MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

legal action

WARNING: THIS POST IS NOT ABOUT ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE

My first ever scientific paper, a spin-off from my MD thesis, was published exactly 40 years ago. Since then, I have written many more articles. Readers of this blog might think that they are all on alternative medicine, but that is not the case. My most cited paper is (I think) one which combined my research in haemorheology with that in epidemiology. Yet, I would not consider it to be my most important article.

So, what is my most important publication?

It is one that relates to the history of medicine.

How come?

In 1990, I was appointed as chair of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Vienna. On the occasion of the official opening of the new 2000-bed university hospital in Vienna, I was asked to say a few words and thought that a review of the history of my department might be a fitting subject. But I was wrong. What I discovered while researching it turned out to be totally unfitting for the event; in fact, it contributed to my decision to leave Vienna in 1993. I did, however, summarize my findings in an article – and it is this paper that I consider my most important publication. Here is its abstract:

Misguided by the notion that the decline of the German race would be prevented by purifying “Aryan blood” and eliminating foreign, particularly Jewish, influences, the Nazis evicted all Jews from universities within their growing empire during the Third Reich. The Medical Faculty of Vienna suffered more than any other European faculty from “race hygiene.” Within weeks of the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, 153 of the Faculty’s 197 members were dismissed. By far the most frequent reason for dismissal was Jewish origin. Most victims managed to emigrate, many died in concentration camps, and others committed suicide. The “cleansing” process encountered little resistance, and the vacant posts were quickly filled with persons known not for their medical expertise but for their political trustworthiness. It was in this climate that medical atrocities could be committed. After the collapse of the Third Reich, most members of the Faculty were burdened with a Nazi past. Most remained in office, and those who had to leave were reinstituted swiftly. The Jews evicted in 1938 were discouraged from returning. These events have significantly–and with long-lasting effects–damaged the quality of a once-leading medical school. This story needs to be told to honor its victims and to fortify us so that history does not repeat itself.

As I pointed out in my memoir, it “was not published until 1995, by which time I was no longer at the University of Vienna but had left Austria and gone joyfully back to the U.K. to take up my post at the University of Exeter. When the paper was published, it had a considerable impact and important consequences. On the one hand, I received a torrent of hate-mail and threats, and was even accused by the more sensationalistic elements of the Austrian press of having stolen considerable amounts of money from my department at the University of Vienna – an entirely fabricated story, of course, and so ridiculous that I couldn’t even take it seriously enough to instigate legal action.”

So, what else happened as a consequence of the paper?

The answer is ‘lots’.

The Nazi-dean of the medical faculty in 1938, Eduard Pernkopf,  became the author of one of the world’s best anatomical atlas. Here is a short excerpt from a website on Pernkopf and his work which outlines some of the consequences of my paper:

START OF QUOTE

Following Dr. Edzard Ernst’s, revelations in the Annals of Internal Medicine (1995) about the source of Pernkopf’s “models,” Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Authority in Israel) requested that the Universities of Vienna and Insbruck conduct an independent inquiry to determine who the subjects in Pernkopf’s Atlas were and how they died. The request from Yad Vashem was initially denied; but the issue did not end. The following year, a letter by Dr. Seidelman and Dr. Howard Israel, an oral surgeon at Columbia University published in JAMA (November, 1996) in which they stated: “The abuses of medicine perpetrated during the Hitler regime pervaded the entire medical profession of the Third Reich including the academic elite. One legacy of the tragic era endures today through the continued publication of a critically acclaimed atlas, Pernkopf Anatomy…” Their letter prompted a report by the New York Times (1996).

In 1997, Alfred Ebenbauer, the rector of the University of Vienna, wrote to JAMA indicating that an investigation had been initiated and that preliminary findings indicated that the anatomy department had indeed, routinely received corpses of executed persons, among them renowned dissidents, and “brain preparations derived from children under the euthanasia program in psychiatric institutes were still stored there…” For the first time, he acknowledged publicly systematic suppression and even denial of the university’s Nazi past and its failure to conduct relevant investigations. Ebenbauer explained that this attitude had changed because of ‘‘increasing pressure from abroad’’ and a new political atmosphere in Austria (Ethics and Access…Pernkopf atlas, Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 2001; Hildebrandt, 2006).

Penkopf_Atlas Human Anatomy_neck-shoulderThe final report of University of Vienna investigation found that at least 1,377 bodies of executed victims (guillotined or shot by the Gestapo at a rifle range); about 7,000 bodies of fetuses and children; and “8 victims of Jewish origin” had been received by the Anatomy Institute. A statement for users of Pernkop’s Atlas sent out by the U of V to all libraries states: “it is therefore within the individual user’s ethical responsibility to decide whether and in which way he wishes to use this book.” (Hildebrandt, 2006). Hildebrandt states: “the influx of bodies from executions increased so much during the NS [Nazi] regime that the rooms of the anatomy institute were sometimes overfilled and executions had to be postponed because of this.” However, she notes that the true numbers are not known because of incomplete documentation.

Howard M. Spiro, M.D., director of Yale’s Program for Humanities in Medicine and professor of internal medicine, was among the noted speakers at the convocation in Vienna marking (1998) the 60th anniversary of the dismissal of Jewish faculty members from the Vienna Medical School. In his address The Silence of Words, Dr. Spiro said, “the things that we avoid and don’t talk about are the matters that mean the most to us. The shame that has no vent in words makes other organs weep.” Dr. Spiro acknowledged that current officials of the University of Vienna are attempting to recover information that has either been hidden or destroyed and trying to locate former faculty who were interned and exiled. “There is a new generation that has taken over, and they are not afraid to look into these atrocities.”

It is now understood that many of the incredibly detailed illustrations in Pernkopf’s atlas depicted the bodies of victims of Nazi terror.

END OF QUOTE

Why do I bring this up again today?

For two reasons: firstly, I have been invited to give two lecture about these events in recent weeks. Secondly and much more importantly, we seem to live in times when the threat of fascism in several countries has again become worrisomely acute, and I think reminding people of my conclusion drawn in 1995 might not be a bad idea:

This story needs to be told to honor its victims and to fortify us so that history does not repeat itself.

In 2008, I published a paper entitled ‘CHIROPRACTIC, A CRITICAL EVALUATION’ where I reviewed most aspects of this subject, including the historical context. Here is the passage about the history of chiropractic. I believe it is relevant to much of the current discussions about the value or otherwise of chiropractic.

The history of chiropractic is “rooted in quasi-mystical concepts.”  Bone-setters of various types are part of the folk medicine of most cultures, and bone-setting also formed the basis on which chiropractic developed.

The birthday of chiropractic is said to be September 18, 1895. On this day, D.D. Palmer manipulated the spine of a deaf janitor by the name of Harvey Lillard, allegedly curing him of his deafness. Palmer’s second patient, a man suffering from heart disease, was also cured. About one year later, Palmer opened the first school of chiropractic. There is evidence to suggest that D.D. Palmer had learned manipulative techniques from Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of osteopathy. He combined the skills of a bone-setter with the background of a magnetic healer and claimed that “chiropractic was not evolved from medicine or any other method, except that of magnetic.” He coined the term “innate intelligence” (or “innate”) for the assumed “energy” or “vital force,” which, according to the magnetic healers of that time, enables the body to heal itself. The “innate” defies quantification. “Chiropractic is based on a metaphysical epistemology that is not amenable to positivist research or experiment.”

The “innate” is said to regulate all body functions but, in the presence of “vertebral subluxation,” it cannot function adequately. Chiropractors therefore developed spinal manipulations to correct such subluxations,  which, in their view, block the flow of the “innate.” Chiropractic is “a system of healing based on the premise that the body requires unobstructed flow through the nervous system of innate intelligence.” Anyone who did not believe in the “innate” or in “subluxations” was said to have no legitimate role in chiropractic.

“Innate intelligence” evolved as a theological concept, the representative of Universal Intelligence ( = God) within each person. D.D. Palmer was convinced he had discovered a natural law that pertained to human health in the most general terms. Originally, manipulation was not a technique for treating spinal or musculoskeletal problems, it was a cure for all human illness: “95% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae, the remainder by luxations of other joints.” Early chiropractic pamphlets hardly mention back pain or neck pain, but assert that, “chiropractic could address ailments such as insanity, sexual dysfunction, measles and influenza.” D.D. Palmer was convinced that he had “created a science of principles that has existed as long as the vertebra.” Chiropractors envision man as a microcosm of the universe where “innate intelligence” determines human health as much as “universal intelligence” governs the cosmos; the discovery of the “innate intelligence” represents a discovery of the first order, “a reflection of a critical law that God used to govern natural phenomena.”

Early chiropractic displayed many characteristics of a religion. Both D.D. Palmer and his son, B.J. Palmer, seriously considered establishing  chiropractic as a religion. Chiropractic “incorporated vitalistic concepts of an innate intelligence with religious concepts of universal intelligence,” which substituted for science. D.D. Palmer declared that he had discovered the answer to the timeworn question, “What is life?” and added that chiropractic made “this stage of existence much more efficient in its preparation for the next step – the life beyond.”

Most early and many of today’s chiropractors agree: “Men do not cure. It is that inherent power (derived from the creator) that causes wounds to heal, or a part to be repaired. The Creator…uses the chiropractor as a tool…chiropractic philosophy is truly the missing link between Religion or Power of the various religions.” Today, some chiropractors continue to relate the “innate” to God. Others, however, warn not to “dwindle or dwarf chiropractic by making a religion out of a technique.”

Initially, the success of chiropractic was considerable. By 1925, more than 80 chiropractic schools had been established in the United States. Most were “diploma mills” offering an “easy way to make money,” and many “were at one another’s throats.” Chiropractors believed they had established their own form of science, which emphasized observation rather than experimentation, a vitalistic rather than mechanistic philosophy, and a mutually supportive rather than antagonist relationship between science and religion. The gap between conventional medicine and chiropractic thus widened “from a fissure into a canyon.” The rivalry was not confined to conventional  medicine; “many osteopaths asserted that chiropractic was a bastardized version of osteopathy.”

Rather than arguing over issues such as efficacy, education, or professional authority, the American Medical Association insisted that all competent health care providers must have adequate knowledge of the essential subjects such as anatomy, physiology, pathology, chemistry, and bacteriology. By that token, the American Medical Association claimed, chiropractors were not fit for practice. Some “martyrs,” including D.D. Palmer himself, went to jail for practicing medicine without a licence.

Chiropractors countered that doctors were merely defending their patch for obvious financial reasons (ironically, chiropractors today often earn more than conventional doctors), that orthodox science was morally corrupt and lacked open-mindedness. They attacked the “germo-anti-toxins-vaxiradi-electro-microbioslush death producers” and promised a medicine “destined to the grandest and greatest of this or any age.”

Eventually, the escalating battle against the medical establishment was won in “the trial of the century.” In 1987, sections of the U.S. medical establishment were found “guilty of conspiracy against chiropractors,” a decision which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990. In other countries, similar legal battles were fought, usually with similar outcomes. Only rarely did they not result in the defeat of the “establishment:” In 1990, a Japanese Ministry of Health report found that chiropractic is “not based on the knowledge of human anatomy but subjective and unscientific.”

These victories came at the price of “taming” and “medicalizing” chiropractic. In turn, this formed the basis of a conflict within the chiropractic profession – the dispute between “mixers” and “straights” – a conflict which continues to the present day.

The “straights” religiously adhere to D.D. Palmer’s notions of the “innate intelligence” and view subluxation as the sole cause and manipulation as the sole cure of all human disease. They do not mix any non-chiropractic techniques into their therapeutic repertoire, dismiss physical examination (beyond searching for subluxations) and think medical diagnosis is irrelevant for chiropractic. The “mixers” are somewhat more open to science and conventional medicine, use treatments other than spinal manipulation, and tend to see chiropractors as back pain specialists. Father and son Palmer warned that the “mixers” were “polluting and diluting the sacred teachings” of chiropractic. Many chiropractors agreed that the mixers were “bringing discredit to the chiropractic.”

The “straights” are now in the minority but nevertheless exert an important influence. They have, for instance, recently achieved election victories within the British General Chiropractic Council. Today, two different chiropractic professions exist side by sided “one that wishes to preserve the non-empirical, non-positivist, vitalist foundations (the straights) and the other that wishes to be reckoned as medical physicians and wishes to utilize the techniques and mechanistic viewpoint of orthodox medicine (the mixers).” The International Chiropractic Association represents the “straights” and the American Chiropractic Association the “mixers.”

(for references, see the original article)

Ad hominem attacks, I have previously pointed out, are victories of reason over unreason. And they are used frequently by supporters of alternative medicine!

If you doubt it, see for yourself.

I recently posted a comment on new Nice guidelines. It generated lots of comments, and mostly they were rational discussions of the issues involved. This changed abruptly when, on 16 May, Mel’s comment started a new, concerted wave of discussion at a time when the usual debate had already subsided. In the course of this new and heated debate, I was repeatedly accused of being rude.

As I have stated repeatedly on this blog, I try to keep rudeness out of the comments as much as I can. Therefore, the claim surprised me and today I reviewed the entire comment section selecting all potential ad hominem attacks. Here are the results:

ACTUAL OR POTENTIAL AD HOMINEM ATTACKS AGAINST ME

Peter Deadman on Tuesday 17 May 2016 at 12:55 Edward Ernst, I always thought you were a bully and a fraud. You’re very macho when it comes to slapping down people who may have experiential reasons for supporting acupuncture and other therapies but don’t have the skill to challenge you on the clinical evidence. Now as soon as somebody does, you back off, cry ‘enough’, say you can’t possibly comment till some undetermined future date and generally act like a wuss. I say put up or shut up. I’d prefer the former because it would be good to see you eat crow but I lean towards the latter because of the substantial harm you are causing and the beautiful silence that would ensue if you did indeed go quiet.

tonto on Tuesday 17 May 2016 at 13:19 You appear as weak in your arguments, as some pendulum swinging, new age dowser, who vainly holds sticks to their guns, not because they can back their position up with scientific evidence, but because it is what they “believe”.

Jill Onyett on Tuesday 17 May 2016 at 14:29 …an unfortunate creature too keen on the sound of his own voice.

Tracey Phillips on Tuesday 17 May 2016 at 13:16 …to date you have been fairly opinionated …

Peter Deadman on Tuesday 17 May 2016 at 16:34  I made an ad hominem response because your blog is all about you as a person. You are constantly rude to others and bypass or ignore responses that you don’t like. It’s you who makes it hominem.

Peter Deadman on Tuesday 17 May 2016 at 16:52 You are hyper-emotional, extremely biased, hostile and contemptuous of anyone you think ‘beneath you’. You gloat over people’s real or imagined inconsistencies and generally come across as a nasty piece of work.

Peter Deadman on Tuesday 17 May 2016 at 19:30 How can such a childish provocateur remain in his post. It demeans the University and it’s time they let him go.

Kylee Junghans on Wednesday 18 May 2016 at 08:42 …you, kind Sir, with your rhetoric and tantrums, are exhibiting a prime example of confirmation bias.

Peter Deadman on Wednesday 18 May 2016 at 08:48 [Ernst] professes a scholarly detachment, a commitment to evidence and an open mind, but in fact is deeply biased… He clearly loves his childish provocative stance and is as far from a disinterested observer as it’s possible to be. I wouldn’t waste my time or breath on him if he didn’t have an influence that far exceeds his worth.

Carol Cooke on Wednesday 18 May 2016 at 09:27 I have followed this discussion with interest. Some of the rudest and most discourteous posts I can see are from Mr Ernst himself. But I get that, I imagine you seek to maintain a bold and authoritative tone simply by dismissing others. Being a bit controversial in your discourse has obviously served you well in that you have built a media profile on it.

ACTUAL OR POTENTIAL AD HOMINEM ATTACKS BY MYSELF

Edzard on Wednesday 18 May 2016 at 09:18 “it is also difficult to get a man to read something, when he is foaming from his mouth”.

I know, this is not really ‘ad hominem’ but I could not find anything more dramatic. Surely, some will disagree this me here, and I do invite them to cite my rudeness from this threat, if they spot it. You are more than welcome!

CONCLUSION

You may think this is a bit trivial, but I disagree. The main reason I did this little exercise is to demonstrate a point which I think is important and carries a relevant lesson for future comments and discussions:

  • WHEN I OR ANYONE ELSE DEFENDING RATIONALITY GET AGGRESSED, WE NATURALLY TEND TO RESPOND SLIGHTLY MORE FORCEFULLY.
  • SUBSEQUENTLY, THE OTHER SIDE OFTEN REACTS BY ATTACKING US PERSONALLY.
  • THIS OFTEN LEADS TO AN ESCALATION OF TONE.
  • EVENTUALLY THE OTHER SIDE CLAIMS WITH INDIGNATION THAT WE ARE THE ONES DOING THE PERSONAL ATTACKS.
  • IT IS A TACTIC THAT IS EFFECTIVE BUT DISHONEST, IN MY VIEW.
  • THE LESSON IS SIMPLE: DO NOT LET YOURSELF GET PROVOKED INTO ISSUING AD HOMINEM ATTACKS, BE POLITE AND PATIENT.

I know this sounds simpler than it is, and I am far from being immune to the problem, but we owe it to reason to give it a try.

 

What a question, you might say. And you would be right, it’s a most awkward one, so much so that I cannot answer it for myself.

I NEED YOUR HELP.

Here is the story:

Ten years ago, with the help of S Lejeune and an EU grant, my team conducted a Cochrane review of Laertrile. To do the ‘ground work’, we hired an Italian research assistant, S Milazzo, who was supervised mainly by my research fellow Katja Schmidt. Consequently, the review was published under the names of all main contributors: Milazzo, Ernst, Lejeune, Schmidt.

In 2011, an update was due for which the help of Dr Markus Horneber, the head of a German research team investigating alt med in relation to cancer, was recruited. By then, Milazzo and Schmidt had left my unit and, with my consent, Horneber, Milazzo and Schmidt took charge of the review. I was then sent a draft of their update and did a revision of it which consisted mostly in checking the facts and making linguistic changes. The article was then published under the following authorship: Milazzo S, Ernst E, Lejeune S, Boehm K, Horneber M (Katja had married meanwhile, so Boehm and Schmidt are the same person).

A few days ago, I noticed that a further update had been published in 2015. Amazingly, I had not been told, asked to contribute, or informed that my name as co-author had been scrapped. The authors of the new update are simply Milazzo and Horneber (the latter being the senior author). Katja Boehm had apparently indicated that she did no longer want to be involved; I am not sure what happened to Lejeune.

I know Markus Horneber since donkey’s years and had co-authored several other papers with him in the past, so I (admittedly miffed about my discovery) sent him an email and asked him whether he did not consider this behaviour to amount to plagiarism. His reply was, in my view, unhelpful in explaining why I had not been asked to get involved and Horneber asked me to withdraw the allegation of plagiarism (which I had not even made) – or else he would take legal action (this was the moment when I got truly suspicious).

Next, I contacted the responsible editor at the Cochrane Collaboration, not least because Horneber had claimed that she had condoned the disputed change of authorship. Her reply confirmed that “excluding previous authors without giving them a chance to comment is not normal Cochrane policy” and that she did, in fact, not condone the omission of my name from the list of co-authors.

The question that I am asking myself (not for the first time, I am afraid – a similar, arguably worse case has been described in the comments section of this post) is the following: IS THIS A CASE OF PLAGIARISM OR NOT? In the name of honesty, transparency and science, it requires an answer, I think.

Even after contemplating it for several days, I seem to be unable to find a conclusive response. On the one hand, I did clearly not contribute to the latest (2015) update and should therefore not be a co-author. On the other hand, I feel that I should have been asked to contribute, in which case I would certainly have done so and remained a co-author.

For a fuller understanding of this case, I here copy the various sections of the abstracts of the 2011 update (marked OLD) and the 2015 update without my co-authorship (marked NEW):

 

OLD

Laetrile is the name for a semi-synthetic compound which is chemically related to amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside from the kernels of apricots and various other species of the genus Prunus. Laetrile and amygdalin are promoted under various names for the treatment of cancer although there is no evidence for its efficacy. Due to possible cyanide poisoning, laetrile can be dangerous.

NEW

Laetrile is the name for a semi-synthetic compound which is chemically related to amygdalin, a cyanogenic glycoside from the kernels of apricots and various other species of the genus Prunus. Laetrile and amygdalin are promoted under various names for the treatment of cancer although there is no evidence for its efficacy. Due to possible cyanide poisoning, laetrile can be dangerous.

OBJECTIVES:

OLD

To assess the alleged anti-cancer effect and possible adverse effects of laetrile and amygdalin.

NEW

To assess the alleged anti-cancer effect and possible adverse effects of laetrile and amygdalin.

SEARCH METHODS:

OLD

We searched the following databases: CENTRAL (2011, Issue 1); MEDLINE (1951-2011); EMBASE (1980-2011); AMED; Scirus; CancerLit; CINAHL (all from 1982-2011); CAMbase (from 1998-2011); the MetaRegister; the National Research Register; and our own files. We examined reference lists of included studies and review articles and we contacted experts in the field for knowledge of additional studies. We did not impose any restrictions of timer or language.

NEW

We searched the following databases: CENTRAL (2014, Issue 9); MEDLINE (1951-2014); EMBASE (1980-2014); AMED; Scirus; CINAHL (all from 1982-2015); CAMbase (from 1998-2015); the MetaRegister; the National Research Register; and our own files. We examined reference lists of included studies and review articles and we contacted experts in the field for knowledge of additional studies. We did not impose any restrictions of timer or language.

SELECTION CRITERIA:

OLD

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs.

NEW

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS:

OLD

We searched eight databases and two registers for studies testing laetrile or amygdalin for the treatment of cancer. Two review authors screened and assessed articles for inclusion criteria.

NEW

We searched eight databases and two registers for studies testing laetrile or amygdalin for the treatment of cancer. Two review authors screened and assessed articles for inclusion criteria.

MAIN RESULTS:

OLD

We located over 200 references, 63 were evaluated in the original review and an additional 6 in this update. However, we did not identify any studies that met our inclusion criteria.

NEW

We located over 200 references, 63 were evaluated in the original review, 6 in the 2011 and none in this update. However, we did not identify any studies that met our inclusion criteria.

AUTHORS’ CONCLUSIONS:

OLD

The claims that laetrile or amygdalin have beneficial effects for cancer patients are not currently supported by sound clinical data. There is a considerable risk of serious adverse effects from cyanide poisoning after laetrile or amygdalin, especially after oral ingestion. The risk-benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is therefore unambiguously negative.

NEW

The claims that laetrile or amygdalin have beneficial effects for cancer patients are not currently supported by sound clinical data. There is a considerable risk of serious adverse effects from cyanide poisoning after laetrile or amygdalin, especially after oral ingestion. The risk-benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is therefore unambiguously negative.

END OF ABSTRACT

I HOPE THAT YOU, THE READER OF THIS POST, ARE NOW ABLE TO TELL ME:

HAVE I BEEN PLAGIARISED?

P S

After the response from the Cochrane editor, I asked Horneber whether he wanted to make a further comment because I was thinking to blog about this. So far, I have not received a reply.

Who – apart from quacks – would not want to get rid of all quackery, once and for all? It would be a huge improvement to medicine, save thousands of lives, and reduce our expenditure for health care considerably.

But how? How can we possibly get rid of something that is as ancient as medicine itself?

Simple!

All we need to do is to employ the existing ethical imperatives. I am thinking in particular about INFORMED CONSENT.

Informed consent is a process for obtaining permission from a patient before treating him/her. It requires the patient’s clear and full understanding of the relevant facts, implications, and consequences of the treatment. It is a ‘condition sine qua non’; no health care professional must commence a treatment without it.

And how would informed consent get rid of all quackery?

This is perhaps best explained by giving an example. Imagine a patient is about to receive a quack treatment – let’s take crystal healing (we could have chosen any other implausible non-evidence based therapy, e. g. homeopathy, chiropractic, Bach Flower Remedies, faith-healing, etc.) – for his/her condition – let’s say diabetes (we could have chosen any other condition, e. g. cancer, asthma, insomnia, etc.). Informed consent would require that, before starting the intervention, the therapist informs the patient about the relevant facts, implications and consequences of having crystal healing for diabetes. This would include the following:

  • the therapy is not plausible, it is not in line with the laws of nature as we understand them today,
  • there is no evidence that the treatment will cure your condition or ease your symptoms beyond a placebo-effect,
  • the treatment may harm you in several ways: 1) it might cause direct harm (unlikely with crystal healing but not with chiropractic, for instance), 2) it will harm your finances because the therapist wants to be paid, 3) most importantly, if you believe that it could help you and therefore forego effective therapy for your diabetes, it could easily kill you within a few days.

It is impossible to dispute that these facts are true and relevant, I think. And if they are relevant, the practitioner must convey them in such a way that they are fully appreciated by the patient. If the patient comprehends the implications fully, he/she is unlikely to agree to the treatment. If most patients refuse to be treated, the market for crystal healing quickly collapses, and crystal healers move into other, more productive jobs. This might even help the general economy!

But quacks are not in the habit of obtaining fully informed consent, I hear you say. I agree, and this is why they must be taught to do so in their quack colleges. If informed consent was taught to all budding quacks, they would soon realise that quackery is not a viable business and go to a proper school where they lean something useful (this too might help the economy). If that happens, the quack colleges would soon run out of money and close.

Meanwhile, one could remind the existing quacks that they break the law, if they neglect informed consent. In the interest of the patient, one could closely monitor the consent giving process, and even think of increasingly heavy finds for those who break the law.

As we see, almost all the means for rendering health care quack-free already exist. All we need to do is implement them. That shouldn’t be difficult, should it?

AND NOW I STOP DAY-DREAMING AND DO SOMETHING USEFUL.

A short report about a Scottish legal case is worth a mention, I think.

Honor Watt, 73 had sued Lothian Health Board after the authority stopped in June 2013 to provide homeopathic treatments to patients. Ms Watt, an arthritis sufferer, had previously received homeopathic medicine for this condition. There is, of course, no good evidence that homeopathic remedies are better than placebos for this (or any other) disease.

Ms Watt’s lawyers decided to challenge the board’s decision in the Court of Session claiming the health board acted illegally. There is reason to believe that Ms Watt was assisted by a professional organisation of homeopathy ( the judgement mentions that the Board’s submission stated that ‘the real force behind the petition was a charity, not the petitioner’).

In any case, Watt’s legal team claimed the Equality Act 2010 placed an obligation on the health board to ask their patients for their views on whether homeopathy should be continued to be funded. The legislation states that public sector organisations have an obligation to consider their decisions on the terms of what is called a public sector equality duty.

The case went to court and the judge, Lord Uist, recently ruled that the health board had acted legally. He therefore refused to overturn the board’s original decision. In a written judgement issued on Friday, Lord Uist confirmed that the health board acted correctly: “It is clear to me from an examination of the relevant documents that the board was from the outset consciously focusing on its PSED.”

The judgement explains that Ms Watt was first referred to the homeopathic service in 2003 when she was suffering from anxiety. Later, she was given a homeopathic medicine for her arthritis after telling her doctor that conventional medicine wasn’t controlling her problems with this condition. In January 2014, she had a final appointment with the homeopathic service and told that she was no longer entitled to homeopathic treatment. However, the judgement states that Ms Watt still receives a prescription of homeopathic medicine.

Lothian Health Board decided to end homeopathic provision after concluding the money would be better spent on conventional treatments. The board made the decision after holding a consultation exercise and concluding that only few NHS users would be affected by their decision. In a report, the reasons for why the board should stop spending money on homeopthy were set out.

Judge Uist confirmed that this report “stated that the withdrawal of funding for homeopathic services would have a limited negative impact on patients and staff, the majority of patients were from more affluent areas and it was felt that they could perhaps afford to self fund alternative provision.”

Ms Watt’s lawyers claimed that the board didn’t do enough to seek the views of those who used the service. They argued that the board broke the terms of the 2010 Equality Act. After examining the evidence, Judge Uist  concluded, however, that the health board had done everything in its power and had made the correct decision: “I am satisfied that reduction of the board’s decision of June 26 2013 would result only in a waste of time and public funds as it would inevitably result in exactly the same decision being taken by the board.”

From my perspective, this is an important decision. As a physician, I naturally dislike not giving patients what they want. However, I dislike it even more when there is not enough money for other patients to have essential treatments. Thus it is obvious that harsh decisions have to be made in order to spend the available funds as rationally as possible – and that, of course, means that treatments for which there is no good evidence must not be funded from public money. Homeopathy clearly falls in that category.

As I am not a lawyer, I see this case with the eyes of a medic and researcher. For me, it is about the age-old question: should patients get the treatment they want or the treatment they need? For me, health care is not a supermarket where people can their trolleys with everything they happen to fancy. For me, health care is not about satisfying the ‘wants’; it is about coping with the needs of people. For me, this is a question of medical ethics. For me, the Scottish judgement is spot on.

One of the questions that I hear regularly is: ‘What happened to your research unit at Exeter?’ Therefore it might be a good idea to put the full, shameful story on this blog.

After the complaint by Prince Charles’ secretary to my Vice Chancellor alleging that I had breached confidentiality over the Smallwood report, my University conducted a 13 months investigation into my actions. At the end of it, I was declared innocent as charged (it should have been clear from a 10 minute discussion that I had done nothing wrong: I had not disclosed any information from the report, and even if I had, it would have been a matter of public interest and medical ethics to blow the whistle. However, the Vice Chancellor never once bothered to talk to me.). Subsequently, all support that I had once enjoyed broke down, my staff’s contracts were terminated, and I eventually had to take early retirement (full details of this part of the story can be found in ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’).

A few months later, a new dean was appointed at my medical school. The new man seemed to have a lot more understanding for my situation than his predecessor. Provided that I accept to go into early retirement, he offered to re-employ me for one year (half time) to help him find a successor for my position.

I did accept because, above everything, I wanted to prevent the closure of my unit. We then developed criteria for advertising the post and conducted two rounds of advertisements. Several candidates applied but none them seemed suited in our view. Eventually we did find several experts who were promising; one even came to Exeter from abroad and had detailed talks with the dean and several other people.

However, Exeter was unwilling to equip my potential successor with any funds to speak of. The suggestion was to appoint the new chair with the onus to raise all the necessary funds himself. This is a proposition that no well-qualified academic at the professorial level can possibly find attractive. Consequently, the candidates all declined.

Meanwhile, there had been an initiative by several altruistic UK public figures and friends to raise funds for the new chair and thus save my unit from closure. Sadly, however, these activities did not generate in the necessary cash. When my year of half-time re-employment had expired, I left Exeter and my unit disappeared for good.

To the present day, I am not at all sure what the true intentions of Exeter had been during this final stage.

  • Was I offered re-employment simply to keep me sweet?
  • Did they fear that I would otherwise sue them or cause a public scandal?
  • Did they truly believe they could find a suitable successor?
  • If so, why did they not put up the money?

I do not expect to ever find conclusive answers for any of these questions. However, I do know what, in an ideal world, should have become of my unit. If it had been for me to decide, I would have equipped the chair with the necessary core funds and appointed an ethicist with a documented interest in alternative medicine as the new professor. I see two main reasons for this perhaps less than obvious choice:

  • In my experience, Exeter would greatly benefit from an ethicist to give them guidance on a range of matters.
  • After two decades of being involved in alternative medicine research, I have become convinced that this field foremost needs the input of a critical ethicist.

In case either of these last two statements puzzles you, I recommend you read ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’.

The task of UK Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) is to ensure NHS funds are spent as effectively and responsibly as possible. This is particularly important in the current financial climate, as NHS budgets are under enormous pressure. For that reason, The Good Thinking Society (GTS, a pro-science charity) invited Liverpool CCG to reconsider whether the money (~ £ 30,000 pa) they spend on homeopathy represents good service to the public. Recently the CCG agreed to make a fresh decision on this contentious issue.

The GTS would prefer to see limited NHS resources spent on evidence-based medicine rather than on continued funding of homeopathy which, as readers of this blog will know, has repeatedly failed to demonstrate that it is doing more good than harm. It is encouraging to see Liverpool CCG take a first step in the right direction by agreeing to properly consider the best evidence and expertise on this issue.

Supporters of homeopathy frequently cite the concept of patient choice and claim that, if patients want homeopathy, they should have it free on the NHS. The principle is obviously important, but it is crucial that this choice is an informed one. The best evidence has conclusively shown that homeopathy is not an effective treatment, and to continue to offer ineffective treatments under the guise of patient choice raises troubling questions about the important concept of informed choice, and indeed of informed consent as well as medical ethics.

The GTS were represented by Salima Budhani and Jamie Potter of Bindmans LLP. Salima said: “This case underlines the necessity of transparent and accountable decision making by the controllers of health budgets, particularly in the light of the current financial climate in the NHS. CCGs have legal obligations to properly consider relevant evidence, as well as the views of experts and residents, in deciding how precious NHS resources are to be spent. It is essential that commissioning decisions are rational and evidence-based. Liverpool CCG’s decision to reconsider its position on the funding of homeopathy in these circumstances is to be welcomed.

“Our client has also called upon the Secretary of State for Health to issue guidance on the funding of homeopathy on the NHS. Public statements by the Secretary of State indicate that he does not support ongoing funding, yet he has so far declined to ask NICE to do any work on this issue. The provision of such guidance would be of significant benefit to CCGs in justifying decisions to terminate funding.”

Commenting on their decision, a Liverpool CCG spokesperson said: “Liverpool CCG currently resources a small homeopathy contract to the value of £30,000 per year that benefits a small number of patients in the city who choose to access NHS homeopathy care and treatment services. The CCG has agreed with the Good Thinking Society to carry out further engagement with patients and the general public to inform our future commissioning intentions for this service.”

Over the last two decades, prescriptions fulfilled in community pharmacies for homeopathy on the NHS in England have fallen  by over 94% and homeopathic hospitals have seen their funding reallocated. This reduction indicates that the majority of doctors and commissioning bodies have acted responsibly by terminating funding for homeopathic treatments.

The GTS are currently fundraising in order to fund further legal challenges – donate now to support our campaign at justgiving.com/Good-Thinking-Society-Appeal/.

Some people are their worst enemies, and it seems as though chiropractors are no strangers to this strange phenomenon.

On this blog, I frequently criticise chiropractic; my main concerns are that

  1. chiropractors make far too many bogus claims far too often,
  2. there is precious little evidence that their hallmark treatment, spinal manipulation, generates more good than harm.

I repeatedly voice those concerns because I feel strongly that consumers have the right to unbiased information for making evidence-based therapeutic decisions. When I do this, I get invariably attacked by some chiropractors who disagree with me. Frequently, these chiropractors are not interested to discuss the issues I raised with me; instead they insult me in the most primitive way imaginable.

This happens far too often to write about each time, but occasionally things are so extraordinary that I do blog about them. A case in point is the email I recently received out of the blue from “Dr” Brian Moravec, a chiropractor who believes in subluxation and claims that new-born babies should have spinal adjustments. My last post quotes his astonishing views in full; he believes I am a self proclaimed “expert” on alternative medicine, promoting so much misinformation with regard to chiropractic care.  Unfortunately he failed to tell me which of my statements he considers to be misleading and he continued: fortunately you look old.  and soon will be gone. 

Rejoicing at the (hopefully not so) imminent demise of a fellow human being is perhaps not what one might expect from a health care professional. Yet it does fit into the behaviour of chiropractors which tends to turn outright self-destructive when challenged. The comments by chiropractors that followed my post seem to confirm this tendency. They show that the demolition of chiropractic’s reputation by chiropractors is relentless.

One chiropractor claimed Moravec’s opinion could “have been better put”… and “come over as a somewhat personal attack” while quickly changing the subject by starting a discussion on the evidence-base of chiropractic. This ended abruptly in him agreeing with me to disagree. Other chiropractors seemed to concur.

At that stage, one chiropractor noted that Moeavec’s email is doing no favours to the reputation of chiropractic, a ray of light which quickly was instantly overshadowed by a further chiropractor’s comments. This man – or perhaps woman (hiding behind a pseudonym) – is a regular commentator on my blog. He felt that Moravec’s comments were rather polite an opinion which he justified as follows: Dr. Moravec thinks you are old because of your unflattering (IMO) photo. The shiny, bald look adds years to a person’s looks, especially in photos. It is the old glass half-empty or half-full debate. IOW, have you lost hair or have you gained face? The mustache is so fifties, too. The perpetual scowl, however, does suit you rather well. Just sayin’.  

At this point, I cannot help but laugh out loud. Someone asked how I can bear those vicious attacks. The answer is that I merely cringe at the stupidity on display.  Are these guys really so limited as to not realise what they are doing to their own reputation? Do they not notice that this amounts to a relentless and general demolition of chiropractic’s reputation?

All of this would, of course, be rather trivial fun, if it were a single occurrence – but it is most definitely not!

As I already pointed out, such things happen to me all the time. More remarkably, chiropractors have repeatedly tried to get me fired. Much more importantly, chiropractors have behaved in this way when they decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. Each time, they ended up with plenty of egg on their faces.

Isn’t it time that they learn a lesson? Isn’t it time that they learn to consider criticism seriously? Isn’t it time the more rational one amongst them do something about the many cranks in their midst? Isn’t it time they got their act together?

Most pharmacies worldwide sell any bogus treatment to their unsuspecting customers, it seems – as long as it makes a profit, anything goes! Not in New Zealand!

The New Zealand’s Pharmacy Council’s Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 section 6.9 requires of pharmacists that:

“YOU MUST… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.”

This instruction was the basis for a complaint against a New Zealand pharmacy selling a homeopathic remedy against jet lag called “No-Jet-Lag”. The New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) considered the complaint and decided to uphold it. The complaint, which was lodged with the ASA by the Society for Science Based Healthcare in July 2014, alleged that the advertisement’s claims about the product that “It Really Works” for “Homeopathic Jet Lag Prevention” were unsubstantiated and misleading.

In defence of their advertising, the manufacturer of the product, Miers Laboratories, submitted a study they had conducted with their product. However, the Advertising Standards Complaints Board ruled that: “the trial population in the pilot study was small, the methodology was not robust and the results had not been published or peer reviewed. The Complaints Board also noted the study was an in-house trial conducted by the Advertiser rather than independent research…Given the weaknesses in the study, the majority of the Complaints Board said the Advertiser had not satisfactorily substantiated the claim the product “really works” and, as such, the Complaints Board said the advertisement had the potential to mislead consumers. Consequently, the Complaints Board said the advertisement did not observe a high standard of social responsibility required of advertisements of this type.”

However, today I found the following text still on the website of the company: Jet lag is the curse of modern jet travel, but it doesn´t have to spoil your trip. The unique homeopathic remedy No-Jet-Lag helps ensure holiday enjoyment and working efficiency even after long airline flights. No-Jet-Lag is raved about by satisfied travellers globally, including business executives, sports teams, tour operators, and flight crews. It is safe, easy to take, and proven effective in tests.

Are the days of “No-Jet-Lag” counted?

Why do not all countries’ pharmacists have such codes of ethics?

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