On this blog, we have had (mostly unproductive) discussions with homeopath so often that sometimes they sound like a broken disk. I don’t want to add to this kerfuffle; what I hope to do today is to summarise a certain line of argument which, from the homeopaths’ point of view, seems entirely logical. I do this in the form of a fictitious conversation between a scientist (S) and a classical homeopath (H). My aim is to make the reader understand homeopaths better so that, future debates might be better informed.
HERE WE GO:
S: I have studied the evidence from studies of homeopathy in some detail, and I have to tell you, it fails to show that homeopathy works.
H: This is not true! We have plenty of evidence to prove that patients get better after seeing a homeopath.
S: Yes, but this is not because of the remedy; it is due to non-specific effect like the empathetic consultation with a homeopath. If one controls for these factors in adequately designed trials, the result usually is negative.
I will re-phrase my claim: the evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are more effective than placebos.
H: I disagree, there are positive studies as well.
S: Let’s not cherry pick. We must always consider the totality of the reliable evidence. We now have a meta-analysis published by homeopaths that demonstrates the ineffectiveness of homeopathy quite clearly.
H: This is because homeopathy was not used correctly in the primary trials. Homeopathy must be individualised for each unique patient; no two cases are alike! Remember: homeopathy is based on the principle that like cures like!!!
S: Are you saying that all other forms of using homeopathy are wrong?
H: They are certainly not adhering to what Hahnemann told us to do; therefore you cannot take their ineffectiveness as proof that homeopathy does not work.
S: This means that much, if not most of homeopathy as it is used today is to be condemned as fake.
H: I would not go that far, but it is definitely not the real thing; it does not obey the law of similars.
S: Let’s leave this to one side for the moment. If you insist on individualised homeopathy, I must tell you that this approach can also be tested in clinical trials.
H: I know; and there is a meta-analysis which proves that it is effective.
S: Not quite; it concluded that medicines prescribed in individualised homeopathy may have small, specific treatment effects. Findings are consistent with sub-group data available in a previous ‘global’ systematic review. The low or unclear overall quality of the evidence prompts caution in interpreting the findings. New high-quality RCT research is necessary to enable more decisive interpretation.
If you call this a proof of efficacy, I would have to disagree with you. The effect was tiny and at least two of the best studies relevant to the subject were left out. If anything, this paper is yet another proof that homeopathy is useless!
H: You simply don’t understand homeopathy enough to say that. I tried to tell you that the remedy must be carefully chosen to fit each unique patient. This is a very difficult task, and sometimes it is not successful – mainly because the homeopaths employed in clinical trials are not skilled enough to find it. This means that, in these studies, we will always have a certain failure rate which, in turn, is responsible for the small average effect size.
S: But these studies are always conducted by experienced homeopaths, and only the very best, most experienced homeopaths were chosen to cooperate in them. Your argument that the trials are negative because of the ineffectiveness of the homeopaths – rather than the ineffectiveness of homeopathy – is therefore nonsense.
H: This is what you say because you don’t understand homeopathy!
S: No, it is what you say because you don’t understand science. How else would you prove that your hypothesis is correct?
H: Simple! Just look at individual cases from the primary studies within this meta-analysis . You will see that there are always patients who did improve. These cases are the proof we need. The method of the RCT is only good for defining average effects; this is not what we should be looking at, and it is certainly not what homeopaths are interested in.
S: Are you saying that the method of the RCT is wrong?
H: It is not always wrong. Some RCTs of homeopathy are positive and do very clearly prove that homeopathy works. These are obviously the studies where homeopathy has been applied correctly. We have to make a meta-analysis of such trials, and you will see that the result turns out to be positive.
S: So, you claim that all the positive studies have used the correct method, while all the negative ones have used homeopathy incorrectly.
H: If you insist to put it like that, yes.
S: I see, you define a trial to have used homeopathy correctly by its result. Essentially you accept science only if it generates the outcome you like.
H: Yes, that sounds odd to you – because you don’t understand enough of homeopathy.
S: No, what you seem to insist on is nothing short of double standards. Or would you accept a drug company claiming: some patients did feel better after taking our new drug, and this is proof that it works?
H: You see, not understanding homeopathy leads to serious errors.
S: I give up.
The aim of this paper was to systematically review surveys of 12-month prevalence of homeopathy use by the general population worldwide. Studies were identified via database searches to October 2015. Study quality was assessed using a six-item tool. All estimates were in the context of a survey which also reported prevalence of any complementary and alternative medicine use. A total of 36 surveys were included. Of these, 67% met four of six quality criteria.
Twelve-month prevalence of treatment by a homeopath was reported in 24 surveys of adults (median 1.5%, range 0.2–8.2%). Estimates for children were similar to those for adults. Rates in the USA, UK, Australia and Canada all ranged from 0.2% to 2.9% and remained stable over the years surveyed (1986–2012). Twelve-month prevalence of all use of homeopathy (purchase of over-the-counter homeopathic medicines and treatment by a homeopath) was reported in 10 surveys of adults (median 3.9%, range 0.7–9.8%) while a further 11 surveys which did not define the type of homeopathy use reported similar data. Rates in the USA and Australia ranged from 1.7% to 4.4% and remained stable over the years surveyed. The highest use was reported by a survey in Switzerland where homeopathy is covered by mandatory health insurance.
The authors concluded that each year a small but significant percentage of these general populations use homeopathy. This includes visits to homeopaths as well as purchase of over-the-counter homeopathic medicines.
These data thus indicate that the percentage of the adult general population using homeopathy over the previous 12 months was in the range of 0.7–9.8%, with a median estimate of 3.9%, and the percentage accessing treatment by a homeopath over the previous 12 months was in the range of 0.2–8.2%, with a median estimate of 1.5%. The data also suggest that, over the last few decades, use of homeopathy has remained fairly stable. These facts are in sharp contrast to the claims by homeopaths that:
- Homeopathy is hugely popular.
- Homeopathy is being used by more and more people across the globe.
- Homeopathy is the medicine of the future.
The well-documented and undeniable unpopularity of homeopathy begs the question, I think, why so many people seem to get so excited about homeopathy. The level of usage is nothing to write home about! Therefore, why don’t we just put it down to an aberration like believing the earth is flat? Why don’t we just concede that some minor, harmless stupidity will always exist in some people’s minds?
Here are some reasons why:
- It is not about the amount of people using homeopathy, but about the principle that any of the increasingly scarce public funds for healthcare are wasted on something as irrational and useless as homeopathy.
- Homeopathy makes a mockery of EBM.
- Homeopathy and homeopaths are by no means harmless.
- Homeopaths tell too many lies to be allowed to get away with them.
- Homeopathy and its followers systematically undermine rational thought.
CBC news (Canada) reported yesterday that, more than a decade ago, the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission had been tasked to review the cost effectiveness of chiropractic services. It therefore prepared a report in 2004 for the Manitoba province and the Manitoba Chiropractors Association. Since then, this report has been kept secret. The report makes 37 recommendations, including:
- Manitoba Health should limit its funding to “chiropractic treatment of acute lower back pain.”
- Manitoba Health should provide “limited coverage of the treatment of neck pain.” The report called the literature around the efficacy of chiropractic care for neck pain “ambiguous or at best weakly supportive” and noted such treatment carried a “not insignificant safety risk.”
- Manitoba Health should not fund chiropractic treatment anyone under 18 “as the literature does not unequivocally justify” the “efficacy or safety” of such treatment.
A Manitoba Ombudsman’s Office report from 2012 might shed some light on why the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission’s report was never made public. Someone had attempted to get a copy of the report, but large parts of it were redacted. “Access to this record was refused on the basis that disclosure would be harmful to a third party’s business interest,” the ombudsman report notes, “and harm the economic or financial interests or negotiating position of a public body.”
The report also challenged claims that chiropractic treatments can be address a wide variety of medical conditions. It stated that there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective in treating muscle tension, migraines, HIV, carpal tunnel syndrome, gastrointestinal problems, infertility or cancer, or as a preventive care treatment. It also said there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective for children.
The report urged Manitoba Health to establish a monitoring system to keep a closer eye on “the advertising practices of the Manitoba Chiropractors Association and its members to ensure claims regarding treatments are restricted to those for which proof of efficacy and safety exist.” It suggested the government should have regulatory powers over chiropractic ads.
A recent CBC I-Team investigation found Manitoba chiropractors advertising treatment for a wide range of conditions including Alzheimer’s, autism and pediatric services. The commission report contained sharp criticisms of previous reports that suggested funding chiropractic care could save the health-care system money. Dr. Pranlal Manga authored two widely cited reports which claim that by offering publicly funded chiropractic care, provinces can cut health-care costs. “The Manga study on Manitoba must be rejected as a guide to public policy,” the commission report states, “because its assumptions, methodology and costing of recommendations are all deeply flawed.” The reports states, “What limited evidence the Commission has suggests he [Manga] grossly exaggerates possible medical savings.” Dr. Manga did not respond to CBC’s repeated attempts to contact him.
The commission report also made recommendations around the use of X-ray machines by chiropractors. It suggested chiropractors not own and operate X-ray machines “Given the restrictive conditions under which X-rays are advisable, their poor correlation with low-back problems, their apparent limitation as a guide to appropriate treatment …[and] the apparent complete lack of monitoring [of] the use of X-ray by chiropractors.” Instead, it recommended consulting with radiologists when imaging is deemed necessary. “The Commission is of the view that the public interest, and even chiropractic itself, would be better served if chiropractors had access to radiologists for this service, rather than perform it themselves,” the report said.
All three report authors declined comment. Calls to Dave Chomiak, who was health minister at the time the report was prepared, were not returned. In an email to CBC, Manitoba Chiropractors Association president Perry Taylor said, “I personally have never seen this 13-year-old document and [it] pre-dates my time as President. As such I have no comment on this.” The CBC I-Team offered to go through the report with Taylor but he did not respond.
This report seems to confirm much of what we have discussed repeatedly on this blog: Chiropractic is not nearly as effective and safe as chiropractors try to make us believe. To hide this fact is certainly dishonest and unethical, but it is in some ways understandable: this knowledge would directly threaten the income of most chiropractors.
Yesterday I commented on another post: “the conflict of interest seems obvious: if homeopaths speak the truth, they are out of business. therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and eventually end up believing them. there is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent them from making false claims. if not, this will go on for another 200 years and damage many patients’ health”. In the light of the above report, I will now re-phrase this: the conflict of interest seems obvious: if chiropractors allowed the truth to be known, they would soon be out of business. Therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and many end up believing them. There is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent chiropractors from making false claims. If not, this abuse will go on for another 120 years and damage many patients’ health.
The ‘SOCIETY OF HOMEOPATHS’ (SoH) have published an official complaint they recently filed with the BBC. As it gives an intriguing insight into their mind-set, I could not resist reproducing it here (warts and all):
“Prompted by the interview with Simon Stevens of NHS England on the Today Programme, on 31st March, the Society of Homeopaths deplores the lack of balance in the BBC’s coverage of Homeopathy and urges you to review your approach to coverage of the subject.
During the Today interview, following wide-ranging discussion of issues around the future of the NHS, Sarah Montague suddenly threw in a question about the amount spent on Homeopathy within the NHS, evidently catching Mr Stevens unawares.
The annual budget of the NHS is approximately £110billion. Of this, £4million per year (0.0036 of the NHS budget) is spent on Homeopathy. This hardly justifies the unbalanced and hectoring approach from Sarah Montague.
We acknowledge that it is not always possible or necessary to achieve balance on a particular topic within a single programme but the BBC seems to have a consistent line across all of its platforms of opposition to, and disparagement of, Homeopathy. A recent example is a piece on the Health section of the BBC website in October 2106 by Nick Tiggle which displayed no balance at all and denigrated Homeopathy and Homeopaths with little or no space given to alternative views.
From these and other instances, it seems clear that the BBC has a biased attitude towards Homeopathy, which may be the result of relying too heavily on a small number of ‘experts’, who openly and persistently campaign against complementary and alternative medicine. These ‘experts’ operate in a similar way to climate change deniers, referring to a limited range of research, often of poor quality, to support their claims that there is ‘no evidence for homeopathy’.
We look forward to BBC programmes which fulfill its mission to explain and provide balance and coverage of the positive effects of Homeopathy.
Mark Taylor Chief Executive Society of Homeopaths”
END OF QUOTE
This hardly needs a comment – perhaps just 6 short points:
- To the best of my knowledge, the BBC has a policy of not being seen to be biased. The discussion referred to above was about the NHS stopping to pay for treatments that are either not effective (e. g. cough syrups) or cheaper to buy OTC than on prescription (e. g. paracetamol). Homeopathy is both. Therefore it would have even been biased NOT to bring homeopathy into the discussion.
- To claim the BBC-interviewer caught Stevens off guard is just silly: when you go on the radio to discuss such issues, homeopathy MUST be on your mind.
- To claim that the BBC is generally biased against homeopathy (on the basis of two anecdotes) is equally silly. The SoH should have done some systematic research on this – perhaps they did and found it failed to support their point? – this would have shown that there is plenty of (far too much) pro-homeopathy stuff on the BBC.
- To say or imply that homeopathy is of debatable or even no value to the NHS does not disclose bias; on the contrary, it is a reflection of the scientific truth which the BBC has an obligation to report.
- With their complaint, the SoH disclose an embarrassing degree of naivety and an alarming detachment from reality.
- Whichever way a rational observer might look at this, the BBC should in future become a much more outspoken defender of the scientific truth – on homeopathy and everything else!!!
The recent meta-analysis by Mathie et al for non-individualised homeopathy (recently discussed here) identified just 3 RCTs that were rated as ‘reliable evidence’. But just how rigorous are these ‘best’ studies? Let’s find out!
THE FIRST STUDY
The objective of the first trial was “to evaluate the efficacy of the non-hormonal treatment BRN-01 in reducing hot flashes in menopausal women.” Its design was that of a multicentre (35 centres in France), randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled. One hundred and eight menopausal women, ≥50 years of age, were enrolled in the study. The eligibility criteria included menopause for <24 months and ≥5 hot flashes per day with a significant negative effect on the women’s professional and/or personal life. Treatment was either BRN-01 tablets, a registered homeopathic medicine [not registered in the UK] containing Actaea racemosa (4 centesimal dilutions [4CH]), Arnica montana (4CH), Glonoinum (4CH), Lachesis mutus (5CH), and Sanguinaria canadensis (4CH), or placebo tablets, prepared by Laboratoires Boiron according to European Pharmacopoeia standards [available OTC in France]. Oral treatment (2 to 4 tablets per day) was started on day 3 after study enrolment and was continued for 12 weeks. The main outcome measure was the hot flash score (HFS) compared before, during, and after treatment. Secondary outcome criteria were the quality of life (QoL) [measured using the Hot Flash Related Daily Interference Scale (HFRDIS)], severity of symptoms (measured using the Menopause Rating Scale), evolution of the mean dosage, and compliance. All adverse events (AEs) were recorded. One hundred and one women were included in the final analysis (intent-to-treat population: BRN-01, n = 50; placebo, n = 51). The global HFS over the 12 weeks, assessed as the area under the curve (AUC) adjusted for baseline values, was significantly lower in the BRN-01 group than in the placebo group (mean ± SD 88.2 ± 6.5 versus 107.2 ± 6.4; p = 0.0411). BRN-01 was well tolerated; the frequency of AEs was similar in the two treatment groups, and no serious AEs were attributable to BRN-01. The authors concluded that BRN-01 seemed to have a significant effect on the HFS, compared with placebo. According to the results of this clinical trial, BRN-01 may be considered a new therapeutic option with a safe profile for hot flashes in menopausal women who do not want or are not able to take hormone replacement therapy or other recognized treatments for this indication.
Laboratoires Boiron provided BRN-01, its matching placebo, and financial support for the study. Randomization and allocation were carried out centrally by Laboratoires Boiron. I would argue that the treatment time in this study was way too short for generating a therapeutic response. The evolution of the HFS in the two groups was assessed by analysis of the area under the curve (AUC) of the mean scores recorded weekly from each patient in each group over the duration of the study, including those at enrollment (before any treatment). I wonder whether this method was chosen only when the researchers noted that the HFS at the pre-defined time points did not yield a significant result or whether it was pre-determined (elsewhere in the methods section we are told that “The primary evaluation criterion was the effect of BRN-01 on the HFS, compared with placebo. The HFS was defined as the product of the daily frequency and intensity of all hot flashes experienced by the patient, graded by the women from 1 to 4 (1 = mild; 2 = moderate; 3 = strong; 4 = very strong). These data were recorded by the women on a self-administered questionnaire, assisted by a telephone call from a clinical research associate. Data were collected (i) during the first 2 days after enrolment and before any medication had been taken; (ii) then every Tuesday and Wednesday of each week until the 11th week of treatment, inclusive; and (iii) finally, every day of the 12th week of treatment.”). Two of the authors of this paper are employees of Boiron.
THE SECOND STUDY
The second trial was aimed at finding out “whether a well-known and frequently prescribed homeopathic preparation could mitigate post-operative pain.” It was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to evaluate the efficacy of the homeopathic preparation Traumeel S® in minimizing post-operative pain and analgesic consumption following surgical correction of hallux valgus. Eighty consecutive patients were randomized to receive either Traumeel tablets or an indistinguishable placebo, and took primary and rescue oral analgesics as needed. Maximum numerical pain scores at rest and consumption of oral analgesics were recorded on day of surgery and for 13 days following surgery. Traumeel was not found superior to placebo in minimizing pain or analgesic consumption over the 14 days of the trial, however a transient reduction in the daily maximum post-operative pain score favoring the Traumeel arm was observed on the day of surgery, a finding supported by a treatment-time interaction test (p = 0.04). The authors concluded that Traumeel was not superior to placebo in minimizing pain or analgesic consumption over the 14 days of the trial. A transient reduction in the daily maximum post-operative pain score on the day of surgery is of questionable clinical importance.
Traumeel is a mixture of 6 ingredients, 4 of which are in the D2 potency. Thus it neither is administered as a homeopathic remedy (no ‘like cures like’) nor is it highly diluted. In fact, it is not homeopathy at all but belongs to a weird offspring of homeopathy called ‘homotoxicology’ [this is an explanation from my book: 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.] The HEEL Company (Baden-Baden, Germany) provided funding for the performance and monitoring of this project, supplied the study medication and placebo, and prepared the randomization list. The positive outcome mentioned in the authors’ conclusion refers to a secondary endpoint. I would argue that the authors should not have noted it there and should have made it clear that the trial generated a negative result.
THE THIRD STUDY
Finally, the third of the 3 ‘rigorous’ studies “evaluated the effectiveness of the homeopathic preparation Plumbum Metallicum (PM) in reducing the blood lead levels of workers exposed to this metal.” The Brazilian researchers recruited 131 workers to this RCT who took PM in the CH15 potency or placebo for 35 days (10 drops twice daily). Thereafter, the percentage of workers whose lead level had fallen by at least 25% did not differ between the groups, both on intention to treat and per protocol analyses. The authors concluded that PM “had no effect in this study in terms of reducing serum lead in workers exposed to lead.”
This study lacks a power calculation, and arguably the period might have been too short to show an effect. The trial was published in the journal HOMEOPATHY which, some might argue, has not the most rigorous of peer-review procedures.
The third study seems the most rigorous by far, in my view. The other two trials are seriously under-whelming in several respects, primarily because we cannot be sure how much influence the commercial interests of the sponsor had on their findings. I am sure others will spot weaknesses in all three trials that I failed to see.
Mathie et al partly disagree with my assessment when they write in their paper: “We report separately our model validity assessments of these trials, evaluating consequently their overall quality based on a GRADE-like principle of ‘downgrading’ : two trials [23, 25] rated here as reliable evidence were downgraded to ‘low quality’ overall due to the inadequacy of their model validity; the remaining trial with reliable evidence  was judged to have adequate model validity. The latter study  thus comprises the sole RCT that can be designated ‘high quality’ overall by our approach, a stark finding that reveals further important aspects of the preponderantly low quality of the current body of evidence in non-individualised homeopathy.”
What Mathie et al seem to forget entirely is that none of the 3 RCTs is a trial of homeopathy as defined by treatment according to the ‘like cures like’ principle. The authors of the second study acknowledge this fact by stating: “Homeopathic purists may find fault in the administration of a standardized combination homeopathic formula to all patients, based upon clinical diagnosis – as opposed to the individualized manner dictated by standard homeopathic practice.”
So, which ever way we look upon this evidence, we cannot possibly deny that the evidence for non-individualised homeopathy is rubbish.
This new systematic review by proponents of homeopathy (and supported by a grant from the Manchester Homeopathic Clinic) tested the null hypothesis that “the main outcome of treatment using a non-individualised (standardised) homeopathic medicine is indistinguishable from that of placebo“. An additional aim was to quantify any condition-specific effects of non-individualised homeopathic treatment. In reporting this paper, I will stay very close to the published text hoping that this avoids both misunderstandings and accusations of bias on my side:
Literature search strategy, data extraction and statistical analysis followed the methods described in a pre-published protocol. A trial comprised ‘reliable evidence’ if its risk of bias was low or it was unclear in one specified domain of assessment. ‘Effect size’ was reported as standardised mean difference (SMD), with arithmetic transformation for dichotomous data carried out as required; a negative SMD indicated an effect favouring homeopathy.
The authors excluded the following types of trials: studies of crossover design; of radionically prepared homeopathic medicines; of homeopathic prophylaxis; of homeopathy combined with other (complementary or conventional) intervention; for other specified reasons. The final explicit exclusion criterion was that there was obviously no blinding of participants and practitioners to the assigned intervention.
Forty-eight different clinical conditions were represented in 75 eligible RCTs; 49 were classed as ‘high risk of bias’ and 23 as ‘uncertain risk of bias’; the remaining three trials displayed sufficiently low risk of bias to be designated reliable evidence. Fifty-four trials had extractable data: pooled SMD was -0.33 (95% confidence interval (CI) -0.44, -0.21), which was attenuated to -0.16 (95% CI -0.31, -0.02) after adjustment for publication bias. The three trials with reliable evidence yielded a non-significant pooled SMD: -0.18 (95% CI -0.46, 0.09). There was no single clinical condition for which meta-analysis produced reliable evidence.
A meta-regression was performed to test specifically for within-group differences for each sub-group. The results showed that there were no significant differences between studies that were and were not:
- included in previous meta-analyses (p = 0.447);
- pilot studies (p = 0.316);
- greater than the median sample (p = 0.298);
- potency ≥ 12C (p = 0.221);
- imputed for meta-analysis (p = 0.384);
- free from vested interest (p = 0.391);
- acute/chronic (p = 0.796);
- different types of homeopathy (p = 0.217).
After removal of ‘C’-rated trials, the pooled SMD still favoured homeopathy for all sub-groups, but was statistically non-significant for 10 of the 18 (included in previous meta-analysis; pilot study; sample size > median; potency ≥12C; data imputed; free of vested interest; not free of vested interest; combination medicine; single medicine; chronic condition). There remained no significant differences between sub-groups—with the exception of the analysis for sample size > median (p = 0.028).
Meta-analyses were possible for eight clinical conditions, each analysis comprising two to 5 trials. A statistically significant pooled SMD, favouring homeopathy, was observed for influenza (N = 2), irritable bowel syndrome (N = 2), and seasonal allergic rhinitis (N = 5). Each of the other five clinical conditions (allergic asthma, arsenic toxicity, infertility due to amenorrhoea, muscle soreness, post-operative pain) showed non-significant findings. Removal of ‘C’-rated trials negated the statistically significant effect for seasonal allergic rhinitis and left the non-significant effect for post-operative pain unchanged; no higher-rated trials were available for additional analysis of arsenic toxicity, infertility due to amenorrhoea or irritable bowel syndrome. There were no ‘C’-rated trials to remove for allergic asthma, influenza, or muscle soreness. Thus, influenza was the only clinical condition for which higher-rated trials indicated a statistically significant effect; neither of its contributing trials, however, comprised reliable evidence.
The authors concluded that the quality of the body of evidence is low. A meta-analysis of all extractable data leads to rejection of our null hypothesis, but analysis of a small sub-group of reliable evidence does not support that rejection. Reliable evidence is lacking in condition-specific meta-analyses, precluding relevant conclusions. Better designed and more rigorous RCTs are needed in order to develop an evidence base that can decisively provide reliable effect estimates of non-individualised homeopathic treatment.
I am sure that this paper will lead to lively discussions in the comments section of this blog. I will therefore restrict my comments to a bare minimum.
In my view, this new meta-analysis essentially yield a negative result and confirms most previous, similar reviews.
- It confirms Linde’s conclusion that “insufficient evidence from these studies that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition”.
- It confirms Linde’s conclusion that “there was clear evidence that studies with better methodological quality tended to yield less positive results”.
- It confirms Kleinjen’s conclusion that “most trials are of low methodological quality”.
- It also confirms the results of the meta-analysis by Shang et al (much-maligned by homeopaths) than “finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.”
- Finally, it confirms the conclusion of the analysis of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council: “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.”
Another not entirely unimportant point that often gets missed in these discussions is this: even if we believe (which I do not) the most optimistic interpretation of these (and similar data) by homeopaths, we ought to point out that there is no evidence whatsoever that homeopathy cures anything. At the very best it provides marginal symptomatic relief. Yet, the claim of homeopaths that we hear constantly is that homeopathy is a causal and curative therapy.
The first author of the new meta-analysis is an employee of the Homeopathy Research Institute. We might therefore forgive him that he he repeatedly insists on dwelling on largely irrelevant (i. e. based on unreliable primary studies) findings. It seems obvious that firm conclusions can only be based on reliable data. I therefore disregard those analyses and conclusions that include such studies.
In the discussion, the authors of the new meta-analysis confirm my interpretation this by stating that they “reject the null hypothesis (non-individualised homeopathy is indistinguishable from placebo) on the basis of pooling all studies, but fail to reject the null hypothesis on the basis of the reliable evidence only.” And, in the long version of their conclusions, we find this remarkable statement: “Our meta-analysis of the current reliable evidence base therefore fails to reject the null hypothesis that the outcome of treatment using a non-individualised homeopathic medicine is not distinguishable from that using placebo.” A most torturous way of stating the obvious: the more reliable data show no difference between homeopathy and placebo.
To honour Hahnemann’s birthday, a National Convention was held yesterday on ‘World Homeopathy Day’ in New Delhi. The theme of the convention is “Enhancing Quality Research in Homeopathy through scientific evidence and rich clinical experiences”. They could have done with this new study of Influenzinum 9C, it seems to me. This is a homeopathic remedy made from the current influenza vaccine. Influenzinum 9C, also known as homeopathic flu nosode. It is claimed to:
- strengthen the body and increase its resistance to the season’s flu viruses,
- protect against cold & flu symptoms such as body aches, nausea, chills, fever, headaches, sore throat, coughs, and congestion,
- enforce the flu vaccine’s action if you have opted for the flu shot,
- deal with aftereffects of the flu, and
- alleviate adverse effects of the flu shot.
As these are the claims made by homeopaths (here is but one example of many: “I’ve been using this for over 30 years for my family, and we have never had the flu!”), French researchers have tested whether Influenzinum works. They just published the results of the first study examining the effectiveness of Influenzinum against influenza-like illnesses.
They conducted a retrospective cohort study during winter 2014-2015. After influenza epidemic, a self-assessment questionnaire was offered to patients presenting for a consultation. The primary endpoint was the declaration of an influenza-like illness. The exposed patients (treated by Influenzinum) were matched to two non-exposed patients (untreated) with a propensity score. A conditional logistic model expressed influenza-like illness risk reduction provided by the Influenzinum.
The cohort included 3514 patients recruited from 46 general practitioners. After matching, the treated group (n=2041) and the untreated group (n=482) did not differ on variables collected. Thus Influenzinum preventive therapy did not significantly alter the likelihood of influenza-like illness.
The authors concluded that Influenzinum preventive therapy did not appear effective in preventing influenza-like illness.
This can be no surprise to anyone you knows what ‘C9’ means: it signifies a dilution of 1: 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 (plus 9 times vigorous shaking, of course).
I am sure that some homeopaths will now question whether Influenzinum is truly homeopathic. Is it based on the ‘like cures like’ principle? Before some clever Dick comments ‘THIS SHOWS THAT PROF ERNST HAS NOT GOT A CLUE ABOUT HOMEOPATHY’, please let me point out that it was not I but the homeopaths who insisted in labelling Influenzinum ‘homeopathic’ (see, for instance, here: “Influenzinum Dose is a homoeopathic medicine created by Laboratoire Boiron. Single dose to be consumed in one step. This homoeopathic medicine is generally used as a substitute for the flu vaccine”). AND WHO AM I TO QUESTION THE AUTHORITY OF BOIRON???
HAPPY BIRTHDAY SAM!
Today is Hahnemann’s birthday! And today is the beginning of HOMEOPATHY AWARENESS WEEK! To celebrate these events, I thought it would be nice to publish a very short post with a list 10 recent posts which, in my opinion, are most relevant or remarkable.
But this is merely the start of a series of posts on homeopathy to run this week – after all, HOMEOPATHY AWARENESS WEEK is important! The public needs to know the truth about homeopathy.
Drug and alcohol dependencies are notoriously difficult to treat effectively. Patients and their families are often desperate and willing to try anything. This seems like an ideal ground for acupuncturists who are, in my experience, experts in putting up smokescreens hiding the true value of their treatment.
The best way to determine the value of any intervention is probably conducting a systematic review of the evidence from rigorous clinical trials. Today we are in the fortunate position to have not just one of those articles; but do they really tell us the truth?
This brand-new systematic review investigated the effects of acupuncture on alcohol-related symptoms and behaviors in patients with this disorder. The PubMed database was searched until 23 August 2016, and reference lists from review studies were also reviewed. The inclusion criteria were the following: (1) being published in a peer-reviewed English-language journal, (2) use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), (3) assessing the effects of acupuncture on psychological variables in individuals with a primary alcohol problem, and (4) reporting statistics that could be converted to effect sizes.
Seventeen studies were identified for a full-text inspection, and seven (243 patients) of these met our inclusion criteria. The outcomes assessed at the last post-treatment point and any available follow-up data were extracted from each of the studies. Five studies treated patients by inserting a needle into several acupoints in each ear. Two studies stimulated body points with or without ear stimulation. Four studies treated control patients with a placebo needle or under a completely different type of intervention, such as relaxation or transdermal stimulation, whereas the remaining studies inserted needles into nonspecific points. The patients were treated for 2 weeks to 3 months, and the treatment duration per session was 15–45 min. The results of the meta-analysis demonstrated that an acupuncture intervention had a stronger effect on reducing alcohol-related symptoms and behaviours than did the control intervention. A beneficial but weak effect of acupuncture treatment was also found in the follow-up data.
The authors concluded that although our analysis showed a significant difference between acupuncture and the control intervention in patients with alcohol use disorder, this meta-analysis is limited by the small number of studies included. Thus, a larger cohort study is required to provide a firm conclusion.
I am used to reading poor research papers, but this one is like a new dimension. Here are just the most obvious flaws:
- by searching just one database, the likelihood of missing studies is huge,
- by excluding non-English papers, the review automatically becomes non-systematic,
- the included studies differed vastly in many respects and can therefore not be pooled.
As it happens, a further meta-analysis has just been published. Here is its abstract:
Acupuncture has been widely used as a treatment for alcohol dependence. An updated and rigorously conducted systematic review is needed to establish the extent and quality of the evidence on the effectiveness of acupuncture as an intervention for reducing alcohol dependence. This review aimed to ascertain the effectiveness of acupuncture for reducing alcohol dependence as assessed by changes in either craving or withdrawal symptoms.
In this systematic review, a search strategy was designed to identify randomised controlled trials (RCTs) published in either the English or Chinese literature, with a priori eligibility criteria. The following English language databases were searched from inception until June 2015: AMED, Cochrane Library, EMBASE, MEDLINE, PsycINFO, and PubMed; and the following Chinese language databases were similarly searched: CNKI, Sino-med, VIP, and WanFang. Methodological quality of identified RCTs was assessed using the Jadad Scale and the Cochrane Risk of Bias tool.
Fifteen RCTs were included in this review, comprising 1378 participants. The majority of the RCTs were rated as having poor methodological rigour. A statistically significant effect was found in the two primary analyses: acupuncture reduced alcohol craving compared with all controls (SMD = −1.24, 95% CI = −1.96 to −0.51); and acupuncture reduced alcohol withdrawal symptoms compared with all controls (SMD = −0.50, 95% CI = −0.83 to −0.17). In secondary analyses: acupuncture reduced craving compared with sham acupuncture (SMD = −1.00, 95% CI = −1.79 to −0.21); acupuncture reduced craving compared with controls in RCTs conducted in Western countries (SMD = −1.15, 95% CI = −2.12 to −0.18); and acupuncture reduced craving compared with controls in RCTs with only male participants (SMD = −1.68, 95% CI = −2.62 to −0.75).
This study showed that acupuncture was potentially effective in reducing alcohol craving and withdrawal symptoms and could be considered as an additional treatment choice and/or referral option within national healthcare systems.
This Meta-analysis is only a little better than the first, I am afraid. What its conclusions do not sufficiently reflect, in my view, is the fact that the quality of the primary studies was mostly very poor – too poor to draw conclusions from (other than ‘acupuncture research is usually lousy’; see figure below). Therefore, I fail to see how the authors could draw the relatively firm and positive conclusions cited above. In my view, they should have stated something like this: DUE TO THE RISK OF BIAS IN MANY TRIALS, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF ACUPUNCTURE REMAINS UNPROVEN.
The authors of the first meta-analysis open the discussion by proudly declaring that “the present study is the first meta-analysis to examine the effect of acupuncture treatment on patients with alcohol use disorder and to provide data on the magnitude of this effect on alcohol-related clinical symptoms and behaviours.” They discretely overlook this meta-analysis from 2009 (and several others which even their rudimentary search would have identified):
Nineteen electronic databases, including English, Korean, Japanese, and Chinese databases, were systematically searched for RCTs of acupuncture for alcohol dependence up to June 2008 with no language restrictions. The methodological qualities of eligible studies were assessed using the criteria described in the Cochrane Handbook.
Eleven studies, which comprised a total of 1,110 individual cases, were systematically reviewed. Only 2 of 11 trials reported satisfactorily all quality criteria. Four trials comparing acupuncture treatment and sham treatments reported data for alcohol craving. Three studies reported that there were no significant differences. Among 4 trials comparing acupuncture and no acupuncture with conventional therapies, 3 reported significant reductions. No differences between acupuncture and sham treatments were found for completion rates (Risk Ratio = 1.07, 95% confidence interval, CI = 0.91 to 1.25) or acupuncture and no acupuncture (Risk Ratio = 1.15, 95% CI = 0.79 to 1.67). Only 3 RCTs reported acupuncture-related adverse events, which were mostly minimal.
The results of the included studies were equivocal, and the poor methodological quality and the limited number of the trials do not allow any conclusion about the efficacy of acupuncture for treatment of alcohol dependence. More research and well-designed, rigorous, and large clinical trials are necessary to address these issues.
One does not need to be an expert in interpreting meta-analyses, I think, to see that this paper is more rigorous than the new ones (which incidentally were published in the very dubious journals). And this is why I trust the conclusions of this last-named meta-analysis more than those of the new one: the efficacy of acupuncture remains unproven. And this means that we should not employ or promote it for routine care.
The world of homeopathy is getting very excited: HOMEOPATHY AWARENESS WEEK is approaching (it’s starting 10 April). An ideal occasion, I think, for making a celebratory offer to all homeopaths:
I am suggesting to give a free lecture on any homeopathy-related subject of your choosing. This, I hope, might increase homeopaths’ awareness of the science, research and evidence for or against homeopathy.
Which professional organisation could possibly say no to such a generous offer?
None with an interest in evidence, surely!
Homeopathy has been the number one subject on this blog from its very beginnings. It regularly attracts lively discussions, and I am confident that I could generate an even better dialogue, if you let me present the evidence. I think I am almost uniquely qualified to give such a lecture, not least because I have the following types of expertise:
- I have given about 800 lectures on alternative medicine and therefore know what to do,
- I have a sound knowledge of evidence-based medicine,
- I possess the ability to tell good from poor science,
- I have experience as a patient treated by a homeopath,
- I have research experience in homeopathy (clinical trials, systematic reviews, etc.),
- I have published many scientific papers on the subject,
- I possess many years of clinical experience,
- I have been trained in homeopathy and used it as a clinician,
- I can think critically,
- I regularly review the emerging literature,
- finally, I have recently published a book entitled HOMEOPATHY, THE UNDILUTED FACTS.
The specifics of my offer are as follows:
- I will give a 45-min lecture to your organisation.
- I will then answer questions for up to 30 min.
- This can be scheduled at a location and a time of day that suits you.
- I will not charge a lecture fee.
- You will cover my travel cost from my home in Suffolk to your venue.
- Depending on the location of the venue and timing of the lecture, I might need to stay overnight and would hope you can foot the bill for that.
- There will be no other costs involved.
- My offer is limited to a time-window during which I plan to be in the UK. The best time for me would be July and August.
I am convinced that we all might profit from such lectures:
- You might learn about science, the evidence, the need for thinking critically, etc.
- And I might learn a bit more about the views and concerns of homeopaths.
Therefore, I hope that my offer will find plenty of takers. If you are interested, please contact me via this blog.