I know, it’s not really original to come up with the 10000th article on “10 things…” – but you will have to forgive me, I read so many of these articles over the holiday period that I can’t help but jump on the already over-crowded bandwagon and compose yet another one.
So, here are 10 things which could, if implemented, bring considerable improvement in 2015 to my field of inquiry, alternative medicine.
- Consumers need to get better at acting as bull shit (BS) detectors. Let’s face it, much of what we read or hear about this subject is utter BS. Yet consumers frequently lap up even the worst drivel like it were some source of deep wisdom. They could save themselves so much money, if they learnt to be just a little bit more critical.
- Dr Oz should focus on being a heart surgeon. His TV show has been demonstrated far too often to be promoting dangerous quackery. Yet as a heart surgeon, he actually might do some good.
- Journalists ought to remember that they have a job that extends well beyond their ambition to sell copy. They have a responsibility to inform the public truthfully and responsibly.
- Book publishers should abstain from churning out book after book that does little else but mislead the public about alternative medicine in a way that all to often is dangerous to the readers’ health. The world does not need the 1000th book repeating nonsense on detox, wellness etc.!
- Alternative practitioners must realise that claiming that therapy x cures condition y is not just slightly over-optimistic (or based on ‘years of experience’); if the claim is not based on sound evidence, it is what most people would call an outright lie.
- Proponents of alternative medicine should learn that it is neither fair nor productive to fiercely attack everyone personally who disagrees with their enthusiasm for this or that form of alternative medicine. In fact, it merely highlights the acute lack of rational arguments.
- Researchers of alternative medicine have to remember how important it is to think critically – an uncritical scientist is at best a contradiction in terms and at worst a pseudo-scientist who is likely to cause harm.
- Authorities should amass the courage, the political power and the financial means of going after those charlatans who ruthlessly exploit the public by making a fast and easy buck on the gullibility of consumers. Only if there is the likelihood of hefty fines will we see a meaningful decrease in the current epidemic of alternative health fraud.
- Politicians should realise that alternative medicine is not just a trivial subject with which one might win votes, if one issues platitudes to please the majority; alternative medicine is used by so many people that it has become an important public health issue.
- Prince Charles need to learn how to control himself and abstain from meddling in health politics by using every conceivable occasion to promote what he thinks is ‘integrated medicine’ but which, in fact, can easily be disclosed to be quackery.
As you see, my list almost instantly turned into a wish-list, and the big questions that follow from it are:
- How could we increase the likelihood of these wishes to come true?
- And would there be anything left of alternative medicine, if all of these wishes miraculously became true in 2015?
I do not pretend to have the answers, but I do feel strongly that a healthy dose of critical thinking in all levels of education – from kindergartens to schools, from colleges to universities etc. – would be a good and necessary starting point.
I know, my list is not just a wish list, it also is a wishful thinking list. It would be hopelessly naïve to assume that major advances will be made in 2015. I am realistic, sometimes even quite pessimistic, about progress in alternative medicine. But this does not mean that I or anyone else should just give up. 2015 will be a year where at least one thing is certain: you will see me continuing me my fight for reason, critical analysis, rational debate and good evidence – and that’s a promise!
How many times have we heard from practitioners of alternative medicine, particularly chiropractors, that their patients are more severely ill than those of conventional clinicians. The claim is usually that they have tried all that conventional medicine can offer and eventually, as a last resort, they turn to the alternatives.
But is this true? If so, it would explain why these patients do no better or even worse than those treated conventionally.
Here is a new article that goes some way in addressing these issues.
For this study, Danish chiropractors and general practitioners recruited adult patients seeking care for low back pain (LBP). Extensive baseline questionnaires were obtained and descriptive analyses were performed to define the differences between the two populations.
Questionnaires were returned from 934 patients in chiropractic practice and 319 patients from general practice. Four out of five patients had previous episodes, one-fourth were on sick leave, and the LBP considerably limited daily activities. The general practice patients were slightly older and less educated, more often female, and generally worse on all disease-related parameters than chiropractic patients. All the disease specific parameters showed a statistically significant difference between general and chiropractic practice. Patients in general practice were generally more severely affected. They had higher pain intensity (mainly for leg pain), longer pain duration, more previous episodes, more sick leave, more activity limitation on the disability scale, slightly higher level of depression, slightly more fear-avoidance beliefs, and a poorer self-reported general health. All these differences were statistically significant.
The authors concluded that LBP in primary care was recurrent, causing sick leave and activity limitations. There were clear differences between the chiropractic and general practice populations in this study.
I know, I know: these findings are from Denmark and therefore they cannot be generalised to other countries. However, the authors point out that similar findings have been reported from the US. Furthermore the observations relate to chiropractors and must not be applied to other alternative practitioners. Nevertheless they do show that, in this specific scenario, patients opting for the alternative are not more but less severely ill.
The next time an alternative practitioner claims ‘my patients have worse outcomes because they are sicker’, I will insist on seeing the evidence before I believe it.
Dietary supplements (DS) are heavily promoted usually with the claim that they have stood the test of time and that they are natural and hence harmless. Unsurprisingly, their use has become very wide-spread. A new study determined the use of DSs, factors associated with DS use, and reasons for use among U.S. college students.
College students (N = 1248) at 5 U.S. universities were surveyed. Survey questions included descriptive demographics, types and frequency of DS used, reasons for use and money spent on supplements. Supplements were classified using standard criteria. Logistic regression analyses examined relationships between demographic and lifestyle factors and DS use.
Sixty-six percent of college students surveyed used DS at least once a week, and 12% consumed 5 or more supplements a week. Forty-two percent used multivitamins/multiminerals, 18% vitamin C, 17% protein/amino acids and 13% calcium at least once a week. Factors associated with supplement use included dietary patterns, exercise, and tobacco use. Students used supplements to promote general health (73%), provide more energy (29%), increase muscle strength (20%), and enhance performance (19%).
The authors of this survey concluded that college students appear more likely to use DS than the general population and many use multiple types of supplements weekly. Habits established at a young age persist throughout life. Therefore, longitudinal research should be conducted to determine whether patterns of DS use established early in adulthood are maintained throughout life. Adequate scientific justification for widespread use of DS in healthy, young populations is lacking.
Another new study investigated the use of DSs in 334 dancers from 53 countries, who completed a digitally based 35-question survey detailing demographic information and the use of DSs. Supplement use was prevalent amongst this international cohort, with 48% reporting regular DSs use. Major motives for supplement use were to improve health, boost immunity, and reduce fatigue. Forty-five percent believed that dancing increased the need for supplementation, whilst 30% recognized that there were risks associated with DSs.
The most frequently consumed DSs were vitamin C (60%), multivitamins (67%), and caffeine (72%). A smaller group of participants declared the use of whey protein (21%) or creatine (14%). Supplements were mainly obtained from pharmacies, supermarkets, and health-food stores. Dancers recognized their lack of knowledge in DSs use and relied on peer recommendations instead of sound evidence-based advice from acknowledged nutrition or health care professionals.
The authors concluded that this study demonstrates that DSs use is internationally prevalent amongst dancers. Continued efforts are warranted with regard to information dissemination.
Finally, a third study investigated use of DSs in patients in Japan. This survey was completed by 2732 people, including 599 admitted patients, 1154 ambulatory patients, and 979 healthy subjects who attended a seminar about DSs. At the time of the questionnaire, 20.4% of admitted patients, 39.1% of ambulatory patients, and 30.7% of healthy subjects were using DSs, which including vitamin/mineral supplements, herbal extracts, its ingredients, or food for specified health uses.
The primary purpose for use in all groups was health maintenance, whereas 3.7% of healthy subjects, 10.0% of ambulatory patients, and 13.2% of admitted patients used DSs to treat diseases. In addition, 17.7% of admitted patients and 36.8% of ambulatory patients were using DSs concomitantly with their medications. However, among both admitted patients and ambulatory patients, almost 70% did not mention DSs use to their physicians. Overall, 3.3% of all subjects realized adverse effects associated with DSs.
The authors concluded that communication between patients and physicians is important to avoid health problems associated with the use of DSs.
There is little doubt, DSs are popular with all sorts of populations and have grown into a multi billion dollar industry. There is also no doubt that the use of only very few DSs are evidence-based (and if so, in only relatively rare situations). And there can be no doubt that many DSs can do harm. What follows is simple: for the vast majority of DSs the benefits do not demonstrably out-weigh the risks.
If that is true, we have to ask ourselves: Why are they so popular?
The answer, I think, is because of the very phenomenon I am constantly trying to fight on this blog – IRRESPONSIBLE CHARLATANS PULLING WOOL OVER CONSUMERS EYES.
Guest post by Pete Attkins
Commentator “jm” asked a profound and pertinent question: “What DOES it take for people to get real in this world, practice some common sense, and pay attention to what’s going on with themselves?” This question was asked in the context of asserting that personal experience always trumps the results of large-scale scientific experiments; and asserting that alt-med experts are better able to provide individulized healthcare than 21st Century orthodox medicine.
What does common sense and paying attention lead us to conclude about the following? We test a six-sided die for bias by rolling it 100 times. The number 1 occurs only once and the number 6 occurs many times, never on its own, but in several groups of consecutive sixes.
I think it is reasonable to say that common sense would, and should, lead everyone to conclude that the die is biased and not fit for its purpose as a source of random numbers.
In other words, we have a gut feeling that the die is untrustworthy. Gut instincts and common sense are geared towards maximizing our chances of survival in our complex and unpredictable world — these are innate and learnt behaviours that have enabled humans to survive despite the harshness of our ever changing habitat.
Only very recently in the long history of our species have we developed specialized tools that enable us to better understand our harsh and complex world: science and critical thinking. These tools are difficult to master because they still haven’t been incorporated into our primary and secondary formal education systems.
The vast majority of people do not have these skills therefore, when a scientific finding flies in the face of our gut instincts and/or common sense, it creates an overwhelming desire to reject the finding and classify the scientist(s) as being irrational and lacking basic common sense. It does not create an intense desire to accept the finding then painstakingly learn all of the science that went into producing the finding.
With that in mind, let’s rethink our common sense conclusion that the six-sided die is biased and untrustworthy. What we really mean is that the results have given all of us good reason to be highly suspicious of this die. We aren’t 100% certain that this die is biased, but our gut feeling and common sense are more than adequate to form a reasonable mistrust of it and to avoid using it for anything important to us. Reasons to keep this die rather than discard it might be to provide a source of mild entertainment or to use its bias for the purposes of cheating.
Some readers might be surprised to discover at this point that the results I presented from this apparently heavily-biased die are not only perfectly valid results obtained from a truly random unbiased die, they are to be fully expected. Even if the die had produced 100 sixes in that test, it would not confirm that the die is biased in any way whatsoever. Rolling a truly unbiased die once will produce one of six possible outcomes. Rolling the same die 100 times will produce one unique sequence out of the 6^100 (6.5 x 10^77) possible sequences: all of which are equally valid!
Gut feeling plus common sense rightfully informs us that the probability of a random die producing one hundred consecutive sixes is so incredibly remote that nobody will ever see it occur in reality. This conclusion is also mathematically sound: if there were 6.5 x 10^77 people on Earth, each performing the same test on truly random dice, there is no guarantee that anyone would observe a sequence of one hundred consecutive sixes.
When we observe a sequence such as 2 5 1 4 6 3 1 4 3 6 5 2… common sense informs us that the die is very likely random. If we calculate the arithmetic mean to be very close to 3.5 then common sense will lead us to conclude that the die is both random and unbiased enough to use it as a reliable source of random numbers.
Unfortunately, this is a perfect example of our gut feelings and common sense failing us abysmally. They totally failed to warn us that the 2 5 1 4 6 3 1 4 3 6 5 2… sequence we observed had exactly the same (im)probability of occurring as a sequence of one hundred 6s or any other sequence that one can think of that doesn’t look random to a human observer.
The 100-roll die test is nowhere near powerful enough to properly test a six-sided die, but this test is more than adequately powered to reveal some of our cognitive biases and some of the deficits in our personal mastery of science and critical thinking.
To properly test the die we need to provide solid evidence that it is both truly random and that its measured bias tends towards zero as the number of rolls tends towards infinity. We could use the services of one testing lab to conduct billions of test rolls, but this would not exclude errors caused by such things as miscalibrated equipment and experimenter bias. It is better to subdivide the testing across multiple labs then carefully analyse and appropriately aggregate the results: this dramatically reduces errors caused by equipment and humans.
In medicine, this testing process is performed via systematic reviews of multiple, independent, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials — every trial that is insufficiently powered to add meaningfully to the result is rightfully excluded from the aggregation.
Alt-med relies on a diametrically opposed testing process. It performs a plethora of only underpowered tests; presents those that just happen to show a positive result (just as a random die could’ve produced); and sweeps under the carpet the overwhelming number of tests that produced a negative result. It publishes only the ‘successes’, not its failures. By sweeping its failures under the carpet it feels justified in making the very bold claim: Our plethora of collected evidence shows clearly that it mostly ‘works’ and, when it doesn’t, it causes no harm.
One of the most acidic tests for a hypothesis and its supporting data (which is a mandatory test in a few branches of critical engineering) is to substitute the collected data for random data that has been carefully crafted to emulate the probability mass functions of the collected datasets. This test has to be run multiple times for reasons that I’ve attempted to explain in my random die example. If the proposer of the hypothesis is unable to explain the multiple failures resulting from this acid test then it is highly likely that the proposer either does not fully understand their hypothesis or that their hypothesis is indistinguishable from the null hypothesis.
Complementary treatments have become a popular (and ‘political correct’) option to keep desperate cancer patients happy. But how widely accepted is their use in oncology units? A brand-new article tried to find the answer to this question.
The principal aim of this survey was to map centres across Europe prioritizing those that provide public health services and operating within the national health system in integrative oncology (IO). A cross-sectional descriptive survey design was used to collect data. A questionnaire was elaborated concerning integrative oncology therapies to be administered to all the national health system oncology centres or hospitals in each European country. These institutes were identified by convenience sampling, searching on oncology websites and forums. The official websites of these structures were analysed to obtain more information about their activities and contacts.
Information was received from 123 (52.1 %) out of the 236 centres contacted until 31 December 2013. Forty-seven out of 99 responding centres meeting inclusion criteria (47.5 %) provided integrative oncology treatments, 24 from Italy and 23 from other European countries. The number of patients seen per year was on average 301.2 ± 337. Among the centres providing these kinds of therapies, 33 (70.2 %) use fixed protocols and 35 (74.5 %) use systems for the evaluation of results. Thirty-two centres (68.1 %) had research in progress or carried out until the deadline of the survey. The complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) more frequently provided to cancer patients were acupuncture 26 (55.3 %), homeopathy 19 (40.4 %), herbal medicine 18 (38.3 %) and traditional Chinese medicine 17 (36.2 %); anthroposophic medicine 10 (21.3 %); homotoxicology 6 (12.8 %); and other therapies 30 (63.8 %). Treatments are mainly directed to reduce adverse reactions to chemo-radiotherapy (23.9 %), in particular nausea and vomiting (13.4 %) and leucopenia (5 %). The CAMs were also used to reduce pain and fatigue (10.9 %), to reduce side effects of iatrogenic menopause (8.8 %) and to improve anxiety and depression (5.9 %), gastrointestinal disorders (5 %), sleep disturbances and neuropathy (3.8 %).
As so often with surveys of this nature, the high non-response rate creates a problem: it is not unreasonable to assume that those centres that responded had an interest in IO, while those that failed to respond tended to have none. Thus the figures reported here for the usage of alternative therapies might be far higher than they actually are. One can only hope that this is the case. The idea that 40% of all cancer patients receive homeopathy, for instance, is hardly one that is in accordance with the principles of evidence-based practice.
The list of medical reasons for using largely unproven treatments is interesting, I think. I am not aware of lots of strong evidence to show that any of the treatments in question would generate more good than harm for any of the conditions in question.
What follows from all of this is worrying, in my view: thousands of desperate cancer patients are being duped into having bogus treatments paid for by their national health system. This, I think, begs the question whether these most vulnerable patients do not deserve better.
Getting good and experienced lecturers for courses is not easy. Having someone who has done more research than most working in the field and who is internationally known, might therefore be a thrill for students and an image-boosting experience of colleges. In the true Christmas spirit, I am today making the offer of being of assistance to the many struggling educational institutions of alternative medicine .
A few days ago, I tweeted about my willingness to give free lectures to homeopathic colleges (so far without response). Having thought about it a bit, I would now like to extend this offer. I would be happy to give a free lecture to the students of any educational institution of alternative medicine. I suggest to
- do a general lecture on the clinical evidence of the 4 major types of alternative medicine (acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, homeopathy) or
- give a more specific lecture with in-depth analyses of any given alternative therapy.
I imagine that most of the institutions in question might be a bit anxious about such an idea, but there is no need to worry: I guarantee that everything I say will be strictly and transparently evidence-based. I will disclose my sources and am willing to make my presentation available to students so that they can read up the finer details about the evidence later at home. In other words, I will do my very best to only transmit the truth about the subject at hand.
Nobody wants to hire a lecturer without having at least a rough outline of what he will be talking about – fair enough! Here I present a short summary of the lecture as I envisage it:
- I will start by providing a background about myself, my qualifications and my experience in researching and lecturing on the matter at hand.
- This will be followed by a background on the therapies in question, their history, current use etc.
- Next I would elaborate on the main assumptions of the therapies in question and on their biological plausibility.
- This will be followed by a review of the claims made for the therapies in question.
- The main section of my lecture would be to review the clinical evidence regarding the efficacy of therapies in question. In doing this, I will not cherry-pick my evidence but rely, whenever possible, on authoritative systematic reviews, preferably those from the Cochrane Collaboration.
- This, of course, needs to be supplemented by a review of safety issues.
- If wanted, I could also say a few words about the importance of the placebo effect.
- I also suggest to discuss some of the most pertinent ethical issues.
- Finally, I would hope to arrive at a few clear conclusions.
You see, all is entirely up to scratch!
Perhaps you have some doubts about my abilities to lecture? I can assure you, I have done this sort of thing all my life, I have been a professor at three different universities, and I will probably manage a lecture to your students.
A final issue might be the costs involved. As I said, I would charge neither for the preparation (this can take several days depending on the exact topic), nor for the lecture itself. All I would hope for is that you refund my travel (and, if necessary over-night) expenses. And please note: this is time-limited: approaches will be accepted until 1 January 2015 for lectures any time during 2015.
I can assure you, this is a generous offer that you ought to consider seriously – unless, of course, you do not want your students to learn the truth!
(In which case, one would need to wonder why not)
A German homeopathic journal, Zeitschrift Homoeopathie, has just published the following interesting article entitled HOMEOPATHIC DOCTORS HELP IN LIBERIA. It provides details about the international team of homeopaths that travelled to Liberia to cure Ebola. Here I take the liberty of translating it from German into English. As most of it is fairly self-explanatory, I abstain from any comments of my own – however, I am sure that my readers will want to add their views.
In mid-October, an international team of 4 doctors travelled to the West African country for three weeks. The mission in a hospital in Ganta, a town with about 40 000 inhabitants on the border to Guinea, ended as planned on 7 November. The exercise was organised by the World Association of Homeopathic Doctors, the Liga Medicorum Homoeopathica Internationalis (LMHI), with support of by the German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors. The aim was to support the local doctors in the care of the population and, if possible, also to help in the fight against the Ebola epidemic. The costs for the three weeks’ stay were financed mostly through donations from homeopathic doctors.
“We know that we were invited mainly as well-trained doctors to Liberia, and that or experience in homeopathy was asked for only as a secondary issue”, stresses Cornelia Bajic, first chairperson of the DZVhA (German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors). The doctors from India, USA, Switzerland and Germany were able to employ their expertise in several wards of the hospital, to help patients, and to support their Liberian colleagues. It was planned to use and document the homeopathic treatment of Ebola-patients as an adjunct to the WHO prescribed standard treatment. “Our experience from the treatment of other epidemics in the history of medicine allows the conclusion that a homeopathic treatment might significantly reduce the mortality of Ebola patients”, judges Bajic. The successful use of homeopathic remedies has been documented for example in Cholera, Diphtheria or Yellow Fever.
In Ganta, the doctors of the LMHI team treated patients with “at times most serious diseases, particularly inflammatory conditions, children with Typhus, meningitis, pneumonias, and unclear fevers – each time only under the supervision of the local doctor in charge”, reports Dr Ortrud Lindemann, who also worked obstetrically in Ganta. The medical specialist reports after her return: “When we had been 10 days in the hospital, the successes had become known, and the patients stood in queues to get treated by us.” The homeopathic doctors received thanks from the Ganta hospital for their work, it was said that it had been helpful for the patients and a blessing for the employees of the hospital.
POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MEDICAL TREATMENT?
This first LMHI team of doctors was forbidden to care for patients from the “Ebola Treatment Unit”. The decision was based on an order of the WHO. A team of Cuban doctors was also waiting in vain for being allowed to work. “We are dealing here with a dangerous epidemic and a large number of seriously ill patients. And despite a striking lack of doctors in West Africa political considerations are more important than the treatment of these patients”, criticises the DZVhA chairperson Bajic. Now a second team is to travel to Ganta to support the local doctors.
Acupuncture seems to be as popular as never before – many conventional pain clinics now employ acupuncturists, for instance. It is probably true to say that acupuncture is one of the best-known types of all alternative therapies. Yet, experts are still divided in their views about this treatment – some proclaim that acupuncture is the best thing since sliced bread, while others insist that it is no more than a theatrical placebo. Consumers, I imagine, are often left helpless in the middle of these debates. Here are 7 important bits of factual information that might help you make up your mind, in case you are tempted to try acupuncture.
- Acupuncture is ancient; some enthusiast thus claim that it has ‘stood the test of time’, i. e. that its long history proves its efficacy and safety beyond reasonable doubt and certainly more conclusively than any scientific test. Whenever you hear such arguments, remind yourself that the ‘argumentum ad traditionem’ is nothing but a classic fallacy. A long history of usage proves very little – think of how long blood letting was used, even though it killed millions.
- We often think of acupuncture as being one single treatment, but there are many different forms of this therapy. According to believers in acupuncture, acupuncture points can be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Finally, some clinicians employ the traditional Chinese approach based on the assumption that two life forces are out of balance and need to be re-balanced, while so-called ‘Western’ acupuncturists adhere to the concepts of conventional medicine and claim that acupuncture works via scientifically explainable mechanisms that are unrelated to ancient Chinese philosophies.
- Traditional Chinese acupuncturists have not normally studied medicine and base their practice on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between yin and yang which has no basis in science. This explains why acupuncture is seen by traditional acupuncturists as a ‘cure all’ . In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological explanations as to how acupuncture might work. However, it is important to note that, even though they may appear plausible, these explanations are currently just theories and constitute no proof for the validity of acupuncture as a medical intervention.
- The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition affecting mankind; according to the more modern view, it is effective for a relatively small range of conditions only. On closer examination, the vast majority of these claims can be disclosed to be based on either no or very flimsy evidence. Once we examine the data from reliable clinical trials (today several thousand studies of acupuncture are available – see below), we realise that acupuncture is associated with a powerful placebo effect, and that it works better than a placebo only for very few (some say for no) conditions.
- The interpretation of the trial evidence is far from straight forward: most of the clinical trials of acupuncture originate from China, and several investigations have shown that very close to 100% of them are positive. This means that the results of these studies have to be taken with more than a small pinch of salt. In order to control for patient-expectations, clinical trials can be done with sham needles which do not penetrate the skin but collapse like miniature stage-daggers. This method does, however, not control for acupuncturists’ expectations; blinding of the therapists is difficult and therefore truly double (patient and therapist)-blind trials of acupuncture do hardly exist. This means that even the most rigorous studies of acupuncture are usually burdened with residual bias.
- Few acupuncturists warn their patients of possible adverse effects; this may be because the side-effects of acupuncture (they occur in about 10% of all patients) are mostly mild. However, it is important to know that very serious complications of acupuncture are on record as well: acupuncture needles can injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg.
- Given that, for the vast majority of conditions, there is no good evidence that acupuncture works beyond a placebo response, and that acupuncture is associated with finite risks, it seems to follow that, in most situations, the risk/benefit balance for acupuncture fails to be convincingly positive.
Here I am not writing about herbal medicine in general – parts of which are supported by some encouraging evidence (I will therefore post more than one ‘seven things to remember…’ article on this subject) – here I am writing about the risks and benefits of consulting a traditional herbal practitioner. Herbalists come in numerous guises depending what tradition they belong to: Chinese herbalist, traditional European herbalist, Ayurvedic practitioner, Kampo practitioner etc. If you consult such a therapist, you should be aware of the following issues.
- Worldwide, the treatment by traditional herbal practitioners is by far the most common form of herbal medicine; it is more common than to use specific, well-tested herbs to treat specific conventionally diagnosed conditions (an approach that might best be called ‘rational phytotherapy’).
- Herbalists often use their very own diagnostic methods (think, for instance, of ‘tongue and pulse diagnoses’ used by Chinese herbalists) and reject (or are untrained to use) conventional diagnostic methods. The traditional diagnostic techniques of herbalists have either not been validated at all or they have been tested and found to be not valid.
- Herbalists usually do not recognise conventional disease categories. Instead they arrive at a diagnosis according to their specific philosophy which has no grounding in reality (for instance, energy imbalance in traditional Chinese herbalism).
- Herbalists individualise their treatments, meaning that 10 patients suffering from depression, for instance, might receive 10 different, tailor-made prescriptions according to their individual characteristics (and none of the 10 patients might receive St John’s Wort, the only herbal remedy that actually is proven to work for depression).
- Typically, such prescriptions contain not one herbal ingredient, but are mixtures of many – up to 10 or 20 – herbs or herbal extracts.
- Even though the efficacy of the individualised herbal approach can, of course, be tested in rigorous trials, and even though about a dozen such studies are available today, there is currently no good evidence to show that it is effective.
- The risk of harm through these individualised herbal mixtures can be considerable: the more ingredients, the higher the likelihood that one of them has toxic effects or that one interacts with a prescription medicine. Essentially, this means that there is no good evidence that individualised herbal treatments as used by so many herbal practitioners across the globe generates more good than harm.
Rigorous research into the effectiveness of a therapy should tell us the truth about the ability of this therapy to treat patients suffering from a given condition — perhaps not one single study, but the totality of the evidence (as evaluated in systematic reviews) should achieve this aim. Yet, in the realm of alternative medicine (and probably not just in this field), such reviews are often highly contradictory.
A concrete example might explain what I mean.
There are numerous systematic reviews assessing the effectiveness of acupuncture for fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). It is safe to assume that the authors of these reviews have all conducted comprehensive searches of the literature in order to locate all the published studies on this subject. Subsequently, they have evaluated the scientific rigor of these trials and summarised their findings. Finally they have condensed all of this into an article which arrives at a certain conclusion about the value of the therapy in question. Understanding this process (outlined here only very briefly), one would expect that all the numerous reviews draw conclusions which are, if not identical, at least very similar.
However, the disturbing fact is that they are not remotely similar. Here are two which, in fact, are so different that one could assume they have evaluated a set of totally different primary studies (which, of course, they have not).
One recent (2014) review concluded that acupuncture for FMS has a positive effect, and acupuncture combined with western medicine can strengthen the curative effect.
Another recent review concluded that a small analgesic effect of acupuncture was present, which, however, was not clearly distinguishable from bias. Thus, acupuncture cannot be recommended for the management of FMS.
How can this be?
By contrast to most systematic reviews of conventional medicine, systematic reviews of alternative therapies are almost invariably based on a small number of primary studies (in the above case, the total number was only 7 !). The quality of these trials is often low (all reviews therefore end with the somewhat meaningless conclusion that more and better studies are needed).
So, the situation with primary studies of alternative therapies for inclusion into systematic reviews usually is as follows:
- the number of trials is low
- the quality of trials is even lower
- the results are not uniform
- the majority of the poor quality trials show a positive result (bias tends to generate false positive findings)
- the few rigorous trials yield a negative result
Unfortunately this means that the authors of systematic reviews summarising such confusing evidence often seem to feel at liberty to project their own pre-conceived ideas into their overall conclusion about the effectiveness of the treatment. Often the researchers are in favour of the therapy in question – in fact, this usually is precisely the attitude that motivated them to conduct a review in the first place. In other words, the frequently murky state of the evidence (as outlined above) can serve as a welcome invitation for personal bias to do its effect in skewing the overall conclusion. The final result is that the readers of such systematic reviews are being misled.
Authors who are biased in favour of the treatment will tend to stress that the majority of the trials are positive. Therefore the overall verdict has to be positive as well, in their view. The fact that most trials are flawed does not usually bother them all that much (I suspect that many fail to comprehend the effects of bias on the study results); they merely add to their conclusions that “more and better trials are needed” and believe that this meek little remark is sufficient evidence for their ability to critically analyse the data.
Authors who are not biased and have the necessary skills for critical assessment, on the other hand, will insist that most trials are flawed and therefore their results must be categorised as unreliable. They will also emphasise the fact that there are a few reliable studies and clearly point out that these are negative. Thus their overall conclusion must be negative as well.
In the end, enthusiasts will conclude that the treatment in question is at least promising, if not recommendable, while real scientists will rightly state that the available data are too flimsy to demonstrate the effectiveness of the therapy; as it is wrong to recommend unproven treatments, they will not recommend the treatment for routine use.
The difference between the two might just seem marginal – but, in fact, it is huge: IT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MISLEADING PEOPLE AND GIVING RESPONSIBLE ADVICE; THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VIOLATING AND ADHERING TO ETHICAL STANDARDS.