MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

integrative medicine

In Germany, homeopathy had been an undisputed favourite for a very long time. Doctors prescribed it, Heilpraktiker recommended it, patients took it and consumers, politicians, journalists, etc. hardly ever questioned it. But recently, this has changed; thanks not least to the INH and the ‘Muensteraner Kreis‘, some Germans are finally objecting to paying for the homeopathic follies of others. Remarkably, this might even have led to a dent in the sizable profits of homeopathy producers: while in 2016 the industry sold about 55 million units of homeopathic preparations, the figure had decreased to ‘just’ ~53 million in 2017.

Enough reason, it seems, for some manufacturers to panic. The largest one is the DHU (Deutsche Homoeopathische Union), and they recently decided to go on the counter attack by investing into a large PR campaign. This article (in German, I’m afraid) explains:

…Unter dem Hashtag #MachAuchDuMit lädt die Initiative Anwenderinnen und Anwender ein, ihre guten Erfahrungen in Sachen Homöopathie zu teilen. “Über 30 Millionen zufriedene Menschen setzen für ihre Gesundheit auf Homöopathie und vertrauen ihr. Mit unserer Initiative wollen wir das Selbstbewusstsein der Menschen stärken, sich für die Homöopathie zu entscheiden oder mindestens für eine freie Wahl einzustehen,” so Peter Braun, Geschäftsführer der DHU…

“Die Therapiefreiheit, die in unserem Slogan mit “Meine Entscheidung!” zum Ausdruck kommt, ist uns das wichtigste in dieser Initiative”, unterstreicht Peter Braun. Und dafür lohnt es sich aktiv zu werden, wie der Schweizer weiß. 2017 haben sich die Menschen in der Schweiz per Volksabstimmung für das Konzept einer integrativen Medizin entschieden. Neben der Schulmedizin können dort auch weitere Therapieverfahren wie Homöopathie oder Naturmedizin zum Einsatz kommen.

In Deutschland will die DHU mit ihrer Initiative Transparenz schaffen und die Homöopathie hinsichtlich Fakten und Erfolge realistisch darstellen. Dafür besteht offensichtlich Bedarf: “Wir als DHU haben in der jüngsten Vergangenheit dutzende spontane Anfragen bekommen, für die Homöopathie Flagge zu zeigen”.

Was die Inhalte der Initiative angeht betont Peter Braun, dass es dabei nie um ein “Entweder-Oder” zwischen Schulmedizin und anderen Therapieverfahren gehen soll: “Die Kombination der jeweils am besten für den Patienten passenden Methode im Sinne von “Hand-in-Hand” ist das Ziel der modernen integrativen Medizin. In keiner Art und Weise ist eine Entscheidung für die Homöopathie eine Entscheidung gegen die Schulmedizin. Beides hat seine Berechtigung und ergänzt sich in vielen Fällen.”

——————————————————————————————————————

For those who do not read German, I will pick out a few central themes from the text.

Amongst other things, the DHU proclaim that:

  1. Homeopathy has millions of satisfied customers in Germany.
  2. The campaign aims at defending customers’ choice.
  3. The campaign declares to present the facts realistically.
  4. The decision is “never an ‘either or’ between conventional medicine (Schulmedizin) and other methods”; combining those therapies that suit the patient best is the aim of modern Integrative Medicine.

It is clear to anyone who is capable of critical thinking tha
t these 4 points are fallacious to the extreme. For those to whom it isn’t so clear, let me briefly explain:

  1. The ‘appeal to popularity’ is a classical fallacy.
  2. Nobody wants to curtail patients’ freedom to chose the therapy they want. The discussion is about who should pay for ineffective remedies. Even if homeopathy will, one day, be no longer reimbursable in Germany, consumers will still be able to buy it with their own money.
  3. The campaign has so far not presented the facts about homeopathy (i. e. the remedies contain nothing, homeopathy relies on implausible assumptions, the evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are effective beyond placebo).
  4. Hahnemann called all homeopaths who combined his remedies with conventional treatments ‘traitors’ (‘Verraeter’) and coined the term ‘Schulmedizin’ to defame mainstream medicine.

The DHU campaign has only started recently, but already it seems to backfire big way. Social media are full with comments pointing out how pathetic it truly is, and many Germans have taken to making fun at it on social media. Personally, I cannot say I blame them – not least because the latest DHU campaign reminds me of the 2012 DHU-sponsored PR campaign. At the time, quackometer reported:

A consortium of pharmaceutical companies in Germany have been paying a journalist €43,000 to run a set of web sites that denigrates an academic who has published research into  their products.

These companies, who make homeopathic sugar pills, were exposed in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in an article, Schmutzige Methoden der sanften Medizin (The Dirty Tricks of Alternative Medicine.)

This story has not appeared in the UK media. And it should. Because it is a scandal that directly involves the UK’s most prominent academic in Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The newspaper accuses the companies of funding the journalist, Claus Fritzsche, to denigrate critics of homeopathy. In particular, the accusation is that Fritzsche wrote about UK academic Professor Edzard Ernst on several web sites and then linked them together in order to raise their Google ranking. Fritzsche continually attacks Ernst of being frivolous, incompetent and partisan…

This story ended tragically; Fritzsche committed suicide.

My impression is that the PR-campaigns of homeopaths in general and the DHU in particular are rather ill-fated. Perhaps they should just forget about PR and do what responsible manufacturers should aim at doing: inform the public according to the best evidence currently available, even if this might make a tiny dent in their huge profits.

The UK ‘COLLEGE OF MEDICINE’ has recently (and very quietly) renamed itself; it now is THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE AND INTEGRATED HEALTH (COMIH). This takes it closer to its original intentions of being the successor of the PRINCE OF WALES FOUNDATION FOR INTEGRATED MEDICINE (PWFIM), the organisation that had to be shut down amidst charges of fraud and money-laundering. Originally, the name of COMIH was to be COLLEGE OF INTEGRATED HEALTH (as opposed to disintegrated health?, I asked myself at the time).

Under the leadership of Dr Michael Dixon, OBE (who also led the PWFIM into its demise), the COMIH pursues all sots of activities. One of them seems to be publishing ‘cutting-edge’ articles.

A recent and superb example is on the fascinating subject of ‘holistic dentistry‘:

START OF QUOTE

Professor Sonia Williams … explores how integrated oral health needs to consider the whole body, not just the dentition…

Complementary and alternative approaches can also be considered as complementary to ‘mainstream’ care, with varying levels of evidence cited for their benefit.

Dental hypnosis (British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis) can help support patients including those with dental phobia or help to reduce pain experience during treatment.

Acupuncture in dentistry (British Society of Dental Acupuncture) can, for instance, assist with pain relief and allay the tendency to vomit during dental care.  There is also a British Homeopathic Dental Association.

For the UK Faculty of General Dental Practitioners, holistic dentistry refers to strengthening the link between general and oral health.

For some others, the term also represents an ‘alternative’ form of dentistry, which may concern itself with the avoidance and elimination of ‘toxic’ filling materials, perceived potential harm from fluoride and root canal treatments and with treating dental malocclusion to put patients back in ‘balance’.

In the USA, there is a Holistic Dental Association, while in the UK, there is the British Society for Mercury-free Dentistry. Unfortunately the evidence base for many of these procedures is weak.

Nevertheless, pressure to avoid mercury in dental restorative materials is becoming mainstream.

In summary, integrated health and care in dentistry can mean different things to different people. The weight of evidence supports the contention that the mouth is an integral part of the body and that attention to the one without taking account of the other can have adverse consequences.

END OF QUOTE

Do I get this right? ‘Holistic dentistry’ in the UK means the recognition that my mouth belongs to my body, and the adoption of a few dubious treatments with w ‘weak’ evidence base?

Well, isn’t this just great? I had no idea that my mouth belongs to my body. And clearly the non-holistic dentists in the UK are oblivious to this fact as well. I am sooooooo glad we got this cleared up.

Thanks COMIH!!!

And what about the alternative treatments used by holistic dentists?

The British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis (Scotland) inform us on their website that a trained medical and dental hypnotherapists can help you to deal with a large variety of challenges that you face in your everyday life e.g.

Asthma Migraines
Anxiety & Stress Smoking Cessation
Dental Problems Insomnia
Weight Problems Psychosexual Disorders
Depression Pain Management
Irritable Bowel  And many other conditions

I hasten to add that, for most of these conditions, the evidence fails to support the claims.

The British Society of Dental Acupuncture claim on their website that the typical conditions that may be helped by acupuncture are:

  • TMJ (jaw joint) problems
  • Facial pain
  • Muscle spasm in the head and neck
  • Stress headaches & Migraine
  • Rhinitis & sinusitis
  • Gagging
  • Dry mouth problems
  • Post-operative pain
  • Dental anxiety

I hasten to add that, for most of these conditions, the evidence fails to support the claims.

The British Homeopathic Dental Association claim on their website that studies have shown improved bone healing around implants with Symphytum and reduced discomfort and improved healing time with ulcers and beneficial in oral lichen planus.

I hasten to add that none of these claims are not supported by sound evidence.

The COMIH article is entitled “The mouth reflects whole body health – but what does integrated care mean for dentists?’ So, what does it mean? Judging from this article, it means an amalgam (pun intended) of platitudes, bogus claims and outright nonsense.

Pity that they did not change their name to College of Medicine and Integrated Care – I could have abbreviated it as COMIC!

In recent days, journalists across the world had a field day (mis)reporting that doctors practising integrative medicine were doing something positive after all. I think that the paper shows nothing of the kind – but please judge for yourself.

The authors of this article wanted to determine differences in antibiotic prescription rates between conventional General Practice (GP) surgeries and GP surgeries employing general practitioners (GPs) additionally trained in integrative medicine (IM) or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) (referred to as IM GPs) working within National Health Service (NHS) England.

They conducted a retrospective study on antibiotic prescription rates per STAR-PU (Specific Therapeutic group Age–sex weighting Related Prescribing Unit) using NHS Digital data over 2016. Publicly available data were used on prevalence of relevant comorbidities, demographics of patient populations and deprivation scores. setting Primary Care. Participants were 7283 NHS GP surgeries in England. The association between IM GPs and antibiotic prescribing rates per STAR-PU with the number of antibiotic prescriptions (total, and for respiratory tract infection (RTI) and urinary tract infection (UTI) separately) as outcome. results IM GP surgeries (n=9) were comparable to conventional GP surgeries in terms of list sizes, demographics, deprivation scores and comorbidity prevalence.

Statistically significant fewer total antibiotics  were prescribed at NHS IM GP surgeries compared with conventional NHS GP surgeries. In contrast, the number of antibiotics prescribed for UTI were similar between both practices.

The authors concluded that NHS England GP surgeries employing GPs additionally trained in IM/CAM have lower antibiotic prescribing rates. Accessibility of IM/CAM within NHS England primary care is limited. Main study limitation is the lack of consultation data. Future research should include the differences in consultation behaviour of patients self-selecting to consult an IM GP or conventional surgery, and its effect on antibiotic prescription. Additional treatment strategies for common primary care infections used by IM GPs should be explored to see if they could be used to assist in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

The study was flimsy to say the least:

  • It was retrospective and is therefore open to no end of confounders.
  • There were only 9 surgeries in the IM group.

Moreover, the results were far from impressive. The differences in antibiotic prescribing between the two groups of GP surgeries were minimal or non-existent. Finally, the study was financed via an unrestricted grant of WALA Heilmittel GmbH, Germany (“approx. 900 different remedies conforming to the anthroposophic understanding of man and nature”) and its senior author has a long track record of publishing papers promotional for anthroposophic medicine.

Such pseudo-research seems to be popular in the realm of CAM, and I have commented before on similarly futile projects. The comparison, I sometimes use is that of a Hamburger restaurant:

Employees by a large Hamburger chain set out to study the association between utilization of Hamburger restaurant services and vegetarianism. The authors used a retrospective cohort design. The study population comprised New Hampshire residents aged 18-99 years, who had entered the premises of a Hamburger restaurant within 90 days for a primary purpose of eating. The authors excluded subjects with a diagnosis of cancer. They measured the likelihood of  vegetarianism among recipients of services delivered by Hamburger restaurants compared with a control group of individuals not using meat-dispensing facilities. They also compared the cohorts with regard to the money spent in Hamburger restaurants. The adjusted likelihood of being a vegetarian was 55% lower among the experimental group compared to controls. The average money spent per person in Hamburger restaurants were also significantly lower among the Hamburger group.

To me, it is obvious that such analyses must produce a seemingly favourable result for CAM. In the present case, there are several reasons for this:

  1. GPs who volunteer to be trained in CAM tend to be in favour of ‘natural’ treatments and oppose synthetic drugs such as antibiotics.
  2. Education in CAM would only re-inforce this notion.
  3. Similarly, patients electing to consult IM GPs tend to be in favour of ‘natural’ treatments and oppose synthetic drugs such as antibiotics.
  4. Such patients might be less severely ill that the rest of the patient population (the data from the present study do in fact imply this to be true).
  5. These phenomena work in concert to generate less antibiotic prescribing in the IM group.

In the final analysis, all this finding amounts to is a self-fulfilling prophecy: grocery shops sell less meat than butchers! You don’t believe me? Perhaps you need to read a previous post then; it concluded that physicians practicing integrative medicine (the 80% who did not respond to the survey were most likely even worse) not only use and promote much quackery, they also tend to endanger public health by their bizarre, irrational and irresponsible attitudes towards vaccination.

What is upsetting with the present paper, in my view, are the facts that:

  • a reputable journal published this junk,
  • the international press has a field-day reporting this study implying that CAM is a good thing.

The fact is that it shows nothing of the kind. Imagine we send GPs on a course where they are taught to treat all their patients with blood-letting. This too would result in less prescription of antibiotics, wouldn’t it? But would it be a good thing? Of course not!

True, we prescribe too much antibiotics. Nobody doubts that. And nobody doubts that it is a big problem. The solution to this problem is not more CAM, but less antibiotics. To realise the solution we do not need to teach GPs CAM but we need to remind them of the principles of evidence-based practice. And the two are clearly not the same; in fact, they are opposites.

 

The Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, recently re-named as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM), has been one of the most influential homeopathic hospitals in the world. It was founded in 1849 by Dr Frederick Foster Hervey Quin. In 1895, a new and larger hospital was opened on its present site in Great Ormond Street. Many famous homeopaths have worked there, including Robert Ellis Dudgeon, John Henry Clarke, James Compton Burnett, Edward Bach, Charles E Wheeler, James Kenyon, Margaret Tyler, Douglas Borland, Sir John Weir, Donald Foubister, Margery Blackie and Ralph Twentyman. In 1920, the hospital received Royal Patronage from the Duke of York, later King George VI, who also became its president in 1924, and in 1936, the Hospital was honoured by the Patronage of His Majesty the King gaining its ‘Royal’ prefix in 1947. Today, Queen Elizabeth II is the Hospital’s Patron.

On 18 June 1972, 16 of the hospital’s doctors and colleagues on board were killed in a plane crash. During the following years, several reductions in size and income took place. From 2002 to 2005, the hospital underwent a £20m redevelopment and, in 2010, its name was changed to Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine.

The hospital just published a new brochure for patients. It contains interesting information and therefore, I will quote directly from this document.

START OF QUOTES

The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM) is part of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and accepts all NHS referrals. GP referrals are by letter or via Choose and Book. Patients can also be referred by their NHS hospital consultant.

NHS Choices provides information and an opportunity to provide feedback about our service at www.nhs.uk
….

The General Medicine Service is led by three consultant physicians. The team also includes other doctors and nurses, a dietitian, a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist and a psychotherapist. The service sees patients with chronic and complex conditions. The team is trained in many areas of complementary medicine. These are used alongside orthodox treatment, allowing them to offer a fully integrated General Medicine service. The General Medicine Service offers a full range of diagnostic tests as well as a variety of treatments and advice on orthodox treatment.

From 3rd April 2018, The Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM) will no longer be providing NHS-funded homeopathic remedies for any patients as part of their routine care. This is in line with the funding policy of Camden Clinical Commissioning Groups, the local NHS body that plans and pays for healthcare services in this area.

Should you choose you will be able to purchase these medicines from the RLHIM pharmacy, while other homeopathic pharmacies may also be able to supply the medicines. You can speak to your clinician or the RLHIM pharmacy at your next visit about this…

Conditions commonly seen include:

  • Recurrent infections, such as colds, sore throats, cystitis, thrush, chest infections and bacterial infections
  • Some persistent symptoms where tests have not revealed a serious underlying disorder
  • Asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Digestive disorders, for example acid reflux, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
  • Endocrine (glandular) disorders such as under-active thyroid
  • Type II diabetes
  • Some types of heart disease, high blood pressure and palpitations (requiring no orthodox treatment)
  • Chronic headache such as migraine or tension-type headache
  • Side effects of prescribed medications

END OF QUOTES

Clearly, the big news here is that the RLHIM has been forced to stop providing NHS-funded homeopathics. This could be indicative of what might soon happen throughout NHS England.

But there are other items that I find remarkable: “The General Medicine Service offers a full range of diagnostic tests as well as a variety of treatments and advice on orthodox treatment.” Call me a nit-picker, but this is not INTEGRATED! Integrated medicine means employing both alternative as well as conventional therapies in parallel. The best of BOTH worlds and all that…

In the same vein is the statement that they treat “some types of heart disease, high blood pressure and palpitations (requiring no orthodox treatment)” I am sorry, but this again is not INTEGRATED MEDICINE! I ask myself, is it ethical to mislead patients, colleagues, NHS officials and everyone else pretending to deliver ‘integrated medicine’, while in fact all they seem to offer is ‘alternative medicine’?

The RLHIM has recently dropped the term HOMEOPATHY from its name. Soon it might have to also abandon the term INTEGRATED, because it does not seem to be able to provide a safe level of conventional medicine.

How shall we then call it?

Suggestions please!

Doctor Jonas is an important figure head of US ‘Integrative Medicine’. As we discussed in a recent post, he pointed out that many US hospital doctors fail to answer the following questions relating to their chronically ill patients:

  1. “What matters most for this patient?
  2. What is the person’s lifestyle like – their nutrition, movement and sleep?
  3. How does that patient manage their stress?
  4. Does that patient have a good support system at home?
  5. What supplements does that patient take? Has your patient seen any CAM practitioners to cope with their condition?
  6. Why do they want to get well?”

In my previous post, I tried to explain that this is embarrassing – embarrassing for doctor Jonas, I meant.

But Jonas also claims that most US hospital doctors he addressed during his lecture tour, were unable to answer these questions. And that might be embarrassing not for Jonas, but for those physicians. Let’s consider this possibility for a moment.

The way I see it, the doctors in question might not have answered to Jonas for the following reasons:

  • They felt that the questions were simply too daft to bother.
  • They were too polite to tell Jonas what they think of him.
  • They were truly unable to answer the questions.

Here I want to briefly deal with the last category.

I do not doubt for a minute that this category of physician exists. They have little interest in what matters to their patients, don’t ask the right questions, have no time and even less empathy and compassion. Yet nobody can deny that medical school teaches all of these qualities, skills and attitudes. And there is no doubt that good doctors practice them; it is not a choice but an ethical and moral imperative.

So, what went wrong with these doctors?

Probably lots, and I cannot begin to tell you what exactly. However, I can easily tell you that those doctors are not practicing good medicine. Similarly, I can tell you what these doctors ought to do: re-train and be reminded of what medical school has once taught them.

And what about those physicians who advocate ‘integrated medicine’ reminding everyone of the core values of healthcare?

Aren’t they fabulous?

No, they aren’t!

Why?

Because they too have evidently forgotten what they should have learnt at medical school. If not, they would not be able to pretend that ‘integrative medicine’ has a monopoly on core values of all healthcare. Their messages are akin to a new ‘school’ of ship-building insisting that it is beneficial to build ships that do not leak.

What I am trying to say in my clumsy way is this:

DOCTORS WHO PRACTICE BAD MEDICINE SHOULD RE-TRAIN – TOGETHER WITH THOSE PHYSICIANS WHO ADVOCATE ‘INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE‘, BECAUSE THEY BOTH HAVE FORGOTTEN WHAT THEY LEARNT AT MEDICAL SCHOOL.

Yesterday, I received a ‘LETTER FROM DR JONAS’ (the capital lettering was his) – actually, it was an email, and not a very personal one at that. Therefore I feel it might be permissible to share some of it here (you do remember Jonas, don’t you? I did mention him in a recent post: “Considering the prominence and experience of Wayne Jonas, the 1st author of this paper, such obvious transgression is more than a little disappointing – I would argue that is amounts to overt scientific misconduct.”)

Here we go:

As part of my book tour, I spent last month visiting hospitals and medical schools, talking to the doctors, nurses and students. I tell them to think of a chronically ill patient, and I ask:

“What matters most for this patient? What is the person’s lifestyle like – their nutrition, movement and sleep? How does that patient manage their stress? Does that patient have a good support system at home? What supplements does that patient take? Has your patient seen any CAM practitioners to cope with their condition? Why do they want to get well?”

Most can’t answer these questions. Providers may know the diagnosis and treatments a patient gets, but few know their primary determinants of health. They know ‘what’s the matter’, but not ‘what matters.’ …

END OF QUOTE

Let’s have a closer look at those items of which Jonas thinks they matter:

  1. What is the person’s lifestyle like – their nutrition, movement and sleep? Depending on the condition of the patient, these issues might indeed matter. And if they do, any good doctor will consider them. There is nothing new about this; it is stuff I learnt in medical school all those years ago.
  2. How does that patient manage their stress? The question supposes that all patients suffer from stress. I know it is fashionable to ‘have stress’, but not every patient suffers from it. If the patient does suffer, it goes without saying that a good doctor would consider it.
  3. Does that patient have a good support system at home? Elementary, my dear Watson! If a doctor does not know about this, (s)he has slept through medical school (where did you go to medical school Wayne, and what did you do during these 6 years?).
  4. What supplements does that patient take? That’s a good one. I suppose Jonas would ask it to see what further nonsense he might recommend. Most rational doctors would ask this question to see what (s)he must advise the patient to discontinue.
  5. Has your patient seen any CAM practitioners to cope with their condition? As above.
  6. Why do they want to get well? Most patients would assume we are pulling their leg, if we really asked this. Instead of a response, they might return a question: Why do you ask, do you think being ill is fun?

So, doctor Jonas’ questions might do well during lectures to a self-selected audience, but in reality they turn out to be a mixture of embarrassing re-discoveries from conventional medicine, platitudes and outright nonsense. “My goal is for integrative healthcare to become the standard of care…” says Jonas towards the end of his ‘LETTER’. I suppose, this explains it!

Thus Jonas’ ‘LETTER’ turns out to be yet another indication to suggest that the reality of ‘integrative medicine’ consists of little more than re-discoveries from conventional medicine, platitudes and outright nonsense.

Yesterday, I heard my ‘good friend’ Dr Michael Dixon (see here, here and here, for example) talk on the BBC about the “new thing” in healthcare: social prescribing. He explained, for instance, that social prescribing could mean treating a diabetic not with medication but with auto-hypnosis and other alternative therapies. At that moment, I wasn’t even entirely sure what the term ‘social prescribing’ meant, I have to admit – so I did some reading.

What is social prescribing?

The UK ‘Social Prescribing Network‘ defines it thus:

Social Prescribing is a means of enabling GPs and other frontline healthcare professionals to refer patients to a link worker – to provide them with a face to face conversation during which they can learn about the possibilities and design their own personalised solutions, i.e. ‘co-produce’ their ‘social prescription’- so that people with social, emotional or practical needs are empowered to find solutions which will improve their health and wellbeing, often using services provided by the voluntary and community sector. It is an innovative and growing movement, with the potential to reduce the financial burden on the NHS and particularly on primary care.

Does social prescribing work?

The UK King’s Fund is mildly optimistic:

There is emerging evidence that social prescribing can lead to a range of positive health and well-being outcomes. Studies have pointed to improvements in areas such as quality of life and emotional wellbeing, mental and general wellbeing, and levels of depression and anxiety. For example, a study into a social prescribing project in Bristol found improvements in anxiety levels and in feelings about general health and quality of life. In general, social prescribing schemes appear to result in high levels of satisfaction from participants, primary care professionals and commissioners.

Social prescribing schemes may also lead to a reduction in the use of NHS services. A study of a scheme in Rotherham (a liaison service helping patients access support from more than 20 voluntary and community sector organisations), showed that for more than 8 in 10 patients referred to the scheme who were followed up three to four months later, there were reductions in NHS use in terms of accident and emergency (A&E) attendance, outpatient appointments and inpatient admissions. The Bristol study also showed reductions in general practice attendance rates for most people who had received the social prescription.

However, robust and systematic evidence on the effectiveness of social prescribing is very limited. Many studies are small scale, do not have a control group, focus on progress rather than outcomes, or relate to individual interventions rather than the social prescribing model. Much of the evidence available is qualitative, and relies on self-reported outcomes. Researchers have also highlighted the challenges of measuring the outcomes of complex interventions, or making meaningful comparisons between very different schemes.

Determining the cost, resource implications and cost effectiveness of social prescribing is particularly difficult. The Bristol study found that positive health and wellbeing outcomes came at a higher cost than routine GP care over the period of a year, but other research has highlighted the importance of looking at cost effectiveness over a longer period of time. Exploratory economic analysis of the Rotherham scheme, for example, suggested that the scheme could pay for itself over 18–24 months in terms of reduced NHS use….

END OF QUOTES

Is there no harder evidence at all?

The only Medline-listed controlled study seems to have been omitted by the King’s Fund – I wonder why. Perhaps because it fails to share the optimism? Here is its abstract:

Social prescribing is targeted at isolated and lonely patients. Practitioners and patients jointly develop bespoke well-being plans to promote social integration and or social reactivation. Our aim was to investigate: whether a social prescribing service could be implemented in a general practice (GP) setting and to evaluate its effect on well-being and primary care resource use. We used a mixed method evaluation approach using patient surveys with matched control groups and a qualitative interview study. The study was conducted in a mixed socio-economic, multi-ethnic, inner city London borough with socially isolated patients who frequently visited their GP. The intervention was implemented by ‘social prescribing coordinators’. Outcomes of interest were psychological and social well-being and health care resource use. At 8 months follow-up there were no differences between patients referred to social prescribing and the controls for general health, depression, anxiety and ‘positive and active engagement in life’. Social prescribing patients had high GP consultation rates, which fell in the year following referral. The qualitative study indicated that most patients had a positive experience with social prescribing but the service was not utilised to its full extent. Changes in general health and well-being following referral were very limited and comprehensive implementation was difficult to optimise. Although GP consultation rates fell, these may have reflected regression to the mean rather than changes related to the intervention. Whether social prescribing can contribute to the health of a nation for social and psychological wellbeing is still to be determined.

So, there is a lack of evidence for social prescribing. Yet, this is not why I feel uneasy about the promotion of this “new thing”. The more i think about it, the more I realise that social prescribing is just good care and decent medicine. It is what I was taught at med school 40 years ago. It therefore seems like a fancy name for something that should be obvious.

But why my unease?

The way I see it, it will be (and perhaps already is) used to smuggle bogus alternative therapies into the mainstream. In this way, it could turn out to serve the same purpose as did the boom in integrative/integrated medicine/healthcare: a smokescreen to incorporate treatments into medical routine which otherwise would not pass muster. If advocates of this approach, like Michael Dixon, subscribe to it, the danger of this happening is hard to deny.

The disservice to patients (and medical ethics) would then be obvious: diabetics unquestionably can benefit from a change of life-style (and to encourage them is part of good conventional medicine), but I very much doubt that they should replace their anti-diabetic medications with auto-hypnosis or other alternative therapies.

Orac recently lost his rag over JOHN WEEKS, editor of JCAM (see also here, here, here and here), and was less than appreciative of his recent comments on the Samueli-donation. Personally, I think that this was a bit harsh. To compensate the poor chap for such an injustice, I herewith offer John a place in my ‘Alt Med Hall of Fame’.

There he is in good company:

Deepak Chopra (US entrepreneur)

Cheryl Hawk (US chiropractor)

David Peters (osteopathy, homeopathy, UK)

Nicola Robinson (TCM, UK)

Peter Fisher (homeopathy, UK)

Simon Mills (herbal medicine, UK)

Gustav Dobos (various, Germany)

Claudia Witt (homeopathy, Germany and Switzerland)

George Lewith (acupuncture, UK)

John Licciardone (osteopathy, US)

have all been honoured in the same way.

But John is special!

I have mentioned him several times before (see here, here and here); what makes him special, in my view, is that he is such a shining example of an expert in ‘integrative medicine’. He calls himself a “a writer, speaker, chronicler and organizer whose work in the movement for integrative health” and proudly presents his lifetime achievement award (I urge you to read it – everyone who is anyone in the US quackery-cult pored a little praise over John – but be careful, you might feel acutely nauseous). Towards the end of this document, John adds some self-praise by summarising the many other ‘HONORS’ he has received:

  • – For public education, American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (1988)
  • – For role in historic regional accreditation of a college of natural health sciences, Bastyr College/now Bastyr University (1989)
  • – Commencement speaker, Bastyr College (1989)
  • – Honorary Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, Bastyr University (1992)
  • – For service, American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (1993)
  • – For service, Washington Mental Health Counselors Association (1995)
  • – Commencement speaker, Northwestern Health Sciences University (2010)
  • – Honorary Doctor of Laws, National University of Health Sciences (2011)
  • – Honorary Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (2012)
  • – Commencement speaker, New York Chiropractic College (2013)
  • – Champion of Naturopathic Medicine, American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (2013)

So what? I hear you say, what is so special about that?

I will tell you what is special:

  • John is not a doctor,
  • John is not a practitioner,
  • John is not a scientist,
  • John has not published anything that we might call research,
  • John has not studied any healthcare-related subject,
  • John has, as far as I can see, no real university degree at all.

I find this remarkable and wonderful! It shows us like few other things what to think of the alternative medicine-cult. Not only can truly anyone become president in the US (as the last election has demonstrated); in the US anyone can become a celebrated and honoured champion of alternative medicine as well!

Welcome in my ‘Hall of Fame’ John!

It has been announced that Susan and Henry Samueli have given US$ 200 million to medical research at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Surely this is a generous and most laudable gift! How could anyone doubt it?

As with any gift, one ought to ask what precisely it is for. If someone made a donation to research aimed at showing that climate change is a hoax, that white supremacy is justified, or that Brexit is going to give Brits their country back, I doubt that it would be a commendable thing. My point is that research must always be aimed at finding the truth and discovering facts. Research that is guided by creed, belief or misinformation is bound to be counter-productive, and a donation to such activities is likely to be detrimental.

Back to the Samuelis! The story goes that Susan once had a cold, took a homeopathic remedy, and subsequently the cold went away. Ever since, the two Samuelis have been supporters not just of homeopathy but all sorts of other alternative therapies. I have previously called this strikingly common phenomenon an ‘epiphany‘. And the Samuelis’ latest gift is clearly aimed at promoting alternative medicine in the US. We only need to look at what their other major donation in this area has achieved, and we can guess what is now going to happen at UCI. David Gorski has eloquently written about the UCI donation, and I will therefore not repeat the whole, sad story.

Instead I want to briefly comment on what, in my view, should happen, if a wealthy benefactor donates a large sum of money to medical research. How can one maximise the effects of such a donation? Which areas of research should one consider? I think the concept of prior probability can be put to good use in such a situation. If I were the donor, I would convene a panel of recognised experts and let them advise me where there are the greatest chances of generating important breakthroughs. If one followed this path, alternative medicine would not appear anywhere near the top preferences, I dare to predict.

But often, like in the case of the Samuelis, the donors have concrete ideas about the area of research they want to invest in. So, what could be done with a large sum in the field of alternative medicine? I believe that plenty of good could come it. All one needs to do is to make absolutely sure that a few safeguards are in place:

  • believers in alternative medicine must be kept out of any decisions processes;
  • people with a solid background in science and a track-record in critical thinking must be put in charge;
  • the influence of the donor on the direction of the research must be minimised as much as possible;
  • a research agenda must be defined that is meaningful and productive (this could include research into the risks of alternative therapies, the ethical standards in alternative medicine, the fallacious thinking of promoters of alternative medicine, the educational deficits of alternative practitioners, the wide-spread misinformation of the public about alternative medicine, etc., etc.)

Under all circumstances, one needs to avoid that the many pseudo-scientists who populate the field of alternative or integrative medicine get appointed. This, I fear, will not be an easy task. They will say that one needs experts who know all about the subtleties of acupuncture, homeopathy, energy-healing etc. But such notions are merely smoke-screens aimed at getting the believers into key positions. My advice is to vet all candidates using my concept of the ‘trustworthiness index’.

How can I be so sure? Because I have been there, and I have seen it all. I have researched this area for 25 years and published more about it than any of the untrustworthy believers. During this time I trained about 90 co-workers, and I have witnessed one thing over and over again: someone who starts out as a believer, will hardly ever become a decent scientist and therefore never produce any worthwhile research; but a good scientist will always be able to acquire the necessary knowledge in this or that alternative therapy to conduct rigorous and meaningful research.

So, how should the UCI spend the $ 200 million? Apparently the bulk of the money will be to appoint 15 faculty chairs across medicine, nursing, pharmacy and population health disciplines. They envisage that these posts will go to people with expertise in integrative medicine. This sounds extremely ominous to me. If this project is to be successful, these posts should go to scientists who are sceptical about alternative medicine and their main remit should be to rigorously test hypotheses. Remember: testing a hypothesis means trying everything to show that it is wrong. Only when all attempts to do so have failed can one assume that perhaps the hypothesis was correct.

My experience tells me that experts in integrative medicine are quite simply intellectually and emotionally incapable of making serious attempts showing that their beliefs are wrong. If the UCI does, in fact, appoint people with expertise in integrative medicine, it is, I fear, unavoidable that we will see:

  • research that fails to address relevant questions;
  • research that is of low quality;
  • promotion masquerading as research;
  • more and more misleading findings of the type we regularly discuss on this blog;
  • a further boost of the fallacious concept of integrative medicine;
  • a watering down of evidence-based medicine;
  • irreversible damage to the reputation of the UCI.

In a nutshell, instead of making progress, we will take decisive steps back towards the dark ages.

We have repeatedly discussed on this blog the fact that many alternative practitioners are advising their patients against vaccinations, e. g.:

There is little doubt that this phenomenon contributes to low immunisation rates. This, in turn, is a contributing factor to outbreaks of measles and other infectious diseases. The website of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has recently published data on measles outbreaks in Europe:

Bulgaria: There is an increase by three cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 16 July, Bulgaria reported 166 cases. During the same time period in 2016 Bulgaria reported one case.

France: On 27 July 2017 media quoting the French Minister of Health reported the death of a 16-year-old unvaccinated girl. She had fallen sick in Nice and died on 27 June 2017 in Marseille.

Germany: There is an increase by four cases since the last report on 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 26 July, Germany reported 801 cases. During the same time period in 2016 Germany reported 187 cases.

Italy: There is an increase by 170 cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 25 July, Italy reported 3 842 cases, including three deaths. Among the cases, 271 are healthcare workers. The median age is 27 years, 89% of the cases were not vaccinated and 6% received only one dose of vaccine.

Romania: There is an increase by 229 cases, including one additional death, since 21 July 2017. Since 1 January 2016 and as of 21 July 2017, Romania reported 8 246 cases, including 32 deaths. Cases are either laboratory-confirmed or have an epidemiological link to a laboratory-confirmed case. Infants and young children are the most affected groups. Timis, in the western part of the country closest to the border with Serbia, is the most affected district with 1 215 cases. Vaccination activities are ongoing in order to cover communities with suboptimal vaccination coverage.

Spain: There is an increase by seven cases since 14 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 25 July, Spain reported 145  measles cases.

United Kingdom: Public Health Wales reported two additional cases related to the outbreak in Newport and Torfaen, bringing the total to ten cases related to this outbreak. In England and Wales there is an increase by 76 cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 23 July 2017, England and Wales reported 922 cases. In the same time period in 2016, they reported 946 cases.

In addition to the updates listed above ECDC produces a monthly measles and rubella monitoring report with surveillance data provided by the member states through TESSy. The last report was published on 11 July 2017 with data up to 31 May 2017.

Measles outbreaks continue to occur in EU/EEA countries. There is a risk of spread and sustained transmission in areas with susceptible populations. The national vaccination coverage remains less than 95% for the second dose of MMR in the majority of EU/EEA countries. The progress towards elimination of measles in the WHO European Region is assessed by the European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination (RVC). Member States of the WHO European Region are making steady progress towards the elimination of measles. At the fifth meeting of the RVC for Measles and Rubella in October 2016, of 53 countries in the WHO European Region, 24 (15 of which are in the EU/EEA) were declared to have reached the elimination goal for measles, and 13 countries (nine in the EU/EEA) were deemed to have interrupted endemic transmission for between 12 and 36 months, meaning they are on their way to achieving the elimination goal. However, six EU/EEA countries were judged to still have endemic transmission: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania. More information on strain sequences would allow further insight into the epidemiological investigation.

All EU/EEA countries report measles cases on a monthly basis to ECDC and these data are published every month. Since 10 March 2017, ECDC has been reporting measles outbreaks in Europe on a weekly basis and monitoring worldwide outbreaks on a monthly basis through epidemic intelligence activities. ECDC published a rapid risk assessment on 6 March.

END OF QUOTE

Personally, I believe that it is high time to stop the rhetoric and actions of the anti-vaccination movements. This includes educating alternative practitioners and their patients. If necessary, we need regulation that prohibits their dangerous and unethical activities.

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