Reiki has been on my mind repeatedly (see for instance here, here, here and here). It is one of those treatments that are too crazy for words and too implausible to mention. Yet a new paper firmly claims that it is more than a placebo.
This review evaluated clinical studies of Reiki to determine whether there is evidence for Reiki providing more than just a placebo effect. The available English-language literature of Reiki was reviewed, specifically for
- peer-reviewed clinical studies,
- studies with more than 20 participants in the Reiki treatment arm,
- studies controlling for a placebo effect.
Of the 13 suitable studies,
- 8 demonstrated Reiki being more effective than placebo,
- 4 found no difference but had questionable statistical resolving power,
- one provided clear evidence for not providing benefit.
The author concluded that these studies provide reasonably strong support for Reiki being more effective than placebo. From the information currently available, Reiki is a safe and gentle “complementary” therapy that activates the parasympathetic nervous system to heal body and mind. It has potential for broader use in management of chronic health conditions, and possibly in postoperative recovery. Research is needed to optimize the delivery of Reiki.
These are truly fantastic findings! Reiki is more than a placebo – would have thought so? Who would have predicted that something as implausible as Reiki would one day be shown to work?
Now let’s start re-writing the textbooks of physics and therapeutics and research how we can optimize the delivery of Reiki.
Hold on – not so quick! Here are a few reasons why we might be sceptical about the validity of this review:
- It was published in one of the worst journals of alternative medicine.
- The author claimed to include just clinical trials but ended up including non-clinical studies and animal studies.
- Four trials were not double-blind.
- There was no critical assessment of the studies methodological quality.
- The many flaws of the primary studies were not mentioned in this review.
- Papers not published in English were omitted.
- The author who declared no conflict of interest has this affiliation: “Australasian Usui Reiki Association, Oakleigh, Victoria, Australia”.
I think we can postpone the re-writing of textbooks for a little while yet.
We all know Epsom salt, don’t we? This paper provides an interesting history of it: The purgative effect of the waters of Epsom, in southern England, was first discovered in the early seventeenth century. Epsom subsequently developed as one of the great English spas where high society flocked to take the medicinal waters. The extraction of the Epsom Salts from the spa waters and their chemical analysis, the essential feature of which was magnesium sulphate, were first successfully carried out by Doctor Nehemiah Grew, distinguished as a physician, botanist and an early Fellow of the Royal Society. His attempt to patent the production and sale of the Epsom Salts precipitated a dispute with two unscrupulous apothecaries, the Moult brothers. This controversy must be set against the backcloth of the long-standing struggle over the monopoly of dispensing of medicines between the Royal College of Physicians and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London.
Epsom salt has the reputation of being very safe. But unfortunately, even something as seemingly harmless as Epsom salt can become dangerous in the hand of people who have little understanding of physiology and medicine. Indian doctors have just published a paper in (‘BMJ Case Reports’) with the details of a 38-year-old non-alcoholic, non-diabetic man suffering from gallstones. The patient was prescribed three tablespoons of Epsom salt to be taken with lukewarm water for 15 days for ‘stone dissolution’ by a ‘naturopathy practitioner’. He subsequently developed loss of appetite and darkening of urine from the 12th day of treatment and jaundice from the second day after treatment completion. The patient denied fevers, skin rash, joint pains, myalgia, abdominal pain, abdominal distension and cholestatic symptoms.
Examination revealed a deeply icteric patient oriented to time, place and person without an enlarged liver or stigmata of chronic liver disease. Liver function tests were abnormal, and a liver biopsy revealed sub-massive necrosis with dense portal-based fibrosis, mixed portal inflammation, extensive peri-venular canalicular and hepatocellular cholestasis with macro-vesicular steatosis and peri-sinusoidal fibrosis (suggestive of steato-hepatitis) without evidence of granulomas, inclusion bodies or vascular changes suggestive of acute drug-induced liver injury.
After discontinuation of Epsom salt and adequate hydration, the patient had an uneventful recovery with normalisation of liver function tests after 38 days. The Roussel Uclaf Causality Assessment score was strongly suggestive of Epsom salt-induced liver injury.
I was invited to provide a comment and stated that, in my view, this case reminds us:
1) that naturopaths prescribe a lot of nonsense,
2) that not everything which is promoted as natural is safe,
3) that treatments which apparently have ‘stood the test of time’ can still be rubbish, and
4) that even a relatively harmless remedy can become life-threatening, if one takes it at a high dose for a prolonged period of time.
Naturopaths have advocated Epsom salt for gall-bladder problems since centuries, yet there is no good evidence that it works. It is time that alternative practitioners abide by the rules of evidence-based medicine.
A quick Medline search reveals that there is only one further report of a serious adverse effect after Epsom salt intake: a case of fatal hypermagnesemia caused by an Epsom salt enema. A 7-year-old male presented with cardiac arrest and was found to have a serum magnesium level of 41.2 mg/dL (33.9 mEq/L) after having received an Epsom salt enema earlier that day. The medical history of Epsom salt, the common causes and symptoms of hypermagnesemia, and the treatment of hypermagnesemia are reviewed. The easy availability of magnesium, the subtle initial symptoms of hypermagnesemia, and the need for education about the toxicity of magnesium should be of interest to physicians.
… and to alternative practitioners, I hasten to add.
Mastitis is a common disease in dairies. Numerous non-antimicrobial drugs and treatment strategies have been recommended for this condition. Homeopaths in particular have long claimed that their highly diluted remedies are an effective option, and I have reported repeatedly about the evidence – see here, here, and here, for instance. Even though it is far from positive, evangelic homeopaths like our friend Dana Ullman or naïve quackery-fans like Prince Charles claim that it is “as effective as antibiotics, the mastitis treatment of choice”.
So, who is right?
I am biased, homeopaths insist.
Ullman is a joke, any rational thinker must admit.
Prince Charles? … no comment.
What we need is an independent body to look at the data.
A new systematic review did exactly that. Its authors are highly respected and come from institutions that are not likely to promote bogus claims:
- Département de Sciences Cliniques, Faculté de Médecine Vétérinaire, Université de Montréal, Canada
- Département de Sciences Cliniques, Faculté de Médecine Vétérinaire, Université de Montréal, Canada
- Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network, Canada
- Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network, Canada
- Sherbrooke Research and Development Centre, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
- Canadian Bovine Mastitis and Milk Quality Research Network, Canada
- Département de Pathologie et Microbiologie, Faculté de Médecine Vétérinaire, Université de Montreal, Canada.
It was performed with studies written in English or French selected from CAB Abstracts, PubMed, and Web of Science. All treatments other than conventional antimicrobials for clinical mastitis during lactation were retained. Only studies comparing the treatment under investigation to a negative or positive control, or both, were included. Outcomes evaluated were clinical and bacteriological cure rates and milk production. Selection of the study, data extraction, and assessment of risk of bias was performed by 3 reviewers. Assessment of risk of bias was evaluated using the Cochrane Collaboration tool for systematic review of interventions.
A total of 2,451 manuscripts were first identified and 39 manuscripts corresponding to 41 studies were included. Among these, 22 were clinical trials, 18 were experimental studies, and one was an observational study. The treatments evaluated were conventional anti-inflammatory drugs (n = 14), oxytocin with or without frequent milk out (n = 5), biologics (n = 9), homeopathy (n = 5), botanicals (n = 4), probiotics (n = 2), and other alternative products (n = 2). All trials had at least one unclear or high risk of bias. Most trials (n = 13) did not observe significant differences in clinical or bacteriological cure rates in comparison with negative or positive controls. Few studies evaluated the effect of treatment on milk yield. In general, the power of the different studies was very low, thus precluding conclusions on non-inferiority or non-superiority of the treatments investigated. No evidence-based recommendations could be given for the use of an alternative or non-antimicrobial conventional treatment for clinical mastitis.
The authors concluded that homeopathic treatments are not efficient for management of clinical mastitis.
Will this finally stop homeopaths from claiming that their placebos work for mastitis?
I would not count on it!
The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) is an umbrella organization representing 29 national and international scientific academies in Europe, including the Royal Society (UK) and Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. One of its aims is to influence policy and regulations across the European Union. Now, the EASAC has issued an important and long-awaited verdict on homeopathy:
The EASAC is publishing this Statement to build on recent work by its member academies to reinforce criticism of the health and scientific claims made for homeopathic products. The analysis and conclusions are based on the excellent science-based assessments already published by authoritative and impartial bodies. The fundamental importance of allowing and supporting consumer choice requires that consumers and patients are supplied with evidence-based, accurate and clear information. It is, therefore, essential to implement a standardised, knowledge-based regulatory framework to cover product efficacy, safety and quality, and accurate advertising practices, across the European Union (EU). Our Statement examines the following issues:
- Scientific mechanisms of action—where we conclude that the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts.
- Clinical efficacy—we acknowledge that a placebo effect may appear in individual patients but we agree with previous extensive evaluations concluding that there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect.
There are related concerns for patient-informed consent and for safety, the latter associated with poor quality control in preparing homeopathic remedies. Promotion of homeopathy—we note that this may pose significant harm to the patient if incurring delay in seeking evidence-based medical care and that there is a more general risk of undermining public confidence in the nature and value of scientific evidence. Veterinary practice—we conclude similarly that there is no rigorous evidence to
substantiate the use of homeopathy in veterinary medicine and it is particularly worrying when such products are used in preference to evidence-based medicinal products to treat livestock infections. We make the following recommendations.
1. There should be consistent regulatory requirements to demonstrate efficacy, safety and quality of all products for human and veterinary medicine, to be based on verifiable and objective evidence, commensurate with the nature of the claims being made. In the absence of this evidence, a product should be neither approvable nor registrable by national regulatory agencies for the designation medicinal product.
2. Evidence-based public health systems should not reimburse homeopathic products and practices unless they are demonstrated to be efficacious and safe by rigorous testing.
3. The composition of homeopathic remedies should be labelled in a similar way to other health products available: that is, there should be an accurate, clear and simple description of the ingredients and their amounts present in the formulation.
4. Advertising and marketing of homeopathic products and services must conform to established standards of accuracy and clarity. Promotional claims for efficacy, safety and quality should not be made without demonstrable and reproducible evidence.
END OF QUOTE
No comment needed!!!
Insomnia is a ‘gold standard’ indication for alternative therapies of all types. In fact, it is difficult to find a single of these treatments that are not being touted for this indication. Consequently, it has become a nice little earner for alternative therapists (hence ‘gold standard’).
But how good is the evidence suggesting that any alternative therapy is effective for insomnia?
Whenever I have discussed this issue on my blog, the conclusion was that the evidence is less than convincing or even negative. Similarly, whenever I conducted proper systematic reviews in this area, the evidence turned out to be weak or negative. Here are four of the conclusions we drew at the time:
- The evidence for acupuncture as a treatment of insomnia is plagued by important limitations, e.g. the poor quality of most primary studies and some systematic reviews. Those that are sensitive to such limitations, fail to arrive at a positive verdict about the effectiveness of acupuncture.
- We conclude that, because of the paucity and of the poor quality of the data, the evidence for the effectiveness of auricular acupuncture for the symptomatic treatment of insomnia is limited. Further, rigorously designed trials are warranted to confirm these results.
- The evidence for valerian as a treatment for insomnia is inconclusive.
- Evidence from RCTs does not show homeopathy to be an effective treatment for insomnia and sleep-related disorders. (FACT, 2011, 16:195-99)
“But this ERNST fellow cannot be trusted, he is not objective!”, I hear some of my detractors shout.
But is he really?
Would an independent, high-level panel of experts arrive at more positive conclusions?
Let’s find out!
This European guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of insomnia recently provided recommendations for the management of adult patients with insomnia. The guideline is based on a systematic review of relevant meta-analyses published till June 2016. The GRADE (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation) system was used to grade the evidence and guide recommendations.
The findings and recommendations are as follows:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia is recommended as the first-line treatment for chronic insomnia in adults of any age (strong recommendation, high-quality evidence).
- A pharmacological intervention can be offered if cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia is not sufficiently effective or not available. Benzodiazepines, benzodiazepine receptor agonists and some antidepressants are effective in the short-term treatment of insomnia (≤4 weeks; weak recommendation, moderate-quality evidence). Antihistamines, antipsychotics, melatonin and phytotherapeutics are not recommended for insomnia treatment (strong to weak recommendations, low- to very-low-quality evidence).
- Light therapy and exercise need to be further evaluated to judge their usefulness in the treatment of insomnia (weak recommendation, low-quality evidence).
- Complementary and alternative treatments (e.g. homeopathy, acupuncture) are not recommended for insomnia treatment (weak recommendation, very-low-quality evidence).
I think, I can rest my case.
The claimed benefits of Shinrin-yoku are remarkable:
- Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced stress
- Improved mood
- Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
- Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
- Increased energy level
- Improved sleep
- Deeper and clearer intuition
- Increased flow of energy
- Increased capacity to communicate with the land and its species
- Increased flow of eros/life force
- Deepening of friendships
- Overall increase in sense of happiness
But is any of this really true?
The aim of this state-of-the-art review was to summarise empirical research conducted on the physiological and psychological effects of Shinrin-Yoku. Research published from 2007 to 2017 was considered. A total of 64 studies met the inclusion criteria. According to the authors, they show that health benefits associated with the immersion in nature continue to be currently researched. Longitudinal research, conducted worldwide, is needed to produce new evidence of the relationships associated with Shinrin-Yoku and clinical therapeutic effects. Nature therapy as a health-promotion method and potential universal health model is implicated for the reduction of reported modern-day “stress-state” and “technostress.”
A look at the primary studies reveals that they are usually small and of poor quality.
Perhaps a brand new review aimed more specifically at evaluating preventive or therapeutic effects of Shinrin-Yoku on blood pressure can tell us more. The authors considered all published, randomized, controlled trials, cohort studies, and comparative studies that evaluated the effects of the forest environment on changes in systolic blood pressure. Twenty trials involving 732 participants were reviewed. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure of patients submitted to the forest environment was significantly lower than that of controls. The authors concluded that this systematic review shows a significant effect of Shinrin-yoku on reduction of blood pressure.
I find this paper odd as well:
- it lacks important methodological detail;
- the authors included not just controlled clinical trials but all sorts of ‘studies’;
- there is no assessment of the methodological rigor of the primary trials (from what I could see, they were mostly too poor to draw any conclusions from them).
What does all of this mean?
I have no problems in assuming that relaxation in a forest is beneficial in many ways and a nice experience.
But why call this a therapy?
It is relaxation!
Why make so many unsubstantiated claims?
And why study it in such obviously flawed ways?
All this does, I fear, is giving science a bad name.
I recently came across this article; essentially it claims that, in 1918, chiropractic proved itself to be the method of choice for treating the flu!
Here is a short quote from it:
Chiropractors got fantastic results from influenza patients while those under medical care died like flies all around. Statistics reflect a most amazing, almost miraculous state of affairs. The medical profession was practically helpless with the flu victims but chiropractors seemed able to do no wrong.”
“In Davenport, Iowa, 50 medical doctors treated 4,953 cases, with 274 deaths. In the same city, 150 chiropractors including students and faculty of the Palmer School of Chiropractic, treated 1,635 cases with only one death.”
“In the state of Iowa, medical doctors treated 93,590 patients, with 6,116 deaths – a loss of one patient out of every 15. In the same state, excluding Davenport, 4,735 patients were treated by chiropractors with a loss of only 6 cases – a loss of one patient out of every 789.
“National figures show that 1,142 chiropractors treated 46,394 patients for influenza during 1918, with a loss of 54 patients – one out of every 886.”
“Reports show that in New York City, during the influenza epidemic of 1918, out of every 10,000 cases medically treated, 950 died; and in every 10,000 pneumonia cases medically treated 6,400 died. These figures are exact, for in that city these are reportable diseases.”
“In the same epidemic, under drugless methods, only 25 patients died of influenza out of every 10,000 cases; and only 100 patients died of pneumonia out of every 10,000 cases…”
“In the same epidemic reports show that chiropractors in Oklahoma treated 3,490 cases of influenza with only 7 deaths. But the best part of this is, in Oklahoma there is a clear record showing that chiropractors were called in 233 cases where medical doctors had cared for the patients, and finally gave them up as lost. The chiropractors saved all these lost cases but 25.”
END OF QUOTE
So what does that sort of ‘evidence’ really show?
Does it prove that chiropractic is effective against influenza?
Does it even suggest that chiropractic is effective against influenza?
I think it shows that some chiropractors (like many homeopaths) are deluded to a point where they are unable to differentiate pseudoscience from science, anecdote from evidence, cause from effect, etc.
In the case you need more explanations, let me re-phrase this section from a previous post:
In the typical epidemiological case/control study, one large group of patients [A] is retrospectively compared to another group [B]. By large, I mean with a sample size of thousands of patients. In our case, group A has been treated by chiropractors, while group B received the treatments available at the time. It is true that several of such reports seemed to suggest that chiropractic works. But this does by no means prove anything; the result might have been due to a range of circumstances, for instance:
- group A might have been less ill than group B,
- group A might have been richer and therefore better nourished,
- group A might have benefitted from better hygiene,
- group A might have received better care, e. g. hydration,
- group B might have received treatments that made the situation not better but worse.
Because these are RETROSPECTIVE studies, there is no way to account for these and many other factors that might have influenced the outcome. This means that epidemiological studies of this nature can generate interesting results which, in turn, need testing in properly controlled studies where these confounding factors are adequately controlled for. Without such tests, they are next to worthless.
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].”
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]
Guest post by Richard Rawlins MB BS MBA FRCS
Doctors who are registered medical practitioners (RMPs) must comply with the standards of practice set down by the General Medical Council. ‘Homeopathy’ is a specific system of medical care, devised by Dr Samuel Hahnemann in the nineteenth century, and comprises two distinct dimensions: (i) the establishment of a constructive therapeutic relationship between an empathic homeopath and a patient. This may provide benefit due to the non-specific effects of condolence, counselling, and care – and should be a component of the practice of all doctors in any event; (ii) the homeopathically prepared (HP) remedies that are generally prescribed. To avoid confusion, these two dimensions should not be conflated.
HP remedies may be obtained over the counter, prescribed by lay homeopaths and even given out by dentists and nurses on the grounds that “30C homeopathic arnica helps bruising”. The US Federal Trades Commission has stated that “The Commission will carefully scrutinize the net impression of OTC homeopathic advertising or other marketing employing disclosures to ensure that it adequately conveys the extremely limited nature of the health claim being asserted…accordingly, unqualified disease claims made for homeopathic drugs must be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence.” (FTC Policy statement 2017).
Special focus should be brought to bear on the ethical, intellectual and professional obligations of those doctors registered as medical practitioners by the GMC and practicing homeopathy in the UK. Some homeopaths may intend taking advantage of gullible and vulnerable patients. Here I take it that those practitioners who prescribe homeopathic remedies sincerely do believe they have worthwhile effects, but I contend such practice generally fails to comply with ethical and professional standards as set down by the GMC. That is to be deprecated.
Systems to regulate medical practice in the British Isles have been devised since the middle ages. In 1518, Thomas Linacre founded the College of Physicians – based on systems he had seen in Europe. From 1704, the Society of Apothecaries licensed its members to prescribe and dispense medicines, and developed the profession of general practice. In order to protect the public from charlatans, quacks and fraudsters more effectively, the Medical Act of 1858 established formal statutory regulation of doctors by the General Medical Council. Registrants who are not deemed fit to practice may be struck off the register. They can still practice, but not as registered medical practitioners. They can still use the title ‘doctor’ (as can anyone), but not for fraudulent purposes.
Dr Samuel Hahnemann qualified in Saxony in 1781 and was a good doctor, but he became disillusioned with many of the practices and practitioners of his day. He wrote about his fellow doctors: “Precious and fragile human life, so easily destroyed, was frequently placed in jeopardy at the hands of these perverted people, especially since bleedings, emetics, purges, blistering plaster, fontanels, setons, caustics and cauterisations were used.” In 1796 he wrote to a friend, “I renounced the practice of medicine that I might no longer incur the risk of doing injury, and I engaged in chemistry exclusively and in literary occupations.”
Hahnemann went on to develop his own alternative system of health care, which he styled ‘Homoeopathy’. Published as the Organon of the Healing Arts in 1810, Hahnemann set out an idiosyncratic medical system based on identifying ‘remedies’ which in large doses, could produce symptoms comparable to those suffered by the patient. The remedies he prescribed were prepared with serial dilutions so that no active principle remained. Today’s homeopaths hold that a remedy’s ‘vital force’, ‘healing energy’ or ‘memory’ provides therapeutic benefit. That may be the case, but the consensus of informed scientific and medical opinion is that any effects of ‘homeopathy’ are as a result of contextual placebo effects. The remedies themselves cannot and do not have any effect. England’s Chief Medical Officer has described homeopathy’s principles as ‘rubbish’. The government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport has said he would tell ministers, “My view, scientifically, is absolutely clear: homeopathy is nonsense. The most it can have is a placebo effect.” Simon Stevens, CEO of the NHS, when interviewed on Radio 4 said he agrees with Sir Mark – yet failed to explain why he had not included homeopathic remedies in the 2017 list of NHS proscribed medicines. That stance is being reviewed.
The GMC states, “Patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and health. To justify that trust you must show respect for human life and make sure your practice meets the standards expected.” Those standards are set down in the GMC’s Good Medical Practice which advises, “Serious or persistent failure to follow this guidance will put your registration at risk.” The GMC standards are coherent with those of the American Medical Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics (2016).
In précis, the most relevant and important GMC standards are:
- Make the care of your patient your first concern.
- Give patients the information they want or need in a way they can understand.
- Be honest and open and act with integrity.
- Never abuse your patients’ trust in you or the public’s trust in the profession.
- You are personally accountable for your professional practice and must always be prepared to justify your decisions and actions.
- You must prescribe drugs or treatment only when you are satisfied that the drugs or treatment serve the patient’s needs.
- You must provide effective treatments based on the best available evidence.
- You must be satisfied that you have consent or other valid authority before you carry out any examination, investigation or provide treatment.
- You must make good use of the resources available to you.
I contend that medical practitioners who prescribe homeopathic remedies regularly fail to meet these standards. They know perfectly well that the best available evidence indicates no support for the assertion that homeopathic remedies ‘serve the patient’s needs’, except as placebos; that the treatments have no specific effects; that the remedies are placebos; and that resources are wasted by expenditure on these ineffective remedies. Medical homeopaths invariably do not give patients this information; they fail to obtain properly informed consent; they do not justify their decisions and actions rationally; and they may be obtaining financial advantage by misrepresentation to insurance companies or the NHS. This is an abuse of the public’s trust in the medical profession.
The issue of informed consent is particularly important. GMC guidance states that, “The doctor uses specialist knowledge and experience and clinical judgement, and the patient’s views and understanding of their condition, to identify which investigations or treatments are likely to result in overall benefit for the patient. The doctor explains the options to the patient, setting out the potential benefits, risks, burdens and side effects of each option, including the option to have no treatment. The doctor may recommend a particular option which they believe to be best for the patient, but they must not put pressure on the patient to accept their advice. …Before accepting a patient’s consent, you must consider whether they have been given the information they want or need, and how well they understand the details and implications of what is proposed. This is more important than how their consent is expressed or recorded.”
The GMC states that, “in order to have effective discussions with patients about risk, you must identify the adverse outcomes that may result from the proposed options… risks can take a number of forms, but will usually be: side effects; complications; failure of an intervention to achieve the desired aim.” The risk of wasting money on ineffective remedies, whether NHS or private, and of delaying treatment known to be effective should also be discussed.
Homeopaths acknowledge that after ministration of remedies, some patients experience ‘aggravations’ – a worsening of symptoms, but they advise this is evidence that the remedy is ‘working’. Medical consensus is more likely to suggest ‘aggravations’ are evidence of an underlying psychological component to the patient’s condition. Suggestions that remedies themselves have any effect, good or bad, is misrepresentation and may be fraud. Offering patients sugar pills with a claim the pills have therapeutic effects means lying to them, and is an abuse of trust.
Homeopaths’ system of diagnosis and prescription of remedies requires them to have beliefs for which there is no plausible evidence base. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘belief’ as “assent to a proposition, statement or fact, especially on the grounds of testimony or authority, or in the absence of proof or conclusive evidence.” It might be acceptable to practice ‘homeopathy’ as a counselling modality, providing the practitioner complies with the GMC standard that, “You must not express your personal beliefs to patients in ways that exploit their vulnerability or are likely to cause them distress.”
Homeopaths are invariably non-compliant in obtaining fully informed consent. Such a failing is an abuse of patients’ trust in the medical profession. Doctors might be determined to be unfit to practice unless they clearly justify their prescriptions, and identify the evidence that supports them. All these issues should also be explored during the doctor’s annual appraisal, without which a registered medical practitioner will not be licensed to practice. Even registration without a licence requires compliance with the standards. Appraisal can be carried out by non-homeopaths, as the issue is not the assessment of the standard of ‘homeopathic practice’, but compliance with GMC standards of good medical practice.
If a medical homeopath wishes to be GMC compliant, they must properly inform patients about contentious issues. I suggest that consent should be obtained along the lines: “I propose prescribing you a remedy comprising sugar pills impregnated with a solution which has been diluted to such an extent that a sphere of water the size of the Earth’s average radius to the Sun would probably contain no more than one molecule of the original substance. Nevertheless, my clinical experience suggests to me that this remedy will improve your condition. You need to understand that colleagues who practise conventional evidence-based scientific medicine regard my belief as implausible and the methods I use as ‘alternative.’ I believe the remedy will help you, but I have no evidence accepted by the majority of doctors that the intervention I propose will achieve the desired effects. I do not believe that taking a homeopathic remedy will delay any other treatment which might reasonably help your condition and I invite you to take this remedy with understanding of the issues I have outlined.” A copy of the consent should be placed in the patient’s records.
Those who defend the right of registered medical practitioners to prescribe HP remedies do so with arguments fatally holed by a myriad of logical fallacies. Some arguments are (with fallacies in parenthesis):
- “Homeopathy has been used for over two hundred years” (appeal to tradition and argument from ignorance);
- “It has become very popular and is what patients want (appeal to popularity);
- “Homeopathy has the capacity to help patients” (red herring, because present consideration is about the value of HP remedies, not relationships);
- “Remedies are cheap” (red herring);
- “Homeopathy does not do any harm” (irrelevant and a red herring);
- “Pharmaceuticals have side effects” (tu quoque and red herring);
- “The Royal Family use it” (appeal to irrelevant authority);
- “The remedies enhance the doctor/patient relationship (straw man);
- “Science does not know everything” (red herring and false dichotomy);
- “Those who oppose us don’t understand homeopathy” (argumentum ad hominem and ‘poisoning the well’);
- “I have the evidence of patients’ anecdotes and testimonials” (pseudoscience, confirmation bias and cherry picking);
- “Homeopathic doctors are caring people” (red herring and straw man);
- “I’ve got much evidence of patients taking remedies and getting better” (post hoc ergo propter hoc – ‘after this, therefore because of this’ – confusion of coincidence with causation).
The latter most perverse fallacy is the foundation of homeopathic practice, based on identifying a remedy whereby ‘like cures like’ – a principle based on post hoc fallacy for which there is no scientifically credible evidence.
Unless and until medical homeopaths understand the intellectual environment in which they practice, are prepared to properly inform their patients, and obtain consent for treatment having done so, they should not prescribe homeopathic remedies. Fortunately, there is no evidence that patients who are prescribed HP remedies by empathic GMC registered homeopaths have any different outcomes from those prescribed pure sugar pills – even if they are told they are placebos. However, trust in the medical profession can only be maintained if deceptive practices are set aside and full explanations for proposed interventions are offered. Given the scientific consensus, patients have to face up to the fact that to the highest degree of probability, HP remedies have no value. Regrettably, too many patients and even homeopaths are in denial. Medical homeopaths should continue to serve their patients with care, compassion and intellectual honesty, but if they are to comply with the standards required for GMC registration, they should not prescribe homeopathically prepared remedies.
The UK ‘Faculty of Homeopathy’ (FoH) is the professional body of British doctors who specialise in homeopathy. As doctors, FoH members have been to medical school and should know about evidence, science etc., I had always thought. But perhaps I was mistaken?
The FoH has a website with an interesting new post entitled ‘Scientific evidence and Homeopathy’. Here I have copied the section on CLINICAL TRIALS OF HOMEOPATHY. I have read it several times and must admit: it is a masterpiece, in my view – not a masterpiece in accurate reporting, but a masterpiece in misleading the public. The first and most obvious thing that struck me is the fact that is cites not a single clinical trial. But read for yourself (the numbers in round brackets were inserted by me and refer to my comments below):
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By August 2017 1,138 clinical trials of homeopathy had been published (1). Details can be found on the CORE-HOM database also maintained by the Carstens Foundation and accessible without charge: http://archiv.carstens-stiftung.de/core-hom
Four (2) systematic review/meta-analyses of homeopathy for all conditions have been published.,, Of these, three (3) reached a positive conclusion: that there is evidence that homeopathy is clinically effective (4). The exception is the review by Shang et al.46 This meta-analysis was controversial, particularly because its conclusions were based on only eight clinical trials whose identity was concealed until several months after the publication, precluding informed examination of its results (5) (6). The only undisputed conclusion (7) of this paper is that clinical trials of homeopathy are of higher quality than matched trials of conventional medicine: of 110 clinical trials each of homeopathy and conventional medicine, 21 trials of homeopathy but only 9 trials of conventional medicine were of ‘higher quality’. 
A leading Swedish medical researcher (8) remarked: “To conclude that homeopathy lacks clinical effect, more than 90% of the available clinical trials had to be disregarded. Alternatively, flawed statistical methods had to be applied.” Higher quality equates to less risk of bias, Mathie et al analysed randomized clinical trials of individualized homeopathy, showing that the highest quality trials yielded positive results (9).
Systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials of homeopathy in specific clinical situations have also yielded positive results, including: allergies and upper respiratory tract infections (2 systematic reviews),, (10) (11) Arnica in knee surgery, (12) Childhood diarrhoea, Post-operative ileus, (13) Rheumatic diseases, (14) Seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) (2 systematic reviews),  (15) (16) and vertigo. (17)
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- This is a wild exaggeration which was made possible by counting all sorts of clinical reports as ‘clinical trials’. A clinical trial “follows a pre-defined plan or protocol to evaluate the effects of a medical or behavioral intervention on health outcomes.” This would exclude most observational studies, case series, case reports. However, the figure cited here includes such reports.
- The author cites only three!
- Does the author mean ‘two’?
- This is not quite true! I have dedicated an entire post to this issue.
- True, the Shang meta-analysis has been criticised – but exclusively by homeopaths who, for obvious reasons, were unable to accept its negative findings. In fact, it is a solid piece of research.
- Why does the author not mention the most recent systematic review of homeopathy? Perhaps because it concluded: Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner. Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.
- Really? Undisputed? Even by the logic of the author’s last sentence, this would be disputed.
- The ‘leading researcher’ is Prof Hahn who has featured many times on my blog. He seems to be more than a little unhinged when it comes to the topic of homeopathy.
- The author forgot to mention that Mathie – who was sponsored by the British Homeopathic Association – included this little caveat in his conclusions: The low or unclear overall quality of the evidence prompts caution in interpreting the findings.
- Reference 33 is the infamous ‘Swiss report’ that has been shown to be fatally flawed over and over again.
- Reference 34 refers to a review that fails to adhere to almost all the criteria of a systematic review.
- This review concluded: In all three trials, patients receiving homeopathic arnica showed a trend towards less postoperative swelling compared to patients receiving placebo. However, a significant difference in favour of homeopathic arnica was only found in the CLR trial. Only a deluded homeopath can call this a ‘positive result’.
- This is a systematic review by my team. It showed that several flawed trials produced a false positive result, while the only large multicentre trial was negative. Our conclusions therefore include the statement that several caveats preclude a definitive judgment. Only a deluded homeopath can call this a ‘positive result’.
- This reference refers to the following abstract: Despite a growing interest in uncovering the basic mechanisms of arthritis, medical treatment remains symptomatic. Current medical treatments do not consistently halt the long-term progression of these diseases, and surgery may still be needed to restore mechanical function in large joints. Patients with rheumatic syndromes often seek alternative therapies, with homeopathy being one of the most frequent. Homeopathy is one of the most frequently used complementary therapies worldwide. Only a deluded homeopath can call this a ‘positive result’.
- The first reference refers to a paper where the author analysed three of his own studies.
- Reference 40 refers to a review that fails to adhere to almost all the criteria of a systematic review.
- This reference refers to a review of Vertigoheel@ that includes observational studies. One of its authors was an employee of the manufacturer of the product. Vertigoheel is not a homeopathic remedy (it does not adhere to the ‘like cures like’ principle) but a homotoxicologic product. Homotoxicology is a method inspired by homeopathy which was developed by Hans Heinrich Reckeweg (1905 – 1985). He believed that all or most illness is caused by an overload of toxins in the body. The toxins originate, according to Reckeweg, both from the environment and from the malfunction of physiological processes within the body. His treatment consists mainly in applying homeopathic remedies which usually consist of combinations of single remedies, because health cannot be achieved without ridding the body of toxins. The largest manufacturer and promoter of remedies used in homotoxicology is the German firm Heel. Our own systematic review of RCTs of homotoxicology included 7 trials which were mostly of a high methodological standard, according to the Jadad score. The trials tested the efficacy of seven different medicines for seven different indications. The results were positive in all but one study. Important flaws were found in all trials. These render the results of the primary studies less reliable than their high Jadad scores might suggest. Despite mostly positive findings and high ratings on the Jadad score, the placebo-controlled, randomised clinical trials of homotoxicology fail to demonstrate the efficacy of this therapeutic approach.
What do we make of all this?
To say that it is disappointing would, I think, be an understatement. The FoH is not supposed to be a lobby group of amateurs ignorant of science and evidence; it is a recognised professional organisation who must behave ethically. Patients and consumers should be able to trust the FoH. The fact that the FoH publish misinformation on such a scale should, in my view, be a matter for the General Medical Council.