THE LOCAL, SPAIN’S NEWS IN ENGLISH just reported that a master’s degree in homeopathic medicine at one of Spain’s top universities has been scrapped, because of its “lack of scientific basis”. A university spokesman confirmed the course was being scrapped and gave three main reasons:
- “Firstly, the university’s Faculty of Medicine recommended scrapping the master’s because of the doubt that exists in the scientific community.
- Secondly, a lot of people within the university – professors and students across different faculties – had shown their opposition to the course.
- Thirdly, the postgraduate degree in homeopathic medicine is no longer approved by Spain’s Health Ministry.”
“All of these reasons taken together convinced the university to stop the course,” he added. The news has been praised by doctors and scientists throughout Spain, not least by Adrián Gómez, a chemistry student at the university, who five months ago launched a petition on the website change.org calling for the homeopathy master’s to be scrapped.
The university had started its Homeopathic Medicine Masters in 2004. Since then opposition to the course seems to have grown. Even Spain’s own Health Ministry stated in a 2011 report that “homeopathy has not proved its effectiveness in any specific clinical situation”.
The current student intake (n=20), which is due to finish the course in October 2016 will continue to the end, but there will be no new courses in homeopathy. THE LOCAL also reported that the homeopathic industry in Spain is worth around €60 million annually.
Vis a vis the now overwhelming evidence that homeopathy is a placebo therapy, more closures of homeopathy courses can be expected worldwide. Indeed, one has to ask why this particular course was started in 2004 when the evidence had been quite clear for some time. In my view, it is unethical of universities to set youngsters on a path of quackery and thus contribute to an obstacle to evidence-based health care.
Recently, I came across this website. I think it is worth having a good look because it is just too funny for words. Amongst other things, it offers 5 tips for finding a ‘wellness chiropractor’. I could not resist the temptation of reproducing these 5 tips here – and for good measure, I added some footnotes of my own; they appear in the otherwise unaltered text as numbers in square brackets referring to short comments at the bottom:
- Does the practice focus on vertebral subluxation  and wellness? Physical, biochemical, and psychological stress may result in spinal subluxations  that disrupt nerve function  and compromise your health . If you’re looking for a wellness chiropractor, it’s essential that this be the focus. Some chiropractors confine their practice to the mechanical treatment of back and neck pain, and this is something you need to be aware of beforehand.
- Does the doctor “walk the talk”? If he or she is overweight, looks unhealthy, or does not live a healthy lifestyle, this speaks volumes regarding their commitment to wellness .
- Do the two of you “click”? Do you like each other? Do you communicate well? Avoid a doctor  who seems rushed, talks down to you, or seems disinterested in listening to your concerns .
- Does the doctor use objective assessments of nerve function? Since your care is not based just on addressing pain, your chiropractor should be using some form of objective assessment of your nerve function, as spinal subluxations  can sometimes be asymptomatic . Non-invasive instruments that measure the electrical activity in your muscles, and/or a thermal scanner  that evaluates the function of your autonomic nervous system can be used, for example.
- What treatment techniques are used? Chiropractic techniques include low-force adjustments by hand, and more forceful adjustments using instruments . Ask which technique would be used on you , and if you have a preference, make sure the doctor  is willing to use it.
- ‘Spinal subluxation’, as used in chiro-lingo, is a non-entity that has no place in reality; it is merely a tool for making money.
- I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that this is true .
- As subluxations do not exist, it is safe to say that this is pure fantasy.
- The assumption seems to be that only a healthy chiro is a good chiro!?!?
- Chiros were just promoted to doctors – obviously much better for generating a health income.
- There are qualities that are required from everyone – your waiter, bus-conductor, butcher etc. – even from your chiro.
- Non-existent entities are always asymptomatic.
- Test with lousy reliability.
- Very misleading statement; manual ‘adjustments’ can also be forceful and are often more forceful than those using instruments.
- This statement makes it very clear that informed consent is not what patients can regularly count on with chiros. This leads me to suspect that chiros frequently breach one of the most important ethical rules in clinical practice.
Yes, I do think the chiro fraternity often is completely hilarious – unwittingly perhaps but surely hilarious [if we would not laugh at them, we would need to get angry with them which is to be avoided at all cost, as they tend to sue for libel]. Without the chiros regularly making themselves ridiculous, my life would certainly be far less droll.
Elsewhere on this intriguing post, the author informs us that where I think chiropractic shines is that we address the cause of the problem. Personally, I think, where chiropractic shines brightest is in amusing us with their continuous flow of humorous bovine excrement.
WE SHOULD BE THANKFUL!
On Sunday 21 February, Andrew Herxheimer died at the age of 90. He was a clinical pharmacologist, founding editor of the Drugs & Therapeutics Bulletin from 1963 to 1992, Emeritus Fellow of the UK Cochrane Centre, convenor of the Cochrane Collaboration on Adverse Effects Methods Group and a co-founder of the DIPEx charity, which owns and runs www.healthtalk.org .
Andrew has contributed a significant amount of papers on a large variety of subjects to the medical literature. His most recent articles were published only a few months ago. Andrew’s energy, wit and enthusiasm seemed infectious, and he has inspired many.
The official CV of Andrew is most impressive but, in my view, it can never do justice to the man himself. He was kind, witty and bright – a true gentleman through and through. His interests ranged wide, and his comments on so many different issues were as incisive as they were inspiring. His knowledge was vast and his vision clear. With everything he did, he seemed guided by a never-failing moral compass. He was a rational and critical thinker like few else, yet his warmth and kindness always dominated.
I had the pleasure to meet Andrew soon after I took up my post in Exeter. We became friends almost instantly and, many times, he supported me with his kindness. In 1996, we published an article together in the BMJ entitled THE POWER OF PLACEBO. Here is its concluding paragraph:
“…all doctors should be encouraged to look at their own practice to examine the nonspecific ingredients that they use daily and those that they do not use. Giving greater attention in daily practice to ‘adjuvants’ (specific as well as non-specific) could considerably increase effectiveness and efficacy – for example, by saying more useful things to patients in better ways. Methods will be needed for implementing such approaches. Until they are available, good common sense and old-fashioned bedside manners might already take us far – as they say, when all else fails, talk to your patient.”
Andrew Herxheimer was a great man, a kind friend, a brilliant scientist and a compassionate doctor. Without him, medicine seems far less inspired, amusing and joyful.
I get comments of this nature all the time, sometimes by the dozen per day. As the argument is so very common, let me ONCE AGAIN explain what is wrong with it. Here are 10 very simple points for those who find it hard to understand the issue.
- My expertise is in alternative medicine and not in pharmacology. I know many pharmacologists who are competent to criticise aspects of pharmacotherapy and do so regularly. I do NOT consider myself competent to comment on pharmacotherapy.
- The fact that some things are not perfect in one area of health care (e. g. pharmacotherapy) does certainly not mean that one is not allowed to criticise shortcomings in other areas (e. g. homeopathy).
- As far as I can tell, it is not pharmaceuticals that ‘kill 100k a year’, but the issue is more complex: a sizable proportion of this tragic total is due to medical errors, for instance.
- The 100k figure seems to refer to the US where the vast majority of the population take pharmaceuticals but only about 2% of the population ever try homeopathy.
- Nobody seems to dispute that pharmaceuticals have beneficial effects beyond placebo; the general consensus regarding highly diluted homeopathics is that they have no effects beyond placebo.
- To judge the value of a therapy, it is naïve and dangerously misleading to consider just its risks. If we did that, aromatherapy would be preferable to surgery, reflexology would be better than chemotherapy and OF COURSE homeopathy would be better than pharmacotherapy. And if we then implemented this ‘wisdom’ into routine practice, we would hasten the deaths of millions.
- Any reasonable judgement of the value of any therapy must account for its documented risks in relation to its documented benefits. In other words, we must always try to weigh the two against each other and do a risk/benefit analysis.
- If a therapy is associated with finite risks and no benefits, its risk/benefit balance cannot possibly be positive. Where the benefit is non-existent or doubtful, even relatively small risks will inevitably tilt this balance in to the negative.
- This is precisely the situation that applies to homeopathy: its benefits beyond placebo are doubtful and its risks are fairly well documented.
- This means that homeopathy cannot be considered to be a therapy that is fit for purpose.
Cervical spine manipulation (CSM) is a popular manipulative therapy employed by chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals. It remains controversial because its benefits are in doubt and its safety is questionable. CSM carries the risk of serious neurovascular complications, primarily due to vertebral artery dissection (VAD) and subsequent vertebrobasilar stroke.
Chinese physicians recently reported a rare case of a ‘locked-in syndrome’ (LIS) due to bi-lateral VAD after CSM treated by arterial embolectomy. A 36-year-old right-handed man was admitted to our hospital with numbness and weakness of limbs after receiving treatment with CSM. Although the patient remained conscious, he could not speak but could communicate with the surrounding by blinking or moving his eyes, and turned to complete quadriplegia, complete facial and bulbar palsy, dyspnoea at 4 hours after admission. He was diagnosed with LIS. Cervical and brain computed tomography angiography revealed bi-lateral VADs. Aorto-cranial digital subtraction angiography showed a vertebro-basilar thrombosis which was blocking the left vertebral artery, and a stenosis of right vertebral artery. The patient underwent emergency arterial embolectomy; subsequently he was treated with antiplatelet therapy and supportive therapy in an intensive care unit and later in a general ward. After 27 days, the patient’s physical function gradually improved. At discharge, he still had a neurological deficit with muscle strength grade 3/5 and hyperreflexia of the limbs.
The authors concluded that CSM might have potential severe side-effect like LIS due to bilaterial VAD, and arterial embolectomy is an important treatment choice. The practitioner must be aware of this complication and should give the patients informed consent to CSM, although not all stroke cases temporally related to CSM have pre-existing craniocervical artery dissection.
Informed consent is an ethical imperative with any treatment. There is good evidence to suggest that few clinicians using CSM obtain informed consent from their patients before starting their treatment. This is undoubtedly a serious violation of medical ethics.
So, why do they not obtain informed consent?
To answer this question, we need to consider what informed consent would mean. It would mean, I think, conveying the following points to the patient in a way that he or she can understand them:
- the treatment I am suggesting can, in rare cases, cause very serious problems,
- there is little good evidence to suggest that it will ease your condition,
- there are other therapies that might be more effective.
Who would give his or her consent after receiving such information?
I suspect it would be very few patients indeed!
AND THAT’S THE REASON, I FEAR, WHY MANY CLINICIANS USING CSM PREFER TO BEHAVE UNETHICALLY AND FORGET ABOUT INFORMED CONSENT.
Germany is, as we all know, the home of homeopathy. Here it has an unbroken popularity, plenty of high level support and embarrassingly little opposition. The argument that homeopathy has repeatedly been shown to merely rely on placebo effects seems to count for nothing in Germany.
Perhaps this is going to change now. On January 30, a group of experts from all walks of life have met in Freiburg to discuss ways of informing the public responsibly and countering the plethora of misinformation that Germans are regularly exposed to on the subject of homeopathy. They founded the ‘Information Network Homeopathy’ and decided on a range of actions.
No doubt, some will ask where does their financial support come from? And no doubt, some will claim that we are on the payroll of ‘Big Pharma’. The truth is that we have no funding; everyone gives his/her own time free of charge and pays for his/her own expenses etc. And why? Because we believe in progress and feel strongly that it is time to improve healthcare by relegating homeopathy to the history books.
One of the first fruits of the network’s endeavours is the ‘Freiburger Erklärung zur Homöopathie’, the ‘Freiburg Declaration on Homeopathy’. I have the permission to reproduce the document here in full (the translation is mine):
HOMEOPATHY IS NEITHER NATUROPATHY NOR MEDICINE
Despite the support of politicians and the silence of those who should know better, homeopathy has remained a method which is in clear opposition to the proven basics of science. The members and supporter of the ‘Information Network Homeopathy’ view homeopathy as a stubbornly surviving belief system, which cannot be accepted as part of naturopathy nor medicine. The information network is an association of physicians, pharmacists, veterinarians, biologists, scientists and other critics of homeopathy who are united in their aim to disclose this fact more openly and make the public more aware of it.
NO SPECIAL STATUS FOR HOMEOPATHY
During the more than 200 years of its existence, homeopathy has not managed to demonstrate its specific effectiveness. Homeopathy only survives because it has been granted special status in the German healthcare system which is, in the opinion of the experts of the network, unjustified. Drugs have to prove their effectiveness according to objective criteria, but homeopathics are exempt from this obligation. We oppose such double standards in medicine.
Homeopathy has also not managed to demonstrate a plausible mode of action. Instead its proponents pretend that there are uncertainties which need to be clarified. We oppose such notions vehemently. Homeopathy is not an unconventional method that requires further scientific study. Its basis consists of long disproven theories such as the ‘law of similars’, ‘vital force’ or ‘potentisation by dilution’.
SELF-DECEPTION OF PATIENT AND THERAPIST
We do not dispute the therapeutic effects of a homeopathic treatment. But they are unrelated to the specific homeopathic remedy. The perceived effectiveness of homeopathics is due to suggestion and auto-suggestion of the patient and the therapist. The mechanisms of such (self-) deceit are multi-fold but well-known and researched. Symptomatic improvements caused by context-effects must not be causally associated with the homeopathic remedy. We assume that many physicians and alternative practitioners using homeopathy are unaware of the existence and multitude of such mechanisms and are acting in good faith. This, however, does not alter the fact that their conclusions are wrong and thus potentially harmful.
MEDICINE AND SCIENCE
We do not claim that the scientific method which we uphold can currently research and explain everything. However, it enables us to explain that homeopathy cannot explain itself. The scientific method shows the best way we have for differentiating effective from ineffective treatments. A popular belief in therapeutic claims nourished by politicians and journalists can never be a guide for medical activities.
AIM OF THIS DECLARATION
Our criticism is not aimed at needy patients or practising homeopathic clinicians; it is aimed at the school of homeopathy and the healthcare institutions which could have long recognised the nonsensical nature of homeopathy, but have chosen not to interfere. We ask the players within our science-based healthcare system to finally reject homeopathy and other pseudoscientific methods and to return to what should be self-evident: scientifically validated, fair and generally reproducible rules promoting top-quality medicine for he benefit of the patient.
Dr.-Ing. Norbert Aust, Initiator Informationsnetzwerk Homöopathie
Dr. med. Natalie Grams, Leiterin Informationsnetzwerk Homöopathie
Amardeo Sarma, GWUP Vorsitzender und Fellow von CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry)
Edzard Ernst, Emeritus Professor, Universität Exeter, UK
Prof. Dr. Rudolf Happle, Verfasser der Marburger Erklärung zur Homöopathie
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Hell, Vorsitzender des Wissenschaftsrates der GWUP
Prof. Norbert Schmacke, Institut für Public Health und Pflegeforschung, Universität Bremen
Dr. rer. nat. Christian Weymayr, freier Medizinjournalist
Non-validated diagnostic methods, like those in abundant use in alternative medicine, run an unacceptably high risk of producing false positive or false negative diagnoses. The former would be a diagnosis that the patient is, in fact, not suffering from; this enables the charlatan to get rich on treating something that is not even there. The latter would be missing an illness that might even kill the patient. Thus both scenarios are unquestionably harmful.
It is now 21 years ago that I published a review of alternative diagnostic techniques entitled ‘WHICH CRAFT IS WITCHCRAFT?’. Here is the abstract:
The prevalence of complementary medicine in most industrialised countries is impressive and increasing. Discussions of the topic often focus on therapeutic approaches and neglect diagnostic methods specific for complementary medicine. The paper summarises the data available on such “alternative” diagnostics. Scientific evaluations of these are scant, and most techniques have never been properly validated. The ones that have can be demonstrated to be not reproducible, sensitive, or specific. The ones that have not should be regarded as such until shown otherwise by rigorous testing. Therefore it seems that “alternative” diagnostic methods may seriously threaten the safety and health of patients submitted to them. Orthodox doctors should be aware of the problem and inform their patients accordingly.
Exactly 15 years after the publication of this paper, PRINCE CHARLES published his book ‘HARMONY‘ where is covers amongst many other topic also the subject of alternative diagnostics. This is what he tells us about them:
I have also learn from leading experts how we can understand a great deal about the causes of ill health through more traditional methods of diagnosis – for example, through examination of the iris, ears, tongue, feet and pulse, very much the basis of the Indian Ayurvedic system. This is not to say that modern diagnostic techniques do not have a role, but let us not forget what we can gain by using the knowledge and wisdom accumulated over thousands of years by pioneers who did not have access to today’s technology. In fact, an over-reliance can often mean that the subtle signs of imbalance revealed by the examination of the eyes, pulse and tongue are totally missed. Including the fruits of such knowledge, gleaned over 8 000 years of studying the relationship of the human body to the rest of Nature and to the Universe, can but only provide an extra, valuable resource to doctors as they seek to make a full diagnosis. Why persist in denying the immense value of such accumulated wisdom when it can tell us so much about the whole person – mind, body and spirit? Employing the best of the ancient and modern in a truly integrated way is another example of harmony and balance at work.
Charles is talking here about iridology, amongst other methods. Iridologists try to diagnose disease or susceptibility to disease by analysing the colour pattern of a patient’s iris. It happens to be a technique that has repeatedly been put to the test. In 1999, I published a systematic review of the evidence and concluded that the validity of iridology as a diagnostic tool is not supported by scientific evaluations. Patients and therapists should be discouraged from using this method.
Given that the evidence for alternative diagnostic techniques is either negative or absent, why does the heir to the throne advocate using them? Does he not know that he has considerable influence and endangers the health of those who believe him? Why does he call this nonsense valuable? The answer probably is that he does not know better.
There is nothing wrong with Charles’ ignorance, of course. He is not a medic (if he were, his quackery might get him struck off the register!) and does not need to know such things! But, if he is ignorant about certain technicalities, should he write about them? At the very least, when giving such concrete medical advice about diagnostic methods, should he not recruit the expertise of people who do know about such matters?
In Charles’ defence, I should mention that apparently he did ask several physicians for help with his book. Two of those who he acknowledged in HARMONY have been mentioned on this blog before: Mosaraf Ali and Michael Dixon.
I MIGHT BE MISTAKEN, BUT IT SEEMS TO ME THAT CHARLES IS NOT JUST IGNORANT ABOUT MEDICINE BUT ALSO ABOUT THE ART OF CHOOSING EXPERTS.
Chronic pain is a common and serious problem for many patients. Treatment often includes non-pharmacological approaches despite the mostly flimsy evidence to support them. The objective of this study was to measure the feasibility and efficacy of hypnosis (including self-hypnosis) in the management of chronic pain in older hospitalized patients.
A single center randomized controlled trial using a two arm parallel group design (hypnosis versus massage). Inclusion criteria were chronic pain for more than 3 months with impact on daily life activities, intensity of > 4; adapted analgesic treatment; no cognitive impairment. Fifty-three patients were included. Pain intensity decreased significantly in both groups after each session. Average pain measured by the brief pain index sustained a greater decrease in the hypnosis group compared to the massage group during the hospitalization. This was confirmed by the measure of intensity of the pain before each session that decreased only in the hypnosis group over time. Depression scores improved significantly over the time only in the hypnosis group. There was no effect in either group 3 months post hospitals discharge.
The authors concluded that hypnosis represents a safe and valuable tool in chronic pain management of hospitalized older patients. In hospital interventions did not provide long-term post discharge relief.
So, hypnotherapy is better than massage therapy when administered as an adjunct to conventional pain management. As it is difficult to control for placebo effects, which might be substantial in this case, we cannot be sure whether hypnotherapy per se was effective or not.
Who cares? The main thing is to make life easier for these poor patients!
There are situations where I tend to agree with this slightly unscientific but compassionate point of view. Yes, the evidence is flimsy, but we need to help these patients. Hypnotherapy has very few risks, is relatively inexpensive and might help badly suffering individuals. In this case, does it really matter whether the benefit was mediated by a specific or a non-specific mechanism?
We all hope that serious complications after chiropractic care are rare. However, this does not mean they are unimportant. Multi-vessel cervical dissection with cortical sparing is an exceptional event in clinical practice. Such a case has just been described as a result of chiropractic upper spinal manipulation.
Neurologists from Qatar published a case report of a 55-year-old man who presented with acute-onset neck pain associated with sudden onset right-sided hemiparesis and dysphasia after chiropractic manipulation for chronic neck pain.
Magnetic resonance imaging revealed bilateral internal carotid artery dissection and left extracranial vertebral artery dissection with bilateral anterior cerebral artery territory infarctions and large cortical-sparing left middle cerebral artery infarction. This suggests the presence of functionally patent and interconnecting leptomeningeal anastomoses between cerebral arteries, which may provide sufficient blood flow to salvage penumbral regions when a supplying artery is occluded.
The authors concluded that chiropractic cervical manipulation can result in catastrophic vascular lesions preventable if these practices are limited to highly specialized personnel under very specific situations.
Chiropractors will claim that they are highly specialised and that such events must be true rarities. Others might even deny a causal relationship altogether. Others again would claim that, relative to conventional treatments, chiropractic manipulations are extremely safe. You only need to search my blog using the search-term ‘chiropractic’ to find that there are considerable doubts about these assumptions:
- Many chiropractors are not well trained and seem mostly in the business of making a tidy profit.
- Some seem to have forgotten most of the factual knowledge they may have learnt at chiro-college.
- There is no effective monitoring scheme to adequately record serious side-effects of chiropractic care.
- Therefore the incidence figures of such catastrophic events are currently still anyone’s guess.
- Publications by chiropractic interest groups seemingly denying this point are all fatally flawed.
- It is not far-fetched to fear that under-reporting of serious complications is huge.
- The reliable evidence fails to demonstrate that neck manipulations generate more good than harm.
- Until sound evidence is available, the precautionary principle leads most critical thinkers to conclude that neck manipulations have no place in routine health care.
Natural Pharmacy Business reported that the UK homeopathic pharmacy, Helios, has just launched 5 new combination remedies. Nothing exciting about that, you might say. But wait, these products have licences from the UK regulator and are thus allowed to make therapeutic claims. A spokesperson for Helios was quoted as stating about the new products that ‘…we can actually say what they do, making it easier for customers to recommend or choose what is needed.’
A closer look at the Helios website reveals more details. The 5 remedies are described as follows:
1) Helios Injury 30c – Arnica, Rhus tox and Ruta grav are combined to form a homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of pains and minor trauma associated with minor injuries, bruises, strains and sprains as well as minor emotional trauma associated with the above. The remedy comes in lactose free, organic sucrose pills in our easy to use single dose dispenser in 30c potency.
2) Helios Sleep 30c – Avena sativa, Coffea, Passiflora and Valarian are combined to form a homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of temporary sleep disturbances wherever you are. The remedy comes in lactose free, organic sucrose pills in our easy to use single dose dispenser in 30c potency. This product is not recommended for children under 18, please call us for advice for use in children.
3) Helios ABC 30c – Aconite, Belladonna and Chamomilla are combined to form a homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of minor feverish illness and/or minor earache in children up to 12 years and for symptoms associated with teething in infants or toddlers. The remedy comes in lactose free, organic sucrose pills in our easy to use single dose dispenser in 30c potency. Remedies for babies may be dissolved in half a teaspoon of previously boiled, cooled water.
4) Helios Stress Relief 30c – Aconite, Arg nit and Arsenicum are combined to form a homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of symptoms associated with mild stress. The remedy comes in lactose free, organic sucrose pills in our easy to use 4gm single dose dispenser in 30c potency. This product is not recommended for children under 18, please call us for advice for use in children.
5) Helios Hay Fever 30c – Allium cepa, Euphrasia and Sabadilla are combined to form a homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of Hay Fever. The remedy comes in lactose free, organic sucrose pills in our easy to use single dose dispenser in 30c potency.
So, now they are entitled to tell us what these remedies actually do!!!
Interesting, because what they do tell us is actually not true. If you look critically at the evidence, you are inevitably going to arrive at entirely different verdicts about the effectiveness of these remedies: THEY ACTUALLY DO NOTHING!
(No, buying them does something to you bank balance, but that’s all)
Consumers are being seriously ripped off and misled here to believe that these homeopathics might actually be needed in cases of illness: THE TRUTH IS THAT THERE IS NO CONDITION FOR WHICH THEY HAVE BEEN PROVEN TO BE EFFECTIVE!
Why did the regulator grant them a licence and allow them to make such claims?
Perhaps someone from the MHRA has the kindness to enlighten us.