MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

medical ethics

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This overview by researchers from that Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre, Research Institute for Primary Care & Health Sciences, Keele University, UK, was aimed at summarising the current best evidence on treatment options for 5 common musculoskeletal pain presentations: back, neck, shoulder, knee and multi-site pain. Reviews and studies of treatments were considered of the following therapeutic options: self-management advice and education, exercise therapy, manual therapy, pharmacological interventions (oral and topical analgesics, local injections), aids and devices, other treatments (ultrasound, TENS, laser, acupuncture, ice / hot packs) and psychosocial interventions (such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and pain-coping skills).

Here are the findings for those treatments most relevant in alternative medicine (it is interesting that most alternative medicines were not even considered because of lack of evidence and that the team of researchers can hardly be accused of an anti-alternative medicine bias, since its senior author has a track record of publishing results favourable to alternative medicine):

EXERCISE

Current evidence shows significant positive effects in favour of exercise on pain, function, quality of life and work related outcomes in the short and long-term for all the musculoskeletal pain presentations (compared to no exercise or other control) but the evidence regarding optimal content or delivery of exercise in each case is inconclusive.

ACUPUNCTURE

The evidence from a good quality individual patient data meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture may be effective for short-term relief of back pain and knee pain with medium summary effect sizes respectively compared with usual care or no acupuncture. However, effects on function were reported to be minimal and not maintained at longer-term follow-up. Similarly for neck and shoulder pain, acupuncture was only found to be effective for short-term (immediately post-treatment and at short-term follow-up) symptom relief compared to placebo.

MANUAL THERAPY

Current evidence regarding manual therapy is beset by heterogeneity. Due to paucity of high quality evidence, it is uncertain whether the efficacy of manual therapy might be different for different patient subgroups or influenced by the type and experience of professional delivering the therapy. On the whole, the available evidence suggests that manual therapy may offer some beneficial effects on pain and function, but it may not be superior to other non-pharmacological treatments (e.g. exercise) for patients with acute or chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Overall. the authors concluded that the best available evidence shows that patients with musculoskeletal pain problems in primary care can be managed effectively with non-pharmacological treatments such as self-management advice, exercise therapy, and psychosocial interventions. Pharmacological interventions such as corticosteroid injections (for knee and shoulder pain) were shown to be effective treatment options for the short-term relief of musculoskeletal pain and may be used in addition to non-pharmacological treatments. NSAIDs and opioids also offer short-term benefit for musculoskeletal pain, but the potential for adverse effects must be considered. Furthermore, the optimal treatment intensity, methods of application, amount of clinical contact, and type of provider or setting, are unclear for most treatment options.

These findings confirm what we have pointed out many times before on this blog. There is very little that alternative therapies have to offer for musculoskeletal pain. Whenever it is possible, I would recommend exercise therapy initiated by a physiotherapist; it is inexpensive, safe, and at least as effective as acupuncture or chiropractic or osteopathy.

Practitioners of alternative medicine will, of course, not like this solution.

Acupuncturists may not be that bothered by such evidence: their focus is not necessarily on musculoskeletal but on a range of other conditions (with usually little evidence, I hasten to add).

But for chiropractors and osteopaths, this is much more serious, in my view. Of course, some of them also claim to be able to treat a plethora of non-musculoskeletal conditions (but there the evidence is even worse than for musculoskeletal pain, and therefore this type of practice is clearly unethical). And those who see themselves as musculoskeletal specialists have to either accept the evidence that shows little benefit and considerable risk of spinal manipulation, or go in a state of denial.

In the former case, the logical conclusion is to look for another job.

In the latter case, the only conclusion is that their practice is not ethical.

Sorry, but something I stated in my last post was not entirely correct!

I wrote that “I could not find a single study on Schuessler Salts“.

Yet, I do know of a ‘study’ of Schuessler Salts after all; I hesitate to write about it because it is an exceedingly ugly story that goes back to the ‘Third Reich’, and some people do not seem to appreciate me reporting about my research on this period.

The truth, however, is that I already did mention the Schuessler salts before on this blog: “…in 1941 a research unit was established in ‘block 5’ [of the Dachau Concetration Camp] which, according to Rascher’s biographer, Sigfried Baer, contained his department and a homeopathic research unit led by Hanno von Weyherns and Rudolf Brachtel (1909-1988). I found the following relevant comment about von Weyherns: “Zu Jahresbeginn 1941 wurde in der Krankenabteilung eine Versuchsstation eingerichtet, in der 114 registrierte Tuberkulosekranke homöopathisch behandelt wurden. Leitender Arzt war von Weyherns. Er erprobte im Februar biochemische Mittel an Häftlingen.” My translation: At the beginning of 1941, an experimental unit was established in the sick-quarters in which 114 patients with TB were treated homeopathically. The chief physician was von Weyherns. In February, he tested Schuessler Salts [a derivative of homeopathy still popular in Germany today] on prisoners.”

Wikipedia provides further details: [Im Dritten Reich] konnten erstmals mit staatlicher Billigung und Förderung Untersuchungen durchgeführt werden, in denen die behauptete Wirksamkeit „biochemischer“ Arzneimittel überprüft wurde. Solche Versuche fanden auch in den Konzentrationslagern Dachau und Auschwitz statt, unter Leitung des Reichsarztes SS Ernst-Robert Grawitz. Dabei wurden unter anderem künstlich herbeigeführte Fälle von Blutvergiftung und Malaria weitgehend erfolglos behandelt. Für die Häftlinge nahmen diese Experimente in den meisten Fällen einen tödlichen Ausgang.

My translation: During the Third Reich, it became possible for the first time possible to conduct with governmental support investigations into the alleged effectiveness of ‘biochemical’ Schuessler Salts. Such tests were carried out in the concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz under the leadership of Reichsarzt SS Ernst-Robert Grawitz. They involved infecting prisoners with sepsis and malaria and treating them – largely without success. Most of the prisoners used for these experiments died.

I also found several further sources on the Internet. They confirm what was stated above and also mention the treatment of TB with Schuessler Salts. Furthermore, they state that the victims were mostly Polish priests:

The last source claims that at least 28 prisoners died as a result of these unspeakably cruel experiments.

The most detailed account (and even there, it is just 2 or 3 pages) about these experiments that I could find is in the superb and extremely well-researched book ‘AUSCHWITZ, DIE NS MEDIZIN UND IHRE OPFER’ by Ernst Klee. In it (p 146), Klee cites Grawitz’s correspondence with Himmler where Grawitz discloses that, prior to the Dachau ‘Schuessler experiments’, there were also some in Auschwitz where all three victims had died. Apparently Grawitz tried to persuade Himmler to stop these futile and (even for his standards) exceedingly cruel tests; the prisoners suffered unimaginable pain before their deaths. However, Himmler reprimanded him sharply and instructed him to continue. Dr Kiesswetter was subsequently recruited to the team because he was considered to be an expert on the clinical use of Schuessler Salts.

[Another book entitled Der Deutsche Zentralverein homöopathischer Ärzte im Nationalsozialismus‘ also mentions these experiments. Its author claims that Weyherns was not a doctor but a Heilpraktiker (all other sources agree that he was a medic). In general, the book seems to down-play this deplorable story and reads like an attempt to white-wash German homeopathy during the Third Reich] .

Klee concludes his chapter by reporting the post-war fate of all the doctors involved in the ‘Schuessler experiments’:

Dr Waldemar Wolter was sentenced to death and executed.

Dr Hermann Pape disappeared.

Dr Rudolf Kiesswetter disappeared.

Dr Babor fled to Addis Abeba.

Dr Laue died.

Dr Heinrich Schuetz managed to become a successful consultant in Essen. Only in 1972, he was charged and tried by a German court to 10 years of jail. Several of his colleagues, however, certify that he was too ill to be imprisoned, and Schuetz thus escaped his sentence.

Why do I dwell on this most unpleasant subject?

Surely, this has nothing to do with today’s use of Schuessler Salts!

Do I do it to “smear homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine with a ‘guilt by association’ argument, associating them with the Nazis“, as Peter Fisher once so stupidly put it?

No!

I have other, more important reasons:

  • I do not think that the evidence regarding Schuessler Salts is complete without these details.
  • I believe that these are important historical facts.
  • I feel that the history of alternative medicine during the Third Reich is under-researched and almost unknown (contrary to that of conventional medicine for which a very large body of published evidence is now available).
  • I feel it should be known and ought to be much better documented than it is today.
  • I fear that we live in times where the memory of such atrocities might serve as a preventative for a resurgence of fascism in all its forms.

This is a fascinating new review of upper neck manipulation. It raises many concerns that we, on this blog, have been struggling with for years. I take the liberty of quoting a few passages which I feel are important and encourage everyone to study the report in full:

The Minister of Health, Seniors and Active Living gave direction to the Health Professions Advisory Council (“the Council”) to undertake a review related to high neck manipulation.

Specifically, the Minister directed the Council to undertake:

1) A review of the status of the reserved act in other Canadian jurisdictions,

2) A literature review related to the benefits to patients and risks to patient safety associated with the procedure, and

3) A jurisprudence review or a review into the legal issues that have arisen in Canada with respect to the performance of the procedure that touch upon the risk of harm to a patient.

In addition, the Minister requested the Council to seek written input on the issue from:

  • Manitoba Chiropractic Stroke Survivors
  • Manitoba Chiropractic Association
  • College of Physiotherapists of Manitoba
  • Manitoba Naturopathic Association
  • College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba
  • other relevant interested parties as determined by the Council

… The review indicated that further research is required to:

  • strengthen evidence for the efficacy of cervical spinal manipulations (CSM) as a treatment for neck pain and headache, “as well as for other indications where evidence currently does not exist (i.e., upper back and should/arm pain, high blood pressure, etc.)”
  • establish safety and efficacy of CSM in infants and children
  • assess the risk versus benefit in consideration of using HVLA cervical spine manipulation, which also involve cost-benefit analyses that compare CSM to other standard treatments.

… the performance of “high neck manipulation” or cervical spine manipulation does present a risk of harm to patients. This risk of harm must be understood by both the patient and the practitioner.

Both the jurisprudence review and the research literature review point to the need for the following actions to mitigate the risk of harm associated with the performance of cervical spine manipulation:

  • Action One: Ensure that the patient provides written informed consent prior to initiating treatment which includes a discussion about the risk associated with cervical spine manipulation.
  • Action Two: Provide patients with information to assist in the early recognition of a serious adverse event.

Yes, I did promise to report on my participation in the ‘Goldenes Brett’ award which took place in Vienna and Hamburg on 23/11/2017. I had been asked to come to Vienna and do the laudation for the life-time achievement in producing ridiculous nonsense. This year, the award went to the ‘DEUTSCHER ZENTRALVEREIN HOMOEOPATHISCHER AERZTE’ (DZVhÄ), the German Central Society of Homoeopathic Doctors.

In my short speech, I pointed out that this group is a deserving recipient of this prestigious negative award. Founded in 1829, the DZVhÄ  is a lobby-group aimed at promoting homeopathy where and how they can. It is partly responsible for the fact that homeopathy is still highly popular in Germany, and that many German consumers seem to think that homeopathy is an evidence-based therapy.

Cornelia Bajic, the current president of this organisation stated on her website that “Homöopathie hilft bei allen Krankheiten, die keiner chirurgischen oder intensivmedizinischen Behandlung bedürfen“ (homeopathy helps with all diseases which do not need surgical or intensive care), advice that, in my view, has the potential to kill millions.

The DZVhÄ also sponsors the publication of a large range of books such as ‘Was kann die Homoeopathie bei Krebs’ (What can homeopathy do for cancer?). This should be a very short volume consisting of just one page with just one word: NOTHING. But, in fact, it provides all sorts of therapeutic claims that are not supported by evidence and might seriously harm those cancer patients who take it seriously.

But the DZVhÄ does much, much more than just promotion. For instance it organises annual ‘scientific’ conferences – I have mentioned two of them previously here, here and here. In recent years one of its main activity must have been the defamation of certain critics of homeopathy. For instance, they supported Claus Fritzsche in his activities to defame me and others. And recently, they attacked Natalie Grams for her criticism of homeopathy. Only a few days ago, Cornelia Bajic attacked doctor Gram’s new book – embarrassingly, Bajic then had to admit that she had not even read the new book!

The master-stroke of the DZVhÄ , in my opinion, was the fact that they supported the 4 homeopathic doctors who went to Liberia during the Ebola crisis wanting to treat Ebola patients with homeopathy. At the time Bajic stated that “Unsere Erfahrung aus der Behandlung anderer Epidemien in der Geschichte der Medizin lässt den Schluss zu, dass eine homöopathische Behandlung die Sterblichkeitsrate der Ebola-Patienten signifikant verringern könnte” (Our experience with other epidemics in the history of medicine allows the conclusion that homeopathic treatment might significantly reduce the mortality of Ebola patients).

As I said: the DZVhÄ are a well-deserving winner of this award!

 

The fact that many dentists practice dubious alternative therapies receives relatively little attention. In 2016, for instance, Medline listed just 31 papers on the subject of ‘complementary alternative medicine, dentistry’, while there were more than 1800 on ‘complementary alternative medicine’. Similarly, I have discussed this topic just once before on this blog. Clearly, the practice of alternative medicine by dentists begs many questions – perhaps a new paper can answer some of them?

The aims of this study were to “analyse whether dentists offer or recommend complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) remedies in their clinical routine, and how effective these are rated by proponents and opponents. A second aim of this study was to give a profile of the dentists endorsing CAM.

A prospective, explorative, anonymised cross-sectional survey was spread among practicing dentists in Germany via congresses, dental periodicals and online (n=250, 55% male, 45% female; mean age 49.1±11.4years).

Of a set of 31 predefined CAM modalities, the dentists integrated plant extracts from Arnica montana (64%), chamomile (64%), clove (63%), Salvia officinalis (54%), relaxation therapies (62%), homeopathy (57%), osteopathic medicine (50%) and dietetics (50%). The effectiveness of specific treatments was rated significantly higher by CAM proponents than opponents. However, also CAM opponents classified some CAM remedies as highly effective, namely ear acupuncture, osteopathic medicine and clove.

With respect to the characteristic of the proponents, the majority of CAM-endorsing dentists were women. The mean age (50.4±0.9 vs 47.0±0.9years) and number of years of professional experience (24.2±1.0 vs 20.0±1.0years) were significantly higher for CAM proponents than the means for opponents. CAM proponents worked significantly less and their perceived workload was significantly lower. Their self-efficacy expectation (SEE) and work engagement (Utrecht work engagement, UWE) were significantly higher compared to dentists who abandoned these treatment options. The logistic regression model showed an increased association from CAM proponents with the UWES subscale dedication, with years of experience, and that men are less likely to be CAM proponents than women.

The authors concluded that various CAM treatments are recommended by German dentists and requested by their patients, but the scientific evidence for these treatments are often low or at least unclear. CAM proponents are often female, have higher SE and work engagement.

GIVE ME A BREAK!!!

These conclusion are mostly not based on the data provided.

The researchers seemed to insist on addressing utterly trivial questions.

They failed to engage in even a minimum amount of critical thinking.

If, for instance, dentists are convinced that ear-acupuncture is effective, they are in urgent need of some rigorous education in EBM, I would argue. And if they use a lot of unproven therapies, researchers should ask whether this phenomenon is not to a large extend motivated by their ambition to improve their income.

Holistic dentistry, as it is ironically often called (there is nothing ‘holistic’ about ripping off patients), is largely a con, and dentists who engage in such practices are mostly charlatans … but why does hardly anyone say so?

 

 

Malaria is an infection caused by protozoa usually transmitted via mosquito bites. Malaria is an important disease for homeopaths because of Hahnemann’s quinine experiment: it made him postulate his ‘like cures like’ theory. Today, many experts assume that Hahnemann misinterpreted the results of this experience. Yet most homeopaths are still convinced that potentised cinchona bark is an effective prophylaxis against malaria. Some homeopathic pharmacies still offer homeopathic immunisations against the infection. In several cases, this has caused people who believed to be protected fall ill with the infection.

Perhaps because of this long tradition, homeopaths seem to have difficulties giving up the idea that they hold the key to effective malaria prevention. An article published in THE INDIAN EXPRESS entitled ‘Research suggests hope for homoeopathic vaccine to treat malaria’ reminds us of this bizarre phenomenon:

…In a laboratory test set-up, an ultra-dilute homoeopathic preparation was prepared by extracting samples from Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes malaria. The homoeopathic preparation was used in-vitro to check if it had anti-malarial activity… “Homoeopathy has been criticised for lack of scientific evidence. This lab-model test established that a medicine developed from an organism that causes malaria can be used to treat the infection,” said Dr Rajesh Shah, principal investigator in the research.

Following the tests, Shah is approaching the government in order to conduct a full-fledged clinical trial for the homoeopathic medicine. “We found that the homoeopathic medicine exhibited 65 per cent inhibition against malaria while chloroquine treatment has 54 per cent efficacy,” Shah claimed. The research was published in the International Journal of Medical and Health Research in July. It observed that the homoeopathic solution inhibited enzyme called hemozoin is known to have an anti-malarial effect…

END OF QUOTE

I thought this story was both remarkable and odd. So I looked up the original paper. Here is the abstract:

The inventor has developed malaria nosode and has subjected it for evaluation of antimalarial activity in vitro assay along with few other homeopathy preparations. The potential antimalarial activity of the Malaria nosode, Malaria officinalis and China officinalis was evaluated by β-Hematin Formation Assay. The hemozoin content was determined by measuring the absorbance at 400 nm. The results were recorded as % inhibition of heme crystallization compared to negative control (DMSO) Malaria nosode, Malaria officinalis and China officinalis exhibited inhibition of hemozoin and the inhibition was greater than the positive control Chloroquine diphosphate used in the study. The study has shown anti-disease activity of an ultra-dilute (potentized) homeopathic preparation. The Malaria nosode prepared by potentizing Plasmodium falciparum organisms has demonstrated antimalarial activity, which supports the basic principle behind homeopathy, the law of similar.

Now I am just as puzzled!

Why would any responsible scientist advocate running a ‘full-fledged clinical trial’ on the basis of such flimsy and implausible findings?

Would that not be highly unethical?

Would one not do further in-vitro tests?

Then perhaps some animal studies?

Followed by first studies in humans?

Followed perhaps by a small pilot study?

And, if all these have generated positive results, eventually a proper clinical trial?

The answers to all these questions is YES.

But not in homeopathy, it seems!

This article is worth reading, I think.

It again begs the question whether the GCC is fit for purpose.

START OF QUOTE

AN ILKLEY chiropractor has been found guilty of unacceptable professional conduct by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC).

Dr John Rees, who works at Ilkley Chiropractic Clinic, Wilmot House, Railway Road, appeared before the Professional Conduct Committee of the Council at a hearing in London from November 6 to 8. Dr Rees faced allegations in relation to a female patient, known as patient A, who was registered under the care of Mr Rees on various dates between May 20, 2016 and June 10, 2016 and June 11, 2016 and June 15, 2016.

The committee found the admitted particulars proved, however, other, more serious allegations he had been facing, but had always denied, were dropped as there was no reliable evidence to support them. Ms Harris for the GCC told the hearing that notwithstanding the concessions made by the GCC the registrant’s behaviour, even if well received by the patient, was inappropriate, an abuse of the patient-practitioner relationship and the sort of behaviour that brings the profession into disrepute.

Dr Rees was represented at the hearing by Mr Kitching who described the events of 2016 as “a professional disaster for the registrant, an embarrassment which he regretted on a personal and professional level.” Mr Kitching submitted that physical contact with patient A had gone no further than drinks, a kiss, a hug and that the matters were at the lower end of the scale of breaches. He invited the committee to consider patient A had been a willing participant and was both intelligent and mature and could not be considered as vulnerable.

However, the committee determined that Dr Rees’s behaviour “embraced both a risk to the reputation of the profession and also the protection of patients. The committee added: “Whilst much of the behaviour had been consensual the registrant had been in a position of power, he had planned the progression of the relationship and this amounted to serious acts on his behalf.”

The hearing concluded that Dr Rees’s conduct “fell seriously below the standards expected of a chiropractor and that, consequently, Dr Rees is guilty of unacceptable professional conduct.” In making a sanction against Dr Rees the committee noted a wide range of supportive testimonials and references and his previous good character. The committee was satisfied that the misconduct was not “fundamentally incompatible with continued registration”. It imposed the sanction of an admonishment – a formal warning – upon Dr Rees.

Following the hearing Dr Rees told the Gazette: “My professional body has considered all the pertinent facts and come to its decision. The matter is now closed. I would like to thank my patients for their generous support during this difficult period.”

END OF QUOTE

ADDITIONAL INFO COPIED FROM THE GCC ‘NOTICE OF DECISION’:

  • The kiss or attempted kiss was ‘on the lips’.
  • Rees gave the patient presents, including a bikini.
  • Rees attended patient’s home address.
  • Rees seems to have falsified the patient’s case notes and thus ‘acted dishonestly’.
  • Rees called the patient ‘an evil loose woman’, ‘a bunny boiler’ and ‘a slapper’.

Do I understand this right? The GCC concluded that “much of the behaviour had been consensual”. To me, this indicates that some of the behaviour was not consensual. How then could the GCC find that Rees’s behaviour was compatible with continued registration?  And how could they imposed merely a formal warning upon Dr Rees?

I fail to comprehend this verdict.

Also I fail to understand why Rees allows himself to be called a ‘doctor’.

And I again ask: IS THE GCC FIT FOR PURPOSE?

Some doctors use homeopathy, and for proponents of homeopathy this has always been a strong argument for its effectiveness. They claim that someone who has studied medicine would not employ a therapy that does not work. I have long felt that this view is erroneous.

This article goes some way in finding out who is right. It was aimed at describing the use of homeopathy by physicians working in outpatient care, factors associated with prescribing homeopathy, and the therapeutic intentions and attitudes involved.

All physicians working in outpatient care in the Swiss Canton of Zurich in the year 2015 (n = 4072) were approached. Outcomes of the survey were:

  • association of prescribing homeopathy with medical specialties;
  • intentions behind prescriptions;
  • level of agreement with specific attitudes;
  • views towards homeopathy including explanatory models,
  • rating of homeopathy’s evidence base,
  • the endorsement of indications,
  • reimbursement of homeopathic treatment by statutory health insurance providers.

The participation rate was 38%, mean age 54 years, 61% male, and 40% specialised in general internal medicine. Homeopathy was prescribed at least once a year by 23% of the respondents. Medical specialisations associated with prescribing homeopathy were: no medical specialisation (OR 3.9; 95% CI 1.7-9.0), specialisation in paediatrics (OR 3.8 95% CI 1.8-8.0) and gynaecology/obstetrics (OR 3.1 95% CI 1.5-6.7).

Among prescribers, only 50% clearly intended to induce specific homeopathic effects, only 27% strongly adhered to homeopathic prescription doctrines, and only 23% thought there was scientific evidence to prove homeopathy’s effectiveness. Seeing homeopathy as a way to induce placebo effects had the strongest endorsement among prescribers and non-prescribers of homeopathy (63% and 74% endorsement respectively). Reimbursement of homeopathic remedies by statutory health insurance was rejected by 61% of all respondents

The authors concluded that medical specialties use homeopathy with significantly varying frequency and only half of the prescribers clearly intend to achieve specific effects. Moreover, the majority of prescribers acknowledge that effectiveness is unproven and give little importance to traditional principles behind homeopathy. Medical specialties and associated patient demands but also physicians’ openness towards placebo interventions may play a role in homeopathy prescriptions. Education should therefore address not only the evidence base of homeopathy, but also ethical dilemmas with placebo interventions.

These data suggest than many doctors use homeopathy as a placebo. And this is what I had always suspected. Certainly I did often employ it in this way when I still worked as a clinician. The logic of doing so is quite simple: there are many patients where, after running all necessary tests, you conclude that there is nothing wrong with them. You try your best to get the message across but it is not accepted by the patient who clearly wants to have a prescription for something. In the end, due to time pressure etc., you give up and prescribe a homeopathic remedy hoping that the placebo effect, regression towards the mean and the natural history of the condition will do the trick.

And often they do!

I do know that this is hardly good medicine and arguably even not entirely ethical, but it is the reality. If I found myself in the same situation again, I am not sure that I would not do something similar.

The German Heilpraktiker (a phenomenon vaguely equivalent to the ‘naturopath’ in English speaking countries) has become a fairly regular feature on this blog – see, for instance here, here, and here. The nationally influential German Medical Journal, a weekly publication of the German Medical Association, recently published an article about the education of this profession.

In it, we are told that the German Ministry of Health has drafted a 9-page document to unify the examination of the Heilpraktiker throughout Germany. The German Medical Association, however, are critical about the planned reform. The draft document suggest that, in future, all Heilpraktiker should pass an exam consisting of 60 multiple choice questions, in addition to an oral examination in which 4 candidates are being interviewed simultaneously for one hour. The draft also stipulates that Heilpraktiker may only practice such that they present no danger for public health and only use methods they muster.

The German Medical Association feel that these reforms do not go far enough. They claim that the authors of the draft have ‘totally misunderstood the complexity of the medical context, particularly the amount of necessary knowledge necessary for risk-minimisation in clinical practice’. They furthermore feel that the document is ‘an effort that is in every respect insufficient for protecting the public or individuals from the practice of the Heilpraktiker’. They also state that it is unclear how the document might provide a means to test Heilpraktiker in respect of risk-minimisation. The Medical Association demands that ‘the practice of certain therapies by Heilpraktiker must be forbidden. Finally, they say that ‘the practice of invasive methods and the treatment of caner by Heilpraktiker must be urgently prohibited’.

The German Heilpraktiker has been a subject of much public debate recently, not least after the ‘Muenster Group’ suggested a comprehensive reform. (I reported about this at the time.)

For those who can read German, the original article from the German Medical Journal is copied below:

Das Bundesministerium für Gesundheit (BMG) will gemeinsam mit den Ländern die Heilpraktikerüberprüfung bundesweit vereinheitlichen und Patienten besser schützen. Dafür haben Bund und Länder einen neunseitigen Entwurf erarbeitet. Die Bundes­ärzte­kammer (BÄK) zeigt sich angesichts der Pläne besorgt und übt deutliche Kritik.

Der Entwurf sieht vor, dass zur Überprüfung der Kenntnisse von Heilpraktikern künftig eine Prüfung verpflichtend sein soll. Diese soll aus 60 Multiple-Choice-Fragen bestehen, von denen der Anwärter innerhalb von zwei Stunden 45 korrekt ankreuzen muss. Darüber hinaus ist ein mündlicher Prüfungsteil von einer Stunde vorgesehen – bei vier Prüflingen gleichzeitig.

Zusätzlich stellt der Entwurf klar, dass Heilpraktiker nur in dem Umfang Heilkunde ausüben dürfen, in dem von ihrer Tätigkeit keine Gefahr für die Gesundheit der Bevölkerung oder für Patientinnen und Patienten ausgeht. Sie müssten zudem „eventuelle Arztvorbehalte beachten und sich auf die Tätigkeiten beschränken, die sie sicher beherrschen“, heißt es in der Präambel des Bund-Länder-Entwurfes, der dem Deutschen Ärzteblatt vorliegt.

Der Bundes­ärzte­kammer geht der Text nicht weit genug. Die Autoren der Leitlinie für die Prüfung haben laut BÄK „die Komplexität des medizinischen Kontextes“ völlig verkannt, „insbesondere das Ausmaß des notwendigen medizinischen Wissens, das für eine gefahrenminimierte Ausübung der Heilkunde notwendig ist“, so die Kammer weiter. Die jetzt vorgelegten Leitlinien für die Überprüfung stelle „eine in jeder Hinsicht unzureichende Maßnahme zum Schutz der Bevölkerung oder gar einzelner Patienten vor möglichen Gesundheitsgefahren durch die Tätigkeit von Heilpraktikern dar.

Es sei nicht nachvollziehbar, „wie auf der Grundlage dieser Leitlinien eine Überprüfung von Heilpaktikeranwärtern unter dem Aspekt einer funktionierenden Gefahrenabwehr erfolgen soll“, so die Kammer weiter. Sie fordert, dass Heilpraktikern bestimmte Tätigkeiten verboten werden. „Konkret sieht die Bundes­ärzte­kammer insbesondere den Ausschluss aller invasiven Maßnahmen sowie der Behandlung von Krebserkrankungen als zwingend notwendig an“, heißt es in der Stellungnahme.

Der Bund-Länder-Entwurf ist Ergebnis einer Debatte darüber, was Heilpraktiker dürfen oder künftig nicht (mehr) dürfen sollten und wie die Regeln für den Gesundheitsberuf aussehen. Eine Expertengruppe, der „Münsteraner Kreis“, hatte unlängst Vorschläge für eine umfassende Reform erarbeitet. Das Thema war zuletzt in der Öffentlichkeit und auch der Ärzteschaft heftig diskutiert worden.

END OF QUOTE

So, how well should alt med practitioners be educated and trained?

The answer depends, I think, on what precisely they are allowed to do. Medical responsibility must always be matched to medical competence. If a massage therapist merely acts on the instructions of a doctor, she does not need to know the differential diagnosis of a headache, for instance.

If, however, practitioners independently diagnose diseases (and alt med practitioners often do exactly that!), they must have a knowledge-base similar to that of a GP. If they use potentially harmful treatments (and which therapy does not have the potential to do harm?), they must be aware of the evidence for or against these interventions, as well as the evidence for all other therapeutic options for the conditions in question. Again, this would mean having a knowledge close to GP-level. If there is a mismatch between responsibility and competence (as very often is the case), patients are exposed to avoidable risks.

It is clear from these considerations that an exam with 60 multiple-choice questions followed by an hour-long interview is woefully inadequate for testing whether a practitioner has sufficient medical competence to independently care for patients. It is also clear, I think, that practitioners who regularly diagnose and treat patients – usually without any supervision – ought to have an education that covers much of what doctors learn while in medical school. Finally, it is clear that even after an adequate education, practitioners need to gather experience and work under supervision for some time before they can responsibly practice independently.

In any case, uncritically teaching obsolete notions of vitalism, yin and yang, subluxation, detox, potentisation, millennia of experience etc. is certainly not good enough. Education has to be based on sound evidence; if not, it is not education but brain-washing. And the result would be that students do not become responsible healthcare professionals but irresponsible charlatans.

Of course, alt med practitioners will argue that these arguments are merely the expression of medics defending their lucrative patch. But even if this were true (which, in my view, it is not), it would not absolve them from the moral, ethical and legal duty to demonstrate that their educational standards are sufficiently rigorous to avoid harm to their patients.

In a nutshell: an education in nonsense must result in nonsense.

 

The British press recently reported that a retired bank manager (John Lawler, aged 80) died after visiting a chiropractor in York. This tragic case was published in multiple articles, most recently in THE SUN. Personally, I find this regrettable – not the fact that the press warns consumers of chiropractic, but the tone and content of the articles.

Let me explain this by citing the one in THE SUN of today. Here is the critical bit that concerns me:

Ezvard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, published a study showing at least 26 people had died as a result. He said: “The evidence is not in favour of chiropractic treatments. Nobody knows how many have suffered severe complications or died.” Edvard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, says many have suffered complications or died from chiropractors treatments… A study from Exeter University shows at least 26 people have died as a result of treatment.

And what is wrong with this?

The answer is lots:

  • My first name is consistently misspelled (a triviality, I agree).
  • I am once named as Emeritus Professor and once as Professor of Complementary Medicine. The latter is wrong (another triviality, perhaps, but some of my more demented critics have regularly accused me of carrying wrong titles)
  • The mention of 26 deaths after chiropractic treatments is problematic and arguably misleading (see below).
  • Our ‘study’ was not a study but a systematic review (another triviality?).

Now you probably think I am being pedantic, but I feel that the article is regrettable not so much by what it says but by what it fails to say. To understand this better, I will below copy my emails to the journalist who asked for help in researching this article.

  • My email of 17/10 answering all 7 of the journalist’s specific questions:
  • 1. Why are you sceptical of chiropractic?
  • I have researched the subject for more than 2 decades, and I know that the evidence is not in favour of chiropractic
  • 2. How many people do you believe have died in Britain as a result of being treated by a chiropractor? If it’s not possible to say, can you estimate?
  • nobody knows how many patients have suffered severe complications or deaths. there is no system to monitor such events that is comparable to the post-marketing surveillance of conventional medicine. we did some research and found that the under-reporting of cases of severe complications was close to 100% in the UK.
  • 3. What is so dangerous about chiropractic? Is there a particular physical treatment than endangers life?
  • manipulations that involve rotation and over-extension of the upper spine can lead to a vertebral artery breaking up. this causes a stroke which sometimes is fatal.
  • 4. Is the industry well regulated?
  • UK chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council. it is debatable whether they are fit for purpose (see here:http://edzardernst.com/2015/02/the-uk-general-chiropractic-council-fit-for-purpose/)
  • 5. Should we be suspicious of claims that chiropractic can cure things like IBS and autism?
  • such claims are not based on good evidence and therefore misleading and unethical. sadly, however, they are prevalent.
  • 6. Who trains chiropractors?
  • there are numerous colleges that specialise in that activity.
  • 7. Is it true Prince Charles is to blame for the rise in popularity/prominence of chiropractic?
  • I am not sure. certainly he has been promoting all sorts of unproven treatments for decades.
  • My email of 18/10 answering 3 further specific questions
  • 1. Would you actively discourage anyone from being treated by a chiropractor?
    yes, anyone I feel responsible for
    2. Are older people particularly at risk or could one wrong move affect anyone?
    older people are at higher risk of bone fractures and might also have more brittle arteries prone to dissection
    3. If someone has, say, a bad back or stiff neck what treatment would you recommend instead of chiropractic?
    I realise every case is different, but you are sceptical of all complementary treatments (as I understand it) so what would you suggest instead?
    I would normally consider therapeutic exercises and recommend seeing a good physio.
  • 3. My email of 23/10 replying to his request for specific UK cases
  • the only thing I can offer is this 2001 paper
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1297923/
  • where we discovered 35 cases seen by UK neurologists within the preceding year. the truly amazing finding here was that NONE of them had been reported anywhere before. this means under-reporting was exactly 100%.

END OF QUOTES
I think that makes it quite obvious that much relevant information never made it into the final article. I also know that several other experts provided even more information than I did which never appeared.

The most important issues, I think, are firstly the lack of a monitoring system for adverse events, secondly the level of under-reporting and thirdly the 50% rate of mild to moderate adverse-effects. Without making these issues amply clear, lay readers cannot possibly make any sense of the 26 deaths. More importantly, chiropractors will now be able to respond by claiming: 26 deaths compare very favourably with the millions of fatalities caused by conventional medicine. In the end, the message that will remain in the heads of many consumers is this: CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN CHIROPRACTIC!!! (The 1st comment making this erroneous point has already been published: Don’t be stupid Andy. You wanna discuss how many deaths occur due to medication side effects and drug interactions? There is a reason chiros have the lowest malpractice rates.)

Don’t get me wrong, I am not accusing the author of the SUN-article. For all I know, he has filed a very thoughtful and complete piece. It might have been shortened by the editor who may also have been the one adding the picture of the US starlet with her silicone boobs. But I am accusing THE SUN of missing a chance to publish something that might have had the chance of being a meaningful contribution to public health.

Perhaps you still think this is all quite trivial. Yet, after having experienced this sort of thing dozens, if not hundreds of times, I disagree.

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