Guest post by Richard Rawlins MB BS MBA FRCS
Doctors who are registered medical practitioners (RMPs) must comply with the standards of practice set down by the General Medical Council. ‘Homeopathy’ is a specific system of medical care, devised by Dr Samuel Hahnemann in the nineteenth century, and comprises two distinct dimensions: (i) the establishment of a constructive therapeutic relationship between an empathic homeopath and a patient. This may provide benefit due to the non-specific effects of condolence, counselling, and care – and should be a component of the practice of all doctors in any event; (ii) the homeopathically prepared (HP) remedies that are generally prescribed. To avoid confusion, these two dimensions should not be conflated.
HP remedies may be obtained over the counter, prescribed by lay homeopaths and even given out by dentists and nurses on the grounds that “30C homeopathic arnica helps bruising”. The US Federal Trades Commission has stated that “The Commission will carefully scrutinize the net impression of OTC homeopathic advertising or other marketing employing disclosures to ensure that it adequately conveys the extremely limited nature of the health claim being asserted…accordingly, unqualified disease claims made for homeopathic drugs must be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence.” (FTC Policy statement 2017).
Special focus should be brought to bear on the ethical, intellectual and professional obligations of those doctors registered as medical practitioners by the GMC and practicing homeopathy in the UK. Some homeopaths may intend taking advantage of gullible and vulnerable patients. Here I take it that those practitioners who prescribe homeopathic remedies sincerely do believe they have worthwhile effects, but I contend such practice generally fails to comply with ethical and professional standards as set down by the GMC. That is to be deprecated.
Systems to regulate medical practice in the British Isles have been devised since the middle ages. In 1518, Thomas Linacre founded the College of Physicians – based on systems he had seen in Europe. From 1704, the Society of Apothecaries licensed its members to prescribe and dispense medicines, and developed the profession of general practice. In order to protect the public from charlatans, quacks and fraudsters more effectively, the Medical Act of 1858 established formal statutory regulation of doctors by the General Medical Council. Registrants who are not deemed fit to practice may be struck off the register. They can still practice, but not as registered medical practitioners. They can still use the title ‘doctor’ (as can anyone), but not for fraudulent purposes.
Dr Samuel Hahnemann qualified in Saxony in 1781 and was a good doctor, but he became disillusioned with many of the practices and practitioners of his day. He wrote about his fellow doctors: “Precious and fragile human life, so easily destroyed, was frequently placed in jeopardy at the hands of these perverted people, especially since bleedings, emetics, purges, blistering plaster, fontanels, setons, caustics and cauterisations were used.” In 1796 he wrote to a friend, “I renounced the practice of medicine that I might no longer incur the risk of doing injury, and I engaged in chemistry exclusively and in literary occupations.”
Hahnemann went on to develop his own alternative system of health care, which he styled ‘Homoeopathy’. Published as the Organon of the Healing Arts in 1810, Hahnemann set out an idiosyncratic medical system based on identifying ‘remedies’ which in large doses, could produce symptoms comparable to those suffered by the patient. The remedies he prescribed were prepared with serial dilutions so that no active principle remained. Today’s homeopaths hold that a remedy’s ‘vital force’, ‘healing energy’ or ‘memory’ provides therapeutic benefit. That may be the case, but the consensus of informed scientific and medical opinion is that any effects of ‘homeopathy’ are as a result of contextual placebo effects. The remedies themselves cannot and do not have any effect. England’s Chief Medical Officer has described homeopathy’s principles as ‘rubbish’. The government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport has said he would tell ministers, “My view, scientifically, is absolutely clear: homeopathy is nonsense. The most it can have is a placebo effect.” Simon Stevens, CEO of the NHS, when interviewed on Radio 4 said he agrees with Sir Mark – yet failed to explain why he had not included homeopathic remedies in the 2017 list of NHS proscribed medicines. That stance is being reviewed.
The GMC states, “Patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and health. To justify that trust you must show respect for human life and make sure your practice meets the standards expected.” Those standards are set down in the GMC’s Good Medical Practice which advises, “Serious or persistent failure to follow this guidance will put your registration at risk.” The GMC standards are coherent with those of the American Medical Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics (2016).
In précis, the most relevant and important GMC standards are:
- Make the care of your patient your first concern.
- Give patients the information they want or need in a way they can understand.
- Be honest and open and act with integrity.
- Never abuse your patients’ trust in you or the public’s trust in the profession.
- You are personally accountable for your professional practice and must always be prepared to justify your decisions and actions.
- You must prescribe drugs or treatment only when you are satisfied that the drugs or treatment serve the patient’s needs.
- You must provide effective treatments based on the best available evidence.
- You must be satisfied that you have consent or other valid authority before you carry out any examination, investigation or provide treatment.
- You must make good use of the resources available to you.
I contend that medical practitioners who prescribe homeopathic remedies regularly fail to meet these standards. They know perfectly well that the best available evidence indicates no support for the assertion that homeopathic remedies ‘serve the patient’s needs’, except as placebos; that the treatments have no specific effects; that the remedies are placebos; and that resources are wasted by expenditure on these ineffective remedies. Medical homeopaths invariably do not give patients this information; they fail to obtain properly informed consent; they do not justify their decisions and actions rationally; and they may be obtaining financial advantage by misrepresentation to insurance companies or the NHS. This is an abuse of the public’s trust in the medical profession.
The issue of informed consent is particularly important. GMC guidance states that, “The doctor uses specialist knowledge and experience and clinical judgement, and the patient’s views and understanding of their condition, to identify which investigations or treatments are likely to result in overall benefit for the patient. The doctor explains the options to the patient, setting out the potential benefits, risks, burdens and side effects of each option, including the option to have no treatment. The doctor may recommend a particular option which they believe to be best for the patient, but they must not put pressure on the patient to accept their advice. …Before accepting a patient’s consent, you must consider whether they have been given the information they want or need, and how well they understand the details and implications of what is proposed. This is more important than how their consent is expressed or recorded.”
The GMC states that, “in order to have effective discussions with patients about risk, you must identify the adverse outcomes that may result from the proposed options… risks can take a number of forms, but will usually be: side effects; complications; failure of an intervention to achieve the desired aim.” The risk of wasting money on ineffective remedies, whether NHS or private, and of delaying treatment known to be effective should also be discussed.
Homeopaths acknowledge that after ministration of remedies, some patients experience ‘aggravations’ – a worsening of symptoms, but they advise this is evidence that the remedy is ‘working’. Medical consensus is more likely to suggest ‘aggravations’ are evidence of an underlying psychological component to the patient’s condition. Suggestions that remedies themselves have any effect, good or bad, is misrepresentation and may be fraud. Offering patients sugar pills with a claim the pills have therapeutic effects means lying to them, and is an abuse of trust.
Homeopaths’ system of diagnosis and prescription of remedies requires them to have beliefs for which there is no plausible evidence base. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘belief’ as “assent to a proposition, statement or fact, especially on the grounds of testimony or authority, or in the absence of proof or conclusive evidence.” It might be acceptable to practice ‘homeopathy’ as a counselling modality, providing the practitioner complies with the GMC standard that, “You must not express your personal beliefs to patients in ways that exploit their vulnerability or are likely to cause them distress.”
Homeopaths are invariably non-compliant in obtaining fully informed consent. Such a failing is an abuse of patients’ trust in the medical profession. Doctors might be determined to be unfit to practice unless they clearly justify their prescriptions, and identify the evidence that supports them. All these issues should also be explored during the doctor’s annual appraisal, without which a registered medical practitioner will not be licensed to practice. Even registration without a licence requires compliance with the standards. Appraisal can be carried out by non-homeopaths, as the issue is not the assessment of the standard of ‘homeopathic practice’, but compliance with GMC standards of good medical practice.
If a medical homeopath wishes to be GMC compliant, they must properly inform patients about contentious issues. I suggest that consent should be obtained along the lines: “I propose prescribing you a remedy comprising sugar pills impregnated with a solution which has been diluted to such an extent that a sphere of water the size of the Earth’s average radius to the Sun would probably contain no more than one molecule of the original substance. Nevertheless, my clinical experience suggests to me that this remedy will improve your condition. You need to understand that colleagues who practise conventional evidence-based scientific medicine regard my belief as implausible and the methods I use as ‘alternative.’ I believe the remedy will help you, but I have no evidence accepted by the majority of doctors that the intervention I propose will achieve the desired effects. I do not believe that taking a homeopathic remedy will delay any other treatment which might reasonably help your condition and I invite you to take this remedy with understanding of the issues I have outlined.” A copy of the consent should be placed in the patient’s records.
Those who defend the right of registered medical practitioners to prescribe HP remedies do so with arguments fatally holed by a myriad of logical fallacies. Some arguments are (with fallacies in parenthesis):
- “Homeopathy has been used for over two hundred years” (appeal to tradition and argument from ignorance);
- “It has become very popular and is what patients want (appeal to popularity);
- “Homeopathy has the capacity to help patients” (red herring, because present consideration is about the value of HP remedies, not relationships);
- “Remedies are cheap” (red herring);
- “Homeopathy does not do any harm” (irrelevant and a red herring);
- “Pharmaceuticals have side effects” (tu quoque and red herring);
- “The Royal Family use it” (appeal to irrelevant authority);
- “The remedies enhance the doctor/patient relationship (straw man);
- “Science does not know everything” (red herring and false dichotomy);
- “Those who oppose us don’t understand homeopathy” (argumentum ad hominem and ‘poisoning the well’);
- “I have the evidence of patients’ anecdotes and testimonials” (pseudoscience, confirmation bias and cherry picking);
- “Homeopathic doctors are caring people” (red herring and straw man);
- “I’ve got much evidence of patients taking remedies and getting better” (post hoc ergo propter hoc – ‘after this, therefore because of this’ – confusion of coincidence with causation).
The latter most perverse fallacy is the foundation of homeopathic practice, based on identifying a remedy whereby ‘like cures like’ – a principle based on post hoc fallacy for which there is no scientifically credible evidence.
Unless and until medical homeopaths understand the intellectual environment in which they practice, are prepared to properly inform their patients, and obtain consent for treatment having done so, they should not prescribe homeopathic remedies. Fortunately, there is no evidence that patients who are prescribed HP remedies by empathic GMC registered homeopaths have any different outcomes from those prescribed pure sugar pills – even if they are told they are placebos. However, trust in the medical profession can only be maintained if deceptive practices are set aside and full explanations for proposed interventions are offered. Given the scientific consensus, patients have to face up to the fact that to the highest degree of probability, HP remedies have no value. Regrettably, too many patients and even homeopaths are in denial. Medical homeopaths should continue to serve their patients with care, compassion and intellectual honesty, but if they are to comply with the standards required for GMC registration, they should not prescribe homeopathically prepared remedies.
A recent comment by a chiropractor told us this:
“If the critics do not take step 2 [point out what’s right and support] then they are entrenched carpet bombers who see reform and reformers as acceptable collateral damage. That makes them just as much a part of the problem when it comes to reform as the subbies.”
Similar words have been posted many times before.
So, are we critics of chiropractic carpet bombers?
Personally, I find the term very distasteful and misplaced. But let’s not be petty and forget about the terminology.
The question is: should I be more supportive of chiropractors who claim to be reformers?
I feel that the claim to be a reformer is hardly enough for gaining my support. I prefer to support clinicians who do the right things. And what would that be?
Here is a list; clinicians would receive my support, if they:
- adhere to the principles of evidence-based medicine;
- follow the rules of medical ethics.
What does that mean in relation to chiropractic?
I think it means that clinicians should:
- use interventions that demonstrably do more good than harm,
- make no false claims,
- advocate the best available treatments for their patients,
- abstain from treating patients for which their therapy is not demonstrably effective,
- obtain fully informed consent from their patients which includes information about the nature of the condition, about the risks of their treatments, about other therapeutic options.
As soon as I see a chiropractor or a group of chiropractors who fit these criteria, I will support them by publicly stating that they are doing alright (as should be normal for responsible healthcare practitioners). Until this time, I reject being called a carpet bomber and call such name-calling a stupid defence of quackery.
This new RCT by researchers from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia was aimed at ‘examining the effect of changing treatment timing and the use of manual, electro acupuncture on the symptoms of primary dysmenorrhea’. It had four arms:
- low frequency manual acupuncture (LF-MA),
- high frequency manual acupuncture (HF-MA),
- low frequency electro acupuncture (LF-EA)
- and high frequency electro acupuncture (HF-EA).
A total of 74 women were given 12 treatments over three menstrual cycles, either once per week (LF groups) or three times in the week prior to menses (HF groups). All groups received a treatment in the first 48 hours of menses. The primary outcome was the reduction in peak menstrual pain at 12 months from trial entry.
During the treatment period and 9 month follow-up all groups showed statistically significant reductions in peak and average menstrual pain compared to baseline. However, there were no differences between groups. Health related quality of life increased significantly in 6 domains in groups having high frequency of treatment compared to two domains in low frequency groups. Manual acupuncture groups required less analgesic medication than electro-acupuncture groups. HF-MA was most effective in reducing secondary menstrual symptoms compared to both–EA groups.
The authors concluded that acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity and duration after three months of treatment and this was sustained for up to one year after trial entry. The effect of changing mode of stimulation or frequency of treatment on menstrual pain was not significant. This may be due to a lack of power. The role of acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials.
If I were not used to reading rubbish research of alternative medicine in general and acupuncture in particular, this RCT would amaze me – not so much because of its design, execution, or write-up, but primarily because of its conclusion (why, oh why, I ask myself, did PLOS ONE publish this paper?). They are, I think, utterly barmy.
Let me explain:
- “acupuncture treatment reduced menstrual pain intensity” – oh no, it didn’t; at least this is not what the study proves; the fact that pain was perceived as less could be due to a host of factors, for instance regression towards the mean, or social desirability; as there was no proper control group, nobody can tell;
- the lack of difference between treatments “may be due to a lack of power”. Yes, but more likely it is due to the fact that all versions of a placebo therapy generate similar outcomes.
- “acupuncture stimulation on menstrual pain needs to be investigated in appropriately powered randomised controlled trials”. Why? Because the authors have a quasi-religious belief in acupuncture? And if they have, why did they not design their study ‘appropriately’?
The best conclusion I can suggest for this daft trial is this: IN THIS STUDY, THE PRIMARY ENDPOINT SHOWED NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE 4 TREATMENT GROUPS. THE RESULTS ARE THEREFORE FULLY COMPATIBLE WITH THE NOTION THAT ACUPUNCTURE IS A PLACEBO THERAPY.
Something along these lines would, in my view, have been honest and scientific. Sadly, in acupuncture research, we very rarely get such honest science and the ‘National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia’ has no track record of being the laudable exception to this rule.
To a significant extend, this blog has always exposed untruths in the realm of alternative medicine – not just one or two, but hundreds. Obviously, some of them are more clear-cut than others. If, for instance, someone claims that acupuncture has been proven to be effective for a given condition, this many seem like a lie or untruth to you, like a misinterpretation of the evidence to someone else, or like the truth to a third person.
But there are some statements which are demonstrably false. These are often the most irritating lies, frequently forwarded by people who should know better and who nevertheless insist on not being truthful. Below I have listed a few, randomly-chosen examples upon which I have previously commented. For clarity, I have copied the quotes in question, linked them to my original posts, named the authors in brackets, and added a brief comment by myself in bold print.
I was at Exeter when Ernst took over what was already a successful Chair in CAM. (anonymous reviewer of my book at Amazon)
Anyone can check this fairly easily, for instance, in my memoir ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’, there was no pre-existing chair at Exeter.
Ernst’s leak of the Smallwood report (also front page lead in The Times, August 2005), (Dr Peter Fisher, homeopath of the Queen)
This was painfully investigated during a 13 (!) months inquiry which found that I did not leak this report. Again you find the full details in my memoir.
As far as this statement implies that homeopathy is effective for treating intoxications, this is not only a lie but a very dangerous nonsense.
If this is to suggest that homeopathy is of proven effectiveness in treating diseases of animals, this is a lie.
Homeoprophylaxis, the homeopathic vaccine alternative, prevents disease through nosodes. (Lisa is the mastermind behind All Natural Ideas)
Homeoprophylaxis has never been proven to prevent any disease; this lie could kill millions.
There are essentially two categories of critics. The first category consists of individuals who are totally ignorant of homeopathy and just repeating propaganda they’ve been exposed to. The second category is people who know that homeopathy works, but have a vested financial interest in destroying it. (Alan Schmukler, US homeopathy)
This lie is quite funny in its transparent defamation of the truth, I think.
Homeopathy works like a vaccine. (Dr Batra, Indian homeopath)
Homeopathy does not even remotely work like a vaccine; in fact, it works like a placebo, if at all.
…UK invests 0% of its research budget on CAM… (Dr Michael Dixon, GP and advisor to Prince Charles)
There has always been a sizable budget for CAM-research in the UK.
Even cancer viruses have, on record, been put into vaccinations. There is no actual vaccine for cancer. The only reason to put cancer viruses in the mix is to create more cases of cancer. In this day and age, one of the most dangerous things you can do for your health is to get vaccinated… (US homeopath)
In this short quote, there are more lies than I care to comment on. The paranoia of the anti-vaccination brigade is astounding and endangers many lives.
A lie is a statement used intentionally for the purpose of deception. In alternative medicine, we encounter so many lies that one would need to continually publish volume after volume to expose just the most harmful untruths. The danger of these lies is that some people might believe them. This could seriously harm their health. Another danger is that we might get used to them, trivialise them, or – like Trump and co – start thinking of them as ‘alternative facts’.
I will continue to do my best to prevent any of this from happening.
I have repeatedly cautioned about the often poor quality of research into alternative medicine. This seems particularly necessary with studies of acupuncture, and especially true for such research carried out in China. I have also frequently noted that certain ‘CAM journals’ are notoriously prone to publishing rubbish. So, what can we expect from a paper that:
- is on alternative medicine,
- focusses on acupuncture,
- is authored by Chinese researchers,
- was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (JACM)?
The answer is PROBABLY NOT A LOT!
As if for confirming my prediction, The JACM just published this systematic review. It reports pairwise and network meta-analyses to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture and acupuncture-related techniques for the treatment of psoriasis. A total of 13 RCTs were included. The methodological quality of these studies was ‘not rigorous’ according to the authors – in fact, it was lousy. Acupoint stimulation seemed to be more effective than non-acupoint stimulation. The short-term treatment effect was superior to the long-term effect (as one would expect with placebo). Network meta-analysis suggested that acupressure or acupoint catgut embedding generate superior effects compared to medications. It was noted that acupressure was the most effective treatment of all the acupuncture-like therapies.
The authors concluded that acupuncture-related techniques could be considered as an alternative or adjuvant therapy for psoriasis in short term, especially of acupressure and acupoint catgut embedding. This study recommends further well-designed, methodologically rigorous, and more head-to-head randomized trials to explore the effects of acupuncture-related techniques for treating psoriasis.
And what is wrong with that?
- The review is of very poor quality.
- The primary studies are even worse.
- The English language is defective to the point of being not understandable.
- The conclusions are misleading.
Correct conclusions should read something like this: Due to the paucity and the poor quality of the clinical trials, this review could not determine whether acupuncture and similar therapies are effective for psoriasis.
And then there is, of course, the question about plausibility. How plausible is the assumption that acupuncture might affect a genetic autoimmune disease like psoriasis. The answer, I think, is that the assumption is highly unlikely.
In the above review, most of the 13 primary RCTs were from China. One of the few studies not conducted in China is this one:
56 patients suffering from long-standing plaque psoriasis were randomized to receive either active treatment (electrostimulation by needles placed intramuscularly, plus ear-acupuncture) or placebo (sham, ‘minimal acupuncture‘) twice weekly for 10 weeks. The severity of the skin lesions was scored (PASI) before, during, and 3 months after therapy. After 10 weeks of treatment the PASI mean value had decreased from 9.6 to 8.3 in the ‘active’ group and from 9.2 to 6.9 in the placebo group (p < 0.05 for both groups). These effects are less than the usual placebo effect of about 30%. There were no statistically significant differences between the outcomes in the two groups during or 3 months after therapy. The patient’s own opinion about the results showed no preference for ‘active’ therapy. It was also clear from the answers that the blinded nature of the study had not been discovered by the patients. In conclusion, classical acupuncture is not superior to sham (placebo) ‘minimal acupuncture‘ in the treatment of psoriasis.
Somehow, I trust these conclusions more than the ones from the review!
And somehow, I get very tired of journal editors failing to do their job of rejecting papers that evidently are embarrassing, unethical rubbish.
The homeopath and homeopathic entrepreneur Fran Sheffield has made appearances on this blog before; for instance, I quoted her stating that homeoprophylaxis has a remarkable record of safety – vaccines less so. From the homeopath’s point of view they are still associated with risks: the dose is too strong, they have toxic additives, and they’re given by inappropriate pathways. Homeoprophylaxis has avoided these problems. It’s also versatile, inexpensive, quick to produce and easy to distribute…
I believe such irresponsible nonsense brought her into trouble; a Federal judge concluded that: “there is no reasonable basis, in the sense of an adequate foundation, in medical science to enable the First Respondent and the Second Respondent to state that Homeopathic Treatments are safe and effective as an alternative to the Vaccine for the Prevention of Whooping Cough”.
Perhaps this is why Fran is now focussing on less contentious (but equally profitable) subjects? In any case, Fran is back with an article claiming that homeopathy is effective for treating over-sexed children and adults.
If you happen to be a bit under the weather today, you should read it – it will cheer you up, I am sure:
START OF QUOTE
Hyos [Hyoscyamus niger]…is frequently well-suited to over-sexualised behaviour in either children or adults. Other helpful remedies also exist but Hyos is especially useful when the child is prone to jealousy, foolishness, silly, irritating behaviour they refuse to stop, anxiety about water, twitching, jerking and grimacing, and restless hands that constantly move, touch and pull at things. While not all these symptoms have to be present before Hyos can be prescribed, some degree of similarity should exist. In pronounced cases, epilepsy and mania may be present.
When parents in my clinic first hear that a homeopathic remedy like Hyos can return their child’s over-sexualised behaviour back to normal they usually look at me with disbelief but within a week of taking a dose, significant changes have usually taken place. By the next appointment, some weeks later, I normally hear that the silly behaviour and jealousy have reduced – or gone completely – along with the inappropriate sexuality. All this and more from one simple remedy.
On reading this, if you are wondering if treatment has to be forever, the answer is no. As with any form of homeopathic treatment, when physical and behavioural symptoms improve, the remedy is given less often. Once the symptoms have stopped so is the remedy as the child is back to a healthy state and no further treatment is needed.
If your child has this embarrassing and annoying problem, hopefully it helps to know that its not “just the way they are” but an imbalance that can be corrected. To achieve this, please see a reputable and qualified homeopath who can help you in your child’s treatment. The bonus is that as their precocious behaviour improves with treatment, so will their other health problems and life will become easier and more pleasant for all.
Fran Sheffield (Homeopath)
END OF QUOTE
If you think that Fran is an oddity amongst homeopaths in prescribing homeopathic remedies for sexual problems (or if you assume that there is a jot of evidence for homeopathic treatments of such conditions), you are mistaken. The Internet is full with similar advice. My favourite site must be this one because it offers very concrete help. Here are some of the prescriptions:
Some of the common and effective homeopathic remedies for treatment of loss of libido are Iodium, Plumbum Metallicum, Argentum Nitricum.
- Iodium: A useful remedy in men with loss of sexual power, with atrophied testes.
- Plumbum Metallicum: Valuable remedy in men with loss of sexual desire with constricted feeling of the testicles, and loss of sexual desire with progressive muscular atrophy.
- Argentum Nitricum: Useful remedy in nervous and anxious men with Complete loss of libido or in whom erection fails when coition is attempted.
Some of the common remedies used in treatment of impotence are Agnus castus, Argentum nitricum, Caladium, Causticum, Lycopodium, Selenium metallicum, Staphysagria.
- Agnus castus: If impotence develop after you have led a life of intense and frequent sexual activity for many years Agnus castus may be useful. If you feel a cold sensation in the genitals Agnus castus is indicated.
- Argentum nitricum: Useful remedy in men whose erection fails when sexual intercourse is attempted, particularly if thinking about the problem makes it worse.
- Caladium: Useful remedy for men whose genitals are completely limp…
The question that occurred to be when reading this is the following: Is there any conceivable stupidity in which homeopaths do not indulge?
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.