The ‘Dr Rath Foundation’ just published a truly wonderful (full of wonders) article about me. I want to publicly congratulate the author: he got my name right [but sadly not much more]. Here is the opening passage of the article which I encourage everyone to read in full [the numbers in square brackets refer to my comments below].
Professor Edzard Ernst: A Career Built On Discrediting Natural Health Science? 
Professor Edzard Ernst, a retired German  physician and academic, has recently  become a prominent advocate of plans that could potentially outlaw  the entire profession of naturopathic doctors  in Germany. Promoting the nonsensical idea that naturopathic medicine somehow poses a risk to public health, Ernst attacks its practitioners as supposedly having been educated in “nonsense” . Tellingly, however, given that he himself has seemingly not published even so much as one completely original scientific trial of his own , Ernst’s apparent attempts to discredit natural healthcare approaches are largely reliant instead on his analysis or review of handpicked negative studies carried out by others .
- When I was appointed at Exeter to research alternative medicine in 1993, I had already been a full professor at Hannover, Germany and subsequently at Vienna, Austria. If anything, coming to Exeter was a big step down in terms of ‘career’, salary, number of co-workers etc. (full details in my memoir)
- I am German-born, became an Austrian citizen in 1990, and since 2000 I am a British national.
- I have been critical about the German ‘Heilpraktiker’ for more than 20 years.
- This refers to the recent ‘Muensteraner Memorandum’ which is the work of an entire team of multidisciplinary experts and advocates reforming this profession.
- ‘Heilpraktiker’ are certainly not doctors; they have no academic or medical background.
- This is correct, and I stand by my statement that educating people in vitalism and other long-obsolete concepts is pure nonsense.
- Since I am researching alternative medicine, I have conducted and published about 40 ‘scientific trials’, and before that time (1993) I have published about the same number again in various other fields.
- This refers to systematic reviews which, by definition, include all the studies available on a defines research question, regardless of their conclusion (their aim is to minimise random and selection biases) .
I hope you agree that these are a lot of mistakes (or are these even lies?) in just a short paragraph.
Now you probably ask: who is Dr Rath?
Many reader of this blog will have heard of him. This is what the Guardian had to say about this man:
Matthias Rath, the vitamin campaigner accused of endangering thousands of lives in South Africa by promoting his pills while denouncing conventional medicines as toxic and dangerous, has dropped a year-long libel action against the Guardian and been ordered to pay costs.
A qualified doctor who is thought to have made millions selling nutritional supplements around the globe through his website empire, Rath claimed his pills could reverse the course of Aids and distributed them free in South Africa, where campaigners, who have won a hard-fought battle to persuade the government to roll out free Aids drugs to keep millions alive, believe Rath’s activities led to deaths.
The Dr Rath Foundation focuses its promotional activities on eight countries – the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, France and Russia – claiming that his micronutrient products will cure not just Aids, but cancer, heart disease, strokes and other illnesses…
I am sure you now understand why I am rather proud of being defamed by this source!
It was the very first sentence of the Boiron US website on Oscillococcinum (we have discussed this amazing product before) that caught my attention: “Homeopathy is a therapeutic method that uses diluted substances to relieve symptoms.” I think this is demonstrably wrong.
- Homeopathy is a therapeutic method that uses mostly the complete absence of an ingredient, and not ‘diluted substances’; specifically, Oscillococcinum is a C 200 potency ( 1: 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000) which means the likelihood of any substance being present is zero.
- Homeopathy is, according to Hahnemann, not ‘to relieve symptoms’ but to tackle the root cause of the condition. Hahnemann meant it to be a causal and not a symptomatic treatment (the truth is that it neither relieves symptoms or the root cause of anything).
And then the website continued to puzzle me by stating this: “The active ingredients in homeopathic medicines include diluted plants, animals or minerals that relieve the same symptoms they cause at full strength (i.e., a micro dose of coffee bean helps to relieve nervousness).” This is wrong too, I think:
- there is no active ingredient in homeopathic medicines,
- many of the mother tinctures used in homeopathy cause no symptoms whatsoever,
- a zero dose is not a micro dose,
- homeopathic coffee does not relieve nervousness better than a placebo.
Now my interest was aroused and I decided to read on. This is what I found under the heading of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’:
START OF QUOTE
Are there clinical studies on Oscillococcinum?
Yes. Two studies, published in peer-reviewed journals, show that Oscillococcinum helps to reduce the severity and shorten the duration of flu-like symptoms.1-2 The most recent study showed that 63 percent of the patients who took Oscillo at the onset of flu-like symptoms showed “clear improvement” or “complete resolution” of their symptoms after 48 hours, vs. 48% with a placebo.2
1Papp R, Schuback G, Beck E, et al. Oscillococcinum in patients with influenza-like syndromes: a placebo-controlled, double-blind evaluation. Br Homeopath J. 1998;87:69-76. 2Ferley JP, Zmirou D, D’Adhemar D, Balducci F. A controlled evaluation of a homeopathic preparation in the treatment of influenza-like syndromes. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 1989;27:329-335.
END OF QUOTE
Now, this is strange!
Why would they cite just two studies when there are several more? Surely they don’t want to be seen to be cherry picking!?!? The current Cochrane review by Mathie RT, Frye J, Fisher P., for instance, included 6 trials!
And what did this review show?
The authors concluded that “There is insufficient good evidence to enable robust conclusions to be made about Oscillococcinum® in the prevention or treatment of influenza and influenza-like illness. Our findings do not rule out the possibility that Oscillococcinum® could have a clinically useful treatment effect but, given the low quality of the eligible studies, the evidence is not compelling. There was no evidence of clinically important harms due to Oscillococcinum®.”
Even though the authors of this Cochrane review are amongst the most ardent homeopathy-promoters on the planet (if not they would not have included this odd 2nd sentence in the above quote), this conclusion does not seem to please Boiron (Christian Boiron seems to have not much time for critical thinking; in a recent, short interview he opined that “Il y a un Ku Klux Klan contre l’homéopathie” THERE IS A KU KLUX KLAN AGAINST HOMEOPATHY).
After studying all this, I ask myself whether Boiron is telling the truth.
What do you think?
George Vithoulkas * (GV) is one of today’s most influential lay-homeopaths, a real ‘super guru’. He has many bizarre ideas; one of the most peculiar one was recently outlined in his article entitled ‘An innovative proposal for scientific alternative medical journals’. Here are a few excerpts from it:
…the only evidence that homeopathy can present to the scientific world at this moment are these thousands of cured cases. It is a waste of time, money, and energy to attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy through double blind trials.
… the international “scientific” community, which has neither direct perception nor personal experience of the beneficial effects of homeopathy, is forced to repeat the same old mantra: “Where is the evidence? Show us the evidence!” … the successes of homeopathy have remained hidden in the offices of hardworking homeopaths – and thus go largely ignored by the world’s medical authorities, governments, and the whole international scientific community…
… simple questions that are usually asked by the “gnorant”, for example, “Can homeopathy cure cancer, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis, etc.?” are invalid and cannot elicit a direct answer because the reality is that many such cases can be ameliorated significantly, and a number can be cured…
A journal could invite a selected number of good prescribers from all over the world as a start to this project and let them contribute to their honest experience and results, as well as their failures. The possibilities and limitations would soon be revealed…
I admit that an argument against accepting cases is that it is possible that false or unreliable information could be provided. This risk could be minimized by preselecting a well-known group of good prescribers, who could be asked to submit their cases, at least in the first phase of such a radical change in the policy of the journals…
This way, instead of rejecting important homeopathic case studies, in the name of a dry intellectualism and conservatism, homeopathy journals (including alternative and complementary journals) could become lively and interesting: initiating debates and discussions on real issues of therapeutics in medicine…
Our own “Evidence Based Medicine” lies in the multitude of chronic cases treated with homeopathy that we can present to the world and on the better quality of life that such cures offer.
END OF QUOTES
So, GV wants homeopathy to thrive by means of publishing lots of case reports of patients who benefitted from homeopathy. And he believes that this suggestion is ‘innovative’? It is not! Case reports were all the rage 150 years ago before medicine started to become a little more scientific. And today, there are several journals specialising in the publication of case-reports, hundreds of journals that like accepting them, as well as dozens of websites that do little else but publishing case reports of homeopathy.
But case reports essentially are anecdotes. Medicine finally managed to progress from its dark ages when we realised how unreliable case reports truly are. To state it yet again (especially for GV who seems to be a bit slow on the uptake): THE PLURAL OF ANECDOTE IS ANECDOTES, NOT EVIDENCE!
In the above article, GV claims that ‘it is a waste of time, money, and energy to attempt to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy through double blind trials.’ That is most puzzling because, only a few years ago, he did publish this:
Alternative therapies in general, and homeopathy in particular, lack clear scientific evaluation of efficacy. Controlled clinical trials are urgently needed, especially for conditions that are not helped by conventional methods. The objective of this work was to assess the efficacy of homeopathic treatment in relieving symptoms associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It was a randomised controlled double-blind clinical trial. Two months baseline assessment with post-intervention follow-up for 3 months was conducted at Hadassah Hospital outpatient gynaecology clinic in Jerusalem in Israel 1992-1994. The subjects were 20 women, aged 20-48, suffering from PMS. Homeopathic intervention was chosen individually for each patient, according to a model of symptom clusters. Recruited volunteers with PMS were treated randomly with one oral dose of a homeopathic medication or placebo. The main outcome measure was scores of a daily menstrual distress questionnaire (MDQ) before and after treatment. Psychological tests for suggestibility were used to examine the possible effects of suggestion. Mean MDQ scores fell from 0.44 to 0.13 (P<0.05) with active treatment, and from 0.38 to 0.34 with placebo (NS). (Between group P=0.057). Improvement >30% was observed in 90% of patients receiving active treatment and 37.5% receiving placebo (P=0.048). Homeopathic treatment was found to be effective in alleviating the symptoms of PMS in comparison to placebo. The use of symptom clusters in this trial may offer a novel approach that will facilitate clinical trials in homeopathy. Further research is in progress.
I find this intriguing, particularly because the ‘further research’ mentioned prominently in the conclusions never did surface! Perhaps its results turned out to be unfavourable to homeopathy? Perhaps this is why GV dislikes RCTs these days? Perhaps this is why he prefers case reports such as this one which he recently published:
START OF QUOTE
An 81-year-old female patient was admitted in July 2015 to the Cardiovascular Surgery Department of a hospital in Bucharest for an aortic valve replacement surgery.
The patient had a history of mild hypertension, insulin-dependent type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure NYHA 2, severe aortic stenosis, moderate mitral regurgitation, mild pulmonary hypertension, bilateral carotid atheromatosis with a 50% stenosis of the left internal carotid artery, complete right mastectomy for breast cancer (at that moment in remission).
After a preoperative evaluation and preparation, the surgery was completed with the replacement of the aortic valve with a bioprosthesis (Medtronic Hancock II Ultra no. 23) and myocardial revascularization by using a double aortic-coronary bypass.
The post-operatory evolution was a good one in terms of the heart disease. However, the patient did not regain consciousness after the anaesthesia, maintaining a deep comatose state (GCS 7 points – E1V2M4).
A brain CT was performed the third day postoperatively, showing no recent ischemic or haemorrhagic cerebral lesions, moderate diffuse cerebral atrophy and carotid atheromatosis.
After the surgery, the patient was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and was treated by using a multidisciplinary approach. The patient was treated with inotropic, antiarrhythmic, and diuretic drugs, insulin and antidiabetic drugs were used in order to keep the blood sugar levels under control. The patient was kept hydrated and the electrolytes balanced by using an i.v. line, prophylaxis for deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary thromboembolism was performed by using low molecular weight heparin. Prophylaxis for bedsores was also performed by using a pressure relieve air mattress.
The patient went into acute respiratory distress, needing mechanical ventilation in order to maintain oxygenation.
Despite these complex and correctly performed therapeutic efforts, the patient did not regain consciousness and was still in a deep coma in the fourteenth day post-operatory (GCS 7 points – E1V2M4), without having a confirmed medical explanation.
At that point, the patient’s family requested a consult from a homeopathic specialist.
The homeopathic examination, which was performed in the fourteenth day postoperatively, revealed the following: old, comatose, tranquil patient, with pale and cold skin, with the need to uncover herself (the few movements that she made with her hands were to remove her blanket and clothes, as if she wanted more air – “thirst for air”), abdominal distension, and bloating.
The thorough evaluation of the patient and the analysis of her symptoms led us to the remedy most appropriate for this critical situation – Carbo Vegetabilis.
Homeopathic treatment was initiated the same day, by using Carbo Vegetabilis 200CH 7 granules twice a day, administered diluted in 20ml of water by using a nasogastric tube.
The patient’s evolution was spectacular. The next day after the initiation of the treatment (fifteenth day postoperatively) the patient was in a superficial coma (GCS 11 points – E2V4M5), and the following day she regained consciousness. Carbo Vegetabilis was administered in the same dose for a total of five days (including the nineteenth day postoperatively).
After these five days, the case was reassessed from a homeopathically point of view and the second evaluation revealed the following: severely dyspnoeic patient (even talking caused exhaustion) with pale skin, severe fatigue aggravated by the slightest movements, a weakness sensation located in the chest area, extreme lack of energy, the wish “to be left alone”.
Considering the state of general exhaustion the patient was in at that moment and her lack of energy, the homeopathic treatment was changed to a new remedy: Stanum metallicum 30CH 7 granules administered sublingually twice a day for a week.
After the administration of the second remedy, the patient’s general condition improved dramatically: she started eating, she was able to get up in a sitting position with only little help, her fatigue diminished significantly.
The patient was then transferred to a recovery clinic in Cluj-Napoca in order to continue the cardiovascular recovery treatment. During her three-week admission in the clinic, she followed an individualized cardiovascular recovery program, which led to her ability to walk short distances with minimal support and has was released from the hospital in September 2015.
The following weeks after release, the patient recovered almost entirely, both physically and mentally. She was able to retake her place in her family and in society in general.
END OF QUOTE
One has to be a homeopath (one who is ignorant of the ‘post hoc propter hoc fallacy’) to believe in a causal link between the intake of the homeopathic remedy and the recovery of this patient. Thankfully, comatose patients do re-gain consciousness all the time! Even without homeopathy! But GV seems to not know that. In the discussion of this paper, he even states this: “… even after a well-conducted therapy, this condition leads to the death of the patient.” Is it ethical to publish such falsehoods, I wonder?
As far as the case report goes, the homeopathic remedy might even have delayed the process – perhaps the patient would have re-gained consciousness quicker and more completely without it! My hypothesis (homeopathy cased harm) is exactly as strong and silly as the one (homeopathy cased benefit) of GV. Anecdotes will never be able to answer the question as to who is correct.
One has to be a homeopath (and a daft one at that) to believe that this sort of evidence will lead to the acceptance of homeopathy by the scientific community. No journal will take GV seriously. No editor can be that stupid!
Oooops! Hold on, I might be wrong here.
Dr Peter Fisher, editor of the journal ‘Homeopathy’ just published an editorial ( Fisher P, Homeopathy and intellectual honesty, Homeopathy (2017), see also my previous post) stating that, in future, ‘we will increase publication of well-documented case-reports’.
Did I just claim that no editor can be that stupid?
- I should declare a conflict of interest: when he got his ‘Right Livelihood Award’, GV sent me (and other prominent homeopathy-researchers) some of the prize money (I think it was around £ 1000) to support my research in homeopathy. I used it for exactly that purpose.
Dr Peter Fisher (I have mentioned him several times before, see for instance here, here and here) claimed in his recent editorial (Fisher P, Homeopathy and intellectual honesty, Homeopathy (2017) – not yet available on Medline) that 43 systematic reviews of homeopathy have so far been published, and stated that “of these 21 were clearly or tentatively positive and 9 inconclusive”. In my book, this would mean that the majority of systematic reviews fail to be clearly positive. But Fisher seems to view this mini-statistic as a proof of homeopathy’s efficacy.
As evidence for his statement, Fisher cites this article from his own journal (‘Homeopathy’). However, the paper actually says this: “A total of 36 condition-specific systematic reviews have been identified in the peer-reviewed literature: 16 of them reported positive, or tentatively positive, conclusions about homeopathy’s clinical effectiveness; the other 20 were negative or non-conclusive.”
Confused by this contradiction, I try to dig deeper. Medline provides currently 66 hits when searching systematic reviews of homeopathy. But this figure includes papers that are not really systematic reviews and excludes some relevant articles that are not Medline-listed.
The NHMRC report which Fisher also cites (see below) considered 57 systematic reviews of homeopathy. In his editorial, Fisher stated that the NHMRC report “seems to have missed some systematic reviews of homeopathy”. This can only mean that Fisher knows of more than 57 reviews. Why then does he claim that there are just 43?
Yes, but Fisher’s editorial seems odd in several other ways as well.
- He accuses the NHMRC-authors of ‘malpractice’.
- He finds ‘shocking evidence of bias’.
- He alleges that the EASAC-report ‘cherry-picks evidence’.
- He accuses the EASAC-authors of ‘abuse of authority’.
Why does Dr Peter Fisher go this far, why is he so very aggressive?
I know Peter quite well. He is usually a fairly calm and collected sort of person who is not prone to irrational outbursts. This behaviour is therefore out of character.
The only explanation that I have for his strange behaviour is that he feels cornered, has run out of rational arguments, and senses that homeopathy is now on its last leg.
What do you think?
The German Heilpraktiker (a phenomenon vaguely equivalent to the ‘naturopath’ in English speaking countries) has become a fairly regular feature on this blog – see, for instance here, here, and here. The nationally influential German Medical Journal, a weekly publication of the German Medical Association, recently published an article about the education of this profession.
In it, we are told that the German Ministry of Health has drafted a 9-page document to unify the examination of the Heilpraktiker throughout Germany. The German Medical Association, however, are critical about the planned reform. The draft document suggest that, in future, all Heilpraktiker should pass an exam consisting of 60 multiple choice questions, in addition to an oral examination in which 4 candidates are being interviewed simultaneously for one hour. The draft also stipulates that Heilpraktiker may only practice such that they present no danger for public health and only use methods they muster.
The German Medical Association feel that these reforms do not go far enough. They claim that the authors of the draft have ‘totally misunderstood the complexity of the medical context, particularly the amount of necessary knowledge necessary for risk-minimisation in clinical practice’. They furthermore feel that the document is ‘an effort that is in every respect insufficient for protecting the public or individuals from the practice of the Heilpraktiker’. They also state that it is unclear how the document might provide a means to test Heilpraktiker in respect of risk-minimisation. The Medical Association demands that ‘the practice of certain therapies by Heilpraktiker must be forbidden. Finally, they say that ‘the practice of invasive methods and the treatment of caner by Heilpraktiker must be urgently prohibited’.
The German Heilpraktiker has been a subject of much public debate recently, not least after the ‘Muenster Group’ suggested a comprehensive reform. (I reported about this at the time.)
For those who can read German, the original article from the German Medical Journal is copied below:
Das Bundesministerium für Gesundheit (BMG) will gemeinsam mit den Ländern die Heilpraktikerüberprüfung bundesweit vereinheitlichen und Patienten besser schützen. Dafür haben Bund und Länder einen neunseitigen Entwurf erarbeitet. Die Bundesärztekammer (BÄK) zeigt sich angesichts der Pläne besorgt und übt deutliche Kritik.
Der Entwurf sieht vor, dass zur Überprüfung der Kenntnisse von Heilpraktikern künftig eine Prüfung verpflichtend sein soll. Diese soll aus 60 Multiple-Choice-Fragen bestehen, von denen der Anwärter innerhalb von zwei Stunden 45 korrekt ankreuzen muss. Darüber hinaus ist ein mündlicher Prüfungsteil von einer Stunde vorgesehen – bei vier Prüflingen gleichzeitig.
Zusätzlich stellt der Entwurf klar, dass Heilpraktiker nur in dem Umfang Heilkunde ausüben dürfen, in dem von ihrer Tätigkeit keine Gefahr für die Gesundheit der Bevölkerung oder für Patientinnen und Patienten ausgeht. Sie müssten zudem „eventuelle Arztvorbehalte beachten und sich auf die Tätigkeiten beschränken, die sie sicher beherrschen“, heißt es in der Präambel des Bund-Länder-Entwurfes, der dem Deutschen Ärzteblatt vorliegt.
Der Bundesärztekammer geht der Text nicht weit genug. Die Autoren der Leitlinie für die Prüfung haben laut BÄK „die Komplexität des medizinischen Kontextes“ völlig verkannt, „insbesondere das Ausmaß des notwendigen medizinischen Wissens, das für eine gefahrenminimierte Ausübung der Heilkunde notwendig ist“, so die Kammer weiter. Die jetzt vorgelegten Leitlinien für die Überprüfung stelle „eine in jeder Hinsicht unzureichende Maßnahme zum Schutz der Bevölkerung oder gar einzelner Patienten vor möglichen Gesundheitsgefahren durch die Tätigkeit von Heilpraktikern dar.
Es sei nicht nachvollziehbar, „wie auf der Grundlage dieser Leitlinien eine Überprüfung von Heilpaktikeranwärtern unter dem Aspekt einer funktionierenden Gefahrenabwehr erfolgen soll“, so die Kammer weiter. Sie fordert, dass Heilpraktikern bestimmte Tätigkeiten verboten werden. „Konkret sieht die Bundesärztekammer insbesondere den Ausschluss aller invasiven Maßnahmen sowie der Behandlung von Krebserkrankungen als zwingend notwendig an“, heißt es in der Stellungnahme.
Der Bund-Länder-Entwurf ist Ergebnis einer Debatte darüber, was Heilpraktiker dürfen oder künftig nicht (mehr) dürfen sollten und wie die Regeln für den Gesundheitsberuf aussehen. Eine Expertengruppe, der „Münsteraner Kreis“, hatte unlängst Vorschläge für eine umfassende Reform erarbeitet. Das Thema war zuletzt in der Öffentlichkeit und auch der Ärzteschaft heftig diskutiert worden.
END OF QUOTE
So, how well should alt med practitioners be educated and trained?
The answer depends, I think, on what precisely they are allowed to do. Medical responsibility must always be matched to medical competence. If a massage therapist merely acts on the instructions of a doctor, she does not need to know the differential diagnosis of a headache, for instance.
If, however, practitioners independently diagnose diseases (and alt med practitioners often do exactly that!), they must have a knowledge-base similar to that of a GP. If they use potentially harmful treatments (and which therapy does not have the potential to do harm?), they must be aware of the evidence for or against these interventions, as well as the evidence for all other therapeutic options for the conditions in question. Again, this would mean having a knowledge close to GP-level. If there is a mismatch between responsibility and competence (as very often is the case), patients are exposed to avoidable risks.
It is clear from these considerations that an exam with 60 multiple-choice questions followed by an hour-long interview is woefully inadequate for testing whether a practitioner has sufficient medical competence to independently care for patients. It is also clear, I think, that practitioners who regularly diagnose and treat patients – usually without any supervision – ought to have an education that covers much of what doctors learn while in medical school. Finally, it is clear that even after an adequate education, practitioners need to gather experience and work under supervision for some time before they can responsibly practice independently.
In any case, uncritically teaching obsolete notions of vitalism, yin and yang, subluxation, detox, potentisation, millennia of experience etc. is certainly not good enough. Education has to be based on sound evidence; if not, it is not education but brain-washing. And the result would be that students do not become responsible healthcare professionals but irresponsible charlatans.
Of course, alt med practitioners will argue that these arguments are merely the expression of medics defending their lucrative patch. But even if this were true (which, in my view, it is not), it would not absolve them from the moral, ethical and legal duty to demonstrate that their educational standards are sufficiently rigorous to avoid harm to their patients.
In a nutshell: an education in nonsense must result in nonsense.
The British press recently reported that a retired bank manager (John Lawler, aged 80) died after visiting a chiropractor in York. This tragic case was published in multiple articles, most recently in THE SUN. Personally, I find this regrettable – not the fact that the press warns consumers of chiropractic, but the tone and content of the articles.
Let me explain this by citing the one in THE SUN of today. Here is the critical bit that concerns me:
Ezvard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, published a study showing at least 26 people had died as a result. He said: “The evidence is not in favour of chiropractic treatments. Nobody knows how many have suffered severe complications or died.” Edvard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, says many have suffered complications or died from chiropractors treatments… A study from Exeter University shows at least 26 people have died as a result of treatment.
And what is wrong with this?
The answer is lots:
- My first name is consistently misspelled (a triviality, I agree).
- I am once named as Emeritus Professor and once as Professor of Complementary Medicine. The latter is wrong (another triviality, perhaps, but some of my more demented critics have regularly accused me of carrying wrong titles)
- The mention of 26 deaths after chiropractic treatments is problematic and arguably misleading (see below).
- Our ‘study’ was not a study but a systematic review (another triviality?).
Now you probably think I am being pedantic, but I feel that the article is regrettable not so much by what it says but by what it fails to say. To understand this better, I will below copy my emails to the journalist who asked for help in researching this article.
- My email of 17/10 answering all 7 of the journalist’s specific questions:
- 1. Why are you sceptical of chiropractic?
- I have researched the subject for more than 2 decades, and I know that the evidence is not in favour of chiropractic
- 2. How many people do you believe have died in Britain as a result of being treated by a chiropractor? If it’s not possible to say, can you estimate?
- nobody knows how many patients have suffered severe complications or deaths. there is no system to monitor such events that is comparable to the post-marketing surveillance of conventional medicine. we did some research and found that the under-reporting of cases of severe complications was close to 100% in the UK.
- 3. What is so dangerous about chiropractic? Is there a particular physical treatment than endangers life?
- manipulations that involve rotation and over-extension of the upper spine can lead to a vertebral artery breaking up. this causes a stroke which sometimes is fatal.
- 4. Is the industry well regulated?
- UK chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council. it is debatable whether they are fit for purpose (see here:http://edzardernst.com/2015/02/the-uk-general-chiropractic-council-fit-for-purpose/)
- 5. Should we be suspicious of claims that chiropractic can cure things like IBS and autism?
- such claims are not based on good evidence and therefore misleading and unethical. sadly, however, they are prevalent.
- 6. Who trains chiropractors?
- there are numerous colleges that specialise in that activity.
- 7. Is it true Prince Charles is to blame for the rise in popularity/prominence of chiropractic?
- I am not sure. certainly he has been promoting all sorts of unproven treatments for decades.
- My email of 18/10 answering 3 further specific questions
- 1. Would you actively discourage anyone from being treated by a chiropractor?
yes, anyone I feel responsible for
2. Are older people particularly at risk or could one wrong move affect anyone?
older people are at higher risk of bone fractures and might also have more brittle arteries prone to dissection
3. If someone has, say, a bad back or stiff neck what treatment would you recommend instead of chiropractic?
I realise every case is different, but you are sceptical of all complementary treatments (as I understand it) so what would you suggest instead?
I would normally consider therapeutic exercises and recommend seeing a good physio.
- 3. My email of 23/10 replying to his request for specific UK cases
- the only thing I can offer is this 2001 paper
- where we discovered 35 cases seen by UK neurologists within the preceding year. the truly amazing finding here was that NONE of them had been reported anywhere before. this means under-reporting was exactly 100%.
END OF QUOTES
I think that makes it quite obvious that much relevant information never made it into the final article. I also know that several other experts provided even more information than I did which never appeared.
The most important issues, I think, are firstly the lack of a monitoring system for adverse events, secondly the level of under-reporting and thirdly the 50% rate of mild to moderate adverse-effects. Without making these issues amply clear, lay readers cannot possibly make any sense of the 26 deaths. More importantly, chiropractors will now be able to respond by claiming: 26 deaths compare very favourably with the millions of fatalities caused by conventional medicine. In the end, the message that will remain in the heads of many consumers is this: CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN CHIROPRACTIC!!! (The 1st comment making this erroneous point has already been published: Don’t be stupid Andy. You wanna discuss how many deaths occur due to medication side effects and drug interactions? There is a reason chiros have the lowest malpractice rates.)
Don’t get me wrong, I am not accusing the author of the SUN-article. For all I know, he has filed a very thoughtful and complete piece. It might have been shortened by the editor who may also have been the one adding the picture of the US starlet with her silicone boobs. But I am accusing THE SUN of missing a chance to publish something that might have had the chance of being a meaningful contribution to public health.
Perhaps you still think this is all quite trivial. Yet, after having experienced this sort of thing dozens, if not hundreds of times, I disagree.
The nonsense that some naturopaths try to tell the public never ceases to amaze me. This article is a good example: a “naturopathic doctor” told a newspaper that “We do have a reputation associated with cancer, but we don’t treat cancer. We use highly intelligent computer software to find out what is wrong with the body at a scientific level, and we simply correct that, and the people who do that, they cure their own cancer.” As far as he is concerned, “The only hope for cancer is alternative medicine… When you look at the medical texts, the scientific literature, what is used, the chemotherapy and the radiation, they cannot cure cancer,” he said.
Through artificial intelligence, he said that he simply teaches people how to heal. Clients are hooked up to a computer that reads their body and gives a printout of what needs to be done to correct the abnormalities. “It looks at the abnormalities in the energetic pathways, abnormalities in nutritional status, and abnormalities in the toxic load of the body and how much it can carry. Once these things are identified and you actually put the patient on a path, they go out and heal themselves. I have nothing to do with it,” he said.
Before you discard this neuropath as an unimportant nutter, consider that this article is a mere example. There are thousands more.
This website, for instance, gives the impression of being much more official and trustworthy by adopting the name of CANCER TREATMENT CENTERS OF AMERICA. But the claims are just as irresponsible:
… natural therapies our naturopathic medicine team may recommend include:
- Herbal and botanical preparations, such as herbal extracts and teas
- Dietary supplements, such as vitamins, minerals and amino acids
- Homeopathic remedies, such as extremely low doses of plant extracts and minerals
- Physical therapy and exercise therapy, including massage and other gentle techniques used on deep muscles and joints for therapeutic purposes
- Hydrotherapy, which prescribes water-based approaches like hot and cold wraps, and other therapies
- Lifestyle counseling, such as exercise, sleep strategies, stress reduction techniques, as well as foods and nutritional supplements
- Acupuncture, to help with side effects like nausea and vomiting, dry mouth, hot flashes and insomnia
- Chiropractic care, which may include hands-on adjustment, massage, stretching, electronic muscle stimulation, traction, heat, ice and other techniques.
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And, would you believe it, there even is a NATUROPATHIC CANCER SOCIETY. They proudly claim that: Naturopathic medicine works best to eliminate:
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Vis a vis this plethora of irresponsible and dangerous promotion of quackery by naturopathic charlatans, I feel angry, sad and powerless. I know that my efforts to prevent cancer patients going to an early grave because of such despicable actions are bound to be of very limited success. But that does not mean that I will stop trying to tell the truth:
THERE IS NOT A JOT OF EVIDENCE THAT NATUROPATHY CAN CURE CANCER. SO, PLEASE DO NOT GO DOWN THIS ROUTE!
PS: …and no, I am not paid by BIG PHARMA or anyone else to say so.
Herbal and homeopathic lobby groups have petitioned to stop NHS England from removing herbal and homeopathic medicines: NHS England is consulting on recommendations to remove herbal and homeopathic medicines from GP prescribing. The medicines cost very little and have no suitable alternatives for many patients. Therefore we call on NHS England to continue to allow doctors to prescribe homeopathy and herbal medicine. The petition received around 16 500 signatures.
Now the UK government has responded. I take the liberty of posting the full response below:
Information from NHS England (NHSE) shows that in 2015, the cost for all prescriptions dispensed in primary care, not including any dispensing costs or fees, was £9.27 billion, a 4.7% increase on the previous year. Due to the increasing cost, NHSE is leading a review of medicines which can be considered as being of low clinical value and develop new guidance for Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).
On 21 July, NHSE launched a three month consultation on the draft guidance on low value prescription items which is based on the latest clinical evidence, including that from the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Careful consideration has been given to ensure that particular groups of people are not disproportionately affected, and that principles of best practice on clinical prescribing are adhered to.
The commissioning guidance, upon which NHSE is consulting, will be addressed to CCGs to support them to fulfil their duties around the appropriate use of prescribing resources. This will need to be taken into account by CCGs in adopting or amending their own local guidance to their clinicians in primary care.
The aim of this consultation is to provide individuals with information about the proposed national guidance and to seek people’s views about the proposals. NHSE welcomes the views of the public, patients, clinicians, commissioners and providers through this consultation process to help inform the final guidance. The consultation ends on 21 October. Links to the consultation can be found here:
It is the responsibility of local NHS organisations to make decisions on the commissioning and funding of any healthcare treatments for NHS patients, such as homeopathy, taking account of issues to do with safety, clinical and cost-effectiveness and the availability of suitably qualified and regulated practitioners.
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAMs) treatments can, in principle, feature in a range of services offered by local NHS organisations. A treating clinician would take into account an individual’s circumstances and medical history in deciding what would be the most appropriate treatment for their condition. CCGs will have specific policies on the commissioning and funding of CAMs, and may have also developed local policies on priorities with regards to the funding of treatments. A GP would have to work within such policies in providing any treatments on the NHS.
The Department of Health supports an approach to evidence-based prescribing which does not support the commissioning of services which are not clinically and cost effective. We are not aware of any evidence that demonstrates the therapeutic effectiveness of homeopathic products. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does not currently recommend that homeopathy should be used in the treatment of any health condition, whilst primary care prescribing data shows that there has been a significant decline in the prescribing of homeopathic products over the last 10 years. Furthermore, a good number of NHS organisations are reviewing their funding of homeopathic treatments and some have already stopped funding such treatment altogether.
Department of Health
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This hardly needs a comment. Perhaps just this:
I find phraseology such as “We are not aware of any evidence that demonstrates the therapeutic effectiveness of homeopathic products” regrettable. It enables homeopaths and their supporters to counter that the government or anyone else who use this argument are ill-informed. There are, of course, quite a few positive trials of homeopathy. To deny it is a mistake, in my view, and one that would be easily avoidable.
I would have formulated this sentence differently: “We are not aware that the totality of the reliable evidence demonstrates the therapeutic effectiveness of homeopathic products”.
That is a correct and relevant statement.
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.