MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

pharmacists

Recently, I have been invited by the final year pharmacy students of the ‘SWISS FEDERAL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY ZURICH‘ to discuss alternative medicine with them. The aspect I was keen to debate was the issue of retail-pharmacists selling medicines which are unproven or even disproven. Using the example of homeopathic remedies, I asked them how many might, when working as retail-pharmacists, sell such products. About half of them admitted that they would do this. In real life, this figure is probably closer to 100%, and this discrepancy may well be a reflection of the idealism of the students, still largely untouched by the realities of retail-pharmacy.

In our discussions, we also explored the reasons why retail-pharmacists might offer unproven or disproven medicines like homeopathic remedies to their customers. The ethical codes of pharmacists across the world quite clearly prohibit this – but, during the discussions, we all realised that the moral high ground is not easily defended against the necessity of making a living. So, what are the possible motivations for pharmacists to sell bogus medicines?

One reason would be that they are convinced of their efficacy. Whenever I talk to pharmacists, I do not get the impression that many of them believe in homeopathy. During their training, they are taught the facts about homeopathy which clearly do not support the notion of efficacy. If some pharmacists nevertheless were convinced of the efficacy of homeopathy, they would obviously not be well informed and thus find themselves in conflict with their duty to practice according to the current best evidence. On reflection therefore, strong positive belief can probably be discarded as a prominent reason for pharmacists selling bogus medicines like homeopathic remedies.

Another common argument is the notion that, because patients want such products, pharmacists must offer them. When considering it, the tension between the ethical duties as a health care professional and the commercial pressures of a shop-keeper becomes painfully obvious. For a shop-keeper, it may be perfectly fine to offer all products which might customers want. For a heath care professional, however, this is not necessarily true. The ethical codes of pharmacists make it perfectly clear that the sale of unproven or disproven medicines is not ethical. Therefore, this often cited notion may well be what pharmacists feel, but it does not seem to be a valid excuse for selling bogus medicines.

A variation of this theme is the argument that, if patients were unable to buy homeopathic remedies for self-limiting conditions which do not really require treatment at all, they would only obtain more harmful drugs. The notion here is that it might be better to sell harmless homeopathic placebos in order to avoid the side-effects of real but non-indicated medicines. In my view, this argument does not hold water: if no (drug) treatment is indicated, professionals have a duty to explain this to their patients. In this sector of health care, a smaller evil cannot easily be justified by avoiding a bigger one; on the contrary, we should always thrive for the optimal course of action, and if this means reassurance that no medical treatment is needed, so be it.

An all too obvious reason for selling bogus medicines is the undeniable fact that pharmacists earn money by doing so. There clearly is a conflict of interest here, whether pharmacists want to admit it or not – and mostly they fail to do so or play down this motivation in their decision to sell bogus medicines.

Often I hear from pharmacists working in large chain pharmacies like Boots that they have no influence whatsoever over the range of products on sale. This perception mat well be true. But equally true is the fact that no health care professional can be forced to do things which violate their code of ethics. If Boots insists on selling bogus medicines, it is up to individual pharmacists and their professional organisations to change this situation by protesting against such unethical malpractice. In my view, the argument is therefore not convincing and certainly does not provide an excuse in the long-term.

While discussing with the Swiss pharmacy students, I was made aware of yet another reason for selling bogus medicines in pharmacies. Some pharmacists might feel that stocking such products provides an opportunity for talking to patients and informing them about the evidence related to the remedy they were about to buy. This might dissuade them from purchasing it and could persuade them to get something that is effective instead. In this case, the pharmacist would merely offer the bogus medicine in order to advise customers against employing it. This strategy might well be an ethical way out of the dilemma; however, I doubt that this strategy is common practice with many pharmacists today.

With all this, we should keep in mind that there are many shades of grey between the black and white of the two extreme attitudes towards bogus medicines. There is clearly a difference whether pharmacists actively encourage their customers to buy bogus treatments (in the way it often happens in France, for instance), or whether they merely stock such products and, where possible, offer responsible, evidence-based advise to people who are tempted to buy them.

At the end of the lively but fruitful discussion with the Swiss students I felt optimistic: perhaps the days when pharmacists were the snake-oil salesmen of the modern era are counted?

According to a recent comment by Dr Larry Dossey, sceptics are afflicted by “randomania,” “statisticalitis,” “coincidentitis,” or “ODD” (Obsessive Debunking Disorder). I thought his opinion was hilariously funny; it shows that this prominent apologist of alternative medicine who claims that he is deeply rooted in the scientific world has, in fact, understood next to nothing about the scientific method. Like all quacks who have run out of rational arguments, he resorts to primitive ad hominem attacks in order to defend his bizarre notions. It also suggests that he could do with a little scepticism himself, perhaps.

In case anyone wonders how the long-obsolete notions of vitalism, which Dossey promotes, not just survive but are becoming again wide-spread, they only need to look into the best-selling books of Dossey and other vitalists. And it is not just lay people, the target audience of such books, who are taken by such nonsense. Health care professionals are by no means immune to these remnants from the prescientific era.

A recent survey is a good case in point. It was aimed at exploring US student pharmacists’ attitudes toward complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and examine factors shaping students’ attitudes. In total, 887 student pharmacists in 10 U.S. colleges/schools of pharmacy took part. Student pharmacists’ attitudes regarding CAM were quantified using the attitudes toward CAM scale (15 items), attitudes toward specific CAM therapies (13 items), influence of factors (e.g., coursework, personal experience) on attitudes (18 items), and demographic characteristics (15 items).

The results show a mean (±SD) score on the attitudes toward CAM scale of 52.57 ± 7.65 (of a possible 75; higher score indicated more favorable attitudes). There were strong indications that students agreed with the concepts of vitalism. When asked about specific CAMs, many students revealed positive views even on the least plausible and least evidence-based modalities like homeopathy or Reiki.

Unsurprisingly, students agreed that a patient’s health beliefs should be integrated in the patient care process and that knowledge about CAM would be required in future pharmacy practice. Scores on the attitudes toward CAM scale varied by gender, race/ethnicity, type of institution, previous CAM coursework, and previous CAM use. Personal experience, pharmacy education, and family background were important factors shaping students’ attitudes.

The authors concluded: Student pharmacists hold generally favorable views of CAM, and both personal and educational factors shape their views. These results provide insight into factors shaping future pharmacists’ perceptions of CAM. Additional research is needed to examine how attitudes influence future pharmacists’ confidence and willingness to talk to patients about CAM.

I find the overwhelmingly positive views of pharmacists on even over quackery quite troubling. One of the few critical pharmacists shares my worries and commented that this survey on CAM attitudes paints a concerning portrait of American pharmacy students. However, limitations in the survey process may have created biases that could have exaggerated the overall perspective presented. More concerning than the results themselves are the researchers’ interpretation of this data: Critical and negative perspectives on CAM seem to be viewed as problematic, rather than positive examples of good critical thinking.

One lesson from surveys like these is they illustrate the educational goals of CAM proponents. Just like “integrative” medicine that is making its ways into academic hospital settings, CAM education on campus is another tactic that is being used by proponents to shape health professional attitudes and perspectives early in their careers. The objective is obvious: normalize pseudoscience with students, and watch it become embedded into pharmacy practice.

Is this going to change? Unless there is a deliberate and explicit attempt to call out and push back against the degradation of academic and scientific standards created by existing forms of CAM education and “integrative medicine” programs, we should expect to see a growing normalizing of pseudoscience in health professions like pharmacy.

I have criticised pharmacists’ attitude and behaviour towards alternative medicine more often than I care to remember. I even contributed an entire series of articles (around 10; I forgot the precise number) to THE PHARMACEUTICAL JOURNAL in an attempt to stimulate their abilities to think critically about alternative medicine. Pharmacists could certainly do with a high dose of “randomania,” “statisticalitis,” “coincidentitis,” or “ODD” (Obsessive Debunking Disorder). In particular, pharmacists who sell bogus remedies, i.e. virtually all retail pharmacists, need to remember that

  • they are breaking their own ethical code
  • they are putting profit before responsible health care
  • by selling bogus products, they give credibility to quackery
  • they are risking their reputation as professionals who provide evidence-based advice to the public
  • they might seriously endanger the health of many of their customers

In discussions about these issues, pharmacists usually defend themselves and argue that

  • those working in retail chains cannot do anything about this situation; head office decides what is sold on their premises and what not
  • many medicinal products we sell are as bogus as the alternative medicines in question
  • other health care professions are also not perfect, blameless or free of fault and error
  • many pharmacists, particularly those not working in retail, are aware of this lamentable situation but cannot do anything about it
  • retail pharmacists are both shopkeepers and health care professionals and are trying their very best to cope with this difficult dual role
  • we usually appreciate your work and critical comments but, in this case, you are talking nonsense

I do not agree with any of these arguments. Of course, each single individual pharmacist is fairly powerless when it comes to changing the system (but nobody forces anyone to work in a chain that breaks the ethical code of their profession). Yet pharmacists have their professional organisations, and it is up to each individual pharmacist to exert influence, if necessary pressure, via their professional bodies and representatives, such that eventually the system changes. In all this distasteful mess, only one thing seems certain: without a groundswell of opinion from pharmacists, nothing will happen simply because too many pharmacists are doing very nicely with fooling their customers into buying expensive rubbish.

And when eventually something does happen, it will almost certainly be a slow and long process until quackery has been fully expelled from retail pharmacies. My big concern is not so much the slowness of the process but the fact that, currently, I see virtually no groundswell of opinion that might produce anything. For the foreseeable future pharmacists seem to have decided to be content with a role as shopkeepers who do not sufficiently care about healthcare-ethics to change the status quo.

To include conventional health care professionals amongst those who significantly contribute to the ‘sea of misinformation’ on alternative medicine might come as a surprise. But sadly, they do deserve quite a prominent place in the list of contributors. In fact, I could write one entire book about each of the various professions’ ways to mislead patients about alternative medicine.

There are, of course, considerable national differences and other peculiarities which render each specific profession quite complex to evaluate. The material is huge – far to big to fit in a short comment. All I will therefore try to do with this post is to throw a quick spotlight on some of the mainstream professions mentioning just one or two relevant aspects in each instant.

Nurses

Particularly in North America, many nurses seem to be besotted with ‘Therapeutic Touch’, an implausible and unproven ‘energy-therapy’. For instance, the College of Nurses of Ontario includes Therapeutic Touch as a therapy permitted for its members. In other regions, other alternative treatments might be more popular with nurses but, in general, many seem to have a weakness for this sector. Researchers from Aberdeen  recently conducted a survey to establish the use of alternative medicine by registered nurses, as well as their knowledge-base and attitudes towards it. They sent a questionnaire to 621 nurses and achieved a remarkable response rate of 86%. Eighty per cent of the responders admitted to employ alternative medicine and 41% were using it currently. Only five nurses believed that alternative medicine was not effective and 74% would recommend it to others. In other words, there is a strong likelihood of patients being misinformed by nurses.

Midwives

A recent article in the UK journal THE PRACTISING MIDWIFE (Sept 2013) by Valerie Smith (not Medline-listed) claimed that the Royal College of Midwives supports the use of homeopathic remedies during childbirth. This does come to no surprise to those who know that several surveys have suggested that midwives are particularly fond of un- or dis-proven therapies and that they employ them often without the knowledge of obstetricians. We investigated this question by conducting a systematic review of all surveys of alternative medicine use by midwives. In total,19 surveys met our inclusion criteria. Most were recent and many originated from the US. Prevalence data varied but were usually high, often close to 100%. Much of this practice was not supported by sound evidence for efficacy and some of the treatments employed had the potential to put patients at risk. It seems obvious that, in order to employ unproven treatment, midwives first need to misinform their patients.

Physiotherapists

Some physiotherapists promote and practise a range of unproven treatments, e.g. craniosacral therapy. I am not aware of statistics on this, but it is not difficult to find evidence on the Internet: One website boldly states that Physiotherapy & Craniosacral Therapy available with Charetred Physiotherapist with 20 years of experience in the NHS. Another one proudly announces:  Our main methods of treatment are through Physiotherapy and Craniosacral Therapy. A third site claims that Craniosacral Therapy is attracting increasing interest for its gentle yet effective approach, working directly with the body’s natural capacity for self-repair to treat a wide range of conditions. And a final example: Catherine is a registered Cranio-Sacral Therapist, a Physiotherapist, and is a tutor at the London College of Cranio-Sacral Therapy.  She is also qualified in acupuncture for pain relief and a member of the Craniosacral Therapy Association, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and Acupuncture Association for Chartered Physiotherapists.

Pharmacists

If you go into any pharmacy in the UK, you do not need to search for long to find shelves full of homeopathic remedies, Bach flower remedies, aromatherapy-oils or useless herbal slimming aids, to mention just 4 of the many different bogus treatments on offer. If you do the same in Germany, France, Switzerland or other countries, the amount of bogus remedies and devices for sale might even be greater. Pharmacists, it seems to me, have long settled to be shopkeepers who have few scruples misleading their customers into believing that these useless products are worth buying. Their code of ethics invariably forbids them such promotion and trade, but most pharmacists seem to pay no or very little attention. The concern for profit has clearly won over the concern for customers or patients.

Doctors

I have left my own profession for last – not because they are the least contributors to the ‘sea of misinformation, but because, in some respects, they are the most important ones. The general attitude amongst doctors today seems to be ‘I don’t care how it works, as long as it helps my patients’. I have dedicated a previous post on explaining that this is misleading nonsense; therefore there is no reason to not repeat myself. Instead, I might just mention how many doctors practice homeopathy thus misleading patients into believing that it is an effective therapy. Alternatively, I could refer to those charlatans with a medical degree who promote bogus cancer cures. In my view, misinformation by doctors is the most serious form of misinformation of them all: physicians involved in such activities violate their ethical code and betray patients who frequently trust doctors almost blindly.

Conclusion

It would be a misunderstanding to assume that, with this post, I am accusing all conventional health care professionals of misinforming us about alternative medicine. But some clearly do; and when they do abuse their positions of trust in this way, they do a serious disservice to us all. I hope that exposing this problem will contribute to conventional health care professionals behaving more responsibly in future.

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