THE LOCAL, SPAIN’S NEWS IN ENGLISH just reported that a master’s degree in homeopathic medicine at one of Spain’s top universities has been scrapped, because of its “lack of scientific basis”. A university spokesman confirmed the course was being scrapped and gave three main reasons:
- “Firstly, the university’s Faculty of Medicine recommended scrapping the master’s because of the doubt that exists in the scientific community.
- Secondly, a lot of people within the university – professors and students across different faculties – had shown their opposition to the course.
- Thirdly, the postgraduate degree in homeopathic medicine is no longer approved by Spain’s Health Ministry.”
“All of these reasons taken together convinced the university to stop the course,” he added. The news has been praised by doctors and scientists throughout Spain, not least by Adrián Gómez, a chemistry student at the university, who five months ago launched a petition on the website change.org calling for the homeopathy master’s to be scrapped.
The university had started its Homeopathic Medicine Masters in 2004. Since then opposition to the course seems to have grown. Even Spain’s own Health Ministry stated in a 2011 report that “homeopathy has not proved its effectiveness in any specific clinical situation”.
The current student intake (n=20), which is due to finish the course in October 2016 will continue to the end, but there will be no new courses in homeopathy. THE LOCAL also reported that the homeopathic industry in Spain is worth around €60 million annually.
Vis a vis the now overwhelming evidence that homeopathy is a placebo therapy, more closures of homeopathy courses can be expected worldwide. Indeed, one has to ask why this particular course was started in 2004 when the evidence had been quite clear for some time. In my view, it is unethical of universities to set youngsters on a path of quackery and thus contribute to an obstacle to evidence-based health care.
Germany is, as we all know, the home of homeopathy. Here it has an unbroken popularity, plenty of high level support and embarrassingly little opposition. The argument that homeopathy has repeatedly been shown to merely rely on placebo effects seems to count for nothing in Germany.
Perhaps this is going to change now. On January 30, a group of experts from all walks of life have met in Freiburg to discuss ways of informing the public responsibly and countering the plethora of misinformation that Germans are regularly exposed to on the subject of homeopathy. They founded the ‘Information Network Homeopathy’ and decided on a range of actions.
No doubt, some will ask where does their financial support come from? And no doubt, some will claim that we are on the payroll of ‘Big Pharma’. The truth is that we have no funding; everyone gives his/her own time free of charge and pays for his/her own expenses etc. And why? Because we believe in progress and feel strongly that it is time to improve healthcare by relegating homeopathy to the history books.
One of the first fruits of the network’s endeavours is the ‘Freiburger Erklärung zur Homöopathie’, the ‘Freiburg Declaration on Homeopathy’. I have the permission to reproduce the document here in full (the translation is mine):
HOMEOPATHY IS NEITHER NATUROPATHY NOR MEDICINE
Despite the support of politicians and the silence of those who should know better, homeopathy has remained a method which is in clear opposition to the proven basics of science. The members and supporter of the ‘Information Network Homeopathy’ view homeopathy as a stubbornly surviving belief system, which cannot be accepted as part of naturopathy nor medicine. The information network is an association of physicians, pharmacists, veterinarians, biologists, scientists and other critics of homeopathy who are united in their aim to disclose this fact more openly and make the public more aware of it.
NO SPECIAL STATUS FOR HOMEOPATHY
During the more than 200 years of its existence, homeopathy has not managed to demonstrate its specific effectiveness. Homeopathy only survives because it has been granted special status in the German healthcare system which is, in the opinion of the experts of the network, unjustified. Drugs have to prove their effectiveness according to objective criteria, but homeopathics are exempt from this obligation. We oppose such double standards in medicine.
Homeopathy has also not managed to demonstrate a plausible mode of action. Instead its proponents pretend that there are uncertainties which need to be clarified. We oppose such notions vehemently. Homeopathy is not an unconventional method that requires further scientific study. Its basis consists of long disproven theories such as the ‘law of similars’, ‘vital force’ or ‘potentisation by dilution’.
SELF-DECEPTION OF PATIENT AND THERAPIST
We do not dispute the therapeutic effects of a homeopathic treatment. But they are unrelated to the specific homeopathic remedy. The perceived effectiveness of homeopathics is due to suggestion and auto-suggestion of the patient and the therapist. The mechanisms of such (self-) deceit are multi-fold but well-known and researched. Symptomatic improvements caused by context-effects must not be causally associated with the homeopathic remedy. We assume that many physicians and alternative practitioners using homeopathy are unaware of the existence and multitude of such mechanisms and are acting in good faith. This, however, does not alter the fact that their conclusions are wrong and thus potentially harmful.
MEDICINE AND SCIENCE
We do not claim that the scientific method which we uphold can currently research and explain everything. However, it enables us to explain that homeopathy cannot explain itself. The scientific method shows the best way we have for differentiating effective from ineffective treatments. A popular belief in therapeutic claims nourished by politicians and journalists can never be a guide for medical activities.
AIM OF THIS DECLARATION
Our criticism is not aimed at needy patients or practising homeopathic clinicians; it is aimed at the school of homeopathy and the healthcare institutions which could have long recognised the nonsensical nature of homeopathy, but have chosen not to interfere. We ask the players within our science-based healthcare system to finally reject homeopathy and other pseudoscientific methods and to return to what should be self-evident: scientifically validated, fair and generally reproducible rules promoting top-quality medicine for he benefit of the patient.
Dr.-Ing. Norbert Aust, Initiator Informationsnetzwerk Homöopathie
Dr. med. Natalie Grams, Leiterin Informationsnetzwerk Homöopathie
Amardeo Sarma, GWUP Vorsitzender und Fellow von CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry)
Edzard Ernst, Emeritus Professor, Universität Exeter, UK
Prof. Dr. Rudolf Happle, Verfasser der Marburger Erklärung zur Homöopathie
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Hell, Vorsitzender des Wissenschaftsrates der GWUP
Prof. Norbert Schmacke, Institut für Public Health und Pflegeforschung, Universität Bremen
Dr. rer. nat. Christian Weymayr, freier Medizinjournalist
A 2016 article set out to define the minimum core competencies expected from a certified paediatric doctor of chiropractic using a Delphi consensus process. The initial set of seed statements and sub-statements was modelled on competency documents used by organizations that oversee chiropractic and medical education. The statements were then distributed to the Delphi panel, reaching consensus when 80% of the panelists approved each segment. The panel consisted of 23 specialists in chiropractic paediatrics from across the spectrum of the chiropractic profession. Sixty-one percent of panellists had postgraduate paediatric certifications or degrees, 39% had additional graduate degrees, and 74% were faculty at a chiropractic institution and/or in a postgraduate paediatrics program. The panel was initially given 10 statements with related sub-statements formulated by the study’s steering committee. On all 3 rounds of the Delphi process the panelists reached consensus; however, multiple rounds occurred to incorporate the valuable qualitative feedback received.
The results of this process reveal that the Certified Paediatric Doctor of Chiropractic requires 8 sets of skills. (S)he will …
1) Possess a working knowledge and understanding of the anatomy, physiology, neurology, psychology, and developmental stages of a child. a) Recognize known effects of the prenatal environment, length of the pregnancy, and birth process on the child’s health. b) Identify and evaluate the stages of growth and evolution of systems from birth to adulthood. c) Appraise the clinical implications of developmental stages in health and disease, including gross and fine motor, language/communication, and cognitive, social, and emotional skills. d) Recognize normal from abnormal in these areas. e) Possess an understanding of the nutritional needs of various stages of childhood.
2) Recognize common and unusual health conditions of childhood. a) Identify and differentiate clinical features of common physical and mental paediatric conditions. b) Identify and differentiate evidence-based health care options for these conditions. c) Identify and differentiate clinical features and evidence-based health care options for the paediatric special needs population.
3) Be able to perform an age-appropriate evaluation of the paediatric patient. a) Take a comprehensive history, using appropriate communication skills to address both child and parent/ guardian. b) Perform age-appropriate and case-specific physical, orthopaedic, neurological, and developmental examination protocols. c) When indicated, utilize age-appropriate laboratory, imaging, and other diagnostic studies and consultations, according to best practice guidelines. d) Appropriately apply and adapt these skills to the paediatric special needs population. e) Be able to obtain and comprehend all relevant external health records.
4) Formulate differential diagnoses based on the history, examination, and diagnostic studies.
5) Establish a plan of management for each child, including treatment, referral to, and/or co-management with other health care professionals. a) Use the scientific literature to inform the management plan. b) Adequately document the patient encounter and management plan. c) Communicate management plan clearly (written, oral, and nonverbal cues) with both the child and the child’s parent/guardian. d) Communicate appropriately and clearly with other professionals in the referral and co-management of patients.
6) Deliver skilful, competent, and safe chiropractic care, modified for the paediatric population, including but not limited to: a) Manual therapy and instrument-assisted techniques including manipulation/adjustment, mobilization, and soft tissue therapies to address articulations and/or soft tissues. b) Physical therapy modalities. c) Postural and rehabilitative exercises. d) Nutrition advice and supplementation. e) Lifestyle and public health advice. f) Adapt the delivery of chiropractic care for the paediatric special needs population.
7) Integrate and collaborate with other health care providers in the care of the paediatric patient. a) Recognize the role of various health care providers in paediatric care. b) Utilize professional inter-referral protocols. c) Interact clearly and professionally as needed with health care professionals and others involved in the care of each patient. d) Clearly explain the role of chiropractic care to professionals, parents, and children.
8) Function as a primary contact, portal of entry practitioner who will. a) Be proficient in paediatric first aid and basic emergency procedures. b) Identify and report suspected child abuse.
9) Demonstrate and utilize high professional and ethical standards in all aspects of the care of paediatric patients and professional practice. a) Monitor and properly reports of effects/adverse events. b) Recognize cultural individuality and respect the child’s and family’s wishes regarding health care decisions. c) Engage in lifelong learning to maintain and improve professional knowledge and skills. d) Contribute when possible to the knowledge base of the profession by participating in research. e) Represent and support the specialty of paediatrics within the profession and to the broader healthcare and lay communities.
I find this remarkable in many ways. Let us just consider a few items from the above list of competencies:
Identify and differentiate evidence-based health care options… such options would clearly not include chiropractic manipulations.
Identify and differentiate clinical features and evidence-based health care options for the paediatric special needs population… as above. Why is there no mention of immunisations anywhere?
Perform age-appropriate and case-specific physical, orthopaedic, neurological, and developmental examination protocols. If that is a competency requirement, patients should really see the appropriate medical specialists rather than a chiropractor.
Establish a plan of management for each child, including treatment, referral to, and/or co-management with other health care professionals. The treatment plan is either evidence-based or it includes chiropractic manipulations.
Deliver skilful, competent, and safe chiropractic care… Aren’t there contradictions in terms here?
Manual therapy and instrument-assisted techniques including manipulation/adjustment, mobilization, and soft tissue therapies to address articulations and/or soft tissues. Where is the evidence that these treatments are effective for paediatric conditions, and which conditions would these be?
Clearly explain the role of chiropractic care to professionals, parents, and children. As chiropractic is not evidence-based in paediatrics, the role is extremely limited or nil.
Function as a primary contact, portal of entry practitioner… This seems to me as a recipe for disaster.
Demonstrate and utilize high professional and ethical standards in all aspects of the care of paediatric patients… This would include obtaining informed consent which, in turn, needs to include telling the parents that chiropractic is neither safe nor effective and that better therapeutic options are available. Moreover, would it not be ethical to make clear that a paediatric ‘doctor’ of chiropractic is a very far cry from a real paediatrician?
So, what should the competencies of a chiropractor really be when it comes to treating paediatric conditions? In my view, they are much simpler than outlined by the authors of this new article: I SEE NO REASON WHATSOEVER WHY CHIROPRACTORS SHOULD TREAT CHILDREN!
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.
I just came across a website that promised to”cover 5 common misconceptions about alternative medicine that many people have”. As much of this blog is about this very issue, I was fascinated. Here are Dr Cohen’s 5 points in full:
5 Misconceptions about Alternative Medicine Today
1. Alternative Medicine Is Only an Alternative
In fact, many alternative practitioners are also medical doctors, chiropractors, or other trained medical professionals. Others work closely with MDs to coordinate care. Patients should always let all of their health care providers know about treatments that they receive from all the others.
2. Holistic Medicine Isn’t Mainstream
In fact, scientists and doctors do perform studies on all sorts of alternative therapies to determine their effectiveness. These therapies, like acupuncture and an improved diet, pass the test of science and then get integrated into standard medical practices.
3. Natural Doctors Don’t Use Conventional Medicine
No credible natural doctor will ever tell a patient to replace prescribed medication without consulting with his or her original doctor. In many cases, the MD and natural practitioner are the same person. If not, they will coordinate treatment to benefit the health of the patient.
4. Alternative Medicine Doesn’t Work
Actual licensed health providers won’t just suggest natural therapies on a whim. They will consider scientific studies and their own experience to suggest therapies that do work. Countless studies have, for example, confirmed that acupuncture is an effective treatment for many medical conditions. Also, the right dietary changes are known to help improve health and even minimize or cure some diseases. Numerous other alternative therapies have been proven effective using scientific studies.
5. Big Medical Institutions are Against Alternative Medicine
According to a recent survey, about half of big insurers pay for tested alternative therapies like acupuncture. Also, hospitals and doctors do recognize that lifestyle changes, some herbal remedies, and other kinds of alternative medicine may reduce side effects, allow patients to reduce prescription medicine, and even lower medical bills.
This is not to say that every insurer, doctor, or hospital will support a particular treatment. However, patients are beginning to take more control of their health care. If their own providers won’t suggest natural remedies, it might be a good idea to find one who does.
The Best Medicine Combines Conventional and Alternative Medicine
Everyone needs to find the right health care providers to enjoy the safest and most natural care possible. Good natural health providers will have a solid education in their field. Nobody should just abandon their medical treatment to pursue alternative cures. However, seeking alternative therapies may help many people reduce their reliance on harsh medications by following the advice of alternative providers and coordinating their care with all of their health care providers.
END OF COHEN’S TEXT
COMMENT BY MYSELF
Who the Dickens is Dr Cohen and what is his background? I asked myself after reading this. From his website, it seems that he is a chiropractor from North Carolina – not just any old chiro, but one of the best!!! – who also uses several other dubious therapies. He sums up his ‘philosophy’ as follows:
There is an energy or life force that created us (all 70 trillion cells that we are made of) from two cells (sperm and egg cells). This energy or innate intelligence continues to support you throughout life and allows you to grow, develop, heal, and express your every potential. This life force coordinates all cells, tissues, muscles and organs by sending specific, moment by moment communication via the nervous system. If the nervous system is over-stressed or interfered with in any way, then your life force messages will not be properly expressed.
Here he is on the cover of some magazine and here is also his ‘PAIN CLINIC’
Fascinating stuff, I am sure you agree.
As I do not want to risk a libel case, I will abstain from commenting on Dr Cohen and his methods or beliefs. Instead I will try to clear up a few misconceptions that are pertinent to him and the many other practitioners who are promoting pure BS via the Internet.
- Not everyone who uses the title ‘Dr’ is a doctor in the sense of having studied medicine.
- Chiropractors are not ‘trained medical professionals’.
- The concepts of ‘vitalism’, ‘life force’ etc. have been abandoned in real heath care a long time ago, and medicine has improved hugely because of this.
- Hardly any alternative therapy has ‘passed the test of science’.
- Therefore, it is very doubtful whether alternative practitioners actually will ‘consider scientific studies’.
- True, some trials did suggest that acupuncture is an effective treatment for many medical conditions; but their methodological quality is often far too low to draw firm conclusions and many other, often better studies have shown the contrary.
- Numerous other alternative therapies have been proven ineffective using scientific studies.
- Therefore it might be a good idea to find a health care provider who does not offer unproven treatments simply to make a fast buck.
- Seeking alternative therapies may harm many people.
If you talk to advocates of homeopathy, you are bound to hear claims that are false or misleading; in fact, you hear them so regularly that you might begin to doubt the truth. For those who have such doubts or are in need of some correct counter-arguments, I have listed here those 12 bogus claims which, in my experience, are most common together with short, suitable, and factual rebuttals.
1) THERE IS NOTHING MYSTERIOUS ABOUT HOMEOPATHY’S MODE OF ACTION, IT WORKS LIKE VACCINATIONS
This argument is used by enthusiasts in response the fact that most homeopathic remedies are too highly diluted to have pharmacological effects. Vaccines are also highly diluted and they are, of course, very effective; therefore, so the bogus notion, there is nothing odd about homeopathy.
The argument is wrong on several levels; the easiest way to refute, I think, it is to point out that vaccines contain measurable amounts of material and lead to measurable changes in the immune system. By contrast, the typical homeopathic remedy (beyond the C12 potency) contains not a single molecule of an active substance and leads to no measurable changes in any system.
2) SIGNIFICANTLY MORE CONTROLLED CLINICAL TRIALS OF HOMEOPATHY ARE POSITIVE THAN NEGATIVE
Several websites of homeopathic organisations make this claim and even provide simple statistics to back it up. Consequently, many homeopathy fans have adopted it.
The statistics they present show that x % of studies are positive, y % are negative and z % are neutral; the whole point is that x is larger than y. The percentage figures may even be correct but they rely on the spurious definitions used: positive = superior to placebo, negative = placebo superior to homeopathy, neutral = no difference between homeopathy and placebo. The latter category was created so that homeopathy comes out trumps.
For all intents and purposes, a study where the experimental treatment is no better than placebo is not a study neutral but a negative result. Thus the negative category in such statistics must be y + z which is, of course, larger than x. In other words, the majority of trials is, in truth, negative.
3) HOMEOPATHY IS SUPPORTED BY NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS
I don’t know of a single Nobel Prize winner who has stated or implied that homeopathy works better than a placebo. Some have tried to find a mechanism of action for homeopathy by doing some basic research and have published theories about it. None of those has been accepted by science.
And if there ever should be a Nobel Prize winner or similarly brilliant person who supports homeopathy, this would merely show that even bright individuals can make mistakes!
4) HOMEOPATHY IS SAFE
Tell that to the child that has just been reported to have died because her parents used homeopathy for an ear infection which (could have been easily treated with antibiotics but) degenerated into a brain abscess with homeopathic therapy. There are many more such tragic cases than I care to remember.
The risks of homeopathy are, of course, minor compared to many conventional treatments, but the risk/benefit balance of homeopathy can never be positive because, unlike those high risk conventional treatments, it has no benefit.
5) HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT LEND ITSELF TO BEING TESTED IN CLINICAL TRIALS
The best way to disprove this argument is to point out that ~ 250 controlled clinical trials are currently available. Every homeopath on the planet boasts about clinical trials – provided they are positive.
6) HOMEOPATHY WORKS VIA QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT
I do not understand quantum mechanics and, I suspect, neither do the homeopaths who use this argument. But physicists who do understand this subject well are keen to stress that homeopathy cannot be explained in this way.
7) THERE IS NO PROOF THAT HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT WORK
The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, homeopaths like to exclaim. And they are, of course, correct! However, they forget that, science cannot prove a negative and that, in routine health care, we do not even look for a proof of ineffectiveness. We use those treatments that have a positive proof of effectiveness – everything else is irresponsible.
8) EVEN IF HOMEOPATHY WERE JUST A PLACEBO, IT STILL HELPS PATIENTS AND IS THEREFORE A USEFUL TREATMENT
It is true, of course, that placebo effects can help patients. But it is not true that, for generating a placebo response, we need a placebo. If a clinician administers an effective treatment with compassion, the patient will benefit from a placebo response plus from the specific effects of the treatment. Only giving placebos is therefore tantamount to cheating the patient.
9) THERE IS A WORLDWIDE CONSPIRACY AGAINST HOMEOPATHY
In a way, this argument merely suggests that homeopathic remedies are ineffective in treating paranoia. I have not ever seen a jot of evidence for it – and neither can anyone who uses this claim produce any.
10) YOU NEED TO BE A HOMEOPATH TO BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND AND ADEQUATELY JUDGE THE VALUE OF HOMEOPATHY
With this notion, homeopaths want to claim that the critics of homeopathy are incompetent. It is like saying that only people who believe in god are allowed to criticise religion. By definition, homeopaths are believers, and therefore they are unlikely to be free of bias when judging the value of homeopathy. Homeopathy is a health technology that must be evaluated like all other health technologies: by independent scientists who know their job.
11) HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN PROVEN TO WORK FOR LITTLE CHILDREN AND ANIMALS
The argument here is that animals and children cannot possibly respond to placebo. Therefore homeopathy must be more than a placebo.
This notion is twice wrong. Firstly, both animals and children can respond to placebo, if only ‘by proxy’, i.e. via their carers. Secondly, if we consider the totality of the reliable data, we find that neither for children nor for animals is the evidence convincingly positive.
12) HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN USED VERY SUCCESSFULLY IN MAJOR EPIDEMICS, AND THAT FACT IS PROOF ENOUGH FOR ITS EFFICACY
Yes, there are some rather fascinating historical accounts which homeopaths interpret in this fashion. But if we look a little closer, we invariably find explanations which are much more plausible than the assumption of homeopathy’s effectiveness. Epidemiological observations of this nature can almost never establish cause and effect, and the clinical outcome could have been due to a myriad of confounders unrelated to homeopathy.
Would you believe it? This is the 500th post on this blog!
When I started this blog less than three years ago, I would have never thought that I would have fun doing this; and I would not have expected to get hooked on it. In fact, it needed even a bit of arm twisting to try it, and I have to thank Alan for doing it and everything else. Without him, this blog would surely not exist.
With my very first post, I promised that my blog is not going to provide just another critique of alternative medicine; it is going to be different, I hope. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: I have researched alternative medicine for two decades. My team and I have conducted about 40 clinical trials and published more than 100 systematic reviews of alternative medicine. We were by far the most productive research unit in this area. For 14 years, we hosted an annual international conference for researchers in this field. I know many of the leading investigators personally, and I understand their way of thinking. I have rehearsed every possible argument for or against alternative medicine dozens of times.
In a nutshell, I am not someone who judges alternative medicine from the outside; I come from within the field. Arguably, I am the only researcher in this area who is willing [or capable?] to state publicly what is wrong with alternative medicine. This is perhaps one of the advantages of being an emeritus professor!
I am not sure whether I lived up to this promise – but I did try. And one thing is for sure, it was an eventful exercise. The blog now has ~ 20 000 readers every week; we had something like 15 000 comments; and some posts were re-tweeted several hundred times.
This seems to indicate that there is a need for a forum of this nature. Alternative medicine continues to be popular but critical thinking is not something that this field is blessed with. On the contrary, the misinformation on this subject is simply monstrous and seems to be growing every day. Factual and reliable information is very hard to come by, and therefore I feel that I am doing an important educational job here.
It’s a job which I certainly could not do alone. I therefore like to take this occasion to thank everyone who made my blog what it is today. Alan has already been mentioned but the many commentators deserve a big THANKS too – regardless of whether I agree or disagree with you, your comments make it all worth my while.
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.
The following episode gives just one of many examples of attempts by my Exeter peers to sabotage my scientific, moral and ethical standards. The players in this scene are:
- Prof John Tooke, at the time dean of my medical school,
- Dr Michael Dixon, GP in Devon,
- Nelson’s homeopathic pharmacy, known from my previous post,
- Mr Simon Mills, former director of the Centre for Complementary Health Studies, University of Exeter,
- Prince Charles, future king of England.
By the year 2000, I began to experience unnecessary unpleasantness at Exeter on a more and more regular basis. This passage from my book describes the key moment when it became clear to me that something profoundly wrong was going on:
The watershed came in 2003, when I saw an announcement published in the newsletter of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health:
“The Peninsula Medical School aims to become the UK’s first medical school to include integrated medicine at postgraduate level. The school also plans to extend the current range and depth of programmes offered by including healthcare ethics and legislation. Professor John Tooke, dean of the Peninsula Medical School, said: “The inclusion of integrated medicine is a patient driven development. Increasingly the public is turning to the medical profession for information about complementary medicines. This programme will play an important role in developing critical understanding of a wide range of therapies”.
When I stumbled on this announcement, I was truly puzzled. Tooke is obviously planning a new course for me, I thought, but why has he not told me about it? When I enquired, Tooke informed me that the medical school was indeed preparing to offer a postgraduate “Pathway in Integrated Health”; this exciting new innovation had been initiated by Dr Michael Dixon, a general practitioner who, after working in collabora-tion with my unit for several years, had become one of the UK’s most outspoken proponents of spiritual healing and other similarly dubious forms of alternative medicine. For this reason, Dixon was apparently very well regarded by Prince Charles.
A few days after I had received this amazing news, Dixon arrived at my office and explained, with visible embarrassment, that Prince Charles had expressed his desire to him personally to establish such a course at Exeter. His Royal Highness had already facilitated its funding which, in fact, came from “Nelsons”, one of the UK’s largest manufacturers of homeopathic remedies. The day-to-day running of the course was to be put into the hands of the ex-director of the Centre for Complementary Health Studies (CCHS), the very unit that, almost a decade earlier, I had struggled—and eventually even paid—to be separated from because of its overtly anti-scientific agenda. The whole thing had been in the planning for many months. I was, it seemed, the last to know—but now that I had learnt about it, Dixon and Tooke leaned on me with all their might to persuade me to contribute to this course by giving a few lectures.
I could no more comply with this request than fly. Apart from anything else, anyone who had read my papers would have known that I was opposed in principle to the concept of “Integrated Health”. As I saw it, “integrating” quackery with genuine, science-based medicine was nothing less than a profound betrayal of the ethical basis of medical practice. By putting its imprimatur on this course, and by offering it under the auspices of a mainstream medical school, my institution would be encouraging the dangerously erroneous idea of equivalence—i.e. the notion that alternative and mainstream medicine were merely two parallel but equally valid and effective methods of treating illness.
To add insult to injury, the course was to be run by someone who I had good reason to reject and sponsored by a major manufacturer of homeopathic remedies. In all conscience, the latter circumstance seemed to me to be the last straw. Study after study carried out by my unit had found homeopathy to be not only conceptually absurd but also therapeutically worthless. To all intents and purposes, the discussion about the value of homeopathy was closed. Even a former director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital had concluded in his book that “homeopathy has not been proved to work… the great majority… of the improvement that patients experience is due to non-specific causes”. If we did not take a stand on this issue, we might as well give up and go home. Consequently, I politely but firmly declined the offer of participating in this course.
By now numerous other incidents of a similar nature had poisoned the atmosphere at my own medical school and university so much that both my work and my health were suffering. How had it come to this? Why was even the most obvious and demonstrable truth being turned upside down so that it could be used against me? Why were my peers seemingly bent on constraining me and making life increasingly difficult for me?
During the next few weeks, I will post several short excerpts from my new book ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND‘. Its subtitle already discloses much of what it is all about: ‘A MEMOIRE OF SEARCHING THE TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE’.
Some of my critics are likely to claim that I engage in this form of ‘promotion’ because I want to maximise my income by enticing my readers to buy the book. This is partly true, of course: after having worked very hard on this book for about 5 years, I want it to be read (but, at the same time, my critics would be mistaken: I do not expect to get rich on my new book – I am not that naïve; this ‘memoire’ will never be found in any best-seller list, I am sure). So, I suggest (if you do not want me to profit in any way) that you read my memoire after you got it from your library (which obviously would not affect my cash-flow all that much).
So here it is: with much trepidation and even more excitement I present to you the very first, short excerpt (as I said, there will be more).
There are some people, a fortunate few, who seem to know from an early age where they want to go in life, and have no trouble getting there.
I was not one of them. I was born in Germany in the years immediately following the end of World War II and, like many German children of that era, I was acutely aware of the awkwardness and unease that my elders displayed when it came to discussions that touched on the country’s recent history. Even as a young boy, I was conscious that there was a large and restive skeleton in the nation’s closet, and that it belonged to all of us – even to those of us who had not been alive during the Nazi era were somehow nevertheless its legatees, inextricably bound to it simply by the awareness of its existence.
With time, the growing realization that so many of our peers – teachers, uncles, aunts; perhaps even our own parents – had lent their assent, or worse, their enthusiastic assistance to the Nazi regime robbed their generation of its moral authority and left us, their children, unmoored and adrift.
In a profound sense I felt homeless. An accident of fate had landed me on the planet with a German passport, and with German as my mother tongue, but where did I really belong? Where would I go? What would I do with my life?
There had been physicians in my family for generations and there was always an expectation that I, too, would enter that profession. Yet I felt no strong pull towards medicine. As a young man my only real passion was music, particularly jazz, with its anarchic improvisations and disobedient rhythms; and the fact that it had been banned by the Nazis only made it all the more appealing to me. I would have been perfectly happy to linger indefinitely in the world of music, but eventually, like a debt come due, medicine summoned me, and I surrendered myself to the profession of my forebears.
In hindsight I am glad that my mother nudged me gently yet insistently in the direction of medical school. While music has delighted and comforted me throughout my life, it has been medicine that has truly defined me, stretching, challenging and nourishing me intellectually, even as it tested me on a personal level almost to the limits of my endurance.
Certainly, I had never anticipated that asking basic and necessary questions as a scientist might prove so fiercely controversial, and that as a result of my research I might become involved in ideological wrangling and political intrigue emanating from the highest level.
If I had known the difficulties I would face, the stark choices, the conflicts and machinations that awaited me, would I have chosen to spend my life in medicine? Yes, I would. Becoming a physician and pursuing the career of a scientist has afforded me not only the opportunity to speak out against the dangerous and growing influence of pseudoscience in medicine, but also, paradoxically, has given me both the reason and the courage to look back steadily at the unbearable past.
This is the story of how I finally found where I belong.