If the Flat Earth Society (FES) really exists at all, I must confess I know nothing about it. Here I use the term ‘FES’ merely as an analogy; you might replace FES with SoH or BHA or BAA or BCA or with most of the other acronyms used in my field of inquiry.
What I do know about is alternative medicine, particularly publications in this area, and the authors of such papers. As it happens, the members of my imaginary FES have a lot in common with the authors of articles on alternative medicine. Their publication policy, for instance, is remarkably simple yet astonishingly effective. Its aim is straight forward: mislead the public. As far as I can see, it is being pursued by just two main strategies.
1 SWAMP THE MARKET WITH TRASH
This is a simple and most successful strategy. It consists of publishing an ever-growing mountain of utter nonsense. Anyone who is interested in alternative medicine and conducts a search would thus find tons of articles listed in Medline or other databases. This will instantly generate the impression that Flat Earth research is highly active. Those who can bear the pain might even try to read a few of these papers; they will soon give up in despair. Too many are hardly understandable; they are often badly written, lack essential methodological detail, and invariably arrive at positive conclusions.
The strategy can only work, if there are journals who publish such rubbish. I am glad to say, there is no shortage of them! To attain a veneer of credibility, the journals need to be peer-reviewed, of course. This is no real problem, as long as the peer-reviewers are carefully chosen to be ‘cooperative’. The trick is to make sure to ask the authors submitting articles to name two or three uncritical friends who might, one day, be happy to act as peer-reviewers for their own papers. This works very smoothly indeed: one pseudo-scientist is sure to help another in their desire to publish some pseudo-science in a ‘peer-reviewed’ journal.
To oil the system well, we need money, of course. Again, no problem: most of these journals ask for a hefty publication fee.
The result is as obvious as it is satisfying. The journal earns well, the pseudo-researchers can publish their pseudo-research at will, and the peer-reviewers know precisely where to go for a favour when they need one. Crucially, the first hurdle to misleading the public is taken with bravura.
2. REFUTE ANY EVIDENCE THAT IS UNFAVOURABLE
There are, of course, journals which refuse to play along. Annoyingly, they adhere to such old-fashioned things like standards and ethics; they have a peer-review system that is critical and independent; and they don’t rely on pseudo-scientists for their income. Every now and then, such a journal publishes an article on alternative medicine. It goes without saying that, in all likelihood, such an article is of high quality and therefore would not be in favour of Flat Earth assumptions.
This is a serious threat to the aim of the FES. What can be done?
No panic, the solution is simple!
An article is urgently needed to criticise the paper with the unfavourable evidence – never mind that it is of much better quality than the average paper in the Flat Earth-journals. If one looks hard enough, one can find a flaw in almost every article. And if there is none, the FES can always invent one. And if the proper science journal refuses to publish the pseudo-criticism as a comment, there are always enough pseudo-journals that are only too keen to oblige.
The important thing is to get something that vaguely looks like a rebuttal in print (the public will not realise that it is phony!).
Once this aim is achieved, the world is back in order again. As soon as someone dares to cite the high quality, negative evidence, the FES members can all shout with one voice: BUT THIS PAPER HAS BEEN HEAVILY CRITICISED; IT IS NOT RELIABLE! WHOEVER CITED THE PAPER IS ILL-INFORMED AND THEREFORE NOT CREDIBLE.
3. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
The overall effect is clear. The public, journalists, politicians etc. get the impression that the earth is indeed flat – or, at the very minimum, they are convinced that there is a real scientific debate about the question.
We could have expected it, couldn’t we? With so much homeopathy in the press lately, Dr Dixon (we have seen him on this blog before, for instance here, here and here) had to comment. His article in yesterday’s NURSING IN PRACTICE is far too perfect to abbreviate it; I just have to cite it in full (only the reference numbers are mine and refer to my comments below).
HERE WE GO
Should homeopathy be blacklisted in general practice?
I have not prescribed them myself but I know of many GPs and patients who find homeopathic preparations helpful, especially in clinical areas where there is no satisfactory conventional treatment . They are cheap and entirely safe , which cannot always be said of conventional treatment . Is the concern about cost? That is implausible as GP prescriptions cost a mere £100,000 per annum, approximately £10 per UK General Practice but effectively less as some patients will be paying for them and they may reduce other prescriptions or medical costs . Is it about evidence?  Possibly, and that is because the necessary pragmatic trials on comparative cost effectiveness have never been done . Homeopathy thus joins the frequently quoted 25% of general practice activity that has an insufficient evidence base… So, why not do the research rather than single out homeopathy for blacklisting ? Apparently, because it irritates a powerful fraternity of “scientists”  with a narrow biomedical perspective on health and healing, who feel the need to impose their atheism  on others. They seem opposed to “patient-centred medicine” which factors in the mindset, culture, history, wishes and hopes of each patient, and a wider concept of science that might take account of them . Led by the World Health Organization, many countries are examining the appropriate role of complementary and traditional medicine (CAM). Indian Prime Minister Modi has created the first minister for medicine in this area (called AYUSH with the “H” standing for homeopathy). Australia, whose government and medical deans (unlike the UK ) are not intimidated by this breed of scientific fundamentalism, has invested money in research, regulated its herbal  practitioners and created important trade links with China in this area . Meanwhile the UK invests 0% of its research budget on CAM and appears to have a closed mind . General practice is at its best a subtle and complex blend of science and art combined in a heady mixture, which recognises personal belief and perspective and respects differences . Blacklisting homeopathy would be the thin edge of the wedge. It would be a mean-minded act of outside interference by many who do not treat patients themselves, denying patient choice and signifying a new age of intolerance and interference . It is a threat to the autonomy of general practice that should concern every GP and patient whatever their views on homeopathy .
About the Author
Chairman of the NHS Alliance and a GP
Mike Dixon, chairman of the NHS Alliance and a GP at College Surgery in Cullompton, Devon and a Royal College of General Practitioners presidential candidate.
END OF QUOTE AND BEGINNING OF MY DELIBERATELY BRIEF COMMENTS
- Whenever this argument comes up, people fail to cite an example. Are they afraid that we would point out what can be done for such a patient other than prescribing placebos?
- Actually, they are extremely expensive considering that they are just lactose or water. And the claim that homeopathy is safe merely displays an embarrassing lack of knowledge; see the many posts on this blog that deal with this issue.
- Classical ‘tu quoque’ fallacy; display of the ignorance of the risk/benefit concept for judging the value of medical interventions.
- Display of ignorance regarding the actual evidence, see here, for instance.
- Yes, it’s the evidence but also it’s the biological implausibility and the fact that disregarding it undermines rationality in general.
- Pure ignorance again, see my point 4.
- Are ~ 300 clinical trials and about 100 systematic reviews not enough? How much more money needs to be wasted?
- It seems that Dixon has a problem with science and those who pursue it to improve future health care for the benefit of patients.
- Does Dixon admit that homeopathy is a religion?
- Patient-centred medicine which factors in the mindset, culture, history, wishes and hopes of each patient, and a wider concept of science that might take account of them – does Dixon not know that all good medicine fits this description, but homeopathy certainly does not?
- Every one with an IQ above 50 knows by now that herbal is not homeopathic; is Dixon the exception?
- What about the Australian report which concluded that “Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner. Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.”
- This is simply not true, and Dixon should know it.
- No reason to include disproven nonsense like homeopathy.
- Intolerance is on Dixon’s side, I think. Improving health care by abandoning disproven therapies in favour of evidence-based treatments is no interference, it’s progress.
- This can only be true, if we misunderstand autonomy as arbitrariness without rules, checks, ethics and controls. Good general practice has, like all medicine, be in the best interest of patients. An obsolete, expensive, unsafe, ineffective and implausible treatment is clearly not.
Members of the Section of Medical Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) voted unanimously on 9 November 2015 for supporting the earlier proposal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Swedish statement requested that the homeopathic remedies should go through the same efficacy trials as normal drugs should.
The Hungarian statement refers to various recent scientific statements for example to the study of the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council that analysed 175 publications and concluded that there was no reasonable scientific proof for the efficacy of homeopathy for any health conditions. The HAS also refers to the European Academies Science Advisory Council that is allegedly considering an investigation among the academies of the UN countries about this topic. The statement points out that another Hungarian scientific body (Health Science Committee – Egészségügyi Tudományos Tanács) had made a similar statement already in 1991 and opposed using and registering those drugs for that efficacy had not been proved and that had not gone through adequate research procedures.
József Mandl – biochemist, member of HAS, president of Health Science Committee said: “The Australian and Swedish statements had raised the interest of the Hungarian scientific community and now members of the Medical Sciences Section of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences voted unanimously to join the Swedish initiation… Science has well defined, rigorous methods and systems. Homeopathy can’t be fitted to these. Homeopathic remedies don’t meet the criteria of evidence based medicine. There might be various hypotheses, theories, but everything should be proved. This is what science means and this is what we would like to highlight now.”
Well said, indeed!
It is high time that the authorities concede that there can be only one standard in medicine regulation. The ‘free ride’ homeopathy has had for 200 years must now come to an end.
This notion also seems to be increasingly supported by the legal profession. An Australian lawyer just published this abstract:
The 2010 report of the United Kingdom Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons and the 2015 report of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council have overtaken in significance the uncritical Swiss report of 2012 and have gone a long way to changing the environment of tolerance toward proselytising claims of efficacy in respect of homeopathy. The inquiry being undertaken in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration during 2015 may accelerate this trend. An outcome of the reports and inquiries has been a series of decisions from advertising regulators and by courts rejecting medically unjustifiable claims in respect of the efficacy of homeopathy. Class actions have also been initiated in North America against manufacturers of homeopathic products. The changing legal and regulatory environment is generating an increasingly scientifically marginalised existence for homeopathy. That new environment is starting to provide effective inhibition of assertions on behalf of homeopathy and other health modalities whose claims to therapeutic efficacy cannot be justified by reference to the principles of evidence-based health care. This has the potential to reduce the financial support that is provided by insurers and governments toward homeopathy and to result in serious liability exposure for practitioners, manufacturers and those who purvey homeopathic products, potentially including pharmacists. In addition, it may give a fillip to a form of regulation of homeopaths if law reform to regulate unregistered health practitioners gathers momentum, as is taking place in Australia.
As though this is not enough, today it was reported that the UK NHS is considering to blacklist homeopathic remedies:
The Good Thinking Society has been campaigning for homeopathy to be added to the NHS blacklist – known formally as Schedule 1 – of drugs that cannot be prescribed by GPs. Drugs can be blacklisted if there are cheaper alternatives or if the medicine is not effective. After the Good Thinking Society threatened to take their case to the courts, Department of Health legal advisers replied in emails that ministers had “decided to conduct a consultation”. Officials have now confirmed this will take place in 2016.
It seems to me that the position of homeopathy as a form of health care is less and less tenable. Its place is in the history books. To satisfy the need for consumer/patient choice, the remedies should be moved to the confectionary shelves of the supermarkets.
Anyone who has read ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND’ will know that I stood up for science more than once in my life. In fact, I strongly believe that this is what scientists ought to do, and I frequently get irritated to see that some of my colleagues seem to disagree [if not even we scientists can stick our necks out for science, how can we expect others to do it?]. Being thus convinced, I surprised myself recently when I was invited to do my bid for science – and declined to comply. Here is the story:
On 16 October, I received the following invitation by email out of the blue:
Hi Dr. Ernst,
My name is John Jackson. I am Executive Director of the Adolph Coors Foundation in Denver, the charitable arm of the Coors family (not the brewery).
I would like to invite your participation in a debate on integrative medicine which will be held Sunday evening, March 20, 2016, at the Hyatt Regency in Denver. The debate will be the keynote event of our Pioneers in Health conference. Your debate partner will be Dr. Andrew Weil. As our conference precedes Dr. Weil’s annual Nutrition and Health Conference, we expect excellent attendance of 700-800, possibly more.
The debate topic: “Fad or the Future: Will Integrative Medicine Play a Growing Role in the Future of Health Care?”
If you are willing to join us, we plan the following debate format: Opening statements with responses by each of you, questions put to each other, and responses by each of you to pre-submitted questions from the audience and, finally, closing statements. (Audience participation will be limited to questions submitted via an app, not by microphone.) We intend to invite a prominent journalist/business leader to moderate. Dr. Weil has recommended CNN’s health reporter but this has not been confirmed.
I have read numerous articles you have authored on this website and feel you would offer an excellent counterpoint to Dr. Weil. Indeed, Dr. Weil also feels you would be an ideal debate partner. I have also read your ground rules for debate (on this website). Dr. Weil and our foundation share your insistence on respect and politeness, whether it’s a blog post or a public debate.
In the interest of full disclosure, our foundation funds several institutions which are studying various “alternative” practices, including the recent study of the use of electro-acupuncture for hypertension on which you and others have commented. We have also funded a project involving Dr. Weil and the University of Arizona. You can read more about our interest in integrative medicine and who we fund at www.coorsfoundation.org.
Of course, if you agree to participate, we would cover your travel, meals and lodging expenses and are willing to negotiate a reasonable honoraria.
If you would like to discuss this further by phone, please feel free to give me a call. I can be reached in Denver at 303-388-1636.
Thank you, Dr. Ernst. I look forward to your response.
Adolph Coors Foundation
I have to admit, I was flattered and tempted in equal measure. This could be a great occasion to reach a large US audience and get a few important points across. But, at the same time, I had my doubts, and these doubts grew faster by the minute. There were several hints in this seemingly innocent email to suggest that there was more to this story than a straight forward invitation. Was this a set-up to give integrative medicine more credibility than it deserves?
Being uncertain, I asked several American friends for advice. They all seemed horrified and very strongly advised me not to accept the invitation. But I was still not entirely convinced – even if these people are a bit strange, even if it is a set-up, even if I do not ‘win’ the debate, it might be an interesting experience and I might learn (and earn!) something.
I clearly needed to find out more. I know Andrew Weil, of course, and I had seen him twice before in similar public debates. So I had no illusions that his charisma and slick rhetoric, combined with an audience full of admirers, would win the day. But I did not necessarily mind all that much; it could still be an occasion to make my arguments known and it might turn out to be a fascinating experience.
However, I certainly did not want to lend, through my presence, undue credibility to people or organisations who don’t deserve it. So, what about the organisers? What do the Adolph Coors Foundation stand for, and who are they?
One of my US friends alerted me to an eye-opening website. Other websites were even less complimentary and mentioned homophobic, racist, and anti-labor practices in relation to the funders. This made up my mind, and I wrote the following response to Jackson’s invitation:
Dear Mr Jackson,
as you may know, I do like a challenge. Therefore I was very tempted to accept your offer to debate with Andrew.
On second thought, however, I developed doubts that the event outlined in your email can be a fair debate of the issues around integrative medicine. The audience gathered for Andrew’s conference would be entirely on the side of their ‘guru’, and even the moderator would be Andrew’s choice. It is notoriously problematic to discuss scientific evidence with quasi-religious believers pretending facts were a matter of opinion.
I fear that a life debate in Denver would be akin to a discussion between an evolutionary scientist and a crowd of rampant creationists.
Since you know my blog, I suggest we conduct such a debate in writing there. This would have the advantage of a much wider, more diverse audience and provide the opportunity to check the evidence for any claims made by the discussants.
Meanwhile, I thank you for this invitation but, unless you can convince me that my fears are unfounded, I have to decline.
I was not at all sure whether to expect a response. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised that, on 25 October, the following email reached me:
Thank you for your response to our invitation. I apologize for the tardy reply. I have been travelling and generally avoid using my iPhone to respond to important emails. I have been burned once-too-often by the iPhone’s embarrassing auto-INcorrections.
Your hesitation about participating in the debate is totally understandable and, frankly, I would have been surprised if you had NOT asked for more detail.
Dr. Weil certainly does have a substantial following of loyal and passionate followers. And there will be a healthy contingent of them in the audience. Dr. Weil’s team estimates that 200-300 of those attending his Nutrition and Health Conference will also attend our conference, including the debate. That means the remaining attendees (400-500) will be those who sign up through our public portal which will be launched in a few weeks. Our marketing is targeting Colorado’s health community, including medical providers. We also expect our conference cosponsor, Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF), to attract attendees through their outreach efforts. AFPF is a grassroots organization that has virtually nothing to do with any kind of medicine, conventional or integrative. AFPF’s interest is promoting innovations in the delivery of health care (more health care choice) which will be the focus of a panel earlier in the day. For what it is worth, you are more than welcome to encourage your readers to attend. We plan to keep the conference fee very low (somewhere between $25 and $50), a figure that does not even cover the food and beverage costs. So, while I cannot guarantee applause for your debate points, I believe you will find our audience open to a wide range of perspectives on the future of integrative medicine.
With regard to the debate format and moderator, we believe the format is conducive to a healthy exchange of ideas. You both make opening statements, you both respond to each other’s opening statements, you ask each other questions, you both answer questions from the moderator and the audience and you both will be given equal time to offer closing statements. Our foundation — not Dr. Weil — will select the moderator. He recommended a health writer at CNN although he has not provided a specific name. If you want to suggest a name, please feel free. We may or may not choose a moderator that either of you recommend.
Long story short, the Coors Foundation shares your interest in having a robust debate on this topic. That is exactly why we tendered the invitation to you. We hope that you will reconsider your initial declination. Since we are nearing the date at which we will launch our registration portal and agenda, we respectfully request a response at your earliest possible convenience. If we have not heard from you by Wednesday, October 28, we will assume your initial decision stands and will extend the invitation to our second choice.
Thank you Dr. Ernst. We look forward to your reply.
Adolph Coors Foundation
I found it impossible to be convinced by Jackson’s arguments; on the contrary, some of my suspicions were confirmed, and I did a little further research – this time on the ‘Americans for Prosperity Foundation’. I found numerous websites about them and even a Wikipedia page. What I learnt in the course of my inquiries made my alarm bells ring loud and clear. I decided to sleep over it and then sent this email as my final response:
Dear Mr Jackson,
I am afraid your second email did not manage to change my mind.
It was important for me to learn about the co-sponsor of the event. I did some research on both your and the co-sponsoring organisations and found that I share virtually none of their views. I am reluctant to give credibility through my presence in Denver to two prominent right wing lobby groups.
Furthermore I am not at all convinced that the event is designed to generate a balanced debate. On the contrary, by your description of it, I might even fear for my personal safety after presenting facts which contradict or deride the opinions of large parts of the audience, the organisers and Dr Weil.
Lastly I am still convinced that factual issues around integrative medicine cannot be debated fruitfully by pretending they are merely matters of opinion. A debate in writing, where all the arguments can be checked for their evidential basis, would surely be much preferable. I find it regrettable that you do not even comment on my offer to conduct such a debate on my blog. The offer, however, still stands.
I thank you again for inviting me. I do like to stand up for science but, in this particular instance, I fear the costs would be too high.
So far, I have not had a reply, and I do not expect to receive one soon.
The whole affair is little more than a triviality, of course. Yet it raises at least two important questions, I think:
- Should we stand up for science wherever we can, or is the price occasionally simply too high?
- What are these mysterious links between alternative medicine in the US and the far right?
I would be most interested to hear your views.
On the website of the Bristol University Hospital, it was just revealed that UK homeopathy seems to have suffered another blow:
“Homeopathic medicine has been available in Bristol since 1852, when Dr Black first started dispensing from premises in the Triangle. During the next 69 years the service developed and expanded culminating in the commissioning in 1921 of a new hospital in the grounds of Cotham House. The Bristol Homeopathic Hospital continued to provide a full range of services until 1986 when the in-patient facilities were transferred to the Bristol Eye Hospital, where they continue to be provided, and outpatient services were moved to the ground floor of the Cotham Hill site. In 1994, following the sale of the main building to the University by the Bristol and District Health Authority, a new purpose built Department was provided in the Annexe buildings of the main building, adjoining the original Cotham House. The NHS Homeopathic Service is now being delivered on behalf of University Hospital Bristol by the Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine (PCIM), a Community Interest Company.”
The Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine has joined Litfield House offering medical homeopathy with Dr Elizabeth Thompson. And this is how the new service is described [I have added references in the following unabridged quote in bold which refer to my comments below]:
Medical Homeopathy is a holistic  approach delivered by registered health care professionals that uses a low dose of an activated  natural  substance  to stimulate a self-healing response in the body . At the first appointment the doctor will take time to understand problem symptoms that might be physical, emotional or psychological and then a treatment plan will be discussed between the patient and the doctor , with homeopathic medicines chosen for you or your child on an individual basis.
WHAT CONDITIONS ARE SUITABLE FOR MEDICAL HOMEOPATHY?
Homeopathy can be safely  used to improve symptoms and well-being across a wide range of long term conditions: from childhood eczema  and ADHD ; to adults with medically unexplained conditions ; inflammatory bowel disease , cancer  or chronic fatigue syndrome ; and other medical conditions, including obesity  and depression . Some people use homeopathy to stay well  and others use it to help difficult symptoms and/ or the side effects of conventional treatments .
This looks like a fairly bland and innocent little advertisement at first glance. If we analyse it closer, however, we find plenty of misleading claims. Here are the ones that caught my eye:
- Homeopaths claim that their approach is holistic and thus aim at differentiating it from conventional health care. This is misleading because ALL good medicine is by definition holistic.
- Nothing is ‘activated’; homeopaths believe that succession releases the ‘vital force’ in a remedy – but this is little more than hocus-pocus from the dark ages of medicine.
- Nothing is natural about endlessly diluting and shaking a medicine, while pretending that this ritual renders it more active and effective. And nothing is natural about remedies such as ‘Berlin Wall’.
- It is misleading to speak about ‘substance’ in relation to homeopathic remedies, because they can be manufactured also from non-material stuff too; examples are remedies such as X-ray, sol [sun light] or lunar [moonlight].
- The claim that homeopathic remedies stimulate the self-healing properties of the body is pure phantasy.
- “The doctor will take time to understand problem symptoms that might be physical, emotional or psychological and then a treatment plan will be discussed between the patient and the doctor” – this also applies to any consultation with any health care practitioner.
- Homeopathy is not as safe as homeopaths try to make us believe; several posts on this blog have dealt with this issue.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- There is no good evidence to support this claim.
- True, some people use anything for anything; but there is no sound evidence to show that homeopathy is an effective prophylactic intervention for any disease.
- Nor is there good evidence that it is effective to “help difficult symptoms and/ or the side effects of conventional treatments”.
So, what we have here is a short paragraph which, on closer inspection, turns out to be full of misleading statements, bogus claims and dangerous lies. Not a good start for a new episode in the life of the now dramatically down-sized homeopathic clinic in Bristol, I’d say. And neither is it a publication of which the Bristol University Hospital can be proud. I suggest they correct it as a matter of urgency; otherwise they risk a barrage of complaints to the appropriate regulators by people who treasure the truth a little more than they seem to do themselves.
Today the GUARDIAN published an article promoting acupuncture on the NHS. The article is offensively misleading, I think, and therefore deserves a comment. I write these comments with a heavy heart, I should add, because the GUARDIAN is by far my favourite UK daily. In the following, I will cite key passages from the article in question and add my comments in bold.
Every woman needing pain relief while giving birth at University College London hospital (UCLH) is offered acupuncture, with around half of the hospital’s midwives specially trained to give the treatment. UCLH is far from typical in this respect, though: acupuncture is not standard throughout the UK and many health practitioners claim patients are often denied access to it through the NHS because of entrenched scepticism from sections of the medical establishment.
Entrenched scepticism? I would say that it could be perhaps be related to the evidence. The conclusions of the current Cochrane review on acupuncture for labour pain are cautious and do not seem strong enough to issue a general recommendation for general use in childbirth: “acupuncture and acupressure may have a role with reducing pain, increasing satisfaction with pain management and reduced use of pharmacological management. However, there is a need for further research.”
“There are conditions for which acupuncture works and others where it doesn’t. It is not a cure-all, and should be open to scrutiny. But the focus of my work is for acupuncture to become a standard part of midwifery training, and at the same time change perceptions among clinicians about its appropriate use for a whole range of other conditions.”
Open to scrutiny indeed! And if we scrutinise the evidence critically – rather than engaging in uncritical and arguably irresponsible promotion – we find that the evidence is not nearly as convincing as acupuncture fans try to make us believe.
The UK lags behind many other European countries in its support for acupuncture. Just 2,500 medical professionals here are qualified to practice it, compared with 45,000 in Germany. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) recommends WMA specifically for the treatment of only two conditions – lower back pain (which costs the NHS £1bn a year) and headaches.
Yes, the UK also lags behind Germany in the use of leeches and other quackery. The ‘ad populum’ fallacy is certainly popular in alternative medicine – but surely, it is still a fallacy!
A growing body of healthcare practitioners believe it should be offered routinely for a variety of conditions, including pain in labour, cancer, musculoskeletal conditions and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Here we go, belief as a substitute for evidence and fallacies as a replacement of logical arguments. I had thought the GUARDIAN was better than this!
At a time of NHS cuts the use of needles at 8p per unit look attractive. In St Albans, where a group of nurse-led clinics have been using acupuncture since 2008 for patients with knee osteoarthritis, economics have been put under scrutiny. WMA was offered to 114 patients rather than a knee replacement costing £5,000, and 79% accepted. Two years later a third of them had not required a knee transplant, representing an annual saving of £100,000, as estimated by researchers to the St Albans local commissioning group.
This looks a bit like a ‘back of an envelope’ analysis. I would like to see this published in a reputable journal and see it scrutinised by a competent health economist.
So why is acupuncture not being used more widely? The difficulty of proving its efficacy is clearly one of the biggest stumbling blocks. An analysis of 29 studies of almost 18,000 patients found acupuncture effective in treating chronic pain compared with sham acupuncture.
This passage refers to an analysis by Vickers et al. It was severely and repeatedly criticised for being too optimistic and, more importantly, it is not nearly as positive as implied here. Its conclusions are in fact quite cautious: “acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option. Significant differences between true and sham acupuncture indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo. However, these differences are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to the therapeutic effects of acupuncture.”
But even treatment proponents question whether a randomised controlled trial – the gold standard of medical research – works, given that faking treatment is nearly impossible.
What do you mean ‘even treatment proponents’? It is only proponents who question these sham needles! The reason: they frequently do not generate the results acupuncture fans had hoped for.
The article is clearly not the GUARDIAN’s finest hour. It lacks even a tinge of critical assessment. This is regrettable, I think, particularly as the truth about acupuncture is not that difficult to transmit to the public:
- Much of the research is of woefully poor quality.
- Its effectiveness is not proven beyond doubt for a single condition.
- Serious adverse effects have been reported.
- Because it requires substantial amounts of therapist time, it also is not cheap.
The question why patients turn to homeopathy – or indeed any other disproven treatment – has puzzled many people. There has been a flurry of research into these issues. Here is the abstract of a paper that I find very remarkable and truly fascinating:
Interviews with 100 homeopathic patients in the San Francisco Bay Area show that for the most part the patients are young, white and well-educated, and have white-collar jobs; most had previously tried mainstream medical care and found it unsatisfactory. Among the reasons for their dissatisfaction were instances of negative side effects from medication, lack of nutritional or preventive medical counseling, and lack of health education. Experiences with conventional physicians were almost evenly divided: nearly half of the subjects reported poor experiences, slightly fewer reported good experiences. Three quarters of the patients suffered from chronic illness and about half considered their progress to be good under homeopathic care. The majority were simultaneously involved in other nontraditional health care activities.
If you read the full article, you will see that the authors make further important points:
- Patients who use alternative treatments are by no means ignorant or unsophisticated.
- Most of these patients use other treatments in parallel – but they seem to attribute any improvements in their condition to homeopathy.
- Dissatisfaction with conventional medicine seems the prime motivation to turn to homeopathy. In particular, patients need more time with their clinician and want to share the responsibility for their own health – and these needs are met by homeopaths better than by conventional doctors.
- Most homeopaths (63%) adhere to Hahnemann’s dictum that homeopathic remedies must never be combined with other treatments. This renders then potentially dangerous in many situations.
At this point you might say BUT WE KNEW ALL THIS BEFORE! True! Why then do I find this paper so remarkable?
It is remarkable mostly because of its publication date: 1978! In fact, it may well be the very first of hundreds of similar surveys that followed in the years since.
The questions I ask myself are these:
- IF WE KNEW ALL THIS SINCE ALMOST 40 YEARS, WHY HAVE WE NOT DONE MORE ABOUT IT?
- WHY ARE WE SO UNSUCCESSFUL IN GETTING THE FACTS THROUGH TO OUR PATIENTS?
- WHY HAVE WE NOT MANAGED TO IMPROVE CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE SUCH THAT PATIENTS STOP CONSULTING QUACKS?
- WHY ARE WE STILL CONDUCTING SURVEY AFTER SURVEY WHEN THE EMBARRASSING FACTS ARE PLAIN TO SEE?
Some people seem to believe that the field of alternative medicine resembles a quaint little cottage industry where money hardly matters. A new analysis shows how far from the truth this impression is.
In the 2007 US National Health Interview Survey, use of complementary health approaches, reasons for this use, and associated out of pocket (OOP) costs were captured in a nationally representative sample of 5,467 US adults. Ordinary least square regression models that controlled for co-morbid conditions were used to estimate aggregate and per person OOP costs associated with 14 painful health conditions.
The analyses suggest that individuals using complementary approaches spent a total of $14.9 billion OOP on these approaches to manage three painful conditions: arthritis, back pain and fibromyalgia. Around 7.5 billion of that total was spent on consulting practitioners such as chiropractors and acupuncturists. Total OOP expenditures seen in those using complementary approaches for their back pain ($8.7 billion) far outstripped that of any other condition, with the majority of these costs ($4.7 billion) resulting from visits to complementary providers. Annual condition-specific per-person OOP costs varied from a low of $568 for regular headaches, to a high of $895 for fibromyalgia. The total expenditure on complementary medicine was comparable to that on conventional care.
The authors concluded that adults in the United States spent $14.9 billion OOP on complementary health approaches (e.g., acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicines) to manage painful conditions including back pain ($8.7 billion). This back pain estimate is almost 1/3rd of total conventional healthcare expenditures for back pain ($30.4 billion) and 2/3rds higher than conventional OOP expenditures ($5.1 billion).
These are truly eye-watering sums. The obvious question is: IS THIS MONEY WELL-SPENT?
The short answer, I fear, is NO!
The alternative therapies in question are not based on compelling evidence in the management of these painful conditions. Some are clearly not better than placebo, and others are apparently supported by some research but its quality is hardly good enough to rely upon.
This level expenditure is both impressive and worrying. It highlights an enormous waste of resources, alerts us to an urgent need for truly rigorous research, and demonstrates how high the stakes really are.
We used to call it ‘alternative medicine’ (on this blog, I still do so, because I believe it is a term as good or bad as any other and it is the one that is easily recognised); later some opted for ‘complementary medicine’; since about 15 years a new term is en vogue: INTEGRATED MEDICINE (IM).
Supporters of IM are adamant that IM is not synonymous with the other terms. But how is IM actually defined?
One of IM’s most prominent defenders is, of course Prince Charles. In his 2006 address to the WHO, he explained: “We need to harness the best of modern science and technology, but not at the expense of losing the best of what complementary approaches have to offer. That is integrated health – it really is that simple.”
Perhaps a bit too simple?
There are several more academic definitions, and it seems that, over the years, IM-fans have been busy moving the goal post quite a bit. The original principle of ‘THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS’ has been modified considerably.
- IM is a “comprehensive, primary care system that emphasizes wellness and healing of the whole person…” [Arch Intern Med. 2002;162:133-140]
- IM “views patients as whole people with minds and spirits as well as bodies and includes these dimensions into diagnosis and treatment.” [BMJ. 2001; 322:119-120]
During my preparations for my lecture at the 16th European Sceptics Congress in London last week (which was on the subject of IM), I came across a brand-new (September 2015) definition. It can be found on the website of the COLLEGE OF MEDICINE This Michael Dixon-led organisation can be seen as the successor of Charles’ ill-fated FOUNDATION FOR INTEGRATED HEALTH; it was originally to be called COLLEGE FOR INTEGRATED MEDICINE. We can therefore assume that they know best what IM truly is or aspires to be. The definition goes as follows:
IM is a holistic, evidence-based approach which makes intelligent use of all available therapeutic choices to achieve optimal health and resilience for our patients.
This may sound good to many who are not bothered or unable to think critically. It oozes political correctness and might therefore even impress some politicians. But, on closer scrutiny, it turns out to be little more than offensive nonsense. I feel compelled to publish a short analysis of it. I will do this by highlighting and criticising the important implications of this definition one by one.
1) IM is holistic
Holism has always been at the core of any type of good health care. To state that IM is holistic misleads people into believing that conventional medicine is not holistic. It also pretends that medicine might become more holistic through the addition of some alternative modalities. Yet I cannot imagine anything less holistic than diagnosing patients by merely looking at their iris (iridology) or assuming all disease stems from subluxations of the spine (chiropractic), for example. This argument is a straw-man, if there ever was one.
2) IM is evidence-based
This assumption is simply not true. If we look what is being used under the banner of IM, we find no end of treatments that are not supported by good evidence, as well as several for which the evidence is squarely negative.
3) IM is intelligent
If it were not such a serious matter, one could laugh out loud about this claim. Is the implication here that conventional medicine is not intelligent?
4) IM uses all available therapeutic choices
This is the crucial element of this definition which allows IM-proponents to employ anything they like. Do they seriously believe that patients should have ALL AVAILABLE treatments? I had thought that responsible health care is about applying the most effective therapies for the condition at hand.
5) IM aims at achieving optimal health
Another straw-man; it implies that conventional health care professionals do not want to restore their patients to optimal health.
In my lecture, which was not about this definition but about IM in general, I drew the following six conclusions:
- Proponents of IM mislead us with their very own, nonsensical terminology and definitions.
- They promote two main principles: use of quackery + holism.
- Holism is at the heart of all good medicine; IM is at best an unnecessary distraction.
- Using holism to promote quackery is dishonest and counter-productive.
- The integration of quackery will render healthcare not better but worse.
- IM flies in the face of common sense and medical ethics; it is a disservice to patients.
On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed the risks of acupuncture. Contrary to what we often hear, there clearly is potential for harm. Acupuncture is, of course most popular in China where it has been used for thousands of years. Therefore the Chinese literature, which is not easy to access for non-Chinese speakers and therefore often disregarded by Western researchers, might hold treasures of valuable information on the subject. It follows that a thorough review of this information might be helpful. A recent paper by Chinese scientists has tackled this issue.
The objective of this review was to determine the frequency and severity of adverse complications and events in acupuncture treatment reported from 1980 to 2013 in China. All first-hand case reports of acupuncture-related complications and adverse events that could be identified in the scientific literature were reviewed and classified according to the type of complication and adverse event, circumstance of the event, and long-term patient outcome. The selected case reports were published between 1980 and 2013 in 3 databases. Relevant papers were collected and analyzed by 2 reviewers.
Over the 33 years, 182 incidents were identified in 133 relevant papers. Internal organ, tissue, or nerve injury is the main complications of acupuncture especially for pneumothorax and central nervous system injury. Adverse effects also included syncope, infections, hemorrhage, allergy, burn, aphonia, hysteria, cough, thirst, fever, somnolence, and broken needles.
The authors of this review concluded that qualifying training of acupuncturists should be systemized and the clinical acupuncture operations should be standardized in order to effectively prevent the occurrence of acupuncture accidents, enhance the influence of acupuncture, and further popularize acupuncture to the rest of the world.
This is a bizarrely disappointing article followed by a most strange conclusion. The authors totally fail to discuss the most important issue and they arrive at conclusions which, I think, make little sense.
The issue to discuss here is, of course, under-reporting. We know that under-reporting in the Western literature is already huge. For every complication reported there could easily be 10 or even 100 that go unreported. There is no monitoring system for adverse effects, and acupuncturists have no incentive to publish their mistakes. Accurate and realistic prevalence data are therefore anybody’s guess.
In China, under-reporting is likely to be one or two orders of magnitude bigger. I say this because close to zero % of all Chinese papers on acupuncture report negative findings. For China, TCM is a huge export business, and the interest in reporting adverse effects is close to zero.
Seen from this perspective, it seems at first glance laudable that the Chinese authors dared to address this thorny issue. In the text of the article, they even mention that the included complications resulted in a total of 25 fatalities! This seems courageous. But one only needs to read the full article to get a strong suspicion that the authors are either in denial about the real figures, or their paper is a deliberate attempt to ‘white-wash’ acupuncture from its potential to do harm.
In 2010, we published a very similar review of the Chinese literature (unsurprisingly, it was not cited by the authors of the new paper). At the time, we found almost 500 published cases of serious adverse events and stated that we suspect that underreporting of such events in the Chinese-language literature is much higher than in the English-language literature.
The truth is that nobody knows how frequent adverse events of acupuncture truly are in China – or most other countries, for that matter. I believe that, before we “further popularize acupuncture to the rest of the world”, it would be ethical and necessary to 1) state this fact openly and 2) do something about it.