I have written about the use of homeopathy in France before (as I now live half of my time in France, this is a subject of considerable interest to me). After decades of deafening silence and uncritical acceptance by the French public, it seems that finally some change to the better might be on its way. Recently, a sizable number of prominent doctors protested publicly against the fact that, despite its implausibility and the lack of proof of efficacy, homeopathy continues to be reimbursed in France and scarce funds are being wasted on it. This action seems to have put pressure on officials to respond.
Yesterday (just in time for the ‘HOMEOPATHIC AWARENESS WEEK’) the French minister of health was quoted making a statement on homeopathy. Here is my translation of what Agnès Buzyn was quoted saying:
“There is a continuous evaluation of the medicines we call complementary. A working group* at the head office of my department checks that all these practices are not dangerous. If a therapy continues to be beneficial without being harmful, it continues to be reimbursed… The French are very attached [to homeopathy]; it’s probably a placebo effect. If it can prevent the use of toxic medicine, I think that we all win. I does not hurt.”
- I would like to know who they are, how they can be contacted, and whether they would consider recruiting my assistance in evaluating alternative therapies.
So, if I understand her correctly, Agnès Buzyn believes that:
- the French people are fond of homeopathy;
- homeopathy is a placebo-therapy;
- homeopathy does no harm;
- homeopathy can even prevent harm from conventional medicine;
- on balance, therefore, homeopathy should continue to be reimbursed in France.
My views of this type of reasoning have been expressed repeatedly. Nevertheless, I will briefly state them again:
- true but not relevant; healthcare is not a popularity contest; and the current popularity is essentially the result of decades of systematic misinformation of consumers;
- wrong: we have, on this blog, discussed ad nauseam how homeopathy can cause serious harm; for instance, whenever it replaces effective treatments, it can cause serious harm and might even kill patients;
- if doctors harm patients by needlessly prescribing harmful treatments, we need to re-train them and stop this abuse; using homeopathy is not the solution to bad medicine;
- wrong: the reimbursement of homeopathy is a waste of money and undermines evidence-based medicine.
So, what’s the conclusion?
Politicians are usually not good at understanding science or scientific evidence. They (have to?) think in time spans from one election to the next. And they are, of course, keenly aware that, in order to stay in power, they rely on the vote of the people. Therefore, the popularity of homeopathy (even though it is scientifically irrelevant) is a very real factor for them. This means that, on a political level, homeopathy is sadly much more secure than it should be. In turn, this means we need to:
- use different arguments when arguing with politicians (for instance, the economic impact of wasting money on placebo-therapies, or the fact that systematically misinforming the public is highly unethical and counter-productive),
- and make politicians understand science better than they do at present, perhaps even insist that ministers are experts in their respective areas (i. e. a minister of health fully understands the fundamental issues of healthcare).
Does that mean the new developments in the realm of French homeopathy are all doomed to failure?
No, I don’t think so – at least (and at last) we have a vocal group of doctors protesting against wasteful nonsense, and a fairly sound and accurate statement from a French minister of health:
HOMEOPATHY, IT’S PROBABLY A PLACEBO EFFECT!
This is a question most clinicians must have asked themselves. The interest of patients in this area is enormous, and many do seek advice from their doctor, nurse, pharmacist, midwife etc. In a typical scenario, a patient might plug up her courage (yes, for many it does take courage) and ask:
What about therapy xy for my condition? My friend suffers from the same problem, and she says the treatment works very well.
The way I see it, there are essentially 4 options for formulating a reply:
1. Uncompromisingly negative
4. Uncritically promotional
Let me explain and address these 4 options in turn.
1. Uncompromisingly negative
I know that it can be tempting to be wholly dismissive and simply state that all alternative medicine is rubbish; if it were any good, it would have been adopted by conventional medicine. Therefore, alternative medicine is never an alternative; it is by definition implausible, ineffective and often dangerous.
Even if all of this were true, the uncompromisingly negative approach is not helpful, in my experience. Patients need and deserve some empathy and understanding of their position. If we brusque them, they feel insulted and go elsewhere. Not only would we then lose a patient, but we would run a high risk of exposing her to a practitioner who promotes quackery. The disservice seems obvious.
Clinicians might consider their patient’s question and reply to it by explaining what the current best available evidence tells us about the therapy in question. This can be done with empathy and compassion. For instance (if that is true), the clinician can explain that the treatment in question lacks a scientific basis, that it has nevertheless been tested in clinical trials which sadly do not show that it works. Crucially, the clinician should subsequently explain what effective treatments do exist and discuss a viable treatment plan with the patient.
The problem with this approach is that many, if not most conventional clinicians are fairly clueless about the evidence as it relates to the plethora of alternative therapies. Therefore, an honest discussion around the current best evidence is often difficult or impossible.
This is the approach many clinicians today use as a default position. They basically tell their patient that there is not a lot of evidence for the treatment in question. However, it seems harmless, and therefore – if the patient is really keen on going down this route – why not? This type of response is, I fear, given regardless of the therapy in question and it largely ignores the evidence – some alternative treatments do work, some don’t, some are fairly safe, some aren’t.
Condoning alternative medicine in this way gives the impression of being ‘open-minded’ and ‘patient-centred’. It has the considerable advantage that it does not require any hard work, such as informing oneself about the current best evidence. It’s disadvantage is that it neither correct nor ethical.
4. Uncritically promotional
Many clinicians go even one decisive step further. Under the banner of ‘integrative medicine’, they openly recommend using ‘the best of both worlds’ as being ‘holistic’, ’empathetic’, ‘patient-centred’, etc. By this, they usually mean employing as many unproven or disproven treatments as alternative medicine has to offer.
This approach gives the impression of being ‘modern’ and in tune with the wishes of patients. Its disadvantages are, however, obvious. Introducing bogus treatments into clinical routine can only render it less effective, more expensive, and less safe. Integrative medicine is therefore not in the best interest of patients and arguably unethical.
So, how should we advise patients on alternative medicine? I know what I would say and probably most of my readers can guess. But I do not want to prejudge the issue; I prefer to hear your views, please.
If you ask me, the field of alternative medicine is plagued with surveys; too many are published and most are complete, meaningless rubbish which serve merely the purpose of being misinterpreted as a means of popularising bogus treatments. Yet, every now and then, a decent and informative article appears – like this survey from Canada.
It yields a number of fascinating findings:
- More than three-quarters of Canadians (79%) had used at least one from of CAM sometime in their lives in 2016 (74% in 2006 and 73% in 1997). British Columbians were most likely to have used an alternative therapy during their lifetime (89%), followed by Albertans (84%) and Ontarians (81%).
- More than half (56%) of Canadians had used at least one CAM therapy in the year prior to the 2016 survey, compared to 54% in 2006 and 50% in 1997.
- In 2016, massage was the most common type of therapy that Canadians used over their lifetime with 44 percent having tried it, followed by chiropractic care (42%), yoga (27%), relaxation techniques (25%), and acupuncture (22%).
- The most rapidly expanding therapies over the past two decades were massage, yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic care, osteopathy, and naturopathy.
- High dose/mega vitamins, herbal therapies, and folk remedies were in declining use over that same time period.
- The most likely users of CAM over the past 12 months in 2016 were from the 35- to 44-year-old age group (61%). The use of CAM diminished with age, and generally rose with both income and education. These trends are similar to those observed in 2006 and 1997.
- The majority of people choosing to use CAM in the 12 months preceding the 2016 survey did so for “wellness”.
- Canadians spent an estimated $8.8 billion on CAM in the last 12 months ($8.0 billion in 2005/06 and $6.3 billion in 1996/97.
- Of the $8.8 billion spent in 2016, more than $6.5 billion was spent on providers of CAM, while another $2.3 billion was spent on herbs, vitamins, special diet programs, books, classes, and equipment.
- The majority of Canadians believe that CAM should be paid for privately and not by provincial health.
The strengths of this survey are that it is methodologically rigorous, and that it provides longitudinal data (this is in sharp contrast to the plethora of CAM surveys published recently). Many of its findings confirm what has already been known. Yet some results are new and noteworthy.
To many readers of this blog, the high CAM-usage will be disturbing. However, I am mildly encouraged by the results of this survey.
- Firstly, the choice of CAM by Canadians seems rather more reasonable than that by other nations. Canadians seem to avoid the more ridiculous types of CAM, such as homeopathy or para-normal healing.
- Secondly, many Canadians seem to view CAM not as medicine, but as a sort of luxurious pampering that they use to relax and feel well. Consequently, most are not pushing to get it reimbursed which I find more sensible than consumers’ attitudes in many other countries.
An article in the medical magazine ‘GP’ caught my eye. In it, a GP from Southampton argues that it is counter-productive for the NHS to ban ineffective treatments. Here are a few excerpts (my comments are inserted in brackets and are in bold print):
START OF QUOTES
NHS England’s recent decision requiring GPs stop prescribing a list of 18 medicines will reinforce the fears of many doctors that healthcare rationing is being introduced by the back door (all finite NHS resources need to be and always have been rationed). I would also argue that it is an illogical and ill-informed decision that will not achieve the professed aim of saving NHS resources (perhaps the decision is not purely based on the need to save money but also on a matter of principle and an attempt to make the NHS evidence-based?).
The decision to impose a blanket ban on these items will disproportionately affect those patients who currently receive free prescriptions: the young, the poor and the elderly (where is the evidence for this statement?). The conditions these patients are suffering from will persist (treating them with ineffective medications would also make them persist).
If in future these vulnerable patients want to continue with their medicines, they will be forced to pay for them. While wealthier patients will have the option to pay for their medications, those unable to do so will return to their GP for an alternative medication or procedure that has not been prohibited by NHS England’s recommendations. GPs will then find themselves prescribing other more costly medications. How this is helping NHS England to reduce prescribing costs is difficult to see (really? I don’t find it difficult to see that spending money on effective treatments is a better investment than wasting it on ineffective stuff)…
… ‘evidence-informed practice’… not only includes scientific research, but also evidence from clinical practice acquired over many years and endorsed by numerous clinicians. Yet this type of evidence, from the front line of medicine, is being dismissed as ‘unscientific’ or ‘anecdotal’ (no, it has never been considered to be evidence; remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence)…
We all want the NHS to operate cost effectively… (as long as the NHS continues to pay for homeopathy?). Of course, treatments that have no good evidence of benefit to patients should be questioned (as long as the NHS continues to pay for homeopathy?)…
NHS England needs to conduct a review of how it evaluates treatments and take far more notice of the experiences of doctors and patients. Then perhaps we will see a more financially efficient health service, healthier patients and an end to the injustice of healthcare rationing (the author forgot to tell her readers that she is a homeopath – in fact, she did not even once use the word ‘homeopathy’ in her diatribe. Because of her extreme views, she has featured on this blog before. [“homeopathy can be helpful for pretty much any condition”] Dr Day also forgot to declare conflicts of interest in her most recent vituperation [easy mistake to make; I know I am being petty).
If I were a fan of homeopathy and a believer in the magical healing power of shaken water, I would be very worried. While homeopaths put forward such embarrassingly daft arguments, the future of homeopathy looks bleak indeed.
This is the title of an editorial by Alan Schmukler. You probably remember him; I have featured him before, for instance here, here, and here. This is what was recently on Schmukler’s mind (I have added a few references referring to comments of mine added below):
England’s National Health Service (NHS) is proposing that NHS doctors no longer be permitted to prescribe homeopathic remedies … They claim lack of evidence for effectiveness. Anyone who’s been remotely conscious the last 10 years will see this as a pretext. Homeopathy is practiced by board certified physicians in clinics and hospitals around the world . The massive Swiss review of homeopathy, found it effective, safe and economical, and the Swiss incorporated homeopathy into their national health care system …
The reason given for banning homeopathy and these nutrients is a lie. Why would the NHS ban safe, effective and affordable healing methods?  Without these methods, all that is left are prescription drugs. Apparently, someone at the NHS has an interest in pushing expensive prescription drugs , rather than safer and cheaper alternatives. That someone, also wishes to deny people freedom of choice in medicine . I say “someone”, because organizations don’t make decisions, people do. Who is that someone? In looking for a suspect, we might ask, who is the chief executive of the organization? Who introduced this plan and is promoting it? Who at the NHS has the political clout? Who was it that recently declared: “Homeopathy is a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds which could better be devoted to treatments that work”.
The quote is from Simon Stevens, NHS England’s chief executive. He got the job in 2014, after ten years as a top executive at UnitedHealth, the largest health insurance company in America. His past work experiences and current activities show that he favors privatization . That would make him an odd choice to run a healthcare system based on socialized medicine. In fact, he has been moving the NHS towards privatization and the corporate, profit based American model.  The last thing a privatizer in healthcare would want, are non-proprietary medicines, for which you can’t charge exorbitant fees . Banning homeopathy on the NHS is just one small part of a larger plan to maximize corporate profits by letting corporations own and control the health care system . Before they can do this, they have to eliminate alternative methods of treatment.
Personally, I think Schmukler is wrong – here is why:
1 The current argument is not about what doctors are permitted to do, but about what the NHS should do with our tax money.
2 Argumentum ad populum
3 Oh dear! Anyone who uses this report as evidence must be desperate – see for instance here.
4 Why indeed? Except highly dilute homeopathic remedies are pure placebos.
5 Maybe ‘someone’ merely wants to use effective medications rather than placebos.
6 Freedom of choice is a nonsense, if it is not guided by sound evidence – see here.
7 No, that’s Jeremy Hunt! But in any case privatisation might be more profitable with homeopathy – much higher profit margins without any investment into R&D.
8 No, this is Hunt again!
9 Homeopathic remedies are ideal for making vast profits: no research, no development, no cost for raw material, etc., etc.
10 I am sure Boiron et al would not mind stepping into the gap.
I very much look forward to the next outburst of Alan Schmukler and hope he will manage to think a bit clearer by then.
We have repeatedly discussed the fact that alternative medicine (AM) is by no means free of risks. I find it helpful to divide them into two broad categories:
- direct risks of the intervention (such as stroke due to neck manipulation, or cardiac tamponade caused by acupuncture, or liver damage due to a herbal remedy) and
- indirect risks usually due to the advice given by AM practitioners.
The latter category is often more important than the former. It includes delay of effective treatment due to treatment with an ineffective or less effective form of AM. It is clear that this will cause patients to suffer unnecessarily.
Several investigations have recently highlighted this important problem, including this study from Singapore which assessed the predictors of AM-use in patients with early inflammatory arthritis (EIA), and its impact on delay to initiation of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARD). Data were collected prospectively from EIA patients aged ≥ 21 years. Current or prior AM-use was ascertained by face-to-face interviews. Predictors of AM-use and its effect on time to DMARD initiation were determined by multivariate logistic regression and Cox proportional hazards, respectively.
One hundred and eighty patients were included: 83.9% had rheumatoid arthritis, 57% were seropositive. Median (IQR). Chinese race, being non-English speaking, smoking and high DAS28 were independent predictors of AM-use. AM-users initiated DMARD later (median [IQR] 21.5 [13.1-30.4] vs. 15.6 [9.4-22.7] weeks in non-users, P = 0.005). AM-use and higher DAS28 were associated with a longer delay to DMARD initiation. Race, education level, being non-English speaking, smoking and sero-positivity were not associated.
The authors concluded that healthcare professionals should be aware of the unique challenges in treating patients with EIA in Asia. Healthcare beliefs regarding AM may need to be addressed to reduce treatment delay.
These findings are not dissimilar to results previously discussed, for instance:
- AM-use delays cancer diagnosis.
- The advice of non-medically qualified practitioners may delay cancer therapy.
- Chiropractic care may delay referral to effective treatment.
- Consultations with homeopaths can delay effective therapy.
The only solution to the problem I can think of would be to educate AM practitioners and the public such that they are aware of the issue and do everything possible to prevent such problems. But this is, of course, easier said than done, and it seems more than just optimistic to hope that such endeavours might be successful. The public is currently bombarded with misleading information and outright lies about AM (many of my previous post have addressed this problem). And practitioners would have to operate against their own financial interest to prevent these problems from occurring.
This means that treatment delays caused by AM-use and advice from AM practitioners are inevitable…
unless you have a better idea.
If so, please let me know.
Guest post by Richard Rawlins MB BS MBA FRCS
Doctors who are registered medical practitioners (RMPs) must comply with the standards of practice set down by the General Medical Council. ‘Homeopathy’ is a specific system of medical care, devised by Dr Samuel Hahnemann in the nineteenth century, and comprises two distinct dimensions: (i) the establishment of a constructive therapeutic relationship between an empathic homeopath and a patient. This may provide benefit due to the non-specific effects of condolence, counselling, and care – and should be a component of the practice of all doctors in any event; (ii) the homeopathically prepared (HP) remedies that are generally prescribed. To avoid confusion, these two dimensions should not be conflated.
HP remedies may be obtained over the counter, prescribed by lay homeopaths and even given out by dentists and nurses on the grounds that “30C homeopathic arnica helps bruising”. The US Federal Trades Commission has stated that “The Commission will carefully scrutinize the net impression of OTC homeopathic advertising or other marketing employing disclosures to ensure that it adequately conveys the extremely limited nature of the health claim being asserted…accordingly, unqualified disease claims made for homeopathic drugs must be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence.” (FTC Policy statement 2017).
Special focus should be brought to bear on the ethical, intellectual and professional obligations of those doctors registered as medical practitioners by the GMC and practicing homeopathy in the UK. Some homeopaths may intend taking advantage of gullible and vulnerable patients. Here I take it that those practitioners who prescribe homeopathic remedies sincerely do believe they have worthwhile effects, but I contend such practice generally fails to comply with ethical and professional standards as set down by the GMC. That is to be deprecated.
Systems to regulate medical practice in the British Isles have been devised since the middle ages. In 1518, Thomas Linacre founded the College of Physicians – based on systems he had seen in Europe. From 1704, the Society of Apothecaries licensed its members to prescribe and dispense medicines, and developed the profession of general practice. In order to protect the public from charlatans, quacks and fraudsters more effectively, the Medical Act of 1858 established formal statutory regulation of doctors by the General Medical Council. Registrants who are not deemed fit to practice may be struck off the register. They can still practice, but not as registered medical practitioners. They can still use the title ‘doctor’ (as can anyone), but not for fraudulent purposes.
Dr Samuel Hahnemann qualified in Saxony in 1781 and was a good doctor, but he became disillusioned with many of the practices and practitioners of his day. He wrote about his fellow doctors: “Precious and fragile human life, so easily destroyed, was frequently placed in jeopardy at the hands of these perverted people, especially since bleedings, emetics, purges, blistering plaster, fontanels, setons, caustics and cauterisations were used.” In 1796 he wrote to a friend, “I renounced the practice of medicine that I might no longer incur the risk of doing injury, and I engaged in chemistry exclusively and in literary occupations.”
Hahnemann went on to develop his own alternative system of health care, which he styled ‘Homoeopathy’. Published as the Organon of the Healing Arts in 1810, Hahnemann set out an idiosyncratic medical system based on identifying ‘remedies’ which in large doses, could produce symptoms comparable to those suffered by the patient. The remedies he prescribed were prepared with serial dilutions so that no active principle remained. Today’s homeopaths hold that a remedy’s ‘vital force’, ‘healing energy’ or ‘memory’ provides therapeutic benefit. That may be the case, but the consensus of informed scientific and medical opinion is that any effects of ‘homeopathy’ are as a result of contextual placebo effects. The remedies themselves cannot and do not have any effect. England’s Chief Medical Officer has described homeopathy’s principles as ‘rubbish’. The government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport has said he would tell ministers, “My view, scientifically, is absolutely clear: homeopathy is nonsense. The most it can have is a placebo effect.” Simon Stevens, CEO of the NHS, when interviewed on Radio 4 said he agrees with Sir Mark – yet failed to explain why he had not included homeopathic remedies in the 2017 list of NHS proscribed medicines. That stance is being reviewed.
The GMC states, “Patients must be able to trust doctors with their lives and health. To justify that trust you must show respect for human life and make sure your practice meets the standards expected.” Those standards are set down in the GMC’s Good Medical Practice which advises, “Serious or persistent failure to follow this guidance will put your registration at risk.” The GMC standards are coherent with those of the American Medical Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics (2016).
In précis, the most relevant and important GMC standards are:
- Make the care of your patient your first concern.
- Give patients the information they want or need in a way they can understand.
- Be honest and open and act with integrity.
- Never abuse your patients’ trust in you or the public’s trust in the profession.
- You are personally accountable for your professional practice and must always be prepared to justify your decisions and actions.
- You must prescribe drugs or treatment only when you are satisfied that the drugs or treatment serve the patient’s needs.
- You must provide effective treatments based on the best available evidence.
- You must be satisfied that you have consent or other valid authority before you carry out any examination, investigation or provide treatment.
- You must make good use of the resources available to you.
I contend that medical practitioners who prescribe homeopathic remedies regularly fail to meet these standards. They know perfectly well that the best available evidence indicates no support for the assertion that homeopathic remedies ‘serve the patient’s needs’, except as placebos; that the treatments have no specific effects; that the remedies are placebos; and that resources are wasted by expenditure on these ineffective remedies. Medical homeopaths invariably do not give patients this information; they fail to obtain properly informed consent; they do not justify their decisions and actions rationally; and they may be obtaining financial advantage by misrepresentation to insurance companies or the NHS. This is an abuse of the public’s trust in the medical profession.
The issue of informed consent is particularly important. GMC guidance states that, “The doctor uses specialist knowledge and experience and clinical judgement, and the patient’s views and understanding of their condition, to identify which investigations or treatments are likely to result in overall benefit for the patient. The doctor explains the options to the patient, setting out the potential benefits, risks, burdens and side effects of each option, including the option to have no treatment. The doctor may recommend a particular option which they believe to be best for the patient, but they must not put pressure on the patient to accept their advice. …Before accepting a patient’s consent, you must consider whether they have been given the information they want or need, and how well they understand the details and implications of what is proposed. This is more important than how their consent is expressed or recorded.”
The GMC states that, “in order to have effective discussions with patients about risk, you must identify the adverse outcomes that may result from the proposed options… risks can take a number of forms, but will usually be: side effects; complications; failure of an intervention to achieve the desired aim.” The risk of wasting money on ineffective remedies, whether NHS or private, and of delaying treatment known to be effective should also be discussed.
Homeopaths acknowledge that after ministration of remedies, some patients experience ‘aggravations’ – a worsening of symptoms, but they advise this is evidence that the remedy is ‘working’. Medical consensus is more likely to suggest ‘aggravations’ are evidence of an underlying psychological component to the patient’s condition. Suggestions that remedies themselves have any effect, good or bad, is misrepresentation and may be fraud. Offering patients sugar pills with a claim the pills have therapeutic effects means lying to them, and is an abuse of trust.
Homeopaths’ system of diagnosis and prescription of remedies requires them to have beliefs for which there is no plausible evidence base. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘belief’ as “assent to a proposition, statement or fact, especially on the grounds of testimony or authority, or in the absence of proof or conclusive evidence.” It might be acceptable to practice ‘homeopathy’ as a counselling modality, providing the practitioner complies with the GMC standard that, “You must not express your personal beliefs to patients in ways that exploit their vulnerability or are likely to cause them distress.”
Homeopaths are invariably non-compliant in obtaining fully informed consent. Such a failing is an abuse of patients’ trust in the medical profession. Doctors might be determined to be unfit to practice unless they clearly justify their prescriptions, and identify the evidence that supports them. All these issues should also be explored during the doctor’s annual appraisal, without which a registered medical practitioner will not be licensed to practice. Even registration without a licence requires compliance with the standards. Appraisal can be carried out by non-homeopaths, as the issue is not the assessment of the standard of ‘homeopathic practice’, but compliance with GMC standards of good medical practice.
If a medical homeopath wishes to be GMC compliant, they must properly inform patients about contentious issues. I suggest that consent should be obtained along the lines: “I propose prescribing you a remedy comprising sugar pills impregnated with a solution which has been diluted to such an extent that a sphere of water the size of the Earth’s average radius to the Sun would probably contain no more than one molecule of the original substance. Nevertheless, my clinical experience suggests to me that this remedy will improve your condition. You need to understand that colleagues who practise conventional evidence-based scientific medicine regard my belief as implausible and the methods I use as ‘alternative.’ I believe the remedy will help you, but I have no evidence accepted by the majority of doctors that the intervention I propose will achieve the desired effects. I do not believe that taking a homeopathic remedy will delay any other treatment which might reasonably help your condition and I invite you to take this remedy with understanding of the issues I have outlined.” A copy of the consent should be placed in the patient’s records.
Those who defend the right of registered medical practitioners to prescribe HP remedies do so with arguments fatally holed by a myriad of logical fallacies. Some arguments are (with fallacies in parenthesis):
- “Homeopathy has been used for over two hundred years” (appeal to tradition and argument from ignorance);
- “It has become very popular and is what patients want (appeal to popularity);
- “Homeopathy has the capacity to help patients” (red herring, because present consideration is about the value of HP remedies, not relationships);
- “Remedies are cheap” (red herring);
- “Homeopathy does not do any harm” (irrelevant and a red herring);
- “Pharmaceuticals have side effects” (tu quoque and red herring);
- “The Royal Family use it” (appeal to irrelevant authority);
- “The remedies enhance the doctor/patient relationship (straw man);
- “Science does not know everything” (red herring and false dichotomy);
- “Those who oppose us don’t understand homeopathy” (argumentum ad hominem and ‘poisoning the well’);
- “I have the evidence of patients’ anecdotes and testimonials” (pseudoscience, confirmation bias and cherry picking);
- “Homeopathic doctors are caring people” (red herring and straw man);
- “I’ve got much evidence of patients taking remedies and getting better” (post hoc ergo propter hoc – ‘after this, therefore because of this’ – confusion of coincidence with causation).
The latter most perverse fallacy is the foundation of homeopathic practice, based on identifying a remedy whereby ‘like cures like’ – a principle based on post hoc fallacy for which there is no scientifically credible evidence.
Unless and until medical homeopaths understand the intellectual environment in which they practice, are prepared to properly inform their patients, and obtain consent for treatment having done so, they should not prescribe homeopathic remedies. Fortunately, there is no evidence that patients who are prescribed HP remedies by empathic GMC registered homeopaths have any different outcomes from those prescribed pure sugar pills – even if they are told they are placebos. However, trust in the medical profession can only be maintained if deceptive practices are set aside and full explanations for proposed interventions are offered. Given the scientific consensus, patients have to face up to the fact that to the highest degree of probability, HP remedies have no value. Regrettably, too many patients and even homeopaths are in denial. Medical homeopaths should continue to serve their patients with care, compassion and intellectual honesty, but if they are to comply with the standards required for GMC registration, they should not prescribe homeopathically prepared remedies.
We have repeatedly discussed on this blog the fact that many alternative practitioners are advising their patients against vaccinations, e. g.:
- Governments take action to prevent vaccination-rates from falling
- Use of alternative medicine is associated with low vaccination rates
- Integrative medicine physicians tend to harbour anti-vaccination views
- Vaccination: chiropractors “espouse views which aren’t evidence based”
- Faith-healing as an alternative to vaccination?
- Recommending homeoprophylaxis is unethical, irresponsible and possibly even criminal
- Chiropractors are undermining public health
- CAM use is risk factor for the failure to immunise children
- Let’s be blunt: homeopathy is bogus – but homeoprophylaxis is worse, much worse!
- Are mothers being taught by homeopaths to become anti-vaxers?
- Some naturopaths are clearly a danger to public health
There is little doubt that this phenomenon contributes to low immunisation rates. This, in turn, is a contributing factor to outbreaks of measles and other infectious diseases. The website of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has recently published data on measles outbreaks in Europe:
Bulgaria: There is an increase by three cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 16 July, Bulgaria reported 166 cases. During the same time period in 2016 Bulgaria reported one case.
France: On 27 July 2017 media quoting the French Minister of Health reported the death of a 16-year-old unvaccinated girl. She had fallen sick in Nice and died on 27 June 2017 in Marseille.
Germany: There is an increase by four cases since the last report on 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 26 July, Germany reported 801 cases. During the same time period in 2016 Germany reported 187 cases.
Italy: There is an increase by 170 cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 25 July, Italy reported 3 842 cases, including three deaths. Among the cases, 271 are healthcare workers. The median age is 27 years, 89% of the cases were not vaccinated and 6% received only one dose of vaccine.
Romania: There is an increase by 229 cases, including one additional death, since 21 July 2017. Since 1 January 2016 and as of 21 July 2017, Romania reported 8 246 cases, including 32 deaths. Cases are either laboratory-confirmed or have an epidemiological link to a laboratory-confirmed case. Infants and young children are the most affected groups. Timis, in the western part of the country closest to the border with Serbia, is the most affected district with 1 215 cases. Vaccination activities are ongoing in order to cover communities with suboptimal vaccination coverage.
Spain: There is an increase by seven cases since 14 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 25 July, Spain reported 145 measles cases.
United Kingdom: Public Health Wales reported two additional cases related to the outbreak in Newport and Torfaen, bringing the total to ten cases related to this outbreak. In England and Wales there is an increase by 76 cases since 21 July 2017. Since the beginning of 2017 and as of 23 July 2017, England and Wales reported 922 cases. In the same time period in 2016, they reported 946 cases.
In addition to the updates listed above ECDC produces a monthly measles and rubella monitoring report with surveillance data provided by the member states through TESSy. The last report was published on 11 July 2017 with data up to 31 May 2017.
Measles outbreaks continue to occur in EU/EEA countries. There is a risk of spread and sustained transmission in areas with susceptible populations. The national vaccination coverage remains less than 95% for the second dose of MMR in the majority of EU/EEA countries. The progress towards elimination of measles in the WHO European Region is assessed by the European Regional Verification Commission for Measles and Rubella Elimination (RVC). Member States of the WHO European Region are making steady progress towards the elimination of measles. At the fifth meeting of the RVC for Measles and Rubella in October 2016, of 53 countries in the WHO European Region, 24 (15 of which are in the EU/EEA) were declared to have reached the elimination goal for measles, and 13 countries (nine in the EU/EEA) were deemed to have interrupted endemic transmission for between 12 and 36 months, meaning they are on their way to achieving the elimination goal. However, six EU/EEA countries were judged to still have endemic transmission: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Romania. More information on strain sequences would allow further insight into the epidemiological investigation.
All EU/EEA countries report measles cases on a monthly basis to ECDC and these data are published every month. Since 10 March 2017, ECDC has been reporting measles outbreaks in Europe on a weekly basis and monitoring worldwide outbreaks on a monthly basis through epidemic intelligence activities. ECDC published a rapid risk assessment on 6 March.
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Personally, I believe that it is high time to stop the rhetoric and actions of the anti-vaccination movements. This includes educating alternative practitioners and their patients. If necessary, we need regulation that prohibits their dangerous and unethical activities.
This post is based on an article by Ken Harvey, Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Australia. I took the liberty of slightly modifying his text for the purpose of this blog. The article informs us about the regulation of nonsense which, as I have often argued, is likely to result in nonsense.
Australia’s drugs regulator seems to be endorsing unfounded claims about homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine as part of its review of how complementary medicines are regulated. In the latest proposed changes, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is looking at what suppliers can claim their products do, known as “permitted indications”. An example of a “low level” permitted indication might be “may relieve the pain of mild osteoarthritis”.
If approved, suppliers will be able to use the permitted indication to market their products. The resulting problem is obvious. For instance, despite the TGA’s Complaints Resolution Panel upholding complaints of a lack of evidence that magnesium and homeopathy “relieve muscle cramps (and restless legs)”, this permitted indication is on its draft list. Other examples of dodgy claims include “supports transport of oxygen in the body”, “regulates healthy male testosterone levels”. The list contains around 140 traditional Chinese medicine indications, such as “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”. None of them have any basis in fact or science. There are also around 900 additional indications for unspecified “traditions”.
Traditional medicines are not necessarily safe, as emerging data highlights how common adverse reactions and drug interactions really are. For example, Hyland’s homeopathic baby teething products were recalled by the US Food and Drug Administration and then the TGA because they contained high levels of belladonna alkaloids which caused adverse events in hundreds of babies. In China, out of the 1.33 million case reports of adverse drug event reports received by the National Adverse Drug Reaction Monitoring Center in 2014, traditional Chinese medicine represented around 17.3% (equivalent to around 230,000 cases).
Listed medicines are supposed to contain pre-approved, relatively low-risk ingredients. They should be produced with good manufacturing practice and only make “low-level” health claims for which evidence is held. However, the TGA does not check these requirements before the product is marketed. To safeguard shoppers, consumer representatives, suggested the proposed list of permitted indications should be short and only contain wordings such as, “may assist” or “may help”. For consumers to make an informed purchase, claims based on “traditional use” should always have a disclaimer along the lines of what the US Federal Trade Commission uses for homeopathic products. For example, “This product’s traditional claims are based on alternative health practices that are not accepted by most modern medical experts. There is no good scientific evidence that this product works”.
As I see it, the problem is that the evidence for many of the claims which are about to be allowed is either absent, seriously flawed or negative. Yet, the purpose of any regulation of this kind must be to protect consumers from purchasing ineffective and sometimes dangerous products. Regulators are keen to balance this aim against another aim: helping an industry to thrive. It is never easy to get such a balance right. But to allow nonsense, pseudoscience and overt falsehoods to creep in, must surely be wrong, unethical and illegal.
In my previous post, I reported that the NHS has included homeopathy and herbal medicine on the list of medications that might no longer get reimbursed. The news was reported by most newspapers in the UK. All of the papers correctly quote NHS England giving their reasons for black-listing homeopathy and herbal remedies. Some papers also quote critics of homeopathy providing short ‘sound bites’ and opinions. None of the articles bother to explain in any detail why homeopathy is so ridiculously implausible or how strong the evidence against it has become. In this post, I intend to analyse some of this press coverage by copying those excerpts from the newspaper articles which I find odd or misleading and by adding short comments by myself.
THE DAILY MAIL claimed that homeopathic remedies are treatments using heavily diluted forms of plants, herbs and minerals. This is factually incorrect; think of remedies like X-ray! The Mail also quoted Don Redding, director of policy at National Voices, stating: ‘Whilst some treatments are available to purchase over the counter, that does not mean that everyone can afford them. There will be distinct categories of people who rely on NHS funding for prescriptions of remedies that are otherwise available over the counter. Stopping such prescriptions would break with the principle of an NHS “free at the point of use” and would create a system where access to treatments is based on a person’s ability to pay.’ This argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.
THE INDEPENDENT cited Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, who said: “If patients are in a position that they can afford to buy over the counter medicines and products, then we would encourage them to do so rather than request a prescription – but imposing blanket policies on GPs, that don’t take into account demographic differences across the country, or that don’t allow for flexibility for a patient’s individual circumstances, risks alienating the most vulnerable in society.” Again, this argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH also reported the quote from Don Redding, Director of Policy at National Voices which I cited above.
THE DAILY MIRROR quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society claiming that such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. RPS England Board Chair Sandra Gidley said: “A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. “Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected.” THE MIRROR also reported what had to say and added that the NHS constitution states that: “Access to NHS services is based on clinical need, not an individual’s ability to pay; NHS services are free of charge, except in limited circumstances sanctioned by parliament.”
THE NEWS & STAR repeated the above quote from The Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
THE GUERNSEY PRESS repeated what RPS England board chair Sandra Gidley said: “We would encourage people with minor health problems to self-care with the support of a pharmacist and to buy medicines where appropriate and affordable to the individual. However, expecting everyone to pay for medicines for common conditions will further increase health inequalities and worsen the health of patients who cannot afford them. A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected. They should not be denied treatment because of an inability to pay.”
THE TIMES also quoted the RPS and Don Redding misleadingly (see above and below) and concluded their article by citing Cristal Summer, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association saying: Patients will be prescribed more expensive conventional drugs in place of homeopathy, which defeats the object of the exercise. The NHS also claims it wants to reduce the amount of prescription drugs patients take, then stops offering complementary therapies which can help achieve this. This clearly ignores the fact that ‘the object of the exercise’ for any health service must be to provide effective treatments and avoid placebo therapies like homeopathy.
THE SUN quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society saying such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. But it said banning NHS-funded homeopathy was long overdue. THE SUN continued by citing John O’Connell, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance: “The NHS are absolutely right to look at removing homeopathy from their approved prescription list and it’s astonishing that it hasn’t happened sooner.”
METRO pointed out that actress Gwyneth Paltrow, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and world record sprinter Usain Bolt are all known to swear by homeopathic remedies.
Generally speaking, the newspaper coverage was not bad, in my view. The exception evidently is THE TIMES (see above). Several other articles also have a slight whiff of false balance, introducing seemingly rational counter-arguments where none exist. Even though the headlines invariably focus on homeopathy, some of the quotes used by the papers are clearly about other medicines black-listed. This seems particularly obvious with the quotes by the RPS. Many readers might thus be misled into thinking that there is opposition by reputable organisations to the ban on homeopathy. None of the articles that I read quoted a homeopath at the end saying something like WE KNOW OF MANY PATIENTS WHOSE LIVES WERE SAVED BY HOMEOPATHY. JUST BECAUSE WE DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS DOES NOT MEAN IT DOES NOT WORK. A BAN WOULD PUT PUBLIC HEALTH AT RISK.
Only a few years ago, this type of conclusion to an article on homeopathy would have been inevitable! Could it be that UK journalists (with the exception of those at THE TIMES?) are slowly learning?