MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

holistic

If I tell you that I just read a book by a homeopath writing about homeopathy, would you doubt my sanity? But I did, and I read it in one session with great interest. The book is (in German) by Natalie Grams (perhaps I should mention that I had never heard of her before Springer sent me her book), a German doctor; it is entitled HOMOEOPATHIE NEU GEDACHT (Homeopathy newly considered). I liked it a lot.

The author discusses in some detail why basically everything homeopaths believe in is erroneous. You might think: so what, we all knew that. True, we did, but she then she concludes that homeopathy has still some value as some sort of psychotherapy. The remedy is effective because the consultation with a homeopath gives it a ‘meaning’ which is tailor-made for each patient. Now you will think: that this is hardly original, others have considered this before. And you are, of course, correct again.

So why did this book fascinate me? Mostly because, in a few passages, Natalie Grams tells her very personal story how she matured from an enthusiast to rationalist. This could be reminiscent of my own life, but it isn’t (and by no means do I agree with everything doctor Grams writes). I found myself in a homeopathic hospital directly after medical school, became a homeopath (of sorts), later I learnt to think critically and researched homeopathy. As a scientist, when the evidence was squarely negative, I said so loud and clear (I published the whole story with all the relevant details here).

Natalie Grams studied medicine and seemed to have become disenchanted with the lack of humanity in mainstream medicine (as a clinician, I often felt this too but always concluded that the solution was not to turn away from medicine but to re-introduce more humanity into it). Doctor Grams then experienced serious health problems which were cured/alleviated by homeopathy. This made her look into the subject a little closer. She decided to do the necessary courses, uncritically adopted most of what she was told by die-hard homeopaths and eventually fulfilled her dream: she opened her own private practice as a homeopath. In other words, she dropped out of real medicine and into homeopathy, while I, in a way, did the reverse.

Doctor Grams’ practice seemed to have been successful; many of her patients, even some with serious conditions, got better. All she had been told about homeopathy seemed to get confirmed in her clinical routine. Homeopaths, like most clinicians, remember their success stories and tend to forget their failures. If this happens over and over during an entire life-time, the last doubts a budding homeopath may have once had dissolve into thin air. The result is a clinician who is utterly convinced that like cures like and high dilutions are powerful medicines because water has a memory.

Up to this point, Dr Grams career is a textbook example of a homeopath who would bet on the life of her children that homeopathy is correct and science is wrong. The world is full of them, and I have personally met many. They are usually kind, empathetic and dedicated clinicians. But they are also totally impervious to reason. They have their experience and NOBODY is allowed to question it. If you do, you are no longer their friend.

This is where the typical story of homeopaths ends… and they happily lied ever after (to themselves, their patients and everyone else). Not so in the case of Natalie Grams!

When she was still an enthusiast, she decided to write a book. It was going to be a book that showed how good homeopathy was and how bad its critics were. To do this responsibly, she read a lot of the original literature. What she found shocked her. When reading her account, I could repeatedly feel the agony she must have felt through her discoveries. Eventually, she had no choice but to agree with most of the arguments of homeopathy’s critics and disagreed with practically all of the arguments of her fellow homeopaths.

I predict that Natalie’s painful ‘journey’ has not yet come to an end; she now argues that the 200 year old assumptions of homeopathy are all obsolete and homeopathy is certainly not an effective drug therapy. However, it may turn out to be a valuable ‘talking therapy’, she believes.

I hate to say it, but I am fairly certain that she will have to go through further agony and find that her discovery is not truly workable. It might have some theoretical value but, for a whole number of reasons, it will not function in real life heath care.

My hope is that Natalie will find her way back to what she calls ‘normal medicine’ (there is, of course, the danger that she does the opposite and wanders off into even more esoteric grounds). We need doctors like her who have empathy, compassion and understanding for their patients. These are qualities many homeopaths who I have met have in abundance – but these are qualities that belong not into the realm of quackery, they belong into real medicine.

In the past, I have been involved in several court cases where patients had complained about mistreatment by charlatans. Similarly I have acted as an expert witness for the General Medical Council in similar circumstances.

So, it is true, quacks are sometimes being held to account by their victims. But, generally speaking, patients seem to complain very rarely when they fall in the hands of even the most incompetent of quacks.

Here is one telling reminder showing how long it can take until a complaint is finally filed.

Dr Julian Kenyon is, according to his websitean integrated medicine physician and Medical Director of the Dove Clinic for Integrated Medicine, Winchester and London. Dr Julian Kenyon is Founder-Chairman of the British Medical Acupuncture Society in 1980 and Co-Founder of the Centre for the Study of Complementary Medicine in Southampton and London where he worked for many years before starting The Dove Clinic in 2000. He is also Founder/President of the British Society for Integrated Medicine and is an established authority in the field of complementary treatment approaches for a wide range of medical conditions. He has written approximately 20 books and has had many academic papers published in peer review journals* and has several patents to his name. He graduated from the University of Liverpool with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery and subsequently with a research degree, Doctor of Medicine. In 1972, he was appointed a Primary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh.

*[I found only 4 on Medline]

Kenyon has been on sceptics’ radar for a very long time. For instance, he is one of the few UK doctors who use ‘LIVE BLOOD ANALYSIS’, a bogus diagnostic method that can harm patients through false-negative or false-positive diagnoses. A 2003 undercover investigation for BBC 1 South’s ‘Inside Out’ accused Dr Julian Kenyon of using yet another spurious diagnostic test at his clinic near Winchester. Kenyon has, for many years, been working together with George Lewith, another of the country’s ‘leading’ complementary doctors. In 1994, the two published an article about their co-operation; here is its abstract:

This paper outlines the main research effort that has taken place within the Centre for the Study of Complementary Medicine over the last 10 years. It demonstrates the Centre’s expertise and interest in a whole variety of areas, including the social implications and development of complementary medicine, clinical trial methodology, the evaluation of complementary medical machinery, the effects of electromagnetic fields on health and the investigation of the subtle energetic processes involved in complementary medicine. Our future plans are outlined.

Lewith and Kenyon have been using a technique called electrodermal testing for more than 20 years. Considering the fact that the two doctors authored a BMJ paper which concluded that electrodermal machines couldn’t detect environmental allergies, this seems more than a little surprising.

Using secret filming, ‘Inside Out’ showed Dr Kenyon testing a six-year-old boy and then deciding that he is sensitive to dust mites. Later, Dr Kenyon insists that he made his diagnosis purely on the boy’s symptoms and that he didn’t use the machine to test for dust mites. The BBC then took the boy for a conventional skin prick test, which suggested he didn’t have any allergies at all. But Dr Kenyon then says the conventional test may not be accurate: “He may be one of the 10% who actually are negative to the skin tests but benefit from measures to reduce dust mite exposure.”

Despite this very public disclosure, Kenyon was able to practice unrestrictedly for many years.

In December 2014, it was reported in the Hampshire Chronicle that Dr Kenyon eventually did, after a complaint from a patient, end up in front of the General Medical Council’s conduct tribunal. The panel heard that, after a 20-minute consultation, which cost £300, Dr Kenyon told one terminally-ill man with late-stage cancer: “I am not claiming we can cure you, but there is a strong possibility that we would be able to increase your median survival time with the relatively low-risk approaches described here.” He also made bold statements about the treatment’s supposed benefits to an undercover reporter who posed as the husband of a woman with breast cancer.

After considering the full details of the case, Ben Fitzgerald, for the General Medical Council, had called for Dr Kenyon to be suspended, but the panel’s chairman Dr Surendra Kumar said Dr Kenyon’s misconduct was not serious enough to warrant a ban. The panel eventually imposed restrictions on Kenyon’s licence lasting for 12 months.

I estimate that patients are exposed to quackery from doctors and alternative practitioners thousands of times every day. Why then, I ask myself, do so few of them complain? Here are some of the possible answers to this important question:

  • They do not dare to.
  • They feel embarrassed.
  • They don’t know how to.
  • They cannot be bothered and fear the agro.
  • They fail to identify quackery and fall for the nonsense they are being told.
  • They even might perceive benefit from treatments which, in fact, are pure quackery.

Whatever the reasons, I think it is regrettable that not far more quacks are held to account – regardless of whether the charlatan in question as studied medicine or not. If you disagree, consider this: not filing a complaint means that many more patients will be put at risk.

I would have never thought that someone would be able to identify the author of the text I quoted in the previous post:

It is known that not just novel therapies but also traditional ones, such as homeopathy, suffer opposition and rejection by some doctors without having ever been subjected to serious tests. The doctor is in charge of medical treatment; he is thus responsible foremost for making sure all knowledge and all methods are employed for the benefit of public health…I ask the medical profession to consider even previously excluded therapies with an open mind. It is necessary that an unbiased evaluation takes place, not just of the theories but also of the clinical effectiveness of alternative medicine.

More often than once has science, when it relied on theory alone, arrived at verdicts which later had to be overturned – frequently this occurred only after long periods of time, after progress had been hindered and most acclaimed pioneers had suffered serious injustice. I do not need to remind you of the doctor who, more than 100 years ago, in fighting puerperal fever, discovered sepsis and asepsis but was laughed at and ousted by his colleagues throughout his lifetime. Yet nobody would today deny that this knowledge is most relevant to medicine and that it belongs to the basis of medicine. Insightful doctors, some of whom famous, have, during the recent years, spoken openly about the crisis in medicine and the dead end that health care has maneuvered itself into. It seems obvious that the solution is going in directions which embrace nature. Hardly any other form of science is so tightly bound to nature as is the science occupied with healing living creatures. The demand for holism is getting stronger and stronger, a general demand which has already been fruitful on the political level. For medicine, the challenge is to treat more than previously by influencing the whole organism when we aim to heal a diseased organ.

It is from the opening speech by Rudolf Hess on the occasion of the WORLD CONFERENCE ON HOMEOPATHY 1937, in Berlin. Hess, at the time Hitler’s deputy, was not the only Nazi-leader. I knew of the opening speech because, a few years ago, DER SPIEGEL published a theme issue on homeopathy, and they published a photo of the opening ceremony of this meeting. It shows many men in SS-uniform and, in the first row of the auditorium, we see Hess (as well as Himmler) ready to spring into action.

Hess in particular was besotted with alternative medicine which the Nazis elected to call NEUE DEUTSCHE HEILKUNDE. Somewhat to the dismay of today’s alternative medicine enthusiasts, I have repeatedly published on this aspect of alternative medicine’s past, and it also is an important part of my new book A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND which the lucky winner (my congratulations!) of my little competition to identify the author has won. The abstract of an 2001 article explains this history succinctly:

The aim of this article is to discuss complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) in the Third Reich. Based on a general movement towards all things natural, a powerful trend towards natural ways of healing had developed in the 19(th)century. By 1930 this had led to a situation where roughly as many lay practitioners of CAM existed in Germany as doctors. To re-unify German medicine under the banner of ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’, the Nazi officials created the ‘Heilpraktiker’ – a profession which was meant to become extinct within one generation. The ‘flag ship’ of the ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ was the ‘Rudolf Hess Krankenhaus’ in Dresden. It represented a full integration of CAM and orthodox medicine. An example of systematic research into CAM is the Nazi government’s project to validate homoeopathy. Even though the data are now lost, the results of this research seem to have been negative. Even though there are some striking similarities between today’s CAM and yesterday’s ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ there are important differences. Most importantly, perhaps, today’s CAM is concerned with the welfare of the individual, whereas the ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ was aimed at ensuring the dominance of the Aryan race.

One fascinating aspect of this past is the fact that the NEUE DEUTSCHE HEILKUNDE was de facto the invention of what we today call ‘integrated medicine’. Then it was more like a ‘shot-gun marriage’, while today it seems to be driven more by political correctness and sloppy thinking. It did not work 70 years ago for the same reason that it will fail today: the integration of bogus (non-evidence based) treatments into conventional medicine must inevitably render health care not better but worse!

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that, and Hess as well as other proponents of alternative medicine of his time had certainly got the idea. So they initiated the largest ever series of scientific tests of homeopathy. This research program was not just left to the homeopaths, who never had a reputation of being either rigorous or unbiased, but some of the best scientists of the era were recruited for it. The results vanished in the hands of the homeopaths during the turmoil of the war. But one eye-witness report of a homeopaths, Fritz Donner, makes it very clear: as it turned out, there was not a jot of evidence in favour of homeopathy.

And this, I think, is the other fascinating aspect of the story: homeopaths did not give up their plight to popularise homeopathy. On the contrary, they re-doubled their efforts to fool us all and to convince us with dodgy results (see recent posts on this blog) that homeopathy somehow does defy the laws of nature and is, in effect, very effective for all sorts of diseases.

My readers suggested all sorts of potential authors for the Hess speech; and they are right! It could have been written by any proponent of alternative medicine. This fact is amusing and depressing at the same time. Amusing because it discloses the lack of new ideas and arguments (even the same fallacies are being used). Depressing because it suggests that progress in alternative medicine is almost totally absent.

Recently I came across an interesting speech on alternative medicine which impressed me for a number of reasons. It made me think of a little game: the first person who correctly guesses who its author is, and posts the right answer as a comment on this blog, will receive a free copy of my new book A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND.

Here are 2 paragraphs from the speech in question:

It is known that not just novel therapies but also traditional ones, such as homeopathy, suffer opposition and rejection by some doctors without having ever been subjected to serious tests. The doctor is in charge of medical treatment; he is thus responsible foremost for making sure all knowledge and all methods are employed for the benefit of public health…I ask the medical profession to consider even previously excluded therapies with an open mind. It is necessary that an unbiased evaluation takes place, not just of the theories but also of the clinical effectiveness of alternative medicine.

More often than once has science, when it relied on theory alone, arrived at verdicts which later had to be overturned – frequently this occurred only after long periods of time, after progress had been hindered and most acclaimed pioneers had suffered serious injustice. I do not need to remind you of the doctor who, more than 100 years ago, in fighting puerperal fever, discovered sepsis and asepsis but was laughed at and ousted by his colleagues throughout his lifetime.  Yet nobody would today deny that this knowledge is most relevant to medicine and that it belongs to the basis of medicine. Insightful doctors, some of whom famous, have, during the recent years, spoken openly about the crisis in medicine and the dead end that health care has maneuvered itself into. It seems obvious that the solution is going in directions which embrace nature. Hardly any other form of science is so tightly bound to nature as is the science occupied with healing living creatures. The demand for holism is getting stronger and stronger, a general demand which has already been fruitful on the political level. For medicine, the challenge is to treat more than previously by influencing the whole organism when we aim to heal a diseased organ.

There are few concepts in medicine which are more often abused than that of ‘holistic medicine’. Professor Baum and many other well-reasoned observers have pointed out that true “holism in medicine is an open-ended and exquisitely complex understanding of human biology that over time has led to spectacular improvements in the length and quality of life of patients with cancer and that this approach encourages us to consider the transcendental as much as the cell and molecular biology of the human organism. ‘Alternative’ versions of holism are arid and closed belief systems, locked in a time warp, incapable of making progress yet quick to deny it in the field of scientific medicine.”

Holism does not belong to any type of health care, it is an essential characteristic of any type of good medicine; without it, health care is defective, almost by definition. This is not my personal opinion, it is and always has been the generally accepted view: it is a common misconception that holistic medicine is just ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medicine. Clinical holistic medicine actually dates as far back as Hippocrates. An holistic approach to patient care was also suggested by Percival in his book – the first textbook of medical ethics – first published in 1803. Percival stated: “The feeling and emotions of the patients require to be known and to be attended to, no less than the symptoms of their diseases.” More recently, John Macleod in his book ‘Clinical Examination’, first published in 1964, also commented that “we should aim to be holistic in our care”. Also, the seminal work by Michael Balint, ‘The Doctor, the Patient and his Illness’, first published in 1957, represents an important landmark in seeing the patient as a whole rather than as isolated pathology… An holistic approach is good practice and has been strongly advocated by the Royal College of General Practitioners for many years. 

Proponents of alternative medicine, however, tend to see this very differently. They have jumped on the ‘holistic band-wagon’ and frequently claim that they now own it: they pretend or imply to be the only clinicians who practice holistically. Thus a most effective straw man has been created, and conventional medicine is attacked by these ‘new-born holists’ for not being holistic.

One website may serve as an example for many: Holistic medicine (or holistic health) is a section of alternative medicine where practitioners believe that in order to successfully treat an illness or health problem, it is necessary to focus on the many components that make up an individual, including the mental and emotional aspects, rather than focusing exclusively on the physical symptoms or just the illness itself. Holistic medicine looks at the “whole package” in order to determine an appropriate path to healing.

More often than not, the ‘alternative path to healing’ turns out to consist of a series of bogus alternative treatments some of which may be directly harmful, while others are just useless but nevertheless detrimental because they replace effective therapies that would alleviate patients’ suffering.

In case you doubt this statement, I recommend searching the Internet for ‘holistic healing centres’. Just one website will have to stand for virtually thousands of others; this is the list of treatments offered in one UK holistic healing centre:

aromatherapy
bodytalk
bio resonance
bowen technique
clinical psychology
cognitive hypnotherapy
counselling
cranial osteopathy
crystal healing
deep tissue massage
dr hauschka rhythmic treatments
emotional freedom technique
food allergy testing
homeopathy
hypnotherapy
indian head massage
kinesiology
la stone massage therapy
metamorphic technique
mindfulness
naturopathy
neuro-linguisitc programming
nutritional therapy
osteopathy
pilates
pregnancy massage
psychotherapy
reflexology
reiki
remedial massage
shiatsu
sports therapy
swedish massage
yoga

I think it is important to realise what has happened here and what charlatans have made of holism which is (I repeat) a central and essential element of conventional health care. They have hijacked it, claimed they have a monopoly on it, used it to create a straw man misleading the public, and perverted it into a tool for attracting and financially exploiting the often all too gullible public.

And the reaction of conventional medicine to all this? Hardly any! Many conventional health care professionals seem now resigned to delegating holism to quacks. Some organisations, like the infamous COLLEGE OF MEDICINE, run by Prince Charles’ sycophants, have even taken an active role in supporting this shameful take-over.

I strongly feel that this regressive development will, in the end, render all of medicine less effective, less humane and will thus turn out to be a great disservice to patients.

‘Healing, hype or harm? A critical analysis of complementary or alternative medicine’ is the title of a book that I edited and that was published in 2008. Its publication date coincided with that of ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and therefore the former was almost completely over-shadowed by the latter. Consequently few people know about it. This is a shame, I think, and this post is dedicated to encouraging my readers to have a look at ‘Healing, hype or harm?’

One reviewer commented on Amazon about this book as follows: Vital and informative text that should be read by everyone alongside Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ and Singh and Ernt’s ‘Trick or Treatment’. Everyone should be able to made informed choices about the treatments that are peddled to the desperate and gullible. As Tim Minchin famously said ‘What do you call Alternative Medicine that has been proved to work? . . . Medicine!’

This is high praise indeed! But I should not omit the fact that others have commented that they were appalled by our book and found it “disappointing and unsettling”. This does not surprise me in the least; after all, alternative medicine has always been a divisive subject.

The book was written by a total of 17 authors and covers many important aspects of alternative medicine. Some of its most famous contributors are Michael Baum, Gustav Born, David Colquhoun, James Randi and Nick Ross. Some of the most important subjects include:

  • Compassion
  • Quackademia
  • Impartiality
  • Ethics
  • Politics
  • Holism
  • Vitalism
  • Placebo

As already mentioned, our book is already 6 years old; however, this does not mean that it is now out-dated. The subject areas were chosen such that it will be timely for a long time to come. Nor does this book reflect one single point of view; as it was written by over a dozen different experts with vastly different backgrounds, it offers an entire spectrum of views and attitudes. It is, in a word, a book that stimulates critical thinking and thoughtful analysis.

I sincerely think you should have a look at it… and, in case you think I am hoping to maximise my income by telling you all this: all the revenues from this book go to charity.

Twenty years ago, when I started my Exeter job as a full-time researcher of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), I defined the aim of my unit as applying science to CAM. At the time, this intention upset quite a few CAM-enthusiasts. One of the most prevalent arguments of CAM-proponents against my plan was that the study of CAM with rigorous science was quite simply an impossibility. They claimed that CAM included mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and other complex interventions which cannot not be put into the ‘straight jacket’ of conventional research, e. g. a controlled clinical trial. I spent the next few years showing that this notion was wrong. Gradually and hesitantly CAM researchers seemed to agree with my view – not all, of course, but first a few and then slowly, often reluctantly the majority of them.

What followed was a period during which several research groups started conducting rigorous tests of the hypotheses underlying CAM. All too often, the results turned out to be disappointing, to say the least: not only did most of the therapies in question fail to show efficacy, they were also by no means free of risks. Worst of all, perhaps, much of CAM was disclosed as being biologically implausible. The realization that rigorous scientific scrutiny often generated findings which were not what proponents had hoped for led to a sharp decline in the willingness of CAM-proponents to conduct rigorous tests of their hypotheses. Consequently, many asked whether science was such a good idea after all.

But that, in turn, created a new problem: once they had (at least nominally) committed themselves to science, how could they turn against it? The answer to this dilemma was easier that anticipated: the solution was to appear dedicated to science but, at the same time, to argue that, because CAM is subtle, holistic, complex etc., a different scientific approach was required. At this stage, I felt we had gone ‘full circle’ and had essentially arrived back where we were 20 years ago – except that CAM-proponents no longer rejected the scientific method outright but merely demanded different tools.

A recent article may serve as an example of this new and revised stance of CAM-proponents on science. Here proponents of alternative medicine argue that a challenge for research methodology in CAM/ICH* is the growing recognition that CAM/IHC practice often involves complex combination of novel interventions that include mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and others. Critics argue that the reductionist placebo controlled randomized control trial (RCT) model that works effectively for determining efficacy for most pharmaceutical or placebo trial RCTs may not be the most appropriate for determining effectiveness in clinical practice for either CAM/IHC or many of the interventions used in primary care, including health promotion practices. Therefore the reductionist methodology inherent in efficacy studies, and in particular in RCTs, may not be appropriate to study the outcomes for much of CAM/IHC, such as Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM) or other complex non-CAM/IHC interventions—especially those addressing comorbidities. In fact it can be argued that reductionist methodology may disrupt the very phenomenon, the whole system, that the research is attempting to capture and evaluate (i.e., the whole system in its naturalistic environment). Key issues that surround selection of the most appropriate methodology to evaluate complex interventions are well described in the Kings Fund report on IHC and also in the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) guidelines for evaluating complex interventions—guidelines which have been largely applied to the complexity of conventional primary care and care for patients with substantial comorbidity. These reports offer several potential solutions to the challenges inherent in studying CAM/IHC. [* IHC = integrated health care]

Let’s be clear and disclose what all of this actually means. The sequence of events, as I see it, can be summarized as follows:

  • We are foremost ALTERNATIVE! Our treatments are far too unique to be subjected to reductionist research; we therefore reject science and insist on an ALTERNATIVE.
  • We (well, some of us) have reconsidered our opposition and are prepared to test our hypotheses scientifically (NOT LEAST BECAUSE WE NEED THE RECOGNITION THAT THIS MIGHT BRING).
  • We are dismayed to see that the results are mostly negative; science, it turns out, works against our interests.
  • We need to reconsider our position.
  • We find it inconceivable that our treatments do not work; all the negative scientific results must therefore be wrong.
  • We always said that our treatments are unique; now we realize that they are far too holistic and complex to be submitted to reductionist scientific methods.
  • We still believe in science (or at least want people to believe that we do) – but we need a different type of science.
  • We insist that RCTs (and all other scientific methods that fail to demonstrate the value of CAM) are not adequate tools for testing complex interventions such as CAM.
  • We have determined that reductionist research methods disturb our subtle treatments.
  • We need pragmatic trials and similarly ‘soft’ methods that capture ‘real life’ situations, do justice to CAM and rarely produce a negative result.

What all of this really means is that, whenever the findings of research fail to disappoint CAM-proponents, the results are by definition false-negative. The obvious solution to this problem is to employ different (weaker) research methods, preferably those that cannot possibly generate a negative finding. Or, to put it bluntly: in CAM, science is acceptable only as long as it produces the desired results.

Informed consent is generally considered to be an essential precondition for any health care practice. It requires the clinician giving the patient full information about the condition and the possible treatments. Amongst other things, the following information may be needed:

  • the nature and prognosis of the condition,
  • the evidence regarding the efficacy and risks of the proposed treatment,
  • the evidence regarding alternative options.

Depending on the precise circumstances of the clinical situation, patient’s consent can be given either in writing or orally. Not obtaining any form of informed consent is a violation of the most fundamental ethics of health care.

In alternative medicine, informed consent seems often to be woefully neglected. This may have more than one reason:

  • practitioners have frequently no adequate training in medical ethics,
  • there is no adequate regulation and control of alternative practitioners,
  • practitioners have conflicts of interest and might view informed consent as commercially counter-productive

In order to render this discussion less theoretical, I will outline several scenarios from the realm of chiropractic. Specifically, I will discuss the virtual case of an asthma patient consulting a chiropractor for alleviation of his symptoms. I should stress that I have chosen chiropractic merely as an example – the issues outlines below apply to chiropractic as much as they apply to most other forms of alternative medicine.

SCENARIO 1

Our patient has experienced breathing problems and has heard that chiropractors are able to help this kind of condition. He consults a ‘straight’ chiropractor who adheres to Palmer’s gospel of ‘subluxation’. She explains to the patient that chiropractors use a holistic approach. By adjusting subluxations in the spine, she is confident to stimulate healing which will naturally ease the patient’s breathing problems. No conventional diagnosis is discussed, nor is there any mention of the prognosis, likelihood of benefit, risks of treatment and alternative therapeutic options.

SCENARIO 2

Our patient consults a chiropractor who does not fully believe in the ‘subluxation’ theory of chiropractic. She conducts a thorough examination of our patient’s spine and diagnoses several spinal segments that are blocked. She tells our patient that he might be suffering from asthma and that spinal manipulation might remove the blockages and thus increase the mobility of the spine which, in turn, would alleviate his breathing problems. She does not mention risks of the proposed interventions nor other therapeutic options.

SCENARIO 3

Our patient visits a chiropractor who considers herself a back pain specialist. She takes a medical history and conducts a physical examination. Subsequently she informs the patient that her breathing problems could be due to asthma and that she is neither qualified nor equipped to ascertain this diagnosis. She tells out patient that chiropractic is not an effective treatment for asthma but that his GP would be able to firstly make a proper diagnosis and secondly prescribe the optimal treatment for her condition. She writes a short note summarizing her thoughts and hands it to our patient to give it to his GP.

One could think of many more scenarios but the three above seem to cover a realistic spectrum of what a patient might encounter in real life. It seems clear, that the chiropractor in scenario 1 and 2 failed dismally regarding informed consent. In other words, only scenario 3 describes a behaviour that is ethically acceptable.

But how likely is scenario 3? I fear that it is an extremely rare turn of events. Even if well-versed in both medical ethics and scientific evidence, a chiropractor might think twice about providing all the information required for informed consent – because, as scenario 3 demonstrates, full informed consent in chiropractic essentially discourages a patient from agreeing to be treated. In other words, chiropractors have a powerful conflict of interest which prevents them to adhere to the rules of informed consent.

AND, AS POINTED OUT ALREADY, THAT DOES NOT JUST APPLY TO CHIROPRACTIC, IT APPLIES TO MOST OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE! IT SEEMS TO FOLLOW, I FEAR, THAT MUCH OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE IS UNETHICAL.

THERE WILL NEVER BE AN ALTERNATIVE CANCER CURE

This statement contradicts all those thousands of messages on the Internet that pretend otherwise. Far too many ‘entrepreneurs’ are trying to exploit desperate cancer patients by making claims about alternative cancer ‘cures’ ranging from shark oil to laetrile and from Essiac to mistletoe. The truth is that none of them are anything other than bogus.

Why? Let me explain.

If ever a curative cancer treatment emerged from the realm of alternative medicine that showed any promise at all, it would be very quickly researched by scientists and, if the results were positive, instantly adopted by mainstream oncology. The notion of an alternative cancer cure is therefore a contradiction in terms. It implies that oncologists are mean bastards who would, in the face of immense suffering, reject a promising cure simply because it did not originate from their own ranks.

BUT THAT DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN THAT ALTERNATIVE CANCER TREATMENTS ARE USELESS

So, let’s forget about alternative cancer ‘cures’ and let’s once and for all declare the people who sell or promote them as charlatans of the worst type. But some alternative therapies might nevertheless have a role in oncology – not as curative treatments but as supportive or palliative therapies.

The aim of supportive or palliative cancer care is not to cure the disease but to ease the suffering of cancer patients. According to my own research, promising evidence exists in this context, for instance, for massage, guided imagery, Co-enzyme Q10, acupuncture for nausea, and relaxation therapies. For other alternative therapies, the evidence is not supportive, e.g. reflexology, tai chi, homeopathy, spiritual healing, acupuncture for pain-relief, and aromatherapy.

So, in the realm of supportive and palliative care there is both encouraging as well as disappointing evidence. But what amazes me over and over again is the fact that the majority of cancer centres employing alternative therapies seem to bother very little about the evidence; they tend to use a weird mix of treatments regardless of whether they are backed by evidence or not. If patients like them, all is fine, they seem to think. I find this argument worrying.

Of course, every measure that increases the well-being of cancer patients must be welcome. But this should not mean that we disregard priorities or adopt any quackery that is on offer. In the interest of patients, we need to spend the available resources in the most effective ways. Those who argue that a bit of Reiki or reflexology, for example, is useful – if only via a non-specific (placebo) effects – seem to forget that we do not require quackery for patients to benefit from a placebo-response. An evidence-based treatment that is administered with kindness and compassion also generates specific non-specific effects. In addition, such treatments also generate specific effects. Therefore it would be a disservice to patients to merely rely on the non-specific effects of bogus treatments, even if the patients do experience some benefit from them.

ALTERNATIVE ‘PAMPERING’ AS A COMPENSATION FOR INADEQUACIES IN THE SYSTEM?

So, why are unproven or disproven treatments like Reiki or reflexology so popular for cancer palliation? This question has puzzled me for years, and I sometimes wonder whether some oncologists’ tolerance of quackery is not an attempt to compensate for any inadequacies within the routine service they deliver to their patients. Sub-standard care, unappetising food, insufficient pain-control, lack of time and compassion as well as other problems undoubtedly exist in some cancer units. It might be tempting to assume that such deficiencies can be compensated by a little pampering from a reflexologist or Reiki master. And it might be easier to hire a few alternative therapists for treating patients with agreeable yet ineffective interventions than to remedy the deficits that may exist in basic conventional care.

But this strategy would be wrong, unethical and counter-productive. Empathy, sympathy and compassion are core features of conventional care and must not be delegated to quacks.

I regularly used to ask alternative practitioners what diseases they are good at treating. In fact, we once ran an entire research project dedicated to this question and found that their own impressions were generally based on wishful thinking rather than on evidence. The libel case of the BCA versus Simon Singh then brought this issue into the focus of the public eye, and consequently several professional organisations of alternative practitioners seem to have advised their members to be cautious about making unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. This could have been an important step into the right direction – unless, of course, a clever trick had not been devised to bypass the need for evidence. Today, when I ask alternative practitioners ‘what do you treat effectively?’ I tend to get answers like:

  • Alternative practitioners, unlike conventional clinicians, do not treat diseases.
  • I treat the whole person, not just the disease.
  • I treat people and their specific set of signs and symptoms, rather than disease labels (this actually is a quote from the comments section of one of my recent posts).
  • I focus on the totality of the symptoms; disease labels are irrelevant in the realm of my therapy.
  • Chiropractors adjust subluxations which are the root cause for most diseases.
  • Acupuncturists re-balance life energies which is a precondition for healing to commence irrespective of the disease.
  • Homeopaths treat the totality of symptoms so that the patient’s vital force can do the healing.
  • etc. etc.

All of these statements are deeply rooted in the long obsolete notions of vitalism, i.e. the assumption that a vital energy flows in all living organisms and is responsible for our health irrespective of the disease we happen to suffer from. But what do the answers to my question ‘what do you treat?’ really mean? If we analyse the above responses critically, they seem to imply that:

  1. Conventional clinicians do not treat patients but merely disease labels.
  2. Alternative practitioners can successfully treat any disease or condition.

Ad 1 In my view, it is arrogant and grossly unfair to claim that alternative practitioners work holistically, while conventional health care professionals do not. I have pointed out repeatedly that any good medicine always has been and always will be holistic. High-jacking holism as a specific characteristic for alternative medicine is misleading and an insult to all conventional clinicians who do their best to practice good medicine.

Ad 2 By claiming that they treat the whole person irrespective of her disease, alternative practitioners effectively try to give themselves a ‘carte blanche’ for treating any disease or any condition or any symptom. If a child has asthma, a chiropractor will find a subluxation, adjust it with spinal manipulation, and claim that the child’s condition will improve as a consequence of his treatment – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a person wants to give up smoking, an acupuncturist will use acupuncture to re-balance her yin and yang claiming that this intervention will make smoking cessation more successful – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a patient suffers from cancer, a homeopath might find a remedy that promotes her vital energy claiming that the cancer will subsequently be cured – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE which in all of the three cases is negative.

The claim of alternative practitioners to not treat disease labels but the whole patient is doubtlessly attractive to consumers and it is also extremely good for business. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be a distraction from the fact that alternative practitioners treat everything and anything, usually without the slightest evidence that their interventions generates more good than harm. It allows alternative practitioners to live in a fool’s paradise of quackery where they believe themselves to be protected from any challenges and demands for evidence.

Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories