The WHO is one of the most respected organisations in all of health care. It therefore might come as a surprise that it features in my series of institutions contributing to the ‘sea of misinformation’ in the area of alternative medicine. I have deliberately selected the WHO from many other organisations engaging in similarly misleading activities in order to show that even the most respectable bodies can have little enclaves of quackery hidden in their midst.
In 2006, the WHO invited Prince Charles to elaborate on his most bizarre concepts in relation to ‘integrated medicine’. He told the World Health Assembly in Geneva: “The proper mix of proven complementary, traditional and modern remedies, which emphasises the active participation of the patient, can help to create a powerful healing force in the world…Many of today’s complementary therapies are rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world…Much of this knowledge, often based on oral traditions, is sadly being lost, yet orthodox medicine has so much to learn from it.” He urged countries across the globe to improve the health of their populations through a more integrated approach to health care. What he failed to mention is the fact that integrating disproven therapies into our clinical routine, as proponents of ‘integrated medicine’ demonstrably do, will not render medicine better or more compassionate but worse and less evidence-based. Or as my more brash US friends often point out: adding cow pie to apple pie is no improvement.
For many years during the early 2000s, the WHO had also been working on a document that would have promoted homeopathy worldwide. They had convened a panel of ‘experts’ including the Queen’s homeopath Peter Fisher. They advocated using this disproven treatment for potentially deadly diseases such as malaria, childhood diarrhoea, or TB as an alternative to conventional medicine. I had been invited to comment on a draft version of this document, but judging from the second draft, my criticism had been totally ignored. Fortunately, the publication of this disastrous advice could be stopped through a concerted initiative of concerned scientists who protested and pointed out that the implementation of this nonsense would kill millions.
In 2003, the WHO had already published a very similar report: a long consensus document on acupuncture. It includes the following list of diseases, symptoms or conditions for which acupuncture has been proved-through controlled trials-to be an effective treatment:
Adverse reactions to radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy
Allergic rhinitis (including hay fever)
Depression (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke)
Dysentery, acute bacillary
Epigastralgia, acute (in peptic ulcer, acute and chronic gastritis, and gastrospasm)
Facial pain (including craniomandibular disorders)
Induction of labour
Low back pain
Malposition of fetus, correction of
Nausea and vomiting
Pain in dentistry (including dental pain and temporomandibular dysfunction)
Periarthritis of shoulder
If we compare these claims to the reliable evidence on the subject, we find that the vast majority of these indications is not supported by sound data (a fuller discussion on the WHO report and its history can be found in our book TRICK OR TREATMENT…). So, how can any organisation as well-respected globally as the WHO arrive at such outrageously misleading conclusions? The recipe for achieving this is relatively simple and time-tested by many similarly reputable institutions:
- One convenes a panel of ‘experts’ all or most of whom have a known preconceived opinion in the direction on has decided to go.
- One allows this panel to work out their own methodology for arriving at the conclusion they desire.
- One encourages cherry-picking of the data.
- One omits a meaningful evaluation of the quality of the reviewed studies.
- One prevents any type of critical assessment of the report such as peer-review by sceptics.
- If criticism does emerge nevertheless, one ignores it.
I should stress again that the WHO is, on the whole, a very good and useful organisation. This is precisely why I chose it for this post. As long as it is big enough, ANY such institution is likely to contain a little niche where woo and anti-science flourishes. There are far too many examples to mention, e.g. NICE, the NIH, UK and other governments. And this is the reason we must be watchful. It is all to human to assume that information is reliable simply because it originates from an authoritative source; the appeal to authority is appealing, of course, but it also is fallacious!
In 2010, NICE recommended acupuncture for chronic low back pain (cLBP). Acupuncturists were of course delighted; the British Acupuncture Council, for instance, stated that they fully support NICE’s (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) decision that acupuncture be made available on the NHS for chronic lower back pain. Traditional acupuncture has been used for over 2,000 years to alleviate back pain and British Acupuncture Council members have for many many years been successfully treating patients for this condition either in private practice or working within the NHS. In effect, therefore, these new guidelines are a rubber stamp of the positive work already being undertaken as well as an endorsement of the wealth of research evidence now available in this area.
More critical experts, however, tended to be surprised about this move and doubted that the evidence was strong enough for a positive recommendation. Now a brand-new meta-analysis sheds more light on this important issue.
Its aim was to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture as a therapy for cLBP. The authors found 13 RCTs which matched their inclusion criteria. Their results show that, compared with no treatment, acupuncture achieved better outcomes in terms of pain relief, disability recovery and better quality of life. These effects were, however, not observed when real acupuncture was compared to sham acupuncture. Acupuncture achieved better outcomes when compared with other treatments. No publication bias was detected.
The authors conclude that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic low back pain, but this effect is likely to be produced by the nonspecific effects of manipulation.
In plain English, this means that the effects of acupuncture on cLBP are most likely due to placebo. Should NICE be recommending placebo-treatments and have the tax payer foot the bill? I think I can leave it to my readers to answer this question.
Musculoskeletal and rheumatic conditions, often just called “arthritis” by lay people, bring more patients to alternative practitioners than any other type of disease. It is therefore particularly important to know whether alternative medicines (AMs) demonstrably generate more good than harm for such patients. Most alternative practitioners, of course, firmly believe in what they are doing. But what does the reliable evidence show?
To find out, ‘Arthritis Research UK’ has sponsored a massive project lasting several years to review the literature and critically evaluate the trial data. They convened a panel of experts (I was one of them) to evaluate all the clinical trials that are available in 4 specific clinical areas. The results for those forms of AM that are to be taken by mouth or applied topically have been published some time ago, now the report, especially written for lay people, on those treatments that are practitioner-based has been published. It covers the following 25 modalities:
Chiropractic (spinal manipulation)
Kinesiology (applied kinesiology)
Magnet therapy (static magnets)
Osteopathy (spinal manipulation)
Qigong (internal qigong)
Our findings are somewhat disappointing: only very few treatments were shown to be effective.
In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, 24 trials were included with a total of 1,500 patients. The totality of this evidence failed to provide convincing evidence that any form of AM is effective for this particular condition.
For osteoarthritis, 53 trials with a total of ~6,000 patients were available. They showed reasonably sound evidence only for two treatments: Tai chi and acupuncture.
Fifty trials were included with a total of ~3,000 patients suffering from fibromyalgia. The results provided weak evidence for Tai chi and relaxation-therapies, as well as more conclusive evidence for acupuncture and massage therapy.
Low back pain had attracted more research than any of the other diseases: 75 trials with ~11,600 patients. The evidence for Alexander Technique, osteopathy and relaxation therapies was promising by not ultimately convincing, and reasonably good evidence in support of yoga and acupuncture was also found.
The majority of the experts felt that the therapies in question did not frequently cause harm, but there were two important exceptions: osteopathy and chiropractic. For both, the report noted the existence of frequent yet mild, as well as serious but rare adverse effects.
As virtually all osteopaths and chiropractors earn their living by treating patients with musculoskeletal problems, the report comes as an embarrassment for these two professions. In particular, our conclusions about chiropractic were quite clear:
There are serious doubts as to whether chiropractic works for the conditions considered here: the trial evidence suggests that it’s not effective in the treatment of fibromyalgia and there’s only little evidence that it’s effective in osteoarthritis or chronic low back pain. There’s currently no evidence for rheumatoid arthritis.
Our point that chiropractic is not demonstrably effective for chronic back pain deserves some further comment, I think. It seems to be in contradiction to the guideline by NICE, as chiropractors will surely be quick to point out. How can this be?
One explanation is that, since the NICE-guidelines were drawn up, new evidence has emerged which was not positive. The recent Cochrane review, for instance, concludes that spinal manipulation “is no more effective for acute low-back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT or as adjunct therapy”
Another explanation could be that the experts on the panel writing the NICE-guideline were less than impartial towards chiropractic and thus arrived at false-positive or over-optimistic conclusions.
Chiropractors might say that my presence on the ‘Arthritis Research’-panel suggests that we were biased against chiropractic. If anything, the opposite is true: firstly, I am not even aware of having a bias against chiropractic, and no chiropractor has ever demonstrated otherwise; all I ever aim at( in my scientific publications) is to produce fair, unbiased but critical assessments of the existing evidence. Secondly, I was only one of a total of 9 panel members. As the following list shows, the panel included three experts in AM, and most sceptics would probably categorise two of them (Lewith and MacPherson) as being clearly pro-AM:
Professor Michael Doherty – professor of rheumatology, University of Nottingham
Professor Edzard Ernst – emeritus professor of complementary medicine, Peninsula Medical School
Margaret Fisken – patient representative, Aberdeenshire
Dr Gareth Jones (project lead) – senior lecturer in epidemiology, University of Aberdeen
Professor George Lewith – professor of health research, University of Southampton
Dr Hugh MacPherson – senior research fellow in health sciences, University of York
Professor Gary Macfarlane (chair of committee) – professor of epidemiology, University of Aberdeen
Professor Julius Sim – professor of health care research, Keele University
Jane Tadman – representative from Arthritis Research UK, Chesterfield
What can we conclude from all that? I think it is safe to say that the evidence for practitioner-based AMs as a treatment of the 4 named conditions is disappointing. In particular, chiropractic is not a demonstrably effective therapy for any of them. This, of course begs the question, for what condition is chiropractic proven to work! I am not aware of any, are you?