for all other therapeutic options for the conditions in question. Again, this would mean having a knowledge close to GP-level. If there is a mismatch between responsibility and competence (as very often is the case), patients are exposed to avoidable risks.

It is clear from these considerations that an exam with 60 multiple-choice questions followed by an hour-long interview is woefully inadequate for testing whether a practitioner has sufficient medical competence to independently care for patients. It is also clear, I think, that practitioners who regularly diagnose and treat patients – usually without any supervision – ought to have an education that covers much of what doctors learn while in medical school. Finally, it is clear that even after an adequate education, practitioners need to gather experience and work under supervision for some time before they can responsibly practice independently.

In any case, uncritically teaching obsolete notions of vitalism, yin and yang, subluxation, detox, potentisation, millennia of experience etc. is certainly not good enough. Education has to be based on sound evidence; if not, it is not education but brain-washing. And the result would be that students do not become responsible healthcare professionals but irresponsible charlatans.

Of course, alt med practitioners will argue that these arguments are merely the expression of medics defending their lucrative patch. But even if this were true (which, in my view, it is not), it would not absolve them from the moral, ethical and legal duty to demonstrate that their educational standards are sufficiently rigorous to avoid harm to their patients.

In a nutshell: an education in nonsense must result in nonsense.

 

Words like these are sure to persuade me that this chiropractic conference announcement is an invitation to abandon reason and dive into pure, unappetising BS. Reading the full text confirms my suspicion; here are a few quotes:

… Chiropractic practitioners are blazing new trails in pediatrics, neurology, neuroplasticity, and multisensory integration, pushing the understanding and possibilities of greater health potential for [autistic] children. This first-ever chiropractic pediatric CE program, with an emphasis on autism, will open the door to more chiropractors serving this precious group of children, taking the daunting fear out of this neurodevelopmental disorder and replacing it with optimism and hope.

AutismOne Online Media Director Candyce Estave said: “As a chiropractor, you’ve already displayed the courage to pursue a better way for your practice and your patients. You’ve shown your patients how supporting the healthy terrain and flow of the body underlies maintaining good health. But what about what’s called ‘autism’? How do you help the multitude of children and families who would love to seek your services for that? You can learn how at the AutismOne 2018 Conference!”

Chiropractic emphasizes the inherent recuperative power of the body to heal itself when it is free of nervous system interference and given the right conditions. Led by Steve Tullius, DC, the Chiropractic Pediatric Continuing Education Credit Program will bring together the best information from the chiropractic and other healing communities to prepare the practicing chiropractor with up-to-the-minute information, confidence, and resources to help children with autism get better. The CE program is co-sponsored by Sherman College of Chiropractic.

Dr. Jeanne Ohm, chiropractor since 1981 and director of the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association since 2002 says, “This year’s AutismOne Conference will offer essential fundamentals in caring for children with these special needs. I encourage all chiropractors to expand their practices and offer their vital services to this growing population in such dire need.”

END OF QUOTES

Blazing new trails in pediatrics, neurology, neuroplasticity, and multisensory integration?

Vital services?

Are they claiming that freeing autistic children from ‘nervous system interference’ (with spinal ‘adjustments’ no doubt) cures autism?

Surely not!

This assumption would put chiropractic firmly into the category of anti-scientific quackery. Seen from this perspective, the little footnote to the announcement is rather hilarious:

“Professionals from other scientific disciplines are also welcome to attend.”

The TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION (THE) reported yesterday that the British School of Osteopathy (BSO) has won university college title, meaning that it could be on the road towards full university status. University college title, awarded by the Privy Council on the advice of the Department for Education (DfE) and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is usually seen as a step towards full university status. The London-based BSO already secured degree-awarding powers and access to Hefce public teaching and research funding in 2015. The BSO will be known, from September, as the University College of Osteopathy.

The THE quoted me saying “Osteopathy is based on implausible assumptions, and there is no good evidence for its effectiveness. Yet osteopaths regularly make all sorts of therapeutic claims. These facts make the BSO not a candidate for becoming a university; on the contrary, such a move would significantly downgrade the credibility of UK universities and make a mockery of academia and evidence-based healthcare.”

Charles Hunt, the BSO principal, responded: “We recognise that for some of the things that some osteopaths are doing, there is very limited evidence [to demonstrate their effectiveness], and we need to gain more for that. But within medicine, there’s a lot of things that also do not have evidence for them, but some medical practitioners are doing [them anyway].”

What???

The BSO principal should offer a course on logical fallacies and enlist as the first student in it, I thought when reading his response.

Anyway, having stated that “osteopaths regularly make all sorts of therapeutic claims”, I better provide some evidence. Perhaps another occasion for a slide-show?

Here are a few images I found on Twitter that are relevant in this context.

[please click to see them full size]

Alternative medicine differs from conventional medicine in numerous ways. One important difference is that patients often opt to try this or that product without consulting any healthcare professional at all. In such cases, the pharmacist might be the ONLY professional who can advise the patient who is about to purchase such a product.

This is why the role of the pharmacist in alternative medicine is crucial, arguably more so than in conventional medicine. And this is why I am banging on about pharmacists who far too often behave like shop-keepers and not like ethical healthcare professionals. A new review addresses these issues and provides relevant information.

Pharmacists from the University of Macau in Macau, China conducted a literature review to extract publications from 2000 to 2015 that related pharmacist to alternative medicine products. 41 publications which reported findings from exploratory studies or discussed pharmacists’ responsibilities towards such products were selected for inclusion.

Seven major responsibilities emerged:

  • to acknowledge the use of alternative medicine products;
  • to be knowledgeable about such products;
  • to ensure safe use of such products;
  • to document the use of such products;
  • to report ADRs related to such products;
  • to educate about such products;
  • to collaborate with other health care professionals in respect to such products.

One point that is not directly covered here is the duty of pharmacists to comply with their own ethical codes. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, this would mean in many instances to not sell alternative medicine products at all, because there is no good evidence to show that they are generating more good than harm and thus are potentially harmful as well as wasteful.

Some pharmacists have realised that there is a problem. Some pharmacists are trying to initiate discussions about these issues within their profession. Some pharmacists are urging to change things. Some pharmacists are well-aware that healthcare ethics are being violated on a daily basis.

All this has been going on now for well over a decade.

And has there been any noticeable change?

Not as far as I can see!

Perhaps it is time to realise that not merely the sale of bogus medicines by pharmacists is unethical, but so is dragging one’s feet in initiating improvements.

 

Quackademia is an apt term for the teaching or promotion of quackery in universities. Sadly, this is a serious problem, and we have therefore discussed it already several times (see here, here and here). If you have read my memoir, you know that I had my fair share of quackademia ‘hands-on’, so to speak. This article from Australia has more on the subject:

START OF QUOTE

Friends of Science in Medicine have complained that alternative practitioners who speak at events were then using the names and logos of universities on their promotional material. Edith Cowan University recently cancelled a workshop promoting pranic crystal healing — which claims to use crystals to energise and heal the body — after complaints from FSM that it had no scientific basis. The university also cancelled Brisbane-based nutrition author Christine Cronau, who was due to promote her low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet on June 25. In response to a website petition calling on the university to cancel Cronau’s seminar, ECU said it rejected the booking because “it does not align with our evidence-based approach to dietetics teaching and research”.

The talk has been moved to Murdoch University, which, despite being lobbied to cancel the booking, said in a statement this week that it would go ahead. Murdoch said it promoted critical thinking and learning through discussion, debate and exposure to alternatives points of view. “One way to achieve this is to welcome other voices on campus in the form of guest speakers or visiting lecturers,” the statement said. “The university takes a common sense approach to the debate of controversial issues and we encourage respectful and insightful debate of thought- provoking topics.”

FSM president John Dwyer said universities should review the content of external health seminars before they hired out their venues. “We don’t have an issue with free speech, but some of the material is just not scientific,” Professor Dwyer said. “Often universities don’t know about the nature of the pseudo-scientific events they are hosting.”

Cronau said she was disappointed ECU had cancelled her talk but her faith in common sense had been restored by Murdoch University. “My approach has actually become a lot less controversial, so I don’t know why it has generated such comments,” she said.

END OF QUOTE

I find this story interesting. It reveals several things:

  • Quacks love to infiltrate universities; this gives them a veneer of respectability, they think.
  • This discloses their schizophrenic attitude to the ‘scientific establishment’ in an exemplary fashion: they often are fiercely against science but, at the same time, they are only too happy to jump at opportunities of decorating themselves with scientific feathers.
  • Universities are run like businesses these days. They tend to take the money where they can get it. Issues like scientific credibility rarely figure high on the agenda.
  • When challenged, universities claim they are favouring free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate.
  • This usually is but a lame excuse.

I remember protesting while at Exeter against a weekend course of pure quackery which the organisers were advertising under the logo of my university. My protest fell on deaf ears, and my peers pretended to favour free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate. After I had retired, the University of Exeter even allowed quacks to infiltrate and made this surprising announcement: Our complementary therapists will be offering 15-20 minute taster sessions in our complementary therapies yurt. The therapy taster sessions on offer will include: shaitsu bodywork, reflexology, indian head Massage, seated back massage and much more. To take advantage of these free taster sessions just pop along to the yurt on the day of the festival.

But the Australian events also offer a glimmer of hope in this usually bleak situation. Sometimes our protests do have an effect! I therefore urge everyone to not give up. Quackademia is a pest, and for the sake of future generations, we must not allow it to infest our universities.

Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true: this is the 1000th post on this blog.

Form the outset, I intended to critically comment on as many alternative modalities (treatments and diagnostic methods) as I can. This is the (probably not totally complete) list of what we covered:

Acupressure

Acupuncture

Agrohomeopathy

Anthroposophic medicine

Alexander technique

Alkaline diet

Aloe vera

Antioxidants

Applied kinesiology

Arnica

Aromatherapy

Autogenic training

Ayurveda

Bach flower remedies

Bioresonance

Biopuncture

Bowen technique

Calcium supplements

Cancer diets

Chelation therapy

Chinese herbal medicine

Chiropractic

Chondroitin

Colloidal silver

Copper chloride biocrystallisation

Cranio-sacral therapy

Crystal healing

Cupping

Detox

Dietary supplements

Distant healing

Ear candles

Emotional freedom techniques

Energy healing

Eurythmy

Evening primrose oil

Faith healing

Feverfew

Fish oil

Ginkgo biloba

Ginseng

Glucosamine

Gua sha

Heilpraktiker

Herbal medicine

Holistic dentistry

Homeopathy

Homeoprohylaxis

Homeotoxicology

Hypnotherapy

Integrative medicine

Iridology

Johrei healing

Kampo

Khalifa therapy

Kinesiology tape

Laetrile

Leech therapy

Lymph-drainage

Marijuana

Massage

Mind-body therapies

Mindfulness-based stress reduction

Mistletoe

Moxibustion

Mushrooms

Naturopathy

Neutraceuticals

Oscillococcinum

Osteopathy

Paleo diet

Pilates

Placebo

Plant sterols

Pranic healing

Prayer

Qigong

Reiki

Reflexology

Rhino horn

Shiatsu

Self-Reiki

Shujing massage

Slimming aids

Slapping therapy

Soy

Spinal manipulation

Spinal mobilisation

Spiritual healing

St Johns Wort

Tai chi

TCM

Therapeutic Touch

Transcendental meditation

Tui na

Tumeric

Urine therapy

Veterinary homeopathy

Vibrational medicine

Vitamin C

Yoga

IMPRESSIVE?

In addition, we discussed all sorts of general issues which are not directly related to one specific modality. Most importantly, we had plenty of discussions and debates – not always as well-mannered as I had hoped (my mistake entirely) but usually instructive and interesting. Today, there were almost 30 000 comments!!!

The comments are the most important feature of this blog, I feel. And because they are so crucial, I would like to say to all commenters: MANY THANKS, WITHOUT YOU THIS WOULD NOT BE HALF AS MUCH FUN!

And here is my promise on this day of celebration: I will continue to do my best to amuse, entertain and inform you with my comments, rants and ramblings.  As the subject of alternative medicine is not going to disappear in a hurry, I am not worried to run out of exciting material.

…and now, let’s find the champagne bottle!

 

 

Currently, over 50 000 000 websites promote alternative medicine, and consumers are bombarded with information not just via the Internet, but also via newspapers, magazines and other sources. This has the potential of needlessly separating them from their cash or even seriously harming their health. As there is little that protects us from greedy entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic therapists, we should think about protecting ourselves. Here I will provide five simple tips that may fortify you against fake news in the realm of alternative medicine.

Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are exited by this news. Before you now rush to the next health shop or alternative medicine centre, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the claim plausible? As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.
  • What is the evidence for the claim? In the case of CARCTOL, the claim was based on a UK doctor apparently observing that, in several patients, tumours had been melting like butter in the sun after they took this herbal mixture. One particularly irresponsible headline read: “I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor.” This, however, is no evidence but mere anecdotes, and we confuse the two at our peril. Remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence. With anecdotes, we can never be sure about cause and effect. Therapeutic claims must be based on good evidence, e.g. controlled clinical trials.
  • Who is behind the claim? In the UK, the CARCTOL claim emerged around 2004 and originated mainly from Dr Rosy Daniel. In the above newspaper article, she was called ‘a respected cancer doctor’. Personally, I do NOT ‘respect’  someone who makes claims of this nature without having good evidence. And a ‘cancer doctor’ is usually understood to be an oncologist; to the best of my knowledge, Dr Daniel is NOT an oncologist. In fact, she now calls herself a ‘Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine Consultant’. Faced with an important new health claim, one should always check who is behind it. Check out whether this person is reputable and free of conflicts of interest. An affiliation to a reputable university is usually more convincing than being a director of your own private heath centre.
  • Where was the claim published? The CARCTOL story had been published in newspapers – and nowhere else! Even today, there is only one Medline-listed publication on the subject. It is my own review of the evidence which, in 2004, concluded that “The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.”   *** If important new therapeutic claims like ‘therapy xy cures cancer’ are reported in the popular media, you should always check where they were first published (or simply dismiss it without researching it). It is unthinkable that such an important claim is not made first in a proper, peer-reviewed article in a good medical journal. Go on ‘Medline’, conduct a quick search and find out whether the new findings have been published. If the claim does not come from peer-reviewed journals, forget about it. If it has been published in any journal that has alternative, complementary, integrative or similar terms in its name, take it with a good pinch of salt.
  • Is there money involved? In the case of CARCTOL, the costs were high. I was called once by a woman who had read my article telling me that she was pursued by the doctor who had treated her husband. Tragically, the man had nevertheless died of his cancer, and the widow was now pursued for £8 000 which she understandably was reluctant to pay. Many new treatments are expensive. So, high costs are not necessarily suspicious. Still, I advise you to be extra cautious in situations where there is the potential for someone to make a fast buck. Financial exploitation is sadly rife in the realm of alternative medicine.

A similar checklist originates from a team of experts. Researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, worked to identify the most important ideas a person would need to grasp thinking critically about health claims. They came up with excellent points:

  1. Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
  2. New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
  3. Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
  4. Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
  5. Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
  6. Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.

Alternative medicine can easily turn into a jungle or even a nightmare. Before you fall for any dubious claim that THERAPY XY is good for you, please go through the simple sets of questions above. This might protect you from getting ripped off or – more importantly – from getting harmed.

 

*** After this article had been published, I received letters from layers threatening me with legal action unless I withdrew the paper. I decided to ignore them, and no legal action followed.

The website of BMJ Clinical Evidence seems to be popular with fans of alternative medicine (FAMs). That sounds like good news: it’s an excellent source, and one can learn a lot about EBM when studying it. But there is a problem: FAMs don’t seem to really study it (alternatively they do not have the power of comprehension to understand the data); they merely pounce on this figure and cite it endlessly:

They interpret it to mean that only 11% of what conventional clinicians do is based on sound evidence. This is water on their mills, because now they feel able to claim:

THE MAJORITY OF WHAT CONVENTIONAL CLINICIANS DO IS NOT EVIDENCE-BASED. SO, WHY DO SO-CALLED RATIONAL THINKERS EXPECT ALTERNATIVE THERAPIES TO BE EVIDENCE-BASED? IF WE NEEDED PROOF THAT THEY ARE HYPOCRITES, HERE IT IS!!!

The question is: are these FAMs correct?

The answer is: no!

They are merely using a logical fallacy (tu quoque); what is worse, they use it based on misunderstanding the actual data summarised in the above figure.

Let’s look at this in a little more detail.

The first thing we need to understand the methodologies used by ‘Clinical Evidence’ and what the different categories in the graph mean. Here is the explanation:


So, arguably the top three categories amounting to 42% signify some evidential support (if we decided to be more rigorous and merely included the two top categories, we would still arrive at 35%). This is not great, but we must remember two things here:

  • EBM is fairly new;
  • lots of people are working hard to improve the evidence base of medicine so that, in future, these figures will be better (by contrast, in alternative medicine, no similar progress is noticeable).

The second thing that strikes me is that, in alternative medicine, these figures would surely be much, much worse. I am not aware of reliable estimates, but I guess that the percentages might be one dimension smaller.

The third thing to mention is that the figures do not cover the entire spectrum of treatments available today but are based on ~ 3000 selected therapies. It is unclear how they were chosen, presumably the choice is pragmatic and based on the information available. If an up-to date systematic review has been published and provided the necessary information, the therapy was included. This means that the figures include not just mainstream but also plenty of alternative treatments (to the best of my knowledge ‘Clinical Evidence’ makes no distinction between the two). It is thus nonsensical to claim that the data highlight the weakness of the evidence in conventional medicine. It is even possible that the figures would be better, if alternative treatments had been excluded (I estimate that around 2 000 systematic reviews of alternative therapies have been published [I am the author of ~400 of them!]).

The fourth and possibly the most important thing to mention is that the percentage figures in the graph are certainly NOT a reflection of what percentage of treatments used in routine care are based on good evidence. In conventional practice, clinicians would, of course, select where possible those treatments with the best evidence base, while leaving the less well documented ones aside. In other words, they will use the ones in the two top categories much more frequently than those from the other categories.

At this stage, I hear some FAMs say: how does he know that?

Because several studies have been published that investigated this issue in some detail. They have monitored what percentage of interventions used by conventional clinicians in their daily practice are based on good evidence. In 2004, I reviewed these studies; here is the crucial passage from my paper:

“The most conclusive answer comes from a UK survey by Gill et al who retrospectively reviewed 122 consecutive general practice consultations. They found that 81% of the prescribed treatments were based on evidence and 30% were based on randomised controlled trials (RCTs). A similar study conducted in a UK university hospital outpatient department of general medicine arrived at comparable figures; 82% of the interventions were based on evidence, 53% on RCTs. Other relevant data originate from abroad. In Sweden, 84% of internal medicine interventions were based on evidence and 50% on RCTs. In Spain these percentages were 55 and 38%, respectively. Imrie and Ramey pooled a total of 15 studies across all medical disciplines, and found that, on average, 76% of medical treatments are supported by some form of compelling evidence — the lowest was that mentioned above (55%),6 and the highest (97%) was achieved in anaesthesia in Britain. Collectively these data suggest that, in terms of evidence-base, general practice is much better than its reputation.”

My conclusions from all this:

FAMs should study the BMJ Clinical Evidence more thoroughly. If they did, they might comprehend that the claims they tend to make about the data shown there are, in fact, bogus. In addition, they might even learn a thing or two about EBM which might eventually improve the quality of the debate.

It has been pointed out that many of the discussions we have on this blog are like pigeon chess. The term comes from a comment made by Scott D. Weitzenhoffer about Evolution vs. Creationism: An introduction: “Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon — it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.”

Debating a fan of alternative medicine is frequently just like that: ignorant of the basics of science and logic, he nevertheless insists on playing with you, knocks over the pieces, defecates on the board, flies back to his flock to boast of victory, only to come back a little later to start over again.

The sequence of events is comically stereotypical: in order to start this game, the evangelist of alternative medicine does his best to appear rational and interested in the subject. Once a discussion has commenced, he begins to make more and more irrational claims. When asked to provide evidence for them, he evades the challenge. Instead, he issues all sorts of accusations to you. Some of the favourites include:

  • being not competent to discuss the issue at hand,
  • having a closed mind,
  • being paid by BIG PHARMA,

As the accusations continue, it can be almost impossible to remain polite. Your reminders to produce evidence for the evangelist’s irrational claims become more and more pressing. He then decides to focus on a triviality and pesters you with questions about it which are too silly to answer. Consequently, the temperature of the exchange rises until his accusations become offensive or turn into overt insults (in the past I have sometimes deleted insulting comments and I intend to continue doing this on hopefully rare occasions). The aims of the evangelist are 1) to arrive at a point where you lose your temper and 2) to distract from the fact that he is unable to provide any evidence for his outlandish claims. Eventually your patience is exhausted and you finally start paying him back in the same coinage as he dispensed.

At this stage, the evangelist indignantly shouts:

  • YOU HAVE INSULTED ME!!!
  • YOU HAVE INSULTED ANYONE WHO DISAGREES WITH YOU!!!
  • THIS SHOWS WHAT A BAD, BAD PERSON YOU ARE!!!

Consequently, you give him a real piece of your mind and tell him what you really think of people who are belligerent,  ignorant on their chosen subject, provocatively irrational and unable or unwilling to learn. The reaction of the evangelist is predictable: he says THAT’S IT, I AM NOT TALKING TO YOU ANYMORE, announces that he is the winner of the argument, and flies off triumphantly promising never to return.

Finally!

We all give a sigh of relief. The evangelist has now returned to his fellow conspiracy theorists where he defames you the best he can. Eventually he disappoints your hope of peace and rationality by returning to the table. He pretends nothing has happened and starts over again.

So, what is the solution?

I am not sure there is an ideal way out.

Personally I intend to do the following in future (and I invite others to follow my example): before I reach the point where I lose my temper completely and regrettably, I will refer the evangelist to this blog post entitled ‘A method of ending discussions with belligerent twits’. At the same time, I will inform him (rarely it is a ‘her’) that I am about to break off the discussion with him because I fear that otherwise I might be openly rude, and perhaps even tell him: YOU ARE A FLAMING IDIOT WHO POSTS FAR TO MUCH NONSENSE TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY.

This, I hope will get my message across without actually ever tempting me to post a rude word again.

Failing this, I will block him completely, a measure to which so far I only needed rarely to resort.

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