MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

patient choice

A survey published in 2011 showed that one-third of Danish hospitals offered alternative therapies. In total, 38 hospitals offered acupuncture and one Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Light Therapy. The most commonly reported reason for offering CAM was “scientific evidence”.

Many readers of this blog might be amazed with both the high level of alternative medicine presence in Danish hospitals and the notion that this was due to ‘scientific evidence’. A recent article provides even more surprises about the Danish alternative medicine scene.

It revealed that 8 out of 10 Danes are interested in using some form of alternative medicine…Some 67 percent of Danes say the national healthcare system should be more open to alternative healing practices, such as homeopathy, acupuncture or chiropractic, and 60 percent would like to see these treatments covered by the public health insurance system. More than half of the 6,000 respondents believe alternative therapies can be just as effective as traditional medicine.

Charlotte Yde, the chairwoman at Sundhedsrådet, which is the umbrella organisation for alternative practitioners in Denmark, contends many Danes feel frustrated because they cannot freely discuss alternative treatment with their doctors. Alternative treatment researcher Helle Johannessen agrees that Danish doctors should openly discuss alternative medicine options with patients. “In other European countries doctors use alternative treatment to a much greater extent than doctors in Denmark,” Johannessen told DR. “[International experience] shows that some forms of alternative therapy can improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and nausea in cancer patients.”

This, it seems to me, is little more than a bonanza of fallacious thinking and misleading information.

  • The notion that popularity of a therapy has anything to do with its usefulness is a classical fallacy.
  • The notion that belief determines efficacy (More than half of the 6,000 respondents believe alternative therapies can be just as effective as traditional medicine.) or vice versa is complete nonsense.
  • The notion that many Danes … cannot freely discuss alternative treatment with their doctors is misleading: patients can discuss what they feel like with whom they feel like.
  • The notion that in other European countries doctors use alternative treatment to a much greater extent than doctors in Denmark is also misleading: there are many European countries where LESS alternative therapies are being paid for via the public purse.
  • Finally, the notion that that some forms of alternative therapy can improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and nausea in cancer patients – even if it were correct – does not mean that ALL alternative therapies are efficacious, safe, or cost-effective.

Who cares about Denmark?

Why should this be important?

Well, the Danes might care, and it is important because it provides an excellent example of how promoters of bogus treatments tend to argue – not just in Denmark, but everywhere. Unfortunately, politicians all too often fall for such fallacious notions. For them, a popular issue is a potential vote-winner. Within medical systems that are notoriously strapped for money, the looser will inevitably be optimal healthcare.

MORE than £150,000 was spent by NHS Grampian on homeopathic treatments last year. Referrals to homeopathic practitioners cost £37,000 and referrals to the Glasgow Homoeopathic Hospital cost £7,315 in 2014-15. In view of the fact that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos, any amount of tax payers’ money spent on homeopathy is hard to justify. Yet an NHS Grampian spokeswoman defended its use of by the health board with the following words:

“We have a responsibility to consider all treatments available to NHS patients to ensure they offer safe, effective and person-centred care. We also have a responsibility to use NHS resources carefully and balance our priorities across the population as well as individuals. We also recognise that patient reported outcome and experience measures are valued even when objective evidence of effectiveness is limited. Homeopathy can be considered in this arena and we remain connected with the wider debate on its role within the NHS while regularly reviewing our local support for such services within NHS Grampian.”

Mr Spence, a professional homeopath, was also invited to defend the expenditure on homeopathy: “When a friend started talking to me about homeopathy I thought he had lost his marbles. But it seemed homeopathy could fill a gap left by orthodox medicine. Homeopathy is about treating the whole person, not just the symptoms of disease, and it could save the NHS an absolute fortune. If someone is in a dangerous situation or they need surgery then they need to go to hospital. It’s often those with chronic, long-term problems where conventional treatment has not worked that can be helped by homeopathy.”

What do these arguments amount to, I ask myself.

The answer is NOTHING.

The key sentence in the spokeswomen’s comment is : “patient reported outcome and experience measures are valued even when objective evidence of effectiveness is limited.” This seems to admit that the evidence fails to support homeopathy. Therefore, so the argument, we have to abandon evidence and consider experience, opinion etc. This seemingly innocent little trick is nothing else than the introduction of double standards into health care decision making which could be used to justify the use of just about any bogus therapy in the NHS at the tax payers’ expense. It is obvious that such a move would be a decisive step in the wrong direction and to the detriment of progress in health care.

The comments by the homeopath are perhaps even more pitiful. They replace arguments with fallacies and evidence with speculation or falsehoods.

There is, of course, a bright side to this:

IF HOMEOPATHY IS DEFENDED IN SUCH A LAUGHABLE MANNER, ITS DAYS MUST BE COUNTED.

These days, I spend much of my time in France (my wife is French), and one striking thing about this country is the popularity of homeopathy. For instance, it is hard to find a pharmacy where the pharmacist does not approach you trying to sell you a homeopathic remedy for your health problem. But, of course, this is all far too anecdotal. The question therefore is, are there any reliable data on France’s usage of homeopathy?

The answer is YES: the aim of this new paper was to analyse data on medicines, prescribers and patients for homeopathic prescriptions that are reimbursed by French national health insurance.

The French national health insurance databases were used to analyse prescriptions of reimbursed homeopathic drugs or preparations in the overall French population, during the period July 2011-June 2012.

The results show that a total of 6,705,420 patients received at least one reimbursement for a homeopathic preparation during the 12-month period. This number equates to 10.2% of the French population, with a predominance in females (68%) and a peak frequency observed in children aged 0-4 years (18%). About one third of patients had only one reimbursement, and one half of patients had three or more reimbursements.

The cost of all homeopathic treatments prescribed during the 12-month period was approximately €279 million (based on the retail price). The observed mean reimbursement rate was 34%. This cost corresponded to nearly €98 million for the French national health insurance and amounted to 0.3% of France’s total drug bill. The most commonly prescribed stock was ‘Arnica montana’, followed by ‘Influenzinum’, Ignatia amara’ and ‘Gelsemium sempervirens’.

A total of 120,110 healthcare professionals (HCPs) prescribed at least one homeopathic drug or preparation. They represented 43.5% of the overall population of HCPs, nearly 95% of general practitioners, dermatologists and pediatricians, and 75% of midwives. Homeopathy accounted for 5% of the total number of drug units prescribed by HCPs. Conventional medicines were co-prescribed with 55% of homeopathic prescriptions.

From these data, the authors concluded that many HCPs occasionally prescribe reimbursed homeopathic preparations, representing however a small percentage of reimbursements compared to allopathic medicines. About 10% of the French population, particularly young children and women, received at least one homeopathic preparation during the year. In more than one half of cases, reimbursed homeopathic preparations are prescribed in combination with allopathic medicines.

So, my impression that homeopathy is much more popular in France than elsewhere was not entirely correct. Like in most other countries, it is used by a minority; but this minority is fairly vocal and gets plenty of press coverage. When discussing homeopathy with friends in France, I have regularly discovered that they have very little understanding about what homeopathy is truly about; they seem to favour it because it is heavily advertised as a harmless solution to benign health problems. In no other country have I seen regular TV commercials for homeopathy! The ones who earn by far the most from this is, of course, the pharmacist – in France, homeopathic products can only be found in pharmacies!

Seen from this angle, the French usage of homeopathy is a triumph of profit over reason: the two most popular preparations (Arnica and Influenzinum) are not just not evidence-based (like all other homeopathic remedies), they have been shown in systematic reviews not to work better than placebos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other day, I received a request from THE GUARDIAN: could I write a piece on homeopathy in relation to the Australian report which had just come out; they gave me ~700 words and all of 3 hours to do it. I had an extremely busy day, but accepted the challenge nevertheless.

My article was published the next day and the ‘headliner’ at THE GUARDIAN had elected to call it There is no scientific case for homeopathy: the debate is over.

What followed was a flurry of debate – well over 2200 comments – which was more than a little ironic, considering the headline.

Essentially, my article had repeated the well-rehearsed arguments which have so often been made on this blog and elsewhere:

Our trials failed to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.

Our reviews demonstrated that the most reliable of the 230 or so trials of homeopathy ever published are also not positive.

Studies with animals confirmed the results obtained on humans.

Surveys and case reports suggested that homeopathy can be dangerous.

The claims made by homeopaths to cure conditions like cancer, asthma or even Ebola were bogus.

The promotion of homeopathy is not ethical.

The comments that followed were mixed, of course; those that disagreed with me used a range of counter-arguments; in no specific order, these were the following:

  1. For several reasons, I cannot be trusted.
  2. I even once stated that I have treated my wife homeopathically.
  3. The Australian report was neither thorough nor reliable.
  4. The Australian expert panel were bought by Big Pharma.
  5. Homeopathic treatment must be individualised and can therefore not be tested in RCTs.
  6. Just because we don’t understand how homeopathy works, we should not conclude that it is ineffective.
  7. 200 years of positive experience with homeopathy clearly prove that it works.
  8. The huge popularity of homeopathy worldwide demonstrated its effectiveness.
  9. The fact that some very clever people support homeopathy shows that it works.
  10. Homeopathy works in animals and little children, therefore it cannot be just a placebo.
  11. The Queen and my aunt Doris use homeopathy.
  12. Placebos work.
  13. Patients must be able to choose; patient choice is an important principle in all health care.
  14. There’s more to evidence than just RCTs.
  15. Homeopathy works like vaccines.

With such an abundance of counter-arguments, the debate is clearly NOT over! Or is it? Let’s see how solid the arguments really are.

1) I cannot be trusted

Ad hominem attacks are no arguments at all; they are merely a sign that the person using them has no real arguments left.

2) I treated my wife homeopathically

This is true. At one stage in my life, I treated anyone who couldn’t run fast enough to escape me with homeopathy. What does that show? It simply shows that I can make mistakes too.

3) The Australian report was flawed

Perhaps it was not entirely faultless (no report ever is), but it certainly was rigorous – more so than any previous document in the entire history of homeopathy. If it excluded certain types of evidence, like the observational studies (which are so much loved by homeopaths), it did so because such data are wide open to bias.

4) The panel was not independent

Yes, it was! It even included a homeopath. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is internationally highly respected, and to defame it without evidence is, in a way, just another ad hominem attack.

5) Homeopathy must be individualised

This is a half-truth: classical homeopathy is mostly individualised, but lots of homeopathic prescribing is not individualised. And in any case, we have recently seen how totally unconvincing the results of strictly individualised trials of homeopathy are. This argument turns out to be a red herring.

6) We currently don’t understand how homeopathy works

What we do understand perfectly well, however, is the fact that no explanation exists which would not require throwing over board big chunks of the laws of nature. But even if we accepted that the mode of action is unknown, this would not change the lack of homeopathy’s clinical effectiveness. Lots of treatments work without us understanding how.

7) Experience shows it works

Experience is a very unreliable indicator of effectiveness; there are simply far too many confounders such as placebo effects, regression towards the mean or natural history of the disease. This is why we need evidence to be sure, and historically medicine finally started making progress when this lesson had been learnt.

8) The amazing popularity of homeopathy is proof of its effectiveness

This is the ‘argumentum ad populum’ fallacy. Think of the popularity of blood-letting to see how wrong this argument can be.

9) Homeopathy is backed by some very clever people

So what? Clever people are not always correct – look at me (just joking!)

10) Homeopathy works in animals and little children which proves that it is more than a placebo

First, animals and children do also show placebo-responses.

Second, the animal owner/parent might respond to placebo and thus mimic a placebo-response in the patient.

Third, the evidence for homeopathy is not positive neither in animals nor in children.

11) The Queen swears by homeopathy

Yes, so much so that, as soon as she is really ill, she makes use of what the very best of conventional medicine has to offer.

12) Placebos work

For sure! But that does not mean that we should prescribe placebos. If an effective treatment is given with compassion and empathy, the patient will also profit from a placebo effect – in addition to the effect of the treatment. Merely administering placebos means withholding the latter and is thus not in the best interest of the patient.

13) Patient choice

Yes, patient choice is important. However, it only applies to the choice between treatments that are demonstrably effective – if not choice becomes arbitrariness.

14) Evidence is more than just RCTs

True, there are many study designs other than RCTs. They all have their place in research – but when the research question is to test whether a treatment is effective beyond placebo, they are all open to different types of bias. The one that minimises bias best and thus produces more reliable findings than any other study design is the placebo-controlled, double-blind RCT.

15) Homeopathy works like vaccines

No! The ‘like cures like principle’ appears to be similar to the principles of vaccination, but this appearance is misleading. Vaccines contain small amounts of active material, while the typical homeopathic remedy doesn’t. Vaccines use the substance that causes the illness, e. g. (parts of) a virus, while homeopathy doesn’t.

So, is there still a debate? Obviously there is – the Guardian headliner was wrong – but it is a debate without reasonable arguments. And in the public domain, the debate is dominated by enthusiasts who endlessly repeat nonsensical notions which have been shown to be wrong over and over again.

In a nutshell:

Yes, there continues to be a debate.

No, there is no reasonable debate.

 

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was an outspoken American journalist, essayist and literary critic famous for his vitriolic attacks on what he considered to be the hypocrisy of much of American life. In 1924, he published an essay on chiropractic which, I think, is still poignant today. I take the liberty of reproducing here in a slightly abbreviated form.

This preposterous quackery [chiropractic] flourishes lushly in the back reaches of the Republic, and begins to conquer the less civilized folk of the big cities. As the old-time family doctor dies out in the country towns, with no competent successor willing to take over his dismal business, he is followed by some hearty blacksmith or ice-wagon driver, turned into a chiropractor in six months, often by correspondence… [Chiropractic] pathology is grounded upon the doctrine that all human ills are caused by pressure of misplaced vertebrae upon the nerves which come out of the spinal cord — in other words, that every disease is the result of a pinch. This, plainly enough, is buncombe. The chiropractic therapeutics rest upon the doctrine that the way to get rid of such pinches is to climb upon a table and submit to a heroic pummeling by a retired piano-mover. This, obviously, is buncombe doubly damned.

…Any lout with strong hands and arms is perfectly equipped to become a chiropractor. No education beyond the elements is necessary. The takings are often high, and so the profession has attracted thousands of recruits — retired baseball players, work-weary plumbers, truck-drivers, longshoremen, bogus dentists, dubious preachers, cashiered school superintendents. Now and then a quack of some other school — say homeopathy — plunges into it. Hundreds of promising students come from the intellectual ranks of hospital orderlies.

…[The chiropractor’s] trade is mainly with ambulant patients; they must come to his studio for treatment. Most of them have lingering diseases; they tour all the neighborhood doctors before they reach him. His treatment, being nonsensical, is in accord with the divine plan. It is seldom, perhaps, that he actually kills a patient, but at all events he keeps any a worthy soul from getting well.

…But chiropractic, of course, is not perfect. It has superb potentialities, but only too often they are not converted into concrete cadavers. The hygienists rescue many of its foreordained customers, and, turning them over to agents of the Medical Trust, maintained at the public expense, get them cured. Moreover, chiropractic itself is not certainly fatal: even an Iowan with diabetes may survive its embraces. Yet worse, I have a suspicion that it sometimes actually cures. For all I know (or any orthodox pathologist seems to know) it may be true that certain malaises are caused by the pressure of vagrant vertebra upon the spinal nerves. And it may be true that a hearty ex-boilermaker, by a vigorous yanking and kneading, may be able to relieve that pressure. What is needed is a scientific inquiry into the matter, under rigid test conditions, by a committee of men learned in the architecture and plumbing of the body, and of a high and incorruptible sagacity. Let a thousand patients be selected, let a gang of selected chiropractors examine their backbones and determine what is the matter with them, and then let these diagnoses be checked up by the exact methods of scientific medicine. Then let the same chiropractors essay to cure the patients whose maladies have been determined. My guess is that the chiropractors’ errors in diagnosis will run to at least 95% and that their failures in treatment will push 99%. But I am willing to be convinced.

Where is there is such a committee to be found? I undertake to nominate it at ten minutes’ notice. The land swarms with men competent in anatomy and pathology, and yet not engaged as doctors. There are thousands of hospitals, with endless clinical material. I offer to supply the committee with cigars and music during the test. I offer, further, to supply both the committee and the chiropractors with sound wet goods. I offer, finally, to give a bawdy banquet to the whole Medical Trust at the conclusion of the proceedings.

I imagine that most chiropractors would find this comment rather disturbing. However, I do like it for several reasons:

  • it is refreshingly politically incorrect; today journalists seem to be obsessed with the notion of ‘balance’ thus often creating the impression that there are two valid sides to an issue where, in fact, there is only one;
  • it gets right at the heart of several problems which have plagued chiropractic from its beginning;
  • it even suggests a way to establishing the truth about the value of chiropractic which could easily been followed some 90 years ago;
  • finally it predicts a result of such a test – and I would not be surprised, if it turned out to be not far from the truth.

Please let me know what you think, regardless of whether you are a chiropractor or not.

In many countries, consumers seem to be fond of consulting chiropractors – mostly for back pain, but also for other conditions. I therefore think it is might be a good and productive idea to give anyone who is tempted to see a chiropractor some simple, easy to follow advice. Here we go:

  1. Ask your chiropractor what he/she thinks about the chiropractic concept of subluxation. This is the chiropractors’ term (real doctors use the word too but understand something entirely different by it) for an imagined problem with your spine. Once they have diagnosed you to suffer from subluxation, they will persuade you that it needs correcting which is done by spinal manipulation which they tend to call ‘adjustments’. There are several important issues here: firstly subluxations do not exist outside the fantasy world of chiropractic; secondly chiropractors who believe in subluxation would diagnose subluxation in about 100% of the population – also in individuals who are completely healthy. My advice is to return straight back home as soon as the chiropractor admits he believes in the mystical concept of subluxation.
  2. Ask your chiropractor what he/she thinks of ‘maintenance care’. This is the term many chiropractors use for indefinite treatments which do little more than transfer lots of cash from your account to that of your chiropractor. There is no good evidence to show that maintenance care does, as chiropractors claim, prevent healthy individuals from falling ill. So, unless you have the irresistible urge to burn money, don’t fall for this nonsense. You should ask your chiropractor how long and frequent your treatment will be, what it will cost, and then ask yourself whether it is worth it.
  3. Run a mile, if the chiropractor wants to manipulate your neck (which most will do regardless of whether you have neck-pain, some even without informed consent). Neck manipulation is associated with very serious complications; they are usually caused by an injury to an artery that supplies parts of your brain. This can cause a stroke and even death. Several hundred such cases have been documented in the medical literature – but the true figure is almost certainly much larger (there is still no system in place to monitor such events).
  4. Run even faster, if the chiropractor wants to treat your children for common paediatric conditions. Many chiropractors believe that their manipulations are effective for a wide range of health problems that kids frequently suffer from. However, there is not a jot of evidence that these claims are true.
  5. Be aware that about 50% of all patients having chiropractic treatments will suffer from side effects like pain and stiffness. These symptoms usually last for 2-3 days and can be severe enough to impede your quality of life. Ask yourself whether the risk is outweighed by the benefit of chiropractic.
  6. Remember that there is no good evidence that chiropractors can treat any condition effectively other than lower back pain (and even for that condition the evidence is far from strong). Many chiropractors claim to be able to treat a plethora of non-spinal conditions like asthma, ear infection, gastrointestinal complaints, autism etc. etc. There is no good evidence that these claims are correct.
  7. Distrust the advice given by many chiropractors regarding prescribed medications, vaccinations or surgery. Chiropractic has a long history of warning their patients against all sorts of conventional treatments. Depending on the clinical situation, following such advice can cause very serious harm.

I am minded to write similar posts for all major alternative therapies (this will not make me more popular with alternative therapists, but I don’t mind all that much) – provided, of course, that my readers find this sort of article useful. So, please do give me some feedback.

‘Healing, hype or harm? A critical analysis of complementary or alternative medicine’ is the title of a book that I edited and that was published in 2008. Its publication date coincided with that of ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and therefore the former was almost completely over-shadowed by the latter. Consequently few people know about it. This is a shame, I think, and this post is dedicated to encouraging my readers to have a look at ‘Healing, hype or harm?’

One reviewer commented on Amazon about this book as follows: Vital and informative text that should be read by everyone alongside Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ and Singh and Ernt’s ‘Trick or Treatment’. Everyone should be able to made informed choices about the treatments that are peddled to the desperate and gullible. As Tim Minchin famously said ‘What do you call Alternative Medicine that has been proved to work? . . . Medicine!’

This is high praise indeed! But I should not omit the fact that others have commented that they were appalled by our book and found it “disappointing and unsettling”. This does not surprise me in the least; after all, alternative medicine has always been a divisive subject.

The book was written by a total of 17 authors and covers many important aspects of alternative medicine. Some of its most famous contributors are Michael Baum, Gustav Born, David Colquhoun, James Randi and Nick Ross. Some of the most important subjects include:

  • Compassion
  • Quackademia
  • Impartiality
  • Ethics
  • Politics
  • Holism
  • Vitalism
  • Placebo

As already mentioned, our book is already 6 years old; however, this does not mean that it is now out-dated. The subject areas were chosen such that it will be timely for a long time to come. Nor does this book reflect one single point of view; as it was written by over a dozen different experts with vastly different backgrounds, it offers an entire spectrum of views and attitudes. It is, in a word, a book that stimulates critical thinking and thoughtful analysis.

I sincerely think you should have a look at it… and, in case you think I am hoping to maximise my income by telling you all this: all the revenues from this book go to charity.

Medical treatments with no direct effect, such as homeopathy, are surprisingly popular. But how does a good reputation of such treatments spread and persist? Researchers from the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution in Stockholm believe that they have identified the mechanism.

They argue that most medical treatments result in a range of outcomes: some people improve while others deteriorate. If the people who improve are more inclined to tell others about their experiences than the people who deteriorate, ineffective or even harmful treatments would maintain a good reputation.

They conducted a fascinating study to test the hypothesis that positive outcomes are overrepresented in online medical product reviews, examined if this reputational distortion is large enough to bias people’s decisions, and explored the implications of this bias for the cultural evolution of medical treatments.

The researchers compared outcomes of weight loss treatments and fertility treatments as evidenced in clinical trials to outcomes reported in 1901 reviews on Amazon. Subsequently, in a series of experiments, they evaluated people’s choice of weight loss diet after reading different reviews. Finally, a mathematical model was used to examine if this bias could result in less effective treatments having a better reputation than more effective treatments.

The results of these investigations confirmed the hypothesis that people with better outcomes are more inclined to write reviews. After 6 months on the diet, 93% of online reviewers reported a weight loss of 10 kg or more, while just 27% of clinical trial participants experienced this level of weight change. A similar positive distortion was found in fertility treatment reviews. In a series of experiments, the researchers demonstrated that people are more inclined to begin a diet that was backed by many positive reviews, than a diet with reviews that are representative of the diet’s true effect. A mathematical model of medical cultural evolution suggested that the size of the positive distortion critically depends on the shape of the outcome distribution.

The authors concluded that online reviews overestimate the benefits of medical treatments, probably because people with negative outcomes are less inclined to tell others about their experiences. This bias can enable ineffective medical treatments to maintain a good reputation.

To me, this seems eminently plausible; but there are, of course, other reasons why bogus treatments survive or even thrive – and they may vary in their importance to the overall effect from treatment to treatment. As so often in health care, things are complex and there are multiple factors that contribute to a phenomenon.

It has been estimated that 40 – 70% of all cancer patients use some form of alternative medicine; may do so in the hope this might cure their condition. A recent article by Turkish researchers – yet again – highlights how dangerous such behaviour can turn out to be.

The authors report the cases of two middle-aged women suffering from malignant breast masses. The patients experienced serious complications in response to self-prescribed use of alternative medicine practices to treat their condition in lieu of evidence-based medical treatments. In both cases, the use and/or inappropriate application of alternative medical approaches promoted the progression of malignant fungating lesions in the breast. The first patient sought medical assistance upon development of a fungating lesion, 7∼8 cm in diameter and involving 1/3 of the breast, with a palpable mass of 5×6 cm immediately beneath the wound. The second patient sought medical assistance after developing of a wide, bleeding, ulcerous area with patchy necrotic tissue that comprised 2/3 of the breast and had a 10×6 cm palpable mass under the affected area.

The authors argue that the use of some non-evidence-based medical treatments as complementary to evidence-based medical treatments may benefit the patient on an emotional level; however, this strategy should be used with caution, as the non-evidence-based therapies may cause physical harm or even counteract the evidence-based treatment.

Their conclusions: a malignant, fungating wound is a serious complication of advanced breast cancer. It is critical that the public is informed about the potential problems of self-treating wounds such as breast ulcers and masses. Additionally, campaigns are needed to increase awareness of the risks and life-threatening potential of using non-evidence-based medical therapies exclusively.

I have little to add to this; perhaps just a further reminder that the risk extends, of course, to all serious conditions: even a seemingly harmless but ineffective therapy can become positively life-threatening, if it is used as an alternative to an effective treatment. I am sure that some ‘alternativists’ will claim that I am alarmist; but I am also convinced that they are wrong.

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