MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

experience

You probably remember: the US Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) has issued a statement announcing that unsupported claims for homeopathic remedies will be no longer allowed. Specifically, they said that, in future, homeopathic remedies have to be held to the same standard as other medicinal products. In other words, American companies must now have reliable scientific evidence for health-related claims that their products can treat specific conditions and illnesses.

Now the AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF HOMEOPATHY (AIH) has published a rebuttal. It is hilarious and embarrassing in equal measure. Here it is in full (I have only omitted their references – they can be seen in the linked original –  and added footnotes in bold square brackets with my very short comments):

START OF QUOTE

November 30, 2016

The American Institute of Homeopathy applauds the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) goal of protecting the American public from false advertising claims, but in a recent circumstance we believe the FTC has overstepped its jurisdictional bounds and promulgated false information in what appears to be a bid to restrict health care choices [1] available to the American public.

In Response to the recent Enforcement Policy Statement1 and a Consumer Information Blog,2 both issued by the FTC on November 15, 2016, the American Institute of Homeopathy registers our strong concern regarding the content of the following inaccurate statements:

  1. “Homeopathy… is based on the view that disease symptoms can be treated by minute doses of substances that produce similar symptoms…”

Homeopathy is not based on a “view” or an opinion. It is based on reliable, reproducible, clinically acquired, empiric evidence [2] gathered through two centuries of corroborated data, assisted by thousands of practitioners worldwide [3], demonstrating the actions of different medicinal substances in living systems, aka: the science of homeopathy. In fact, the homeopathic scientific community were pioneers of the modern scientific method including the widespread adoption of blinded and placebo controlled studies in 1885 [4], decades before conventional medicine.3

Homeopathy is not based on a theory or on conjecture, but on principles that have been confirmed by long-studied clinical data, meticulously gathered and analyzed over many years [5].

  1. “Many homeopathic products are diluted to such an extent that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance.”

While the dilution and succussion process of formulating homeopathic medicines does reduce the concentration (and the toxicity) of the original substances, detectable amounts of these materials remain quantifiable in the form of nanoparticles [6] dispersed throughout.4 Multiple independent laboratories, worldwide have confirmed that these nanoparticles persist,5 and that they are biologically active.6 Many other homeopathic products (particularly those sold OTC and described as “low potency”) have dilute amounts of the original substance [7] that remain chemically detectable by straightforward titration.

  1. “…homeopathic product claims are not based on modern scientific methods…”

This statement is false and misleading. The active ingredients within most OTC homeopathic products have hundreds or thousands of case reports from physicians who have used these medicines [8]. These reports of direct clinical experiences establish a collective, real-world dataset that demonstrates which conditions have been observed to respond to treatment. Such historical data is similar to the types of information used to demonstrate effectiveness for many conventional OTC medicines on the market today [9].

The Homeopathic Pharmacopeia Convention of the United States (HPCUS) maintains a formulary describing the appropriate manufacturing standards for homeopathic medicines [10]. Every homeopathic manufacturer member of the American Association of Homeopathic Pharmacists in good ethical standing complies with both manufacturing and labeling standards set by the HPCUS. Consumers should be cautious when using any products that are not distinguished by conformance with “HPUS” on the label.

  1. “…the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories…”

This statement is false. Neither homeopathy nor homeopathic efficacy is based on any theories. Efficacy for various homeopathic medicines has been established by scientifically reproducible clinical empiric research evidence [11] and cured patient cases followed over many years [12]. Homeopathy is an evidence-based medical subspecialty rooted in patient care.

  1. “…there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.”

While this statement may have limited accuracy with respect to some OTC products, it is false and misleading with respect to most homeopathic medicines listed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States. Hundreds of state-of-the-art double-blinded, randomized, placebo-controlled studies, many in peer-reviewed journals, demonstrate the superior efficacy of homeopathic medicines in a wide range of conditions, including asthma,7 depression and anxiety,8 chronic illness,9 allergic rhinitis,10 hypertension,11 headaches/migraines,12 sepsis,13 mild traumatic brain injury,14 otitis media,15 cancer,16 and many other conditions [13]. The American Institute of Homeopathy maintains and continually updates an extensive database, available free to the public, with over 6,000 research articles [14].17

Multiple meta-analyses published in peer reviewed medical journals that conclude that homeopathic medicine effects are superior to placebo [15] and that additional study of this therapeutic system is warranted.18,19,20,21,22,23  To that end, we encourage the National Institutes of Health to reverse their current position of blocking funding for homeopathic trials.24

  1. “…marketing claims that such homeopathic products have a therapeutic effect lack a reasonable basis and are likely misleading…”

The conclusion of whether a product has a “reasonable basis” is entirely irrelevant if that product has demonstrable clinical effectiveness. The important question, when it comes to homeopathy, is whether it is effective in clinical settings, not whether it has a “reasonable basis” for how it works. The mechanism by which homeopathy works differs from conventional medicines [16], but this fact does not make these products “misleading”.

Several recent class-action lawsuits brought against homeopathic manufacturers confirm that marketing practices were neither deceptive nor misleading [17].25

The FTC’s inability to formulate a reasonable basis for why homeopathic medicines work should not enter into any governmental enforcement policy statement. The FTC is not a medical organization, lacks expertise in interpreting scientific research [18], and is not qualified to make any comment on the validity of any field of medicine. To be less misleading, the FTC should exclude opinions from its policy statements.

  1. “Homeopathy: Not backed by modern science”

Homeopathy, as a system of medicine, does not fall under the purview of the FTC. Therefore, the FTC has been reckless in expressing an opinion of this magnitude. In this situation, the FTC’s comments can only be construed as being prejudicially biased and intentionally discriminatory against homeopathy. Such statements cause unwarranted harm to public trust and damage to a respected traditional system of medicine in the United States [19].

The American Institute of Homeopathy strongly objects to the FTC’s characterization of the entire field of homeopathic medicine as being without scientific evidence of efficacy. These comments are unqualified and wholly lacking in merit. The release of this Enforcement Policy Statement serves only to align the FTC with several recently released scientifically fraudulent [20] reports by a variety of pseudoscientists [21] and lowers the credibility of this valued consumer protection agency.

This type of misinformation should be embarrassing to a government organization striving to be nonpartisan and objective. The FTC owes an apology to the American Institute of Homeopathy as well as the many consumer groups that look toward this agency for fair and accurate information.

END OF QUOTE

My comments:

1 In healthcare, choice must be restricted to treatments which demonstrably generate more good than harm.

2 The AIH seems to be unaware of the difference between the nature of evidence, anecdote and experience.

3 Fallacy – appeal to popularity.

4 The first randomized, placebo-controlled study of homeopathy was, in fact, published in 1835 – its results were negative.

5 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

6 The nano-particle explanation of homeopathy is but a theory (at best).

7 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

8 Fallacy – appeal to authority.

9 Really? Which ones? Examples would help, but I doubt they exist.

10 The proper manufacturing of nonsense must still result in nonsense.

11 See footnote number 2

12 Fallacy – appeal to tradition.

13 For all of these conditions, the totality of the reliable evidence fails to demonstrate efficacy.

14 In this context, only clinical trials are relevant, and their number is nowhere near 6,000.

15 Most of the independent systematic reviews fail to be positive.

16 The mechanism is well-known and is called ‘placebo-effect’.

17 Many class actions also went against the manufacturers of homeopathic preparations.

18 I assume they ‘bought in’ the necessary expertise.

19 Surely, the damage is only to the cash-flow of firms selling bogus products.

20 Really? Name the report you libel here or be quiet!

21 Name the individuals you attack in this way or be quiet!

I must say, I had fun reading this. In fact, I cannot remember having seen a document by an organisation of healthcare professionals which was so embarrassingly nonsensical that it becomes comedy gold. If one of my PhD students, for instance, had submitted such drivel, I would have had no choice but to fail him or her.

Having said that, I need to stress to the AIH:

FULL MARKS FOR AMUSEMENT!!!

 

During the last two decades, I have had ample occasion to study the pseudo-arguments of charlatans when trying to defend the indefensible. Here I will try to disclose some of them in the hope that this might help others to identify charlatans more easily and to react accordingly.

Let’s say someone publishes a document showing evidence that homeopathy is a useless therapy. Naturally, this will annoy the many believers in homeopathy, and they will counter by attempting to make a range of points:

  1. THEY WILL STATE THAT THERE IS EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY. For instance, proponents of homeopathy can produce studies that seem to ‘prove’ homeopathy’s efficacy. The facts that these are flawed or irreproducible, and that the totality of the evidence is not positive does hardly ever bother them. Charlatans are born cherry-pickers.
  2. THEY WILL SUGGEST THAT THE EXISTING EVIDENCE HAS BEEN MIS-QUOTED. Often they will cite out of context from original studies one or two sentences which seem to indicate that they are correct. Any reminders that these quotes are meaningless fall on deaf ears.
  3. THEY WILL SAY THAT THE PUBLISHED EVIDENCE WAS MISINTERPRETED. Often the evidence is complex and can therefore be open to interpretation. Charlatans use this fact and spin the evidence such that it suits their needs. Charlatans are spin-doctors.
  4. THEY WILL SAY THAT SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE IS OVER-RULED BY CENTURIES OF EXPERIENCE. The notion that millions of satisfied customers cannot be wrong is used frequently to distract from negative evidence. The fact that such experience can be due to a host of non-specific effects, the natural history of the condition or regression to the mean will not convince the charlatan.
  5. THEY WILL SUGGEST THAT THE AUTHOR IS PAID BY BIG PHARMA TO TRASH HOMEOPATHY. Whenever seemingly reasonable arguments have been exhausted, overtly irrational notions or blatant lies will come into play. The allegation that anyone criticising homeopathy is corrupt is one of the most popular such notion. The truth does not have a high value in charlatanry.
  6. THEY WILL SAY THAT THE CRITIC HAS NO TRAINING IN HOMEOPATHY AND IS THUS NOT COMPETENT. Equally popular is the claim that only trained and experienced homeopaths are able to judge over homeopathy. This pseudo-argument is most handy: experienced homeopaths are invariably believers, and the notion essentially claims that only those who believe in it can judge homeopathy. In other words, criticism of homeopathy is by definition invalid.
  7. THEY WILL SAY THAT THE CRITIC HAS PREVIOUSLY BEEN CRITICISED FOR HIS POOR RESEARCH. Similarly, homeopaths might claim that the critic is someone who is being criticised for being a very bad scientist; therefore, it would be a mistake to trust anything he or she says. Ad hominem is the name of the game!
  8. THEY WILL TRY TO RIDICULE THE CRITIC. Readers of this blog will have noticed how some commentators belittle their opponents by giving them laughable nicknames thus undermining their authority. The obvious aim is to make them look less than credible. Charlatans are like little children.
  9. THEY WILL CLAIM THAT IN OTHER AREAS OF HEALTHCARE THE EVIDENCE IS ALSO NOT CONVINCING. The ‘tu quoque’ fallacy is popular for distracting from the embarrassingly negative evidence in quackery – never mind that problems in the aviation industry are no argument for using flying carpets.
  10. THEY WILL POINT OUT HOW SAFE HOMEOPATHY IS COMPARED TO OTHER DRUGS. This is another form of the ‘tu quoque’ fallacy; it works very well for distracting from the problems with homeopathy and regularly convinces lay people.
  11. THEY WILL SAY THAT MEDICAL RESEARCH IS GENERALLY SO FLAWED THAT IT CANNOT BE TRUSTED. The fact that some medical research is less than rigorous is used here to claim that evidence in general is unreliable. The best solution is therefore to go by experience – a big step into the dark ages, but charlatans don’t seem to mind.
  12. THEY WILL REVERSE THE BURDEN OF PROOF. Homeopathy (or any other alternative therapy) may not have been proven to be effective, they claim, but it has not been proven to be ineffective. Therefore, they say, we must give it the benefit of the doubt. The facts that a) science cannot prove a negative and that b) we therefore should use those treatments that are supported by positive evidence is being ignored by charlatans.

These 12 pseudo-arguments are in my experience the most common defences of charlatanry. I am sure there are others – and I would be delighted if you did elaborate on them in the comments section below. Thanks!

In a recent PJ article, Michael Marshall from the ‘Good Thinking Society’ asked “WHY ON EARTH IS THE NHS SPENDING EVEN A SINGLE PENNY ON HOMEOPATHY?”. A jolly good question, given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, I thought  – but one that must be uncomfortable to homeopaths. Sure enough, a proponent of homeopathy, Jeanette Lindsay from Glasgow, has objected to Marshall’s arguments in a short comment which is a fairly typical defence of homeopathy; I therefore take the liberty of reproducing it here (the 12 references in her text were added by me and refer to my footnotes below):

I wonder if people such as Michael Marshall (The Pharmaceutical Journal 2016;297:101), who would refuse [1] patients the option of NHS homeopathic treatment, have considered the plight of people failed by evidence-based medicine ? [2] Where are those with chronic, disabling conditions to turn when the medicines available on the NHS do not work, or worse, are positively harmful? [3]

Take the instance of a woman with multiple drug allergies who has no means of treating her severe inflammatory arthritis and no suitable analgesia. [4] It has been demonstrated that disease states with immune system involvement are particularly susceptible to the placebo effect but how does one induce this? Current thinking precludes treatment with placebo medicines but it so happens that homeopathic remedies would appear, from the results of clinical trials [5], to be a good substitute. [6] Used properly, there is a good chance that in this case homeopathic treatment may achieve a real therapeutic effect. [7]

Patients who cannot tolerate allopathic [8] treatment do not just go away because they cannot take the prescribed medicine. [9] They suffer and surely deserve a better range of options [10] than those provided by the current obsession with evidence-based medicine. [11] The availability of homeopathic treatment is important and should not be denied until better alternatives become commonplace. [12]

[1] Michael Marshall does not ‘refuse’ homeopathy on the NHS; that is not in his power. He merely questions whether NHS funds should not be spent on treatments that demonstrably do more good than harm.

[2] I am sure he as carefully considered such patients.

[3] Depending on the exact circumstances, such patients have many options: for instance, they could change their physician, have their diagnosis re-considered, or try a non-drug treatment.

[4] An allergy to one drug is rarely (I would even say never) associated with allergies to all drugs for any given condition. Even if this were the case, there are several non-drug treatments for arthritis or other diseases.

[5] I think this is fantasy; there is no good evidence from clinical trials to show that homeopathy is efficacious for either inflammatory or degenerative arthritis.

[6] Is this an admission that homeopathic remedies are placebos?

[7] I am not aware of sound evidence to support this statement.

[8] ‘Allopathic’ is a derogatory term introduced by Hahnemann to defame conventional medicine.

[9] I have never seen a patient who could not tolerate any prescription medicine. I suspect this is fantasy again.

[10] Patients deserve the optimal therapy available for their conditions – that is a therapy that demonstrably generates more good than harm. Homeopathy is clearly not in this category.

[11] An obsession? Yes, perhaps it is an obsession for some dedicated healthcare professionals to provide the best possible treatments for their patients. But the way it is put here, it sounds as though this was something despicable. I would argue that such an ‘obsession’ would be most commendable.

[12] For practically all conditions, symptoms, illesses and diseases that afflict mankind, better alternatives than homeopathy have been available since about 150 years.

It seems to me that Jeanette Lindsay has been harshly disappointed by conventional medicine. Perhaps this is why, one day, she consulted a homeopath and received the empathy, understanding and compassion that she needed to get better. Many homeopaths excel at these qualities; and this is the main reason why their patients swear by them, even though their remedies are pure placebos.

My advice to such patients is: find a physician who has time, empathy and compassion. They do exist! Once you have found such a doctor, you can benefit from the compassion and empathy just as you may have benefitted from the homeopath’s compassion and empathy. But in addition to these benefits (and contrary to what you got from your homeopath), you will also be able to profit from the efficacy of the treatments prescribed.

To put it simply: homeopaths can help patients via non-specific therapeutic effects; responsible physicians can help patients via non-specific therapeutic effects plus the specific effects of the treatments they prescribe.

 

We have become used to bogus claims made by homeopaths – far too much so, I would argue. Therefore, we let the vast majority of their bogus claims pass without serious objections. Yet exposing bogus claims would be an important task, particularly when they relate to serious conditions. Doing this might even save lives!

According to the website of the ‘HOMEOPATHIC DOCTOR’, homeopathy is mild in nature and tends to modify the body’s natural immunity. It is the responsibility of the immune system of the body to protect it from all sorts of damage, whether from bacteria or viruses or from any other disease. It also helps in repairing any damage that may occur at any time. Homeopathic medicines help strengthen the natural immunity of the body so that it can perform its natural functions in a more efficient manner.

5 Best Homeopathic remedies for Ulcerative Colitis

In my experience, homeopathic medicines like Merc Sol, Baptisia, Nux Vomica, Arsenic Album and Phosphorus have been found to be quite effective in the treatment of Ulcerative Colitis…

Merc Sol- One of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis with blood and tenesmus

When there is too much bleeding with tenesmus and other symptoms, Merc Sol is one of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis. There are frequent stools with blood being discharged almost every time. The patient is a sweaty sort of patient who keeps on sweating most of the time. Creeping sort of chilliness may be felt in the back.

Nux Vomica- One of the best homeopathic remedies for ulcerative colitis due to high life

When the problem has occurred from living a high life, Nux Vomica is one of the best homeopathic remedies for ulcerative colitis. Excess of alcohol, stimulants like tea and coffee, late night partying and other habits incident to modern lifestyle can contribute to such a problem. The patient is usually a chilly sort of patient who cannot tolerate cold. He is unusually angry and that too at trifles.

Arsenic Album – One of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis with anxiety and restlesness

When the predominant symptoms are the mental symptoms of anxiety and restlessness, Arsenic Album is one of the best homeopathic medicines for ulcerative colitis. The patient gets anxious, worried and restless for no rhyme or reason. There may be weakness which may be disproportionately more than the problem. There is increased thirst for water, though the patient takes a small quantity or a sip at a time.

Baptisia – One of the best homeopathic remedy for ulcerative colitis with low grade fever

When there is low grade fever present along with other symptoms, Baptisia is one of the best homeopathic remedy for ulcerative colitis. The patient has great muscular soreness all over the body as if bruised and beaten. Appetite is reduced or next to nil. At the same time, there is constant desire for water. Stools are very offensive, thin and watery.

Phosphorus – One of the best homeopathic medicine for ulcerative colitis with increased thirst for cold water

When there is intense thirst for cold water, Phosphorus is one of the best homeopathic medicine for ulcerative colitis. The patient is usually tall and thin. The diarrhoea is copious. Stool is watery and profuse bleeding may be present. Patient feels too weak and more so after passing a stool.

The ‘HOMEOPATHIC DOCTOR’s first statement was ‘in my experience…’? Unfortunately most patients will not understand what this expression truly means when written by a homeopath. It means THERE IS NOT A JOT OF EVIDENCE FOR ANY OF THIS. Had he stated this clearly, it would probably have been the only correct sentence in the whole article.

People who understand medicine a bit might laugh at such deluded clinicians and their weird, unethical recommendations. However, patients who are chronically ill and therefore desperate might take them seriously and follow their advice. Patients who suffer from potentially life-threatening diseases like ulcerative colitis might then cause serious damage to themselves or even die.

And this is precisely the reason why I will continue to expose these charlatans for what they are: irresponsible, unethical, uninformed, dangerous quacks

On a good day, I get several emails from complete strangers; some are complimentary, others are critical, and others again are just strange. Few are stranger than the exchange I am about to disclose.

The author asked me twice to treat his/her emails with ‘trust and confidence’; after the second email, I nevertheless felt that I should not respect this wish but needed to share this brief exchange with my readers. I have, however, erased all the details that would allow an identification of the author.

 

INITIAL EMAIL of 18/7/2016

I am responding to you latest post regarding “Informed Consent”. I have decided to do so because my instincts suggest that we may in fact have an empathy in our individual objective to establish an evidence base for complementary medicine. However, I do not have any empathy with many of the contributors to your blog and especially with those that have a desire to “grind homeopathic vets and feed them to the pigs” Given that you moderate the site, I am surprised that you allowed such a post.

As you are aware, I obtained a copy of your book “A Scientist in Wonderland” which I have read with considerable interest and as you know, I have posted extracts on your blog. In this respect I make the following observations:

1. Your early experiences of homeopathy were positive and on this basis I find great difficulty in accepting that you are as anti-homeopathy as you publically state. From my own experience, this is not logical.

2. I am of the opinion that the sad loss of your Hungarian friend and colleague is an influencing factor, particularly as you avoided any mention of him receiving any form of alternative medicine.

3. I can empathise with your frustration at the lack of support from the alternative medicine community, as I have experienced this in my own efforts.

4. I am inclined to accept the possibility that you are using the blog to deliberately provoke the homeopathic community into action from a long standing but understandable state of complacency. (If you know that something works, then why is there a need to prove it).

5. I find difficulty to believe that you are at home surrounded by such closed minded individuals, because, historically, you have always moved on from such situations. However, I am not sure that you know how you can escape from the trap that you now find yourself in. Is this what you want for the rest of your life?

For a variety of reasons, I embarked on this … venture as a means of finding evidence that these therapies do work and have found that the homeopathy community is somewhat less than supportive in my efforts, so I do understand your potential frustration.

I appreciate that my observations are assumption based and may be wishful thinking on my part; however, if my assumptions have validity, please contact me, otherwise ignore this message.

If you do choose to pursue this conversation, then it must take place under the strict condition of TRUST & CONFIDENCE.

 

MY REPLY of 18/7/2016

thank you for your email. you say you read my memoir; may I suggest you read it again – because the answers to your questions seem to be all in there. your assumptions about me are quite wrong, and I think my book explains why.

best regards
e ernst

 

THE RESPONSE of 21/7/2016

In Britain we have a saying “Don’t mention the war when speaking to a German”, so out of respect I refrained from mentioning the Nazi regime in my last message; however, as you have made an implied reference to it, I will now comment.

I have some six years of close working experience with a large German organisation … so that I am fully aware of the significant differences between the German and British mentality and approach to life. I am therefore able to appreciate many of the difficulties that you will have encountered when arriving in this country to take up the Exeter post, which by definition was designed to advise the UK alternative therapy community how to do things properly!

The Anglo/Germanic axis is a significant challenge under normal circumstances but for you to arrive in this country and make direct comparisons between alternative medicine and the Third Reich in a country that spearheaded the fight against the Nazi’s at a cost of nearly half a million British lives was a fatal mistake on your part.

Having spent some forty years in and around the alternative health world here in Britain, India and the USA I don’t think your view point can be further from the truth. What amazes me is that you do not moderate Nazi type comments such as “grinding homeopaths and feeding them to pigs” from your blog which is a complete contradiction to your reasoning.

Your blog purports to provide cautionary advice to would be patients choosing alternative health options but your band of followers seem to have no understanding whatsoever as to the importance of respect for others. They seem to believe that from the offset, respect has to be earned, which implies judgement. Any doctor or therapist that starts from this view point when dealing with a patient, should not be treating patients at all. Empathy and respect are key factors in the healing process and those that automatically practice this naturally operate under and accept a moral code of ethics which forms part of all training within the main alternative treatments. The fundamental ethic behind all medicine is “first do no harm”. How can this be achieved if you do not respect the patient, regardless of his views?

At a personal level, I am concerned that your early experiences have distorted your views and unfortunately you have managed to alienate yourself from the very form of healthcare that would best resolve these issues without the need for suppressive drugs.

I suggest that you re-read your book and honestly ask yourself if the “peaceful vantage point” referred to on page 170, in any way measures up to the “peaceful, happy time” you mention on page 36.

I again extend my offer of an exploratory conversation in an atmosphere of “trust and confidence”.

END OF QUOTE

I do not feel like adding any comments just now… perhaps just a few questions:

How is it possible that someone who has obviously read quite a bit of what I have published misunderstands so much of it? Deluded? Demented? Or worse?

Informed consent is a basic ethical principle and a precondition for any medical or surgical procedure (e. g. a therapeutic intervention or a diagnostic test). Essentially, there are 4 facets of informed consent:

  1. the patient must have decision-making capacity,
  2. the patient’s decision must be free from coercion or manipulation,
  3. all relevant information must be disclosed to the patient,
  4. the patient must not merely be told but must understand what he/she has been told.

It seems to me that points 1, 2 and 4 are more or less the same in alternative as in conventional medicine. Point 3, however, has fundamentally different implications in the two types of healthcare.

What is meant by ‘all relevant information’? There seems to be general agreement that this should include the following elements:

  1. the indication,
  2. the nature of the procedure,
  3. its potential benefits,
  4. its risks,
  5. other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all.

If we carefully consider these 5 elements of ‘all relevant information’, we soon realise why there might be profound differences between alternative and conventional medicine. These differences relate not so much to the nature of the procedures but to the competence of the clinicians.

At medical school, doctors-to-be learn the necessary facts that should enable them to adequately deal with the 5 elements listed above. (This does not necessarily mean that, in conventional medical or surgical practice, informed consent is always optimal. But there is little doubt that, in theory, it could be optimal.)

By contrast, alternative practitioners have not normally been to medical school and will have gone through an entirely different type of training. Therefore, the question arises whether – even in theory – they are able to transmit to their patients all essential information as outlined above.

Let’s try to address this question by looking at concrete cases: a patient with frequent headaches consults an alternative practitioner for help. For the sake of argument, the practitioner could be:

  • a chiropractor,
  • an acupuncturist,
  • a homeopath,
  • a naturopath,
  • a traditional herbalist.

Are these alternative practitioners able to convey all the relevant information to their patient before starting their respective treatments?

THE CHIROPRACTOR

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? In all likelihood he would treat the headache as though it was caused by a spinal subluxation. If our patient were suffering from a brain tumour, for instance, this might dangerously delay the diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Many chiropractors deny any risk of spinal manipulation.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? Probably yes for cervicogenic headache. No for most other differential diagnoses.

THE TRADITIONAL ACUPUNCTURIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? The patient might be treated for an assumed ‘energy blockage’; other diagnoses might not be given adequate consideration.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Perhaps.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No

THE CLASSICAL HOMEOPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No, for a classical homeopath, the totality of the symptoms is the only valid diagnosis.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? Doubtful.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE NATUROPATH

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? Doubtful.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? Doubtful.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

THE TRADITIONAL HERBALIST

  1. Can he provide full information on the indication? No.
  2. Can he explain the nature of the procedure? Yes.
  3. Can he explain its potential benefits? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  4. Can he explain its risks? He is likely to have a too optimistic view on this.
  5. Can he provide details about the other options for the proposed procedure, including the option of doing nothing at all? No.

The answers provided above are based on my experience of more than 20 years with alternative practitioners; I am aware of the degree of simplification required to give short, succinct replies. The answers are, of course, assumptions as well as generalisations. There may well be individual practitioners who would do better (or worse) than the fictitious average I had in mind when answering the questions. Moreover, one would expect important national differences.

If my experience-based assumptions are not totally incorrect, their implications could be most significant. In essence they suggest that, in alternative medicine, fully informed consent can rarely, if ever, be provided. In turn, this means that the current practice of alternative medicine cannot be in line with the most fundamental requirements of medical ethics.

There is very little research on any of these  issues, and thus hardly any reliable evidence. Therefore, this post is simply meant as a deliberately provocative essay to stimulate debate – debate which, in my view, is urgently required.

 

Medical ethics are central to any type of healthcare – and this includes, of course, alternative medicine. The American Medical Association (AMA) have just published their newly revised code of ethics, AMA Principles of Medical Ethics.

It has long been my impression that, in alternative medicine, ethics receive no or far too little attention. Some alternative practitioners thrive to be able to call themselves ‘physicians’. Therefore, it seems interesting to ask whether they would also be able to comply with the ethical duties of a physician as outlined by the AMA.

The following 9 points are taken without change from the new AMA code; in brackets I have put my own, very brief comments pertaining to alternative practitioners. There is much more to be said about each of these points, of course, and I encourage my readers to do so in the comments section.

  1. A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights. [Most alternative practitioners use unproven treatments; I doubt whether this can be called ‘competent medical care’.]
  2. A physician shall uphold the standards of professionalism, be honest in all professional interactions, and strive to report physicians deficient in character or competence, or engaging in fraud or deception, to appropriate entities. [Treating patients with unproven therapies in the absence of fully informed consent is arguably unprofessional, dishonest and deceptive. Crucially, alternative practitioners never object to even the worst excesses of quackery that occur in their realm.]
  3. A physician shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient. [Treatment with unproven therapies can hardly be in the best interest of the patient.]
  4. A physician shall respect the rights of patients, colleagues, and other health professionals, and shall safeguard patient confidences and privacy within the constraints of the law. [The right of patients includes full informed consent which is, according to my impression, rare in alternative medicine.]
  5. A physician shall continue to study, apply, and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to medical education, make relevant information available to patients, colleagues, and the public, obtain consultation, and use the talents of other health professionals when indicated. [Alternative medicine is frequently out of line with or even opposed to medical knowledge.]
  6. A physician shall, in the provision of appropriate patient care, except in emergencies, be free to choose whom to serve, with whom to associate, and the environment in which to provide medical care.
  7. A physician shall recognize a responsibility to participate in activities contributing to the improvement of the community and the betterment of public health. [Some activities of some alternative practitioners are directly opposed to public health, for instance when they advise against immunising children.]
  8. A physician shall, while caring for a patient, regard responsibility to the patient as paramount. [Arguably this is not possible when using unproven therapies.]
  9. A physician shall support access to medical care for all people. [Some alternative practitioners advise their patients against accessing conventional healthcare.]

As I stated above, medical ethics are neglected in alternative medicine. The 9 points of the AMA together with my comments go some way towards explaining why this is so. If ethical principles were applied to alternative medicine, much of it would have to stop instantly.

In part one, we have dealt with three common tricks used by quacks to convince the public to consult them and to keep coming back for more. It has been pointed out to me that some of these tricks are used not just by alternative practitioners but also by real physicians. This is, of course, absolutely true. A quack can be defined as “a person who dishonestly claims to have special knowledge and skill in some field, typically medicine.” Therefore real doctors can be real quacks, of course. I happen to have an interest mainly in alternative medicine; that’s why I write about these type of quacks (if it helps keeping you blood pressure within the limits of normal, I can tell you that I occasionally also published about quackery in mainstream medicine, for instance here).

Anyway, now it is time to continue this series of posts by discussing three further common deceptions used by quacks.

A CURE TAKES A LONG TIME

Imagine a scenario where, even after, several therapy sessions, a patient’s condition has not improved. Let’s assume the problem is back pain, and that it has not improved a  bit despite the treatments and the money spent on it. Surely, many patients in such a situation are sooner or later going to give up. They will have had enough! And this is, of course, a serious threat to the practitioner’s cash flow.

Luckily, there is a popular ploy to minimize the risk: the practitioner merely has to explain that the patient’s condition has been going on for a very long time (if, in the above scenario, this were not the case, the practitioner would explain that the pain might be relatively recent but the underlying condition is chronic). This means that a cure will also have to take a very long time – after all, Rome was not built in one day!

This plea to carry on with the ineffective treatments despite any improvement of symptoms is usually not justifiable on medical grounds. It is, however, entirely justifiable on the basis of financial considerations of the practitioners. They rely on their patients’ regular payments and will therefore think of all sorts of means to achieve this aim.

Take my advice and see a clinician who can help you within a reasonable and predictable amount of time.

IT’S DUE TO THE POISONS YOUR DOCTOR GAVE YOU

In the pursuit of a healthy cash-flow, almost all means seem to be allowed – even the fabrication of the bogus notion that the reasons for the patient’s problem were the poisonous drugs prescribed by her doctor who, of course, is in cahoots with BIG PHARMA. Alternative medicine thrives on conspiracy theories, and the one of the evil ‘medical mafia’ is one of the all-time favourites. It enables scrupulous practitioners to instil a good dose of fear into the minds of their patients, a fear that minimises the risk of them returning to real medicine.

My advice is that alternative practitioners who habitually use this or any other conspiracy theory should be avoided at all costs.

THINK HOLISTICALLY

The notion that alternative medicine takes care of the whole person is a most attractive and powerful ploy. Never mind that nothing could be further from being holistic than, for instance, diagnosing conditions by looking at a patient’s iris (iridology), or focussing on her spine (chiropractic, osteopathy), or massaging the soles of her feet (reflexology). And never mind that any type of good conventional medicine is by definition holistic. What counts is the label, and ‘holistic’ is a most desirable one, indeed. Nothing sells quackery better than holism.

Most alternative practitioners call themselves holistic and they rub the holism into the minds of their patients whenever and however they can. This insistence on holism has the added advantage that they have seemingly plausible excuses for their therapeutic failures.

Imagine a patient consulting a practitioner with depression and, even after prolonged treatment, her condition is unchanged. Even in such a situation, the holistic practitioner does not need to despair: he will point out that he never treats diagnostic labels but always the whole person. Therefore, the patient’s depression might not have changed, but surely other issues have improved… and, if the patient introspects a little, she might find that her appetite has improved, that her indigestion is better, or that her tennis elbow is less painful (some things always change given enough time). The holism of quacks may be a false pretence, but its benefits for the practitioner are obvious.

My advice: take holism from quacks with a pinch of salt.

We were recently informed that Americans spend more than US$ 30 billion per year on alternative medicine. This is a tidy sum by anyone’s standards, and we may well ask:

Why do so many people opt for alternative medicine?

The enthusiasts claim, of course, that this is because alternative medicine is effective and safe. As there is precious little data to support this claim, it is probably not the true answer. There must be other reasons, and I could name several. For instance, it could be due to consumers being conned by charlatans.

During the 25 years or so that I have been researching alternative medicine, I got the impression that there are certain ‘tricks of the trade’ which alternative practitioners use in order to convince the often all too gullible public. In this series of posts, I will present some of them.

Here are the first three:

TREAT A NON-EXISTING CONDITION

There is nothing better for committing a health fraud than to treat a condition that the patient in question does not have. Many alternative practitioners have made a true cult of this handy option. Go to a chiropractor and you will in all likelihood receive a diagnosis of ‘subluxation’. See a TCM practitioner and you might be diagnosed suffering from ‘chi deficiency’ or ‘chi blockage’ etc.

Each branch of alternative practitioners seem to have created their very own diagnoses, and they have one thing in common: they are figments of their imaginations. To arrive at such diagnoses, the practitioner would often use diagnostic techniques which have either been found to lack validity, or which have never been validated at all. Many practitioners appreciate all of this, of course, but it would be foolish of them to admit it – after all, these diagnoses earn them the bulk of their living!

The beauty of a non-existing diagnosis is that the practitioner can treat it, and treat it and treat it…until the client has run out of money or patience. Then, one day, the practitioner can proudly announce to his patient “you are completely healthy now”. This happens to be true, of course, because the patient has been healthy all along.

My advice for preventing to get fleeced in this way: make sure that the diagnosis given by an alternative practitioner firstly exists at all in the realm of real medicine and secondly is correct; if necessary ask a real healthcare professional.

MAINTENANCE TREATMENT

As I just stated, practitioners like to treat and treat and treat conditions which simply do not exist. When – for whatever reason – this strategy fails, the next ‘trick of the trade’ is often to convince the patient of the necessity of ‘maintenance’ treatment. This term describes the regular treatment of an individual who is entirely healthy but who, according to the practitioner, needs regular treatments in order not to fall ill in future. The best example here is chiropractic.

Many chiropractors proclaim that maintenance treatment is necessary for keeping a person’s spine aligned – and only a well-serviced spine will keep all of our body’s systems working perfectly. It is like with a car: if you don’t service it regularly, it will sooner or later break down. You don’t want this to happen to your body, do you? To many ‘worried well’, this sounds so convincing that they actually fall for this scam. It goes without saying that the value of maintenance treatment is unproven.

My advice is to start running as soon as a practitioner mentions maintenance treatments.

IT MUST GET WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER

Many patients fail to experience an improvement of their condition or even feel worse after receiving alternative treatments. Practitioners of alternative medicine love to tell these patients that this is normal because things have to get worse before they get better. They tend to call this a ‘healing crisis’. Like so many notions of alternative practitioners, the healing crisis is a phenomenon for which no or very little compelling evidence was ever produced.

Imagine a patient with moderately severe symptoms consulting a practitioner and receiving treatment. There are only three things that can happen to her:

  • she can get better,
  • she might experience no change at all,
  • or she might get worse.

In the first scenario, the practitioner would obviously claim that his therapy is responsible for the improvement. In the second scenario, he might say that, without his therapy, things would have deteriorated. In the third scenario, he would tell his patient that the healing crisis is the reason for her experience. In other words,  the myth of the healing crisis is little more than a ‘trick of the trade’ to make even these patients continue supporting the practitioner’s livelihood.

My advice: when you hear the term ‘healing crisis’, go and find a real doctor to help you with your condition.

 

 

 

 

In a previous post, I asked this important question: how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?

The answer I suggested was as follows:

Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:

– pointing out that some forms of alternative medicine can cause serious complications, including deaths,

– disclosing that alternative diagnostic methods are unreliable and can cause serious problems,

– demonstrating that much of the advice given by alternative practitioners can cause serious harm to the patients who follow it,

– that the advice provided in books or on the Internet can be equally dangerous,

– and that even the most innocent yet ineffective therapy becomes life-threatening, once it is used to replace effective treatments for serious conditions.

Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.

For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles  (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.

END OF QUOTE FROM MY PREVIOUS POST

Just now, I received an email from someone who clearly and vehemently disagrees with any of the above. As this blog is a forum where all sorts of opinions can and should be voiced, I thought I share this communication with you. Here it is:

Having been out of chiropractic practice for a while, I was thrilled to hear that you have been forced into early retirement on today’s Radio 4 programme. You have caused so many good people anguish and pain and your tunnel-visioned arrogance is staggering and detrimental to humanity. You REALLY think modern science has all the answers? Wow.

The question I ask myself is who is correct, the (ex-)chiropractor or I?

Specifically:

  1. Have I caused anguish and pain to many?
  2. Do I suffer from tunnel-vision?
  3. Am I arrogant?
  4. Is my work detrimental to humanity?
  5. Do I believe that modern science has all the answers?

Here is what I think about these specific questions:

  1. I have probably caused anguish (but no pain, as far as I am aware). This sadly is unavoidable if one seeks the truth in an area as alternative medicine.
  2. I am not the best person to judge this.
  3. Possibly; again I cannot judge.
  4. I truly don’t see this at all.
  5. No, not for one second.

In case you wonder what programme the author of the above email had been listening to, you can find it here.

Is there a bottom line? I am not sure. Perhaps this: whenever strong believes clash with scientific facts, some people are going to be unhappy. If we want to make progress, this seems to be almost unavoidable; all we can try to do is to minimize the anguish by being humble and by showing human decency.

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