Systematic reviews are aimed at summarising and critically evaluating the evidence on a specific research question. They are the highest level of evidence and are more reliable than anything else we have. Therefore, they represent a most useful tool for both clinicians and researchers.
But there are, of course, exceptions. Take, for instance, this recent systematic review by researchers from the
- Texas Chiropractic College, Pasadena, the Palmer Center for Chiropractic Research, Palmer College of Chiropractic, Davenport,
- Department of Planning, Policy and Design, University of California, Irvine,
- VA Puget Sound Health Care System, Tacoma,
- New York Chiropractic College, Seneca Falls,
- Logan University College of Chiropractic, Chesterfield,
- University of Western States, Portland.
I was surprised to receive this email yesterday: “Hello Edzard Ernst, You may remember I got in touch last week regarding losing a loved one to the ravages of drugs or alcohol. I just wanted to remind you that Narconon is here to help. For over fifty years Narconon drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres have been successfully reversing the tide of addiction for men and woman from all walks of life. The Narconon programme has saved them from the misery of addiction, and the potential of an early grave. We not only address the cause of the addiction, we resolve them…”
The email was signed by a man from ‘Narconon International’. First I thought someone has been counting the empty bottles in my bin, then I read it again and noticed the word ‘NARCONON’ and remembered that I once wrote about it. A quick search located my article from THE GUARDIAN 2012:
Imagine a therapy that “enables an individual to rid himself of the harmful effects of drugs, toxins and other chemicals that lodge in the body and create a biochemical barrier to spiritual well-being“. If you were told that the treatment was entirely natural and had already “enabled hundreds of thousands to free themselves from the harmful effects of drugs and toxins and so achieve spiritual gains”, wouldn’t you be tempted to try it?
Who doesn’t want a body free of nasty chemicals? And who wouldn’t be delighted at the chance to counter a growing threat to an “advancement in mental … wellbeing”?
These claims are being made for the “Purification Rundown” (“Purif” for short) and the closely related Narconon detox programmes, which mainly consist of regular exercise, sauna and nutrition, with industrial doses of vitamins and minerals added for good measure. Some of the claims are quite specific: the Purif programme is supposed to increase your IQ, reduce the level of cancer-causing agents in your body, and even enable you to lose weight easily and quickly. The Narconon programme is more specifically targeted at drug and alcohol dependency and is claimed to have an impressive success rate of 75%.
Both programmes were developed by L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) and are currently marketed by the Church of Scientology. The CoS is not generally known to be an organisation that promotes healthcare programmes. Hubbard, the pulp-fiction writer who founded the CoS, portrayed himself somewhat over-optimistically as a pioneer, innovator and nuclear physicist.
He taught his followers that, at their core, humans contain a “thetan”. After creating the universe, thetans accidentally became trapped in physical bodies and, through scientology, we can restore the immortal, omnipotent, god-like powers of the “thetan” within us. Weird stuff that is the preserve of Hollywood eccentrics, you might think, but perhaps the CoS’s detox-ventures are an attempt to conquer new territory?
A typical course of treatment lasts several weeks and consists of many hours of exercise and sauna every day. This regimen is supplemented with megadoses of vitamins and minerals, which can cause problems. Niacin, one vitamin that is given in high doses as part of the regimen, can be particularly dangerous. The US National Institutes of Health warns that at high doses it can cause “liver problems, gout, ulcers of the digestive tract, loss of vision, high blood sugar, irregular heartbeat, and other serious problems.” It should not be taken by people who already have liver damage.
Seven fatalities of people undergoing the Narconon programme are currently being investigated in Oklahoma, although the CoS says these deaths are not connected with the treatment regimen itself.
Whatever the truth regarding these deaths, a review of the evidence about the treatment regimen’s effectiveness – carried out by the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services in 2008 – found no good evidence that the Narconon programme works:
There is currently no reliable evidence for the effectiveness of Narconon as a primary or secondary drug prevention program. This is partly due to the insufficient research evidence about Narconon and partly due to the non-experimental nature of the few studies that exist.
The claim that such detox treatments eliminate toxins from the body is, of course, easily testable. All we would need to do is define what toxin we are talking about and measure the change in levels of that toxin compared with a control group of volunteers who did not receive the detox.
But such studies are not available. Why? Do the marketing men believe in their own claims? Maybe they feel that profits and evidence are like fire and water? Or possibly the thetans have an aversion to science?
If you think that the Purif, Narconon or any other form of alternative detox eliminates toxins, you might be mistaken. Most clients have lost some money, many have lost their ability to think straight, some may even have lost their lives. But there is no reliable evidence that they have actually lost any toxins.
END OF MY 2012 ARTICLE
In 2012, I found no evidence to suggest that NARCONON works. Now, I looked again and found this article reporting a non-randomised, controlled study:
“In 2004, Narconon International developed a multi-module, universal prevention curriculum for high school ages based on drug abuse etiology, program quality management data, prevention theory and best practices. We review the curriculum and its rationale and test its ability to change drug use behavior, perceptions of risk/benefits, and general knowledge. After informed parental consent, approximately 1000 Oklahoma and Hawai’i high school students completed a modified Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) Participant Outcome Measures for Discretionary Programs survey at three testing points: baseline, one month later, and six month follow-up. Schools assigned to experimental conditions scheduled the Narconon curriculum between the baseline and one-month follow-up test; schools in control conditions received drug education after the six-month follow-up. Student responses were analyzed controlling for baseline differences using analysis of covariance. At six month follow-up, youths who received the Narconon drug education curriculum showed reduced drug use compared with controls across all drug categories tested. The strongest effects were seen in all tobacco products and cigarette frequency followed by marijuana. There were also significant reductions measured for alcohol and amphetamines. The program also produced changes in knowledge, attitudes and perception of risk. The eight-module Narconon curriculum has thorough grounding in substance abuse etiology and prevention theory. Incorporating several historically successful prevention strategies this curriculum reduced drug use among youths.”
The question arises: would I send anyone to the NARCONON programme?
My answer is NO!
Not because the trial is lousy (which it is) and not because the programme is too expensive (which it is); I would not send anyone to any institution that has even the slightest links to Scientology.
Currently, over 50 000 000 websites promote alternative medicine, and consumers are bombarded with information not just via the Internet, but also via newspapers, magazines and other sources. This has the potential of needlessly separating them from their cash or even seriously harming their health. As there is little that protects us from greedy entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic therapists, we should think about protecting ourselves. Here I will provide five simple tips that may fortify you against fake news in the realm of alternative medicine.
Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are exited by this news. Before you now rush to the next health shop or alternative medicine centre, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:
- Is the claim plausible? As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.
- What is the evidence for the claim? In the case of CARCTOL, the claim was based on a UK doctor apparently observing that, in several patients, tumours had been melting like butter in the sun after they took this herbal mixture. One particularly irresponsible headline read: “I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor.” This, however, is no evidence but mere anecdotes, and we confuse the two at our peril. Remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence. With anecdotes, we can never be sure about cause and effect. Therapeutic claims must be based on good evidence, e.g. controlled clinical trials.
- Who is behind the claim? In the UK, the CARCTOL claim emerged around 2004 and originated mainly from Dr Rosy Daniel. In the above newspaper article, she was called ‘a respected cancer doctor’. Personally, I do NOT ‘respect’ someone who makes claims of this nature without having good evidence. And a ‘cancer doctor’ is usually understood to be an oncologist; to the best of my knowledge, Dr Daniel is NOT an oncologist. In fact, she now calls herself a ‘Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine Consultant’. Faced with an important new health claim, one should always check who is behind it. Check out whether this person is reputable and free of conflicts of interest. An affiliation to a reputable university is usually more convincing than being a director of your own private heath centre.
- Where was the claim published? The CARCTOL story had been published in newspapers – and nowhere else! Even today, there is only one Medline-listed publication on the subject. It is my own review of the evidence which, in 2004, concluded that “The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.” *** If important new therapeutic claims like ‘therapy xy cures cancer’ are reported in the popular media, you should always check where they were first published (or simply dismiss it without researching it). It is unthinkable that such an important claim is not made first in a proper, peer-reviewed article in a good medical journal. Go on ‘Medline’, conduct a quick search and find out whether the new findings have been published. If the claim does not come from peer-reviewed journals, forget about it. If it has been published in any journal that has alternative, complementary, integrative or similar terms in its name, take it with a good pinch of salt.
- Is there money involved? In the case of CARCTOL, the costs were high. I was called once by a woman who had read my article telling me that she was pursued by the doctor who had treated her husband. Tragically, the man had nevertheless died of his cancer, and the widow was now pursued for £8 000 which she understandably was reluctant to pay. Many new treatments are expensive. So, high costs are not necessarily suspicious. Still, I advise you to be extra cautious in situations where there is the potential for someone to make a fast buck. Financial exploitation is sadly rife in the realm of alternative medicine.
A similar checklist originates from a team of experts. Researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, worked to identify the most important ideas a person would need to grasp thinking critically about health claims. They came up with excellent points:
- Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
- New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
- Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
- Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
- Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
- Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.
Alternative medicine can easily turn into a jungle or even a nightmare. Before you fall for any dubious claim that THERAPY XY is good for you, please go through the simple sets of questions above. This might protect you from getting ripped off or – more importantly – from getting harmed.
*** After this article had been published, I received letters from layers threatening me with legal action unless I withdrew the paper. I decided to ignore them, and no legal action followed.
Since more than 20 years, I have been writing about the risks of alternative therapies. One of my first papers on this issue was published in 1995 and focussed on acupuncture. Here is its abstract:
My reason for banging on about the potential harms (direct and indirect risks) of alternative medicine is fairly obvious: I want to alert healthcare professionals and consumers to the fact that these treatments may not be as harmless as they are usually advertised to be. Yet, I have often be called an alarmist fear-monger. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.
Thinking about fear-mongering, I began to ask myself whether those who regularly accuse me are the ones guilty of the deed. Are alternative practitioners fear-mongers? Surely not all of them, but some clearly are. Here are a few of the strategies they use for their fear-mongering.
Perhaps the most obvious way to instil fear into people is to tell them that they are affected by a disease or condition they do not have. Many alternative practitioners do exactly that!
- A chiropractor might tell you that you have a subluxation in your spine.
- A naturopath would inform you that your body is full of toxins.
- An acupuncturist will tell you that your life energy is blocked.
- A homeopath might warn you that your vital force is too low.
These diagnoses have one thing in common: they do not exist. They are figments of the therapist’s imagination. And they have another thing in common: the abnormalities need to be corrected, and – surprise, surprise – the very therapy that the practitioner specialises in happens to be just the ticket for that purpose.
- The chiropractor will tell you that a simple spinal adjustment will solve the problem.
- The naturopath will inform you that a bit of detox will eliminate the toxins.
- The acupuncturist will tell you that his needles will de-block your chi.
- The homeopath will persuade you that he can find the exact remedy to revive your vital force.
And there we have the third thing these diagnoses have in common: they are all treatable, will all result in a nice bill, and will all improve the cash-flow of the therapist.
But often, it is not even necessary for an alternative therapist to completely invent a diagnosis. Patients usually consult an alternative practitioner with some sort of symptom – frequently with what one might call a medical triviality that does not need any treatment at all but can be dealt with differently, for instance, by issuing some life-style advice or just simple re-assurance that nothing major is amiss. But for the fear-monger, this is not enough. He feels the need to administer his therapy, and for that purpose he needs to medicalize trivialities :
- A low mood thus becomes a clinical depression.
- A sore back is turned into a nasty lumbago.
- A tummy upset morphs into a dangerous gastritis.
- Abdominal unrest is diagnosed to be a leaky gut syndrome.
- A food aversion turns into a food intolerance, etc., etc.
The common denominator is again the fact that fear is instilled into the patient. And again, a useless therapy is administered, if at all possible in the form of a lengthy series of treatments. This, of course, generates significant benefit – not therapeutic, but financial!
DEMONIZING CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE
But there is always the risk that the patient is wiser than expected. She might be so scared learning of her condition that she decides to see her doctor. That would mean a loss of income which has to be avoided! The trick to achieve this is usually not difficult: conventional healthcare professionals must be demonized.
- They are not treating the root cause of the problem.
- They are in the pocket of BIG PHARMA.
- They prescribe medicines with terrible side-effects.
- They have no idea about holism.
- They never have enough time to listen, etc., etc.
I know, some of these criticisms are not entirely incorrect (for instance, many conventional medicines do have serious side-effects but, as I try to point out ad nauseam, we need to consider their risk/benefit balance). But that is hardly the point here; the point is to scare the patient off conventional medicine. Only a person who is convinced that the ‘medical mafia’ is out to get her, will prove to be a loyal customer of all things alternative.
And a loyal customer is someone who comes not just once or twice but regularly, ideally from cradle to grave. The way to achieve this ultimate stimulus of the practitioners cash flow is to convince the patient that she needs regular treatments, even when she feels perfectly alright. The magic word here is PREVENTION! The masters here are the chiropractors, I guess; they promote what they call ‘maintenance care’, i.e. the regular treatment of healthy individuals to keep their spines subluxation-free. It goes without saying that maintenance care is a money-making scam.
The strategy requires two little lies, but that’s forgivable considering the good cause, boosting the income of the practitioner:
- Conventional doctors don’t do prevention.
- The alternative treatment is an effective preventative.
The first statement can be shown to be an obvious lie. All we know about effective disease prevention today comes from conventional medicine and science; nothing originates from the realm of alternative medicine. Remarkably, the most efficacious preventative measure of all times, immunisation, is frequently defamed and neglected by alternative practitioners.
The second statement is a necessary lie; how else would a patient agree to pay regularly for the practitioner’s services? I am not aware of any alternative therapy that can effectively prevent any disease.
- Some alternative practitioners regularly instil fear into consumers.
- Several strategies are being used for this purpose.
- They have the aim of maximising the therapists’ income.
- Fear-mongering is unethical and despicable.
- Pointing out that a certain therapy might fail to generate more good than harm is not fear-mongering.
I am sure you always wanted to know what animal chiropractic is all about!
This website explains it quite well:
START OF QUOTES
…Animal chiropractic (veterinary spinal manipulative therapy) focuses on the preservation and health/wellness of the neuro-musculo-skeletal system. Chiropractic is the science that is centered around the relationship between the spine and the nervous system. The spine is your body’s foundation and the nervous system, including your brain, spinal cord and nerves, controls your entire body. They must work together harmoniously to improve one’s general health and their ability heal. If the systems are not functioning to their highest potential you may experience changes in digestion, heart and lung function, reproduction and most evidently musculature. When adjacent joints are in an abnormal position, called a subluxation, the nervous system and all that it controls will be negatively impacted. If these subluxations are not corrected, they can result in prolonged inappropriate stimulation of nerves. This could result in reduced function internally, musculo-skeletal dysfunction and pain.
Spinal manipulation is the art of restoring full and pain free range of motion to joints and can greatly benefit an animal after they have experienced subluxations. The veterinarian will use their hands to palpate joints both statically and in motion. By doing this, they can determine where the animal is experiencing decreased motion or misaligned joints. Once identified, an adjustment can be performed. An adjustment or spinal manipulation is a gentle, specific, quick and low force thrust that will be applied at an angle specific to the different areas of motion in the spine and extremities. Only a certified animal chiropractor will understand the complexity involved in adjustments and can best assess if an animal can benefit from chiropractic care.
Many animals can benefit from this alternative therapy. If you notice that your animal has a particularly sensitive spot somewhere on their body, is walking or trotting differently and or not performing to the same ability they have previously, they may be a candidate for a chiropractic assessment. However, an animal does not need to be sick or injured to benefit from chiropractic care. Animals in good health or ones used for sporting activities are also prime candidates for chiropractic care. By maintaining your pet’s proper spinal alignment and mobility they will attain optimal function of muscles, nerves and tissues that support the joints. When the body can move freely your pet will experience improved mobility, stance and flexibility, which can evolve into improved agility, endurance and overall performance. Finally, many people have never considered that chiropractic care can also benefit their animal by boosting their immune response. It can aid in providing a healthier metabolism and a vibrant nervous system which all facilitate your animal’s natural ability to heal themselves from within. Chiropractic care can enhance the quality of your pet’s life ensuring many active and healthy years to come.
…during veterinary school I began the process of researching how to become an animal chiropractor or veterinary spinal manipulative therapist. As I researched further, I noticed that this specialized profession has grown. It became apparent that one should be certified by either the College of Animal Chiropractors or American Veterinary Chiropractic Association to practice on animals… It was surprising to find out that there are only four programs in the USA and Canada that are approved by both organizations. The courses consisted of over 200 hours of intensive study and hands on learning followed by certification testing…
END OF QUOTE
Yes, I did shorten the quote a bit but, rest assured, I did not cut out a single word about the efficacy of animal chiropractic. Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t: there is no mention of it in the article.
I wonder why!
Looking into Medline, I found several reports related to the subject:
- One study suggested an association between chiropractic findings in the lumbar vertebrae and urinary incontinence and retention in dogs.
- A case report highlighted the potential benefits of combining traditional medical management with chiropractic treatment and physical therapy techniques for management of severe acute-onset torticollis in a giraffe.
- A review explained that there is limited evidence supporting the effectiveness of spinal mobilization and manipulation in animals.
- An observational study suggested that chiropractic manipulations elicit slight but significant changes in thoracolumbar and pelvic kinematics.
- A comparative study measured the spinal mechanical nociceptive thresholds in 38 horses, and showed that they increased by 27, 12 and 8% in the chiropractic, massage and phenylbutazone groups, respectively.
… and that was basically it. Not a single study to suggest that chiropractic is effective for specific conditions of animals.
Frustrated, I went on the site of the ‘College of Animal Chiropractic’; surely there I would find the evidence I was looking for. They offer lots of platitudes and this largely nonsensical statement:
“When a joint become restricted in its range of motion(hypomobile or ‘locked-up’), through trauma, repetitive injury, degenerative changes, or structural stresses, the surrounding tissues are affected. This, in turn, further affects the joints ability to move freely and sensitive structures are activated causing the area to be sensitive or painful. Nerves are the communication links between all tissues in the body to the brain and spinal cord; when joint dysfunction is present, messages to other areas are also affected, which can lead to pain, weakness, reduced function, and compensatory changes. Animal chiropractic focuses on the restoration of movement and the promotion of heath by restoring normal joint mechanics and soft-tissue function, thus, normalizing neurological patterns that facilitate healing . The main tool an animal chiropractor uses to restore joint motion is called an “adjustment”, or veterinary spinal manipulation. This gentle, specialized, manual skill, involves the application of a quick, low-force maneuver that is directed to a specific area of a joint at a specific angle. A certified animal chiropractor understands these joint angles intimately and can best asses if an animal can benefit from chiropractic care, and, is the only professional who is qualified to adjust your pet.”
But no evidence!
By now I was desperate. My last hope was the ‘American Veterinary Chiropractic Association’. All I found there, however, was this: the “American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) is a professional membership group promoting animal chiropractic to professionals and the public, and acting as the certifying agency for doctors who have undergone post-graduate animal chiropractic training.”
Not a jot of evidence!
The assumption that animal chiropractic is effective seems to rely on the evidence from human studies…
… and we all know how solid that body of evidence is!
My conclusion from all this: chiropractors treating animals and those treating humans have one important characteristic in common.
THEY HAPPILY PROMOTE BOGUS TREATMENTS.
How often have I pointed out that most studies of chiropractic (and other alternative therapies) are overtly unethical because they fail to report adverse events? And if you think this is merely my opinion, you are mistaken. This new analysis by a team of chiropractors aimed to describe the extent of adverse events reporting in published RCTs of Spinal Manipulative Therapy (SMT), and to determine whether the quality of reporting has improved since publication of the 2010 Consolidated Standards Of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) statement.
The Physiotherapy Evidence Database and the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials were searched for RCTs involving SMT. Domains of interest included classifications of adverse events, completeness of adverse events reporting, nomenclature used to describe the events, methodological quality of the study, and details of the publishing journal. Data were analysed using descriptive statistics. Frequencies and proportions of trials reporting on each of the specified domains above were calculated. Differences in proportions between pre- and post-CONSORT trials were calculated with 95% confidence intervals using standard methods, and statistical comparisons were analysed using tests for equality of proportions with continuity correction.
Of 7,398 records identified in the electronic searches, 368 articles were eligible for inclusion in this review. Adverse events were reported in 140 (38.0%) articles. There was a significant increase in the reporting of adverse events post-CONSORT (p=.001). There were two major adverse events reported (0.3%). Only 22 articles (15.7%) reported on adverse events in the abstract. There were no differences in reporting of adverse events post-CONSORT for any of the chosen parameters.
The authors concluded that although there has been an increase in reporting adverse events since the introduction of the 2010 CONSORT guidelines, the current level should be seen as inadequate and unacceptable. We recommend that authors adhere to the CONSORT statement when reporting adverse events associated with RCTs that involve SMT.
We conducted a very similar analysis back in 2012. Specifically, we evaluated all 60 RCTs of chiropractic SMT published between 2000 and 2011 and found that 29 of them did not mention adverse effects at all. Sixteen RCTs reported that no adverse effects had occurred (which I find hard to believe since reliable data show that about 50% of patients experience adverse effects after consulting a chiropractor). Complete information on incidence, severity, duration, frequency and method of reporting of adverse effects was included in only one RCT. Conflicts of interests were not mentioned by the majority of authors. Our conclusion was that adverse effects are poorly reported in recent RCTs of chiropractic manipulations.
The new paper suggests that the situation has improved a little, yet it is still wholly unacceptable. To conduct a clinical trial and fail to mention adverse effects is not, as the authors of the new article suggest, against current guidelines; it is a clear and flagrant violation of medical ethics. I blame the authors of such papers, the reviewers and the journal editors for behaving dishonourably and urge them to get their act together.
The effects of such non-reporting are obvious: anyone looking at the evidence (for instance via systematic reviews) will get a false-positive impression of the safety of SMT. Consequently, chiropractors are able to claim that very few adverse effects have been reported in the literature, therefore our hallmark therapy SMT is demonstrably safe. Those who claim otherwise are quite simply alarmist.
Regular readers of this blog will have noticed: when homeopathy-fans run out of arguments, they tend to conduct an ‘ad hominem’ attack. They like to do this in several different ways, but one of the most popular version is to shout with indignation: YOU ARE NOT QUALIFIED!!!
The aim of this claim is to brand the opponent as someone who does not know enough about homeopathy to make valid comments about it. As this sort of thing comes up regularly, it is high time to ask: WHO ACTUALLY IS AN EXPERT IN HOMEOPATHY?
This seems to be an easy question to answer, but – come to think of it – it is more complex that one first imagines. Someone could be an expert in homeopathy in more than one way; for instance, one could be an expert:
- in the history of homeopathy,
- in the manufacture of homeopathics,
- in the regulation of homeopathy,
- in the clinical use of homeopathy in human patients,
- in the clinical use of homeopathy in animals,
- in the use of homeopathy in plants (no, I am not joking!),
- in basic research of homeopathy,
- in clinical research of homeopathy.
This blog is almost entirely devoted to clinical research; therefore, we should, for the purpose of this post, narrow down the above question to: WHO IS AN EXPERT IN CLINICAL RESEARCH OF HOMEOPATHY?
I had always assumed to be such an expert – until I was accused of being a swindler and pretender, that is. I have no formal qualifications for practising homeopathy (and never claimed otherwise), and this fact has prompted many homeopathy-fans to claim that I am not qualified to comment on the value of homeopathy. Do they have a point?
Rational thinkers have often pointed out that one does not need such qualifications for practicing homeopathy. In many countries, anyone can be a homeopath, regardless of background. In all the countries I know, one certainly can practise homeopathy, if one is qualified as a doctor. Crucially, do you really need to know how to practice homeopathy for conducting a clinical trial or a systematic review of homeopathy? Homeopaths seem to think so. I fear, however, that they are wrong: you don’t need to be a surgeon, psychiatrist or rheumatologist to organise a trial or conduct a review of these subjects!
Anyway, my research of homeopathy is not valid, homeopaths say, because I lack the formal qualifications to call myself a homeopath. Let me remind them that I have:
- been trained by leading homeopaths,
- practised homeopathy for quite some time,
- headed a team of scientists conducting research into homeopathy,
- conducted several clinical trials of homeopathy,
- published several systematic reviews of homeopathy,
- no conflicts of interest in regards to homeopathy.
However, this does not impress homeopath, I am afraid. They say that my findings and conclusions about their pet therapy cannot be trusted. In their eyes, I am not a competent expert in clinical research of homeopathy. They see me as a fraud and as an impostor. They prefer the real experts of clinical research of homeopathy such as:
- Robert Mathie
- Jos Kleinjen
- Klaus Linde
These three researchers who are fully accepted by homeopaths; not just accepted, loved and admired! They all have published systematic reviews. Intriguingly, their conclusion all contradict my results in one specific aspect: THEY ARE POSITIVE.
I do not doubt their expertise for a minute, yet have always found this most amusing, even hilarious.
Because none of these experts (I know all three personally) is a qualified homeopath, none of them has any training in the practice of homeopathy, none of them has ever practised homeopathy on human patients, none of them has even worked for any length of time as a clinician.
What can we conclude from these insights?
We could, of course, descend to the same level as homeopaths tend to do and conclude that homeopathy-fans are biased, barmy, bonkers, stupid, silly, irrational, deluded, etc. However, I prefer to draw a different and probably more accurate conclusion: according to homeopathy-fans, an expert in clinical research of homeopathy is someone who has published articles that are favourable to their trade. Anyone who fails to do likewise is by definition not competent to issue a reliable verdict about it.
We have discussed this notorious problem before: numerous charities (such as one that treats HIV and malaria with homeopathy in Botswana, or the one claiming that homeopathy can reverse cancer) are a clear danger to public health. I have previously chosen the example of ‘YES TO LIFE’ and explained that they promote unproven and disproven alternative therapies as cures for cancer (and if you want to get really sickened, look who act as their supporters and advisors). It is clear to me that such behaviour can hasten the death of many vulnerable patients.
Yet, many such charities get tax and reputational benefits by being registered charities in the UK. The question is CAN THIS SITUATION BE JUSTIFIED?
Currently, the UK Charity commission want to answer it. Specifically, they are asking you the following question:
- Question 1: What level and nature of evidence should the Commission require to establish the beneficial impact of CAM therapies?
- Question 2: Can the benefit of the use or promotion of CAM therapies be established by general acceptance or recognition, without the need for further evidence of beneficial impact? If so, what level of recognition, and by whom, should the Commission consider as evidence?
- Question 3: How should the Commission consider conflicting or inconsistent evidence of beneficial impact regarding CAM therapies?
- Question 4: How, if at all, should the Commission’s approach be different in respect of CAM organisations which only use or promote therapies which are complementary, rather than alternative, to conventional treatments?
- Question 5: Is it appropriate to require a lesser degree of evidence of beneficial impact for CAM therapies which are claimed to relieve symptoms rather than to cure or diagnose conditions?
- Question 6: Do you have any other comments about the Commission’s approach to registering CAM organisations as charities?
I am sure that most readers of this blog have something to say about these questions. So, please carefully study the full document, go on the commission’s website, and email your response to: email@example.com . Don’t delay it; do it now!
The aim of this pragmatic study was “to investigate the effectiveness of acupuncture in addition to routine care in patients with allergic asthma compared to treatment with routine care alone.”
Patients with allergic asthma were included in a controlled trial and randomized to receive up to 15 acupuncture sessions over 3 months plus routine care, or to a control group receiving routine care alone. Patients who did not consent to randomization received acupuncture treatment for the first 3 months and were followed as a cohort. All trial patients were allowed to receive routine care in addition to study treatment. The primary endpoint was the asthma quality of life questionnaire (AQLQ, range: 1–7) at 3 months. Secondary endpoints included general health related to quality of life (Short-Form-36, SF-36, range 0–100). Outcome parameters were assessed at baseline and at 3 and 6 months.
A total of 1,445 patients were randomized and included in the analysis (184 patients randomized to acupuncture plus routine care and 173 to routine care alone, and 1,088 in the nonrandomized acupuncture plus routine care group). In the randomized part, acupuncture was associated with an improvement in the AQLQ score compared to the control group (difference acupuncture vs. control group 0.7 [95% confidence interval (CI) 0.5–1.0]) as well as in the physical component scale and the mental component scale of the SF-36 (physical: 2.5 [1.0–4.0]; mental 4.0 [2.1–6.0]) after 3 months. Treatment success was maintained throughout 6 months. Patients not consenting to randomization showed similar improvements as the randomized acupuncture group.
The authors concluded that in patients with allergic asthma, additional acupuncture treatment to routine care was associated with increased disease-specific and health-related quality of life compared to treatment with routine care alone.
We have been over this so many times (see for instance here, here and here) that I am almost a little embarrassed to explain it again: it is fairly easy to design an RCT such that it can only produce a positive result. The currently most popular way to achieve this aim in alternative medicine research is to do a ‘A+B versus B’ study, where A = the experimental treatment, and B = routine care. As A always amounts to more than nothing – in the above trial acupuncture would have placebo effects and the extra attention would also amount to something – A+B must always be more than B alone. The easiest way of thinking of this is to imagine that A and B are both finite amounts of money; everyone can understand that A+B must always be more than B!
Why then do acupuncture researchers not get the point? Are they that stupid? I happen to know some of the authors of the above paper personally, and I can assure you, they are not stupid!
I am afraid there is only one reason I can think of: they know perfectly well that such an RCT can only produce a positive finding, and precisely that is their reason for conducting such a study. In other words, they are not using science to test a hypothesis, they deliberately abuse it to promote their pet therapy or hypothesis.
As I stated above, it is fairly easy to design an RCT such that it can only produce a positive result. Yet, it is arguably also unethical, perhaps even fraudulent, to do this. In my view, such RCTs amount to pseudoscience and scientific misconduct.
CBC news (Canada) reported yesterday that, more than a decade ago, the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission had been tasked to review the cost effectiveness of chiropractic services. It therefore prepared a report in 2004 for the Manitoba province and the Manitoba Chiropractors Association. Since then, this report has been kept secret. The report makes 37 recommendations, including:
- Manitoba Health should limit its funding to “chiropractic treatment of acute lower back pain.”
- Manitoba Health should provide “limited coverage of the treatment of neck pain.” The report called the literature around the efficacy of chiropractic care for neck pain “ambiguous or at best weakly supportive” and noted such treatment carried a “not insignificant safety risk.”
- Manitoba Health should not fund chiropractic treatment anyone under 18 “as the literature does not unequivocally justify” the “efficacy or safety” of such treatment.
A Manitoba Ombudsman’s Office report from 2012 might shed some light on why the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission’s report was never made public. Someone had attempted to get a copy of the report, but large parts of it were redacted. “Access to this record was refused on the basis that disclosure would be harmful to a third party’s business interest,” the ombudsman report notes, “and harm the economic or financial interests or negotiating position of a public body.”
The report also challenged claims that chiropractic treatments can be address a wide variety of medical conditions. It stated that there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective in treating muscle tension, migraines, HIV, carpal tunnel syndrome, gastrointestinal problems, infertility or cancer, or as a preventive care treatment. It also said there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective for children.
The report urged Manitoba Health to establish a monitoring system to keep a closer eye on “the advertising practices of the Manitoba Chiropractors Association and its members to ensure claims regarding treatments are restricted to those for which proof of efficacy and safety exist.” It suggested the government should have regulatory powers over chiropractic ads.
A recent CBC I-Team investigation found Manitoba chiropractors advertising treatment for a wide range of conditions including Alzheimer’s, autism and pediatric services. The commission report contained sharp criticisms of previous reports that suggested funding chiropractic care could save the health-care system money. Dr. Pranlal Manga authored two widely cited reports which claim that by offering publicly funded chiropractic care, provinces can cut health-care costs. “The Manga study on Manitoba must be rejected as a guide to public policy,” the commission report states, “because its assumptions, methodology and costing of recommendations are all deeply flawed.” The reports states, “What limited evidence the Commission has suggests he [Manga] grossly exaggerates possible medical savings.” Dr. Manga did not respond to CBC’s repeated attempts to contact him.
The commission report also made recommendations around the use of X-ray machines by chiropractors. It suggested chiropractors not own and operate X-ray machines “Given the restrictive conditions under which X-rays are advisable, their poor correlation with low-back problems, their apparent limitation as a guide to appropriate treatment …[and] the apparent complete lack of monitoring [of] the use of X-ray by chiropractors.” Instead, it recommended consulting with radiologists when imaging is deemed necessary. “The Commission is of the view that the public interest, and even chiropractic itself, would be better served if chiropractors had access to radiologists for this service, rather than perform it themselves,” the report said.
All three report authors declined comment. Calls to Dave Chomiak, who was health minister at the time the report was prepared, were not returned. In an email to CBC, Manitoba Chiropractors Association president Perry Taylor said, “I personally have never seen this 13-year-old document and [it] pre-dates my time as President. As such I have no comment on this.” The CBC I-Team offered to go through the report with Taylor but he did not respond.
This report seems to confirm much of what we have discussed repeatedly on this blog: Chiropractic is not nearly as effective and safe as chiropractors try to make us believe. To hide this fact is certainly dishonest and unethical, but it is in some ways understandable: this knowledge would directly threaten the income of most chiropractors.
Yesterday I commented on another post: “the conflict of interest seems obvious: if homeopaths speak the truth, they are out of business. therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and eventually end up believing them. there is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent them from making false claims. if not, this will go on for another 200 years and damage many patients’ health”. In the light of the above report, I will now re-phrase this: the conflict of interest seems obvious: if chiropractors allowed the truth to be known, they would soon be out of business. Therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and many end up believing them. There is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent chiropractors from making false claims. If not, this abuse will go on for another 120 years and damage many patients’ health.