MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Prince Charles

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The UK ‘COLLEGE OF MEDICINE’ has recently (and very quietly) renamed itself; it now is THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE AND INTEGRATED HEALTH (COMIH). This takes it closer to its original intentions of being the successor of the PRINCE OF WALES FOUNDATION FOR INTEGRATED MEDICINE (PWFIM), the organisation that had to be shut down amidst charges of fraud and money-laundering. Originally, the name of COMIH was to be COLLEGE OF INTEGRATED HEALTH (as opposed to disintegrated health?, I asked myself at the time).

Under the leadership of Dr Michael Dixon, OBE (who also led the PWFIM into its demise), the COMIH pursues all sots of activities. One of them seems to be publishing ‘cutting-edge’ articles.

A recent and superb example is on the fascinating subject of ‘holistic dentistry‘:

START OF QUOTE

Professor Sonia Williams … explores how integrated oral health needs to consider the whole body, not just the dentition…

Complementary and alternative approaches can also be considered as complementary to ‘mainstream’ care, with varying levels of evidence cited for their benefit.

Dental hypnosis (British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis) can help support patients including those with dental phobia or help to reduce pain experience during treatment.

Acupuncture in dentistry (British Society of Dental Acupuncture) can, for instance, assist with pain relief and allay the tendency to vomit during dental care.  There is also a British Homeopathic Dental Association.

For the UK Faculty of General Dental Practitioners, holistic dentistry refers to strengthening the link between general and oral health.

For some others, the term also represents an ‘alternative’ form of dentistry, which may concern itself with the avoidance and elimination of ‘toxic’ filling materials, perceived potential harm from fluoride and root canal treatments and with treating dental malocclusion to put patients back in ‘balance’.

In the USA, there is a Holistic Dental Association, while in the UK, there is the British Society for Mercury-free Dentistry. Unfortunately the evidence base for many of these procedures is weak.

Nevertheless, pressure to avoid mercury in dental restorative materials is becoming mainstream.

In summary, integrated health and care in dentistry can mean different things to different people. The weight of evidence supports the contention that the mouth is an integral part of the body and that attention to the one without taking account of the other can have adverse consequences.

END OF QUOTE

Do I get this right? ‘Holistic dentistry’ in the UK means the recognition that my mouth belongs to my body, and the adoption of a few dubious treatments with w ‘weak’ evidence base?

Well, isn’t this just great? I had no idea that my mouth belongs to my body. And clearly the non-holistic dentists in the UK are oblivious to this fact as well. I am sooooooo glad we got this cleared up.

Thanks COMIH!!!

And what about the alternative treatments used by holistic dentists?

The British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis (Scotland) inform us on their website that a trained medical and dental hypnotherapists can help you to deal with a large variety of challenges that you face in your everyday life e.g.

Asthma Migraines
Anxiety & Stress Smoking Cessation
Dental Problems Insomnia
Weight Problems Psychosexual Disorders
Depression Pain Management
Irritable Bowel  And many other conditions

I hasten to add that, for most of these conditions, the evidence fails to support the claims.

The British Society of Dental Acupuncture claim on their website that the typical conditions that may be helped by acupuncture are:

  • TMJ (jaw joint) problems
  • Facial pain
  • Muscle spasm in the head and neck
  • Stress headaches & Migraine
  • Rhinitis & sinusitis
  • Gagging
  • Dry mouth problems
  • Post-operative pain
  • Dental anxiety

I hasten to add that, for most of these conditions, the evidence fails to support the claims.

The British Homeopathic Dental Association claim on their website that studies have shown improved bone healing around implants with Symphytum and reduced discomfort and improved healing time with ulcers and beneficial in oral lichen planus.

I hasten to add that none of these claims are not supported by sound evidence.

The COMIH article is entitled “The mouth reflects whole body health – but what does integrated care mean for dentists?’ So, what does it mean? Judging from this article, it means an amalgam (pun intended) of platitudes, bogus claims and outright nonsense.

Pity that they did not change their name to College of Medicine and Integrated Care – I could have abbreviated it as COMIC!

In the current issue of the Faculty of Homeopathy‘s Simile publication, Dr Peter Fisher, the Queen’s homeopath, re-visits the old story of the ‘Smallwood Report’. To my big surprise, I found the following two paragraphs in his editorial:

A prepublication draft [of the Smallwood report] was circulated for comment with prominent warnings that it was confidential and not to be shared more widely (I can personally vouch for this, since I was one of those asked to comment). Regrettably, Prof Ernst did precisely this, leaking it to The Times who used it as the basis of their lead story. The editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton, certainly no friend of homeopathy, promptly denounced Ernst for having “broken every professional code of scientific behaviour”.

Sir Michael Peat, the Prince of Wales’ Principal Private Secretary, wrote to the vice chancellor of Exeter University protesting at the leak, and the university conducted an investigation. Ernst’s position became untenable, funding for his department dried up and he took early retirement. Thirteen years later he remains sore; in his latest book More Harm than Good? he attacks the Prince of Wales as “foolish and immoral”.

END OF QUOTE

Sadly it is true that Horton wrote these defaming words. Subsequently, I asked him to justify them explaining that they were being used by my university against me. He ignored several of my emails, but eventually he sent a reply. In it, he said that, since the university was investigating the issue, the truth would doubtlessly be disclosed. I remember that I was livid at the arrogance and ignorance of this reply. However, being in the middle of my university’s investigation against me, never did anything about it. Looking back at this part of the episode, I feel that Horton behaved abominably.

But back to Dr Fisher.

Why did his defamatory and false accusation in his new editorial come as a ‘big surprise’ to me?

Should I not have gotten used to the often odd way in which some homeopaths handle the truth?

Yes, I did get used to this phenomenon; but I am nevertheless surprised because I have tried to correct Fisher’s ‘error’ before.

This is from a post about Fisher which I published in 2015:

In this article [available here in archive,org – Admin] which he published as Dr. Peter Fisher, Homeopath to Her Majesty, the Queen, he wrote: There is a serious threat to the future of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital (RLHH), and we need your help…Lurking behind all this is an orchestrated campaign, including the ’13 doctors letter’, the front page lead in The Times of 23 May 2006, Ernst’s leak of the Smallwood report (also front page lead in The Times, August 2005), and the deeply flawed, but much publicised Lancet meta-analysis of Shang et al…

If you have read my memoir, you will know that even the hostile 13-months investigation my own university did not find me guilty of the ‘leak’. The Times journalist who interviewed me about the Smallwood report already had the document on his desk when we spoke, and I did not disclose any contents of the report to him…

END OF QUOTE

So, assuming that Dr Peter Fisher has seen my 2015 post, he is knowingly perpetuating a slanderous untruth. However, giving him the benefit of the doubt, he might not have read the post nor my memoir and could be unaware of the truth. Error or lie? I am determined to find out and will send him today’s post with an offer to clarify the situation.

I will keep you posted.

Yesterday, a press-release about our new book has been distributed by our publisher. As I hope than many regular readers of my blog might want to read this book – if you don’t want to buy it, please get it via your library – I decided to re-publish the press-release here:

Governments must legislate to regulate and restrict the sale of complementary and alternative therapies, conclude authors of new book More Harm Than Good.

Heidelberg, 20 February 2018

Commercial organisations selling lethal weapons or addictive substances clearly exploit customers, damage third parties and undermine genuine autonomy. Purveyors of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) do too, argue authors Edzard Ernst and Kevin Smith.

The only downside to regulating such a controversial industry is that regulation could confer upon it an undeserved stamp of respectability and approval. At best, it can ensure the competent delivery of therapies that are inherently incompetent.

This is just one of the ethical dilemmas at the heart of the book. In all areas of healthcare, consumers are entitled to expect essential elements of medical ethics to be upheld. These include access to competent, appropriately-trained practitioners who base treatment decisions on evidence from robust scientific research. Such requirements are frequently neglected, ignored or wilfully violated in CAM.

“We would argue that a competent healthcare professional should be defined as one who practices or recommends plausible therapies that are supported by robust evidence,” says bioethicist Kevin Smith.

“Regrettably, the reality is that many CAM proponents allow themselves to be deluded as to the efficacy or safety of their chosen therapy, thus putting at risk the health of those who heed their advice or receive their treatment,” he says.

Therapies covered include homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, iridology, Reiki, crystal healing, naturopathy, intercessory prayer, wet cupping, Bach flower therapy, Ukrain and craniosacral therapy. Their inappropriate use can not only raises false hope and inflicts financial hardship on consumers, but can also be dangerous; either through direct harm or because patients fail to receive more effective treatment. For example, advice given by homeopaths to diabetic patients has the potential to kill them; and when anthroposophic doctors advise against vaccination, they can be held responsible for measles outbreaks.

There are even ethical concerns to subjecting such therapies to clinical research. In mainstream medical research, a convincing database from pre-clinical research is accumulated before patients are experimented upon. However, this is mostly not possible with CAM. Pre-scientific forms of medicine have been used since time immemorial, but their persistence alone does not make them credible or effective. Some are based on notions so deeply implausible that accepting them is tantamount to believing in magic.

“Dogma and ideology, not rationality and evidence, are the drivers of CAM practice,” says Professor Edzard Ernst.

Edzard Ernst, Kevin Smith
More Harm than Good?
1st ed. 2018, XXV, 223 p.
Softcover $22.99, €19,99, £15.99 ISBN 978-3-319-69940-0
Also available as an eBook ISBN 978-3-319-69941-7

END OF PRESS RELEASE

As I already stated above, I hope you will read our new book. It offers something that has, I think, not been attempted before: it critically evaluates many aspects of alternative medicine by holding them to the ethical standards of medicine. Previously, we have often been asking WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE FOR THIS OR THAT CLAIM? In our book, we ask different questions: IS THIS OR THAT ASPECT OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE ETHICAL? Of course, the evidence question does come into this too, but our approach in this book is much broader.

The conclusions we draw are often surprising, sometimes even provocative.

Well, you will see for yourself (I hope).

UK farmers are being taught how to treat their livestock with homeopathy “by kind permission of His Royal Highness, The Prince Of Wales”. This website explains:

The Homeopathy at Wellie Level (HAWL) Course has been developed specifically for those who tend livestock by the School of Agricultural Homeopathy, and is taught by homeopathic vets and qualified homeopaths – all with farm experience.  This is the ONLY course in the UK to provide qualified teaching aimed at empowering farmers and smallholders to use homeopathy for their animals with both confidence and understanding. We have been operational since 2001 and over the years have gathered literally hundreds of positive feedback comments and course testimonials…

HAWL is funded largely by donations, relies heavily on the generosity of supporters and volunteers, and makes no profit. We subsidise our courses, and our post-course support groups, in order to make them affordable to all; many of our farmers and smallholders run their farms single-handedly or with family members. Our aim is to educate, inform and support those who seek to reduce the burden of antibiotics, chemical wormers, and other drugs in the food chain and on the environment…

END OF QUOTE

Today, Oliver Kamm, a Times business columnist and leader writer, sates in THE TIMES that part of the blame for the persistence of fake medicine lies with, of all people, the heir to the throne. In a new book titled More Harm than Good?, Professor Edzard Ernst says that, as the most prominent advocate of homeopathy, the Prince of Wales is engaged in “foolish and immoral” support for unproven remedies for serious illness. You can say that again.

Yes, let’s say that again: foolish and immoral!

In our book, Kevin Smith and I develop the argument that the practice of and education in alternative medicine systematically violates medical ethics. We are sure that our argument holds water. It is not possible, we think, to practice or teach fake medicine within the rules and standards of medical ethics. This means that most of alternative medicine is unethical.

We have not drawn such conclusions lightly and feel that our ethical perspective on alternative medicine deserves serious consideration. It would be good, if the Prince of Wales gave it some thought.

Our new book entitled MORE HARM THAN GOOD? THE MORAL MAZE OF COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE is out. At the moment merely as an e-book, but in a few days the paperback will be available too. Yesterday, Kevin Smith and I were invited to a press briefing at the London SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE.

On this occasion, Kevin and I explained to the journalists what our book is about. Essentially, it is an analysis of the many ethical issues in alternative medicine. We picked out just a few points which we thought might be of interest. I briefly discussed the fact that much of the research in this area is misleading to the point of being unethical. Kevin explained that this also applies to education and discussed the ethics of commerce.

In the latter context, Kevin briefly mentioned Prince Charles because he had come out with a range of ‘Dutchy Originals Herbal Tinctures’. I never mentioned Charles with a single word, and neither did the subsequent discussion focus on him.

Altogether, we all thought that the press briefing went well. We had good questions, and the journalists showed keen interest in our ethical perspective on alternative medicine.

This morning, I am surprised to see that THE TELEGRAPH, THE DAILY MAIL and apparently also the EXPRESS (I haven’t seen it yet) all carry articles about my alleged war with Prince Charles. The TELEGRAPH’s headline is: Professor reignites war with Prince Charles over homeopathy support. 

While it is, of course, entirely fine that the press reports about this particular aspect, I find it nevertheless disappointing that the essential messages of our book were lost. Nobody can be truly surprised about this, I think.

The real surprise lies elsewhere.

The newspapers cite Clarence House coming to the defence of Prince Charles. A spokesperson is quoted stating “Unfortunately the book misunderstands and misrepresents this position which The Prince has reached after years of talking to experts in many different areas of medicine.”

Yes, that is surprising!

Our book only became available hours before this comment was made. Someone in Clarence House must be a very fast reader.

This announcement caught my eye:

START OF 1st QUOTE

Dr Patrick Vickers of the Northern Baja Gerson Centre, Mexico will deliver a two hour riveting lecture of ‘The American Experience of Dr Max Gerson, M.D.’

The lecture will present the indisputable science supporting the Gerson Therapy and its ability to reverse advanced disease.

Dr Vickers will explain the history and the politics of both medical and governmental authorities and their relentless attempts to surpress this information, keeping it from the world.

‘Dr Max Gerson, Censored for Curing Cancer’

“I see in Dr Max Gerson, one of the most eminent geniuses in medical history” Nobel Prize Laureate, Dr Albert Schweitzer.

END OF 1st QUOTE

Who is this man, Dr Patrik Vickers, I asked myself. And soon I found a CV in his own words:

START OF 2nd QUOTE

Dr. Patrick Vickers is the Director and Founder of the Northern Baja Gerson Clinic. His mission is to provide patients with the highest quality and standard of care available in the world today for the treatment of advanced (and non-advanced) degenerative disease. His dedication and commitment to the development of advanced protocols has led to the realization of exponentially greater results in healing disease. Dr. Vickers, along with his highly trained staff, provides patients with the education, support, and resources to achieve optimal health.

Dr. Patrick was born and raised outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the age of 11 years old, after witnessing a miraculous recovery from a chiropractic adjustment, Dr. Patrick’s passion for natural medicine was born.

Giving up careers in professional golf and entertainment, Dr. Patrick obtained his undergraduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Life University before going on to receive his doctorate in Chiropractic from New York Chiropractic College in 1997.

While a student at New York Chiropractic College(NYCC), Dr. Patrick befriended Charlotte Gerson, the last living daughter of Dr. Max Gerson, M.D. who Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dr. Albert Schweitzer called, ” One of the most eminent geniuses in medical history. “

Dr. Gerson, murdered in 1959, remains the most censured doctor in the history of medicine as he was reversing virtually every degenerative disease known to man, including TERMINAL cancer…

END OF 2nd QUOTE

I have to admit, I find all this quite upsetting!

Not because the ticket for the lecture costs just over £27.

Not because exploitation of vulnerable patients by quacks always annoys me.

Not even because the announcement is probably unlawful, according to the UK ‘cancer act’.

I find it upsetting because there is simply no good evidence that the Gerson therapy does anything to cancer patients other than making them die earlier, poorer and more miserable (the fact that Prince Charles is a fan makes it only worse). And I do not believe that the lecture will present indisputable evidence to the contrary – lectures almost never do. Evidence has to be presented in peer-reviewed publications, independently confirmed and scrutinised. And, as far as I can see, Vickers has not authored a single peer-reviewed article [however, he thrives on anecdotal stories via youtube (worth watching, if you want to hear pure BS)].

But mostly I find it upsetting because it is almost inevitable that some desperate cancer patients will believe ‘Dr’ Vickers. And if they do, they will have to pay a very high price.

What better to give to you for the holidays than your very own CHRISTMAS SURVIVAL KIT? This article by Eileen Scullion, Registered Homeopath LicISH ISHom with the Irish Society of Homeopaths explains. Sadly, its recommendations lack sections detailing the evidence for the claims made. Therefore, I have taken the liberty of adding my short scientific assessments (IN BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS):

START OF QUOTE

1. Over indulgence

Nux Vomica – For symptoms that arise after over indulgence and excess in food, alcohol, tobacco and coffee. The person suffers from headaches, indigestion, nausea and irritability and symptoms are worse in the morning or after eating.

Arsenicum – For symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, cramps where you suspect food poisoning.

ZERO PLAUSIBILITY, NO EVIDENCE FOR EFFECTIVENESS.

2. Stress & Anxiety

Argentum Nitricum – Anxiety from worry that it won’t work out – What if the turkey burns? What if the electric goes out? What if the gifts don’t arrive on time? There is a great sense of urgency, hurriedness and worrying about everything with sleepless nights of tossing and turning.

ZERO PLAUSIBILITY, NO EVIDENCE FOR EFFECTIVENESS.

3. Sleep problems

Coffea – Sleeplessness from excitement. For the kids who just can’t sleep in anticipation of Santa’s arrival.

ZERO PLAUSIBILITY, NO EVIDENCE FOR EFFECTIVENESS.

4. Anger and resentment

Staphysagria – If you are feeling angry and resentful and are suffering in silence, or have difficulty in saying no but feel walked over, then this is an excellent remedy to help verbalise things or process your emotions.   Pent up emotions can also be accompanied with urinary tract infections where this remedy fits the symptoms.

ZERO PLAUSIBILITY, NO EVIDENCE FOR EFFECTIVENESS.

5. Colds

Aconite – If caught at the early stage, nip those colds in the bud that come on suddenly after exposure to cold dry winds or getting chilled.

ZERO PLAUSIBILITY, NO EVIDENCE FOR EFFECTIVENESS.

END OF QUOTE

As the ‘survival kit’ turns out to be pure speculation, fantasy and wishful thinking, let’s join into the seasonal fun and add some equally evidence-based homeopathic treatments of our own.

1. World peace

We all live in dangerous times, but the way to world peace could be guaranteed by this homeopathic remedy: Donald Trump C30. It is manufactured by exposing a glass of distilled water to a picture of the US president for about 30 minutes and then potentising the mother tincture 30 times in the time-tested way of homeopathy.

2. Fuzzy head

After all the booze and laziness over the holidays, one is bound to feel oddly fuzzy, incoherent and unfocussed. My homeopathic remedy for this complaint is HRH C200. You can make it yourself: take a vial of distilled water to a public library, find Prince Charles’ book ‘Harmony‘ (do not buy this book! it is expensive and not worth it), put the vial between its pages and shake vigorously. Subsequently return the book to its shelve and potentise your mother tincture 200 times.

3. Poverty

Yes, Christmas is expensive! If your bank account is now empty, don’t worry: homeopathy can help. Take your last fiver, cut a tiny bit off, grind it down in some sugar, put the mixture in distilled water, and your mother tincture is ready. You can then potentise it in the usual way; if you want to become a millionaire use the £ C30 potency; if you prefer to be a billionaire, I recommend the £ C200 dilution.

I must stop myself here, because I hope you, the reader of this post, will now chip in. If you are suffering from any symptom at all, please use your imagination and, based on the ‘like cures like’ principle, design your very own homeopathic cure.

Yes, that’s my Christmas challenge.

Have fun!

The British press recently reported that a retired bank manager (John Lawler, aged 80) died after visiting a chiropractor in York. This tragic case was published in multiple articles, most recently in THE SUN. Personally, I find this regrettable – not the fact that the press warns consumers of chiropractic, but the tone and content of the articles.

Let me explain this by citing the one in THE SUN of today. Here is the critical bit that concerns me:

Ezvard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, published a study showing at least 26 people had died as a result. He said: “The evidence is not in favour of chiropractic treatments. Nobody knows how many have suffered severe complications or died.” Edvard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, says many have suffered complications or died from chiropractors treatments… A study from Exeter University shows at least 26 people have died as a result of treatment.

And what is wrong with this?

The answer is lots:

  • My first name is consistently misspelled (a triviality, I agree).
  • I am once named as Emeritus Professor and once as Professor of Complementary Medicine. The latter is wrong (another triviality, perhaps, but some of my more demented critics have regularly accused me of carrying wrong titles)
  • The mention of 26 deaths after chiropractic treatments is problematic and arguably misleading (see below).
  • Our ‘study’ was not a study but a systematic review (another triviality?).

Now you probably think I am being pedantic, but I feel that the article is regrettable not so much by what it says but by what it fails to say. To understand this better, I will below copy my emails to the journalist who asked for help in researching this article.

  • My email of 17/10 answering all 7 of the journalist’s specific questions:
  • 1. Why are you sceptical of chiropractic?
  • I have researched the subject for more than 2 decades, and I know that the evidence is not in favour of chiropractic
  • 2. How many people do you believe have died in Britain as a result of being treated by a chiropractor? If it’s not possible to say, can you estimate?
  • nobody knows how many patients have suffered severe complications or deaths. there is no system to monitor such events that is comparable to the post-marketing surveillance of conventional medicine. we did some research and found that the under-reporting of cases of severe complications was close to 100% in the UK.
  • 3. What is so dangerous about chiropractic? Is there a particular physical treatment than endangers life?
  • manipulations that involve rotation and over-extension of the upper spine can lead to a vertebral artery breaking up. this causes a stroke which sometimes is fatal.
  • 4. Is the industry well regulated?
  • UK chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council. it is debatable whether they are fit for purpose (see here:http://edzardernst.com/2015/02/the-uk-general-chiropractic-council-fit-for-purpose/)
  • 5. Should we be suspicious of claims that chiropractic can cure things like IBS and autism?
  • such claims are not based on good evidence and therefore misleading and unethical. sadly, however, they are prevalent.
  • 6. Who trains chiropractors?
  • there are numerous colleges that specialise in that activity.
  • 7. Is it true Prince Charles is to blame for the rise in popularity/prominence of chiropractic?
  • I am not sure. certainly he has been promoting all sorts of unproven treatments for decades.
  • My email of 18/10 answering 3 further specific questions
  • 1. Would you actively discourage anyone from being treated by a chiropractor?
    yes, anyone I feel responsible for
    2. Are older people particularly at risk or could one wrong move affect anyone?
    older people are at higher risk of bone fractures and might also have more brittle arteries prone to dissection
    3. If someone has, say, a bad back or stiff neck what treatment would you recommend instead of chiropractic?
    I realise every case is different, but you are sceptical of all complementary treatments (as I understand it) so what would you suggest instead?
    I would normally consider therapeutic exercises and recommend seeing a good physio.
  • 3. My email of 23/10 replying to his request for specific UK cases
  • the only thing I can offer is this 2001 paper
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1297923/
  • where we discovered 35 cases seen by UK neurologists within the preceding year. the truly amazing finding here was that NONE of them had been reported anywhere before. this means under-reporting was exactly 100%.

END OF QUOTES
I think that makes it quite obvious that much relevant information never made it into the final article. I also know that several other experts provided even more information than I did which never appeared.

The most important issues, I think, are firstly the lack of a monitoring system for adverse events, secondly the level of under-reporting and thirdly the 50% rate of mild to moderate adverse-effects. Without making these issues amply clear, lay readers cannot possibly make any sense of the 26 deaths. More importantly, chiropractors will now be able to respond by claiming: 26 deaths compare very favourably with the millions of fatalities caused by conventional medicine. In the end, the message that will remain in the heads of many consumers is this: CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN CHIROPRACTIC!!! (The 1st comment making this erroneous point has already been published: Don’t be stupid Andy. You wanna discuss how many deaths occur due to medication side effects and drug interactions? There is a reason chiros have the lowest malpractice rates.)

Don’t get me wrong, I am not accusing the author of the SUN-article. For all I know, he has filed a very thoughtful and complete piece. It might have been shortened by the editor who may also have been the one adding the picture of the US starlet with her silicone boobs. But I am accusing THE SUN of missing a chance to publish something that might have had the chance of being a meaningful contribution to public health.

Perhaps you still think this is all quite trivial. Yet, after having experienced this sort of thing dozens, if not hundreds of times, I disagree.

In my previous post, I reported that the NHS has included homeopathy and herbal medicine on the list of medications that might no longer get reimbursed. The news was reported by most newspapers in the UK. All of the papers correctly quote NHS England giving their reasons for black-listing homeopathy and herbal remedies. Some papers also quote critics of homeopathy providing short ‘sound bites’ and opinions. None of the articles bother to explain in any detail why homeopathy is so ridiculously implausible or how strong the evidence against it has become. In this post, I intend to analyse some of this press coverage by copying those excerpts from the newspaper articles which I find odd or misleading and by adding short comments by myself.

THE DAILY MAIL claimed that homeopathic remedies are treatments using heavily diluted forms of plants, herbs and minerals. This is factually incorrect; think of remedies like X-ray! The Mail also quoted Don Redding, director of policy at National Voices, stating: ‘Whilst some treatments are available to purchase over the counter, that does not mean that everyone can afford them. There will be distinct categories of people who rely on NHS funding for prescriptions of remedies that are otherwise available over the counter. Stopping such prescriptions would break with the principle of an NHS “free at the point of use” and would create a system where access to treatments is based on a person’s ability to pay.’  This argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.

THE INDEPENDENT cited Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, who said: “If patients are in a position that they can afford to buy over the counter medicines and products, then we would encourage them to do so rather than request a prescription – but imposing blanket policies on GPs, that don’t take into account demographic differences across the country, or that don’t allow for flexibility for a patient’s individual circumstances, risks alienating the most vulnerable in society.” Again, this argument might apply to medicines that are proven to work; it does, however, not apply to homeopathy.

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH also reported the quote from Don Redding, Director of Policy at National Voices which I cited above.

THE DAILY MIRROR quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society claiming that such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. RPS England Board Chair Sandra Gidley said: “A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. “Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected.” THE MIRROR also reported what had to say and added that the NHS constitution states that: “Access to NHS services is based on clinical need, not an individual’s ability to pay; NHS services are free of charge, except in limited circumstances sanctioned by parliament.”

THE NEWS & STAR repeated the above quote from The Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

THE GUERNSEY PRESS repeated what RPS England board chair Sandra Gidley said: “We would encourage people with minor health problems to self-care with the support of a pharmacist and to buy medicines where appropriate and affordable to the individual. However, expecting everyone to pay for medicines for common conditions will further increase health inequalities and worsen the health of patients who cannot afford them. A blanket ban on prescribing of items available to buy will not improve individual quality of life or health outcomes in England. Those on low incomes will be disproportionately affected. They should not be denied treatment because of an inability to pay.”

THE TIMES also quoted the RPS and Don Redding misleadingly (see above and below) and concluded their article by citing Cristal Summer, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association saying: Patients will be prescribed more expensive conventional drugs in place of homeopathy, which defeats the object of the exercise. The NHS also claims it wants to reduce the amount of prescription drugs patients take, then stops offering complementary therapies which can help achieve this. This clearly ignores the fact that ‘the object of the exercise’ for any health service must be to provide effective treatments and avoid placebo therapies like homeopathy. 

THE SUN quoted The Royal Pharmaceutical Society saying such a move raised “serious concerns” for poorer Brits. But it said banning NHS-funded homeopathy was long overdue. THE SUN continued by citing John O’Connell, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance: “The NHS are absolutely right to look at removing homeopathy from their approved prescription list and it’s astonishing that it hasn’t happened sooner.”

METRO pointed out that actress Gwyneth Paltrow, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and world record sprinter Usain Bolt are all known to swear by homeopathic remedies.

Generally speaking, the newspaper coverage was not bad, in my view. The exception evidently is THE TIMES (see above). Several other articles also have a slight whiff of false balance, introducing seemingly rational counter-arguments where none exist. Even though the headlines invariably focus on homeopathy, some of the quotes used by the papers are clearly about other medicines black-listed. This seems particularly obvious with the quotes by the RPS. Many readers might thus be misled into thinking that there is opposition by reputable organisations to the ban on homeopathy. None of the articles that I read quoted a homeopath at the end saying something like  WE KNOW OF MANY PATIENTS WHOSE LIVES WERE SAVED BY HOMEOPATHY. JUST BECAUSE WE DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW IT WORKS DOES NOT MEAN IT DOES NOT WORK. A BAN WOULD PUT PUBLIC HEALTH AT RISK.

Only a few years ago, this type of conclusion to an article on homeopathy would have been inevitable! Could it be that UK journalists (with the exception of those at THE TIMES?) are slowly learning?

 

NHS England have published a list of medicines that they propose to stop funding. Items were considered for inclusion if they were:

  • Items of low clinical effectiveness, where there is a lack of robust evidence of clinical effectiveness or there are significant safety concerns;
  • Items which are clinically effective but where more cost-effective products are available, including products that have been subject to excessive price inflation; or
  • Items which are clinically effective but, due to the nature of the product, are deemed a low priority for NHS funding.

The list includes both herbal and homeopathic remedies!!!

The document states that the annual Spend on homeopathy amounts to £92,412. It refers to the report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee which found that the use of homeopathy was not evidence based and any benefits to patients was down to placebo effect. The group agreed with the findings of the committee for the lack of evidence and considered homeopathy suitable for inclusion in the proposed list.  They advise CCGs that prescribers in primary care should not initiate homeopathic items for any new patient. They also advise CCGs to support prescribers in deprescribing homeopathic items in all patients and, where appropriate, ensure the availability of relevant services to facilitate this change.

A comment published by PULSETODAY stated: NHS England is planning to stop the prescribing of homeopathy as part of new guidance for CCGs on medicines that can be considered to be of low priority for funding. Homeopathy is a new item on the list of possible low-value medicines that GPs will be banned from prescribing. Originally NHS England said that it would review just 10 items, but it has added eight new treatments, including homeopathy and herbal treatments… The original consultation document failed to include homeopathy in its treatments that should be banned. However, following a consultation, a paper presented at today’s NHS England board meeting said: ‘NHS England’s view is that, at best, homeopathy is a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds which could better be devoted to treatments that work. ‘Data on the residual use and cost of homeopathy on the NHS are hard to come by. A recent Freedom of Information request by a third party suggested that at least £578,000 has been spent on prescribed homeopathy over the past five years, with the total cost being higher than that when the cost of consultations was factored in.’ Talking at the NHS England Board meeting today NHS England medical director Sir Bruce Keogh said: ’I think this (homeopathy) has been an issue which has concerned scientific professionals for a long period of time. We can no longer shy away from addressing this particular issue. If we want our NHS to be evidence based and outcomes focused, then we must expect to have difficult conversations over difficult issues.’

This almost sounds as though Sir Bruce has been following the discussions on this blog. I have felt for a long time that the reimbursement of homeopathy by the NHS made a mockery of evidence-based medicine. It is time to end the mockery and use the money for something useful!

But before we start celebrating a victory of rationality, we should consider what happens next. There will be a consultation, and I would not be surprised to hear that the author of multiple ‘spider memos’ is already at it again. So, maybe we should hold our breath and wait.

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