MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

progress

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This overview by researchers from that Arthritis Research UK Primary Care Centre, Research Institute for Primary Care & Health Sciences, Keele University, UK, was aimed at summarising the current best evidence on treatment options for 5 common musculoskeletal pain presentations: back, neck, shoulder, knee and multi-site pain. Reviews and studies of treatments were considered of the following therapeutic options: self-management advice and education, exercise therapy, manual therapy, pharmacological interventions (oral and topical analgesics, local injections), aids and devices, other treatments (ultrasound, TENS, laser, acupuncture, ice / hot packs) and psychosocial interventions (such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and pain-coping skills).

Here are the findings for those treatments most relevant in alternative medicine (it is interesting that most alternative medicines were not even considered because of lack of evidence and that the team of researchers can hardly be accused of an anti-alternative medicine bias, since its senior author has a track record of publishing results favourable to alternative medicine):

EXERCISE

Current evidence shows significant positive effects in favour of exercise on pain, function, quality of life and work related outcomes in the short and long-term for all the musculoskeletal pain presentations (compared to no exercise or other control) but the evidence regarding optimal content or delivery of exercise in each case is inconclusive.

ACUPUNCTURE

The evidence from a good quality individual patient data meta-analysis suggests that acupuncture may be effective for short-term relief of back pain and knee pain with medium summary effect sizes respectively compared with usual care or no acupuncture. However, effects on function were reported to be minimal and not maintained at longer-term follow-up. Similarly for neck and shoulder pain, acupuncture was only found to be effective for short-term (immediately post-treatment and at short-term follow-up) symptom relief compared to placebo.

MANUAL THERAPY

Current evidence regarding manual therapy is beset by heterogeneity. Due to paucity of high quality evidence, it is uncertain whether the efficacy of manual therapy might be different for different patient subgroups or influenced by the type and experience of professional delivering the therapy. On the whole, the available evidence suggests that manual therapy may offer some beneficial effects on pain and function, but it may not be superior to other non-pharmacological treatments (e.g. exercise) for patients with acute or chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Overall. the authors concluded that the best available evidence shows that patients with musculoskeletal pain problems in primary care can be managed effectively with non-pharmacological treatments such as self-management advice, exercise therapy, and psychosocial interventions. Pharmacological interventions such as corticosteroid injections (for knee and shoulder pain) were shown to be effective treatment options for the short-term relief of musculoskeletal pain and may be used in addition to non-pharmacological treatments. NSAIDs and opioids also offer short-term benefit for musculoskeletal pain, but the potential for adverse effects must be considered. Furthermore, the optimal treatment intensity, methods of application, amount of clinical contact, and type of provider or setting, are unclear for most treatment options.

These findings confirm what we have pointed out many times before on this blog. There is very little that alternative therapies have to offer for musculoskeletal pain. Whenever it is possible, I would recommend exercise therapy initiated by a physiotherapist; it is inexpensive, safe, and at least as effective as acupuncture or chiropractic or osteopathy.

Practitioners of alternative medicine will, of course, not like this solution.

Acupuncturists may not be that bothered by such evidence: their focus is not necessarily on musculoskeletal but on a range of other conditions (with usually little evidence, I hasten to add).

But for chiropractors and osteopaths, this is much more serious, in my view. Of course, some of them also claim to be able to treat a plethora of non-musculoskeletal conditions (but there the evidence is even worse than for musculoskeletal pain, and therefore this type of practice is clearly unethical). And those who see themselves as musculoskeletal specialists have to either accept the evidence that shows little benefit and considerable risk of spinal manipulation, or go in a state of denial.

In the former case, the logical conclusion is to look for another job.

In the latter case, the only conclusion is that their practice is not ethical.

This is a fascinating new review of upper neck manipulation. It raises many concerns that we, on this blog, have been struggling with for years. I take the liberty of quoting a few passages which I feel are important and encourage everyone to study the report in full:

The Minister of Health, Seniors and Active Living gave direction to the Health Professions Advisory Council (“the Council”) to undertake a review related to high neck manipulation.

Specifically, the Minister directed the Council to undertake:

1) A review of the status of the reserved act in other Canadian jurisdictions,

2) A literature review related to the benefits to patients and risks to patient safety associated with the procedure, and

3) A jurisprudence review or a review into the legal issues that have arisen in Canada with respect to the performance of the procedure that touch upon the risk of harm to a patient.

In addition, the Minister requested the Council to seek written input on the issue from:

  • Manitoba Chiropractic Stroke Survivors
  • Manitoba Chiropractic Association
  • College of Physiotherapists of Manitoba
  • Manitoba Naturopathic Association
  • College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba
  • other relevant interested parties as determined by the Council

… The review indicated that further research is required to:

  • strengthen evidence for the efficacy of cervical spinal manipulations (CSM) as a treatment for neck pain and headache, “as well as for other indications where evidence currently does not exist (i.e., upper back and should/arm pain, high blood pressure, etc.)”
  • establish safety and efficacy of CSM in infants and children
  • assess the risk versus benefit in consideration of using HVLA cervical spine manipulation, which also involve cost-benefit analyses that compare CSM to other standard treatments.

… the performance of “high neck manipulation” or cervical spine manipulation does present a risk of harm to patients. This risk of harm must be understood by both the patient and the practitioner.

Both the jurisprudence review and the research literature review point to the need for the following actions to mitigate the risk of harm associated with the performance of cervical spine manipulation:

  • Action One: Ensure that the patient provides written informed consent prior to initiating treatment which includes a discussion about the risk associated with cervical spine manipulation.
  • Action Two: Provide patients with information to assist in the early recognition of a serious adverse event.

There has been a flurry of legal actions against manufacturers of homeopathic products (mostly) in the US. Many of these cases seem to settle out of court which means that we hardly hear about them. Of those that go to court, most are being won by the plaintiffs, but unfortunately some are also lost.

The recent case of Allen v. Hyland’s, Inc. is such an incidence. The US lawyer Robert G Knaier has analysed this case in detail and recently published a paper about it. The article is fascinating and well worth reading in full.

Here I take the liberty to show you a (shorted) section of Knaier’s paper where he asks what went wrong:

… How did a jury decide that Hyland’s did not misrepresent the efficacy of its products? Surely, the court’s instruction that Hyland’s would be liable only if the plaintiffs proved homeopathy “cannot work” contributed to the result. So long as defense experts were able to propose ways that homeopathy might work, the jury was left with the difficult decision—for laypersons, in any event—of rejecting that testimony.

But should the jury ever have been put in the position of having to make that choice? Should the defense experts ever have been allowed to testify? Had the court in Allen granted the plaintiffs’ motions to exclude those experts, the case likely would have ended with a settlement. Without the ability to put on evidence supporting its products, Hyland’s may very well have recognized that it had no realistic chance of prevailing at trial. But the court denied those motions.

In this respect, the court erred. There can be little doubt that expert testimony in support of the efficacy of homeopathy fails tests of admissibility. Consider the Federal Rules of Evidence and the factors that courts should evaluate under Daubert and its progeny. Is testimony that homeopathy is effective “the product of reliable principles and methods”?

In other words, does it have a “reliable foundation”? Is “the reasoning or methodology underlying [it] . . . scientifically valid”?  As explained above, homeopathy’s core principles—provings, like cures like, and the law of minimum dose—are based on little more than Samuel Hahnemann’s late eighteenth-century speculations. They were not developed through, nor have they been validated by, controlled scientific studies… the principles and efficacy of homeopathy have been “tested” and “subjected to peer review and publication” — but they have consistently failed those tests and the scrutiny of that review process… Indeed, the FDA has stated that it simply is “not aware of scientific evidence to support homeopathy as effective.”

Thus, homeopathy’s “rate of error” is known, and far from gaining “general acceptance” in the scientific and medical community, it has gained near-universal condemnation. The defense of homeopathy, in some respects, presents a classic example of “unjustifiably extrapolat[ing] from an accepted premise to an unfounded conclusion.”  Advocates extrapolate from the efficacy of vaccines that similia similibus currentur has a sound scientific basis, and from the concept of hormesis that providing ultralow doses is well-founded methodology. But as one contemporary skeptic has explained, unlike homeopathic remedies, vaccines actually “contain measurable numbers of antigen molecules,” and “act by well-understood scientific mechanisms”; and hormesis, even in the limited circumstances in which it appears to operate, “describes a response to a low dose, not to no dose.”  As Martin Gardner noted many decades ago, the defense of homeopathy thus begins with plausible-sounding principles, and then “exaggerate[s] them to the point of absurdity.”  In other words, it impermissibly extrapolates to “unfounded conclusion[s].”

Finally, the defense of homeopathy glaringly fails to “account for obvious alternative explanations.” Do people who take homeopathic remedies sometimes feel better? Of course they do. But studies of homeopathy have overwhelmingly concluded that the reason for this is not that homeopathy is actually efficacious, but rather because it is “the ideal placebo.” It is cheap. It has no side effects (unless, as discussed below, it is adulterated). And practitioners spend substantial time with their “patients,” thus encouraging psychosomatic effects.

In the end, advocates of homeopathy may have little to stand on other than that many people—including some “experts” who would gladly be paid to testify—inexplicably seem to believe that it works. But this will not do. That homeopathy has many believers does not validate it as a scientifically sound “field of expertise,” or color it, against nearly 200 years of evidence to the contrary, as one “known to reach reliable results for the type of opinion the expert would give.”  As our Supreme Court perhaps most saliently observed, “general acceptance” of a principle cannot “help show that an expert’s testimony is reliable where the discipline itself lacks reliability.” As the Court explained, general acceptance of “principles of astrology or necromancy,” for example, would not transform those subjects into appropriately reliable subjects of expert testimony.  The Court could easily have added homeopathy to that list.

Thus, in allowing the jury to receive testimony about the principles of homeopathy—not as a matter of historic curiosity, but as a matter of scientific validity—the Allen court arguably abdicated its gatekeeping responsibility to screen out unreliable expert testimony. By permitting “experts” to testify in favor of a field the bases of which defy basic principles of biology, chemistry, and physics — indeed, in some respects “basic logical principles” — the “integrity and fairness of the trial process” was compromised.

END OF QUOTE

I fully agree with Knaier. Allowing the ‘flat earth society’ to present to a court their views about the shape of our planet, while instructing the jury that they must accept them as ‘evidence’ (unless the plaintiff can prove it to be untrue) cannot be the right way forward. In fact, it is a method of preventing progress. Following this logic, I cannot imagine the proponents of any absurdity – however ridiculous – to not be victorious in court.

Knaier’s ultimate conclusion is, I think correct: “Trial courts have robust power and clear responsibility to preclude litigants from introducing irrelevant and unreliable evidence in support of purportedly scientific claims… To the extent that courts continue abdicating their evidentiary gatekeeping role in this way, they may contribute to a waste of time and resources, financial harm to consumers, and risks to public health. But to the extent that litigants and courts strengthen their spines in this regard, take seriously the dangers of unfounded expert testimony, and make genuine efforts to seek and grant its exclusion, they might contribute to the health and well-being of both the courts and those who turn to them for help.”

Several national organisations of sceptics give annual awards to people and institutions who do outstanding work and those who do the opposite. Later this week, I will travel to Vienna, for instance, to give away one of this year’s ‘GOLDENES BRETT’, a negative prize for the most outrageous BS of 2017. Such things are good fun but also important tools in fighting nonsense. I probably will report about it when I am back.

Earlier this year, the UK sceptics awarded Gwyneth Paltrow with the well-earned RUSTY RAZOR. The ‘Bent Spoon’ is a similar type of prize. It has just been awarded by the Australian Skeptics to the proponent of the most preposterous piece of pseudoscientific or paranormal piffle of the year. Past winners have included Pete ’Paleo’ Evans, the CSIRO’s head Larry Marshall, the ABC, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, the University of Wollongong, and a psychic dentist.

This year’s nominations are listed here. The winner of the 2017 Bent Spoon is the National Institute of Complementary Medicine at the University of Western Sydney. “When they were nominated last year they said they’d have a closer look at their site,” said Eran Segev, president of Australian Skeptics Inc. “But they’re still promoting unproven treatments and now also involved in a project to establish a clinic for Traditional Chinese Medicine on the campus of the University of Western Sydney. The 2017 winner’s involvement is described as ‘clinical trials’, but the University acknowledges that the TCM clinic may be opened to the public – a highly dubious pseudomedicine given the imprimatur of university ‘research’. “

On this blog, we have discussed several of the NICM’s papers. An interesting article about the NICM can also be found here. To give you an additional flavour of their research, here are the conclusions of just 5 of their recent articles:

CONCLUSION: In our study of acupuncture for menopausal hot flashes, higher expectancy after the first treatment did not predict better treatment outcomes. Future research may focus on other determinants of outcomes in acupuncture such as therapist attention. The relationship between smoking and hot flashes is poorly understood and needs further exploration.

Conclusion: There is a clear need to understand breast cancer survivors’ needs for physical and psychological support as they aim to regain control over their life through their experience of illness. More studies are needed to measure and evaluate these outcomes and to help identify breast cancer survivors’ healthcare seeking behaviours, during and after the acute treatment stage that addresses their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. These results aim to inform future research design and evaluate and develop support services that are patient-centred and focus on whole health outcomes, shared decision-making, and quality of life.

CONCLUSION: These results are important for healthcare providers as they work with patients to identify life experiences, including ‘loss/potential loss’ and ‘the need for preservation’, that have personal significance. Some patients may realize that ‘enough is enough’; something needs to change. These intrinsic motivating factors may also be the impetus for eventual recovery for some individuals.

CONCLUSIONS: 16 weeks of Bikram yoga significantly improved perceived stress, general self-efficacy and HRQoL in sedentary, stressed adults. Future research should consider ways to optimise adherence, and should investigate effects of Bikram yoga intervention in other populations at risk for stress-related illness.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings suggest that long-term acupuncture treatment has targeted regulatory effects on multiple brain regions in rats with Alzheimer’s disease.

The ‘Bent Spoon’ was awarded mostly, I think, because of the persistently misleading claims made on the websites of the NICM. Go and have a look – I am sure you will agree: they are highly deserving winners.

In my opinion, these awards deserve our support. They are an effective means of fighting charlatans and promoting progress. They should be publicised much more widely.

 

The German Heilpraktiker (a phenomenon vaguely equivalent to the ‘naturopath’ in English speaking countries) has become a fairly regular feature on this blog – see, for instance here, here, and here. The nationally influential German Medical Journal, a weekly publication of the German Medical Association, recently published an article about the education of this profession.

In it, we are told that the German Ministry of Health has drafted a 9-page document to unify the examination of the Heilpraktiker throughout Germany. The German Medical Association, however, are critical about the planned reform. The draft document suggest that, in future, all Heilpraktiker should pass an exam consisting of 60 multiple choice questions, in addition to an oral examination in which 4 candidates are being interviewed simultaneously for one hour. The draft also stipulates that Heilpraktiker may only practice such that they present no danger for public health and only use methods they muster.

The German Medical Association feel that these reforms do not go far enough. They claim that the authors of the draft have ‘totally misunderstood the complexity of the medical context, particularly the amount of necessary knowledge necessary for risk-minimisation in clinical practice’. They furthermore feel that the document is ‘an effort that is in every respect insufficient for protecting the public or individuals from the practice of the Heilpraktiker’. They also state that it is unclear how the document might provide a means to test Heilpraktiker in respect of risk-minimisation. The Medical Association demands that ‘the practice of certain therapies by Heilpraktiker must be forbidden. Finally, they say that ‘the practice of invasive methods and the treatment of caner by Heilpraktiker must be urgently prohibited’.

The German Heilpraktiker has been a subject of much public debate recently, not least after the ‘Muenster Group’ suggested a comprehensive reform. (I reported about this at the time.)

For those who can read German, the original article from the German Medical Journal is copied below:

Das Bundesministerium für Gesundheit (BMG) will gemeinsam mit den Ländern die Heilpraktikerüberprüfung bundesweit vereinheitlichen und Patienten besser schützen. Dafür haben Bund und Länder einen neunseitigen Entwurf erarbeitet. Die Bundes­ärzte­kammer (BÄK) zeigt sich angesichts der Pläne besorgt und übt deutliche Kritik.

Der Entwurf sieht vor, dass zur Überprüfung der Kenntnisse von Heilpraktikern künftig eine Prüfung verpflichtend sein soll. Diese soll aus 60 Multiple-Choice-Fragen bestehen, von denen der Anwärter innerhalb von zwei Stunden 45 korrekt ankreuzen muss. Darüber hinaus ist ein mündlicher Prüfungsteil von einer Stunde vorgesehen – bei vier Prüflingen gleichzeitig.

Zusätzlich stellt der Entwurf klar, dass Heilpraktiker nur in dem Umfang Heilkunde ausüben dürfen, in dem von ihrer Tätigkeit keine Gefahr für die Gesundheit der Bevölkerung oder für Patientinnen und Patienten ausgeht. Sie müssten zudem „eventuelle Arztvorbehalte beachten und sich auf die Tätigkeiten beschränken, die sie sicher beherrschen“, heißt es in der Präambel des Bund-Länder-Entwurfes, der dem Deutschen Ärzteblatt vorliegt.

Der Bundes­ärzte­kammer geht der Text nicht weit genug. Die Autoren der Leitlinie für die Prüfung haben laut BÄK „die Komplexität des medizinischen Kontextes“ völlig verkannt, „insbesondere das Ausmaß des notwendigen medizinischen Wissens, das für eine gefahrenminimierte Ausübung der Heilkunde notwendig ist“, so die Kammer weiter. Die jetzt vorgelegten Leitlinien für die Überprüfung stelle „eine in jeder Hinsicht unzureichende Maßnahme zum Schutz der Bevölkerung oder gar einzelner Patienten vor möglichen Gesundheitsgefahren durch die Tätigkeit von Heilpraktikern dar.

Es sei nicht nachvollziehbar, „wie auf der Grundlage dieser Leitlinien eine Überprüfung von Heilpaktikeranwärtern unter dem Aspekt einer funktionierenden Gefahrenabwehr erfolgen soll“, so die Kammer weiter. Sie fordert, dass Heilpraktikern bestimmte Tätigkeiten verboten werden. „Konkret sieht die Bundes­ärzte­kammer insbesondere den Ausschluss aller invasiven Maßnahmen sowie der Behandlung von Krebserkrankungen als zwingend notwendig an“, heißt es in der Stellungnahme.

Der Bund-Länder-Entwurf ist Ergebnis einer Debatte darüber, was Heilpraktiker dürfen oder künftig nicht (mehr) dürfen sollten und wie die Regeln für den Gesundheitsberuf aussehen. Eine Expertengruppe, der „Münsteraner Kreis“, hatte unlängst Vorschläge für eine umfassende Reform erarbeitet. Das Thema war zuletzt in der Öffentlichkeit und auch der Ärzteschaft heftig diskutiert worden.

END OF QUOTE

So, how well should alt med practitioners be educated and trained?

The answer depends, I think, on what precisely they are allowed to do. Medical responsibility must always be matched to medical competence. If a massage therapist merely acts on the instructions of a doctor, she does not need to know the differential diagnosis of a headache, for instance.

If, however, practitioners independently diagnose diseases (and alt med practitioners often do exactly that!), they must have a knowledge-base similar to that of a GP. If they use potentially harmful treatments (and which therapy does not have the potential to do harm?), they must be aware of the evidence for or against these interventions, as well as the evidence for all other therapeutic options for the conditions in question. Again, this would mean having a knowledge close to GP-level. If there is a mismatch between responsibility and competence (as very often is the case), patients are exposed to avoidable risks.

It is clear from these considerations that an exam with 60 multiple-choice questions followed by an hour-long interview is woefully inadequate for testing whether a practitioner has sufficient medical competence to independently care for patients. It is also clear, I think, that practitioners who regularly diagnose and treat patients – usually without any supervision – ought to have an education that covers much of what doctors learn while in medical school. Finally, it is clear that even after an adequate education, practitioners need to gather experience and work under supervision for some time before they can responsibly practice independently.

In any case, uncritically teaching obsolete notions of vitalism, yin and yang, subluxation, detox, potentisation, millennia of experience etc. is certainly not good enough. Education has to be based on sound evidence; if not, it is not education but brain-washing. And the result would be that students do not become responsible healthcare professionals but irresponsible charlatans.

Of course, alt med practitioners will argue that these arguments are merely the expression of medics defending their lucrative patch. But even if this were true (which, in my view, it is not), it would not absolve them from the moral, ethical and legal duty to demonstrate that their educational standards are sufficiently rigorous to avoid harm to their patients.

In a nutshell: an education in nonsense must result in nonsense.

 

It has been announced that Susan and Henry Samueli have given US$ 200 million to medical research at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Surely this is a generous and most laudable gift! How could anyone doubt it?

As with any gift, one ought to ask what precisely it is for. If someone made a donation to research aimed at showing that climate change is a hoax, that white supremacy is justified, or that Brexit is going to give Brits their country back, I doubt that it would be a commendable thing. My point is that research must always be aimed at finding the truth and discovering facts. Research that is guided by creed, belief or misinformation is bound to be counter-productive, and a donation to such activities is likely to be detrimental.

Back to the Samuelis! The story goes that Susan once had a cold, took a homeopathic remedy, and subsequently the cold went away. Ever since, the two Samuelis have been supporters not just of homeopathy but all sorts of other alternative therapies. I have previously called this strikingly common phenomenon an ‘epiphany‘. And the Samuelis’ latest gift is clearly aimed at promoting alternative medicine in the US. We only need to look at what their other major donation in this area has achieved, and we can guess what is now going to happen at UCI. David Gorski has eloquently written about the UCI donation, and I will therefore not repeat the whole, sad story.

Instead I want to briefly comment on what, in my view, should happen, if a wealthy benefactor donates a large sum of money to medical research. How can one maximise the effects of such a donation? Which areas of research should one consider? I think the concept of prior probability can be put to good use in such a situation. If I were the donor, I would convene a panel of recognised experts and let them advise me where there are the greatest chances of generating important breakthroughs. If one followed this path, alternative medicine would not appear anywhere near the top preferences, I dare to predict.

But often, like in the case of the Samuelis, the donors have concrete ideas about the area of research they want to invest in. So, what could be done with a large sum in the field of alternative medicine? I believe that plenty of good could come it. All one needs to do is to make absolutely sure that a few safeguards are in place:

  • believers in alternative medicine must be kept out of any decisions processes;
  • people with a solid background in science and a track-record in critical thinking must be put in charge;
  • the influence of the donor on the direction of the research must be minimised as much as possible;
  • a research agenda must be defined that is meaningful and productive (this could include research into the risks of alternative therapies, the ethical standards in alternative medicine, the fallacious thinking of promoters of alternative medicine, the educational deficits of alternative practitioners, the wide-spread misinformation of the public about alternative medicine, etc., etc.)

Under all circumstances, one needs to avoid that the many pseudo-scientists who populate the field of alternative or integrative medicine get appointed. This, I fear, will not be an easy task. They will say that one needs experts who know all about the subtleties of acupuncture, homeopathy, energy-healing etc. But such notions are merely smoke-screens aimed at getting the believers into key positions. My advice is to vet all candidates using my concept of the ‘trustworthiness index’.

How can I be so sure? Because I have been there, and I have seen it all. I have researched this area for 25 years and published more about it than any of the untrustworthy believers. During this time I trained about 90 co-workers, and I have witnessed one thing over and over again: someone who starts out as a believer, will hardly ever become a decent scientist and therefore never produce any worthwhile research; but a good scientist will always be able to acquire the necessary knowledge in this or that alternative therapy to conduct rigorous and meaningful research.

So, how should the UCI spend the $ 200 million? Apparently the bulk of the money will be to appoint 15 faculty chairs across medicine, nursing, pharmacy and population health disciplines. They envisage that these posts will go to people with expertise in integrative medicine. This sounds extremely ominous to me. If this project is to be successful, these posts should go to scientists who are sceptical about alternative medicine and their main remit should be to rigorously test hypotheses. Remember: testing a hypothesis means trying everything to show that it is wrong. Only when all attempts to do so have failed can one assume that perhaps the hypothesis was correct.

My experience tells me that experts in integrative medicine are quite simply intellectually and emotionally incapable of making serious attempts showing that their beliefs are wrong. If the UCI does, in fact, appoint people with expertise in integrative medicine, it is, I fear, unavoidable that we will see:

  • research that fails to address relevant questions;
  • research that is of low quality;
  • promotion masquerading as research;
  • more and more misleading findings of the type we regularly discuss on this blog;
  • a further boost of the fallacious concept of integrative medicine;
  • a watering down of evidence-based medicine;
  • irreversible damage to the reputation of the UCI.

In a nutshell, instead of making progress, we will take decisive steps back towards the dark ages.

I have mentioned the German alt med phenomenon of the ‘Heilpraktiker’ before. For instance, a year ago I wrote this:

…The German ‘Heilpraktiker’ (literally translated: healing practitioner) is perhaps best understood by its fascinating history. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, German health care was dominated by lay practitioners who were organised in multiple organisations struggling for recognition. The Nazis felt the need to re-organise this situation to bring it under their control. At the same time, the Nazis promoted their concept of ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ (New German Medicine) which entailed the integration – perhaps more a shot-gun marriage – of conventional and alternative medicine. I have published about the rather bizarre history of the ‘New German Medicine’ in 2001:

The aim of this article is to discuss complementary/alternative medicine (CAM) in the Third Reich. Based on a general movement towards all things natural, a powerful trend towards natural ways of healing had developed in the 19(th)century. By 1930 this had led to a situation where roughly as many lay practitioners of CAM existed in Germany as doctors. To re-unify German medicine under the banner of ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’, the Nazi officials created the ‘Heilpraktiker‘ – a profession which was meant to become extinct within one generation. The ‘flag ship’ of the ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ was the ‘Rudolf Hess Krankenhaus’ in Dresden. It represented a full integration of CAM and orthodox medicine. An example of systematic research into CAM is the Nazi government’s project to validate homoeopathy. Even though the data are now lost, the results of this research seem to have been negative. Even though there are some striking similarities between today’s CAM and yesterday’s ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ there are important differences. Most importantly, perhaps, today’s CAM is concerned with the welfare of the individual, whereas the ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ was aimed at ensuring the dominance of the Aryan race.

The Nazis thus offered to grant all alternative practitioners official recognition by establishing them under the newly created umbrella of ‘Heilpraktiker’. To please the powerful lobby of conventional doctors, they decreed that the ‘Heilpraktiker’ was barred from educating a second generation of this profession. Therefore, the Heilpraktiker was destined to become extinct within decades.

Several of the Nazi rulers were staunch supporters of homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine. They hoped that alternative medicine would soon have become an established part of ‘New German Medicine’. For a range of reasons, this never happened.

After the war, the Heilpraktiker went to court and won the right to educate their own students. Today they are a profession that uses homeopathy extensively. The German Heilpraktiker has no mandatory medical training; a simple test to show that they know the legal limits of their profession suffices for receiving an almost unrestricted licence for practicing medicine as long as they want…

END OF QUOTE

Since about two years, a group of German scientists, clinicians and various other experts (I was a member of the panel), led by a prominent ethicist, worked on a document that was published this week. Here are its conclusions (in German):

Medizinische Parallelwelten mit radikal divergierenden Qualitätsstandards, wie sie aktuell im deutschen Gesundheitswesen in Form von Doppelstandards bei Ergebnisbewertung und Qualitäts kontrolle bestehen, sind für eine aufgeklärte Gesellschaft nicht akzeptabel. Bei Heilpraktikern stehen aufgrund ihrer ungenügenden, kaum regulierten Ausbildung die Qualifikationen und Tätigkeitsbefugnisse in einem eklatanten Missverhältnis. Heilpraktiker bieten schwer punktmäßig alternativ­ oder komplementärmedizinische Verfahren an, die in den meisten Fällen wissenschaftlich unhaltbar sind. Dies führt zu einer Gefährdung von Patienten. Abhilfe verspricht nur ein gleichzeitiges Vorgehen auf mehreren Ebenen:

(1.) eine einheitliche Bewertung der Patientendienlichkeit in allen Bereichen der Medizin;

(2.) ein verstärktes Engagement für die Erfordernisse einer gelingenden Kommunikation mit Patienten;

(3.) eine verstärkte Förderung wissenschaftstheoretischer Kompetenzen in Ausbildung und Studium gesundheitsbezogener Berufe; sowie

(4.) eine Abschaffung des Heilpraktikerwesens oder eine radikale Anhebung und Sicherstellung des Kompetenzniveaus von Heilpraktikern.

Wir haben uns hier auf die Reform des Heilpraktikerwesens konzentriert und dafür zwei Lösungsvorschläge skizziert: Wir empfehlen entweder die gänzliche Abschaffung des Heilpraktikerberufs oder dessen Ablösung durch die Einführung spezialisierter „Fach­Heilpraktiker“ als Zusatzqualifikation für bestehende Gesundheitsfachberufe. Für die Übergangsphase empfehlen wir eine gesetzliche Beschränkung des Heilpraktikerwesens auf weitgehend gefahrlose Tätigkeiten. Auf diese Weise ließen sich die Gefahren für Patienten reduzieren und die Patientenversorgung langfristig wesentlich verbessern.

END OF QUOTE

Essentially, we are saying that, the Heilpraktiker has introduced two hugely different quality standards into the German healthcare system. In the interest of the patient and of good healthcare, this double standard must be addressed. We are demanding the profession of the Heilpraktiker either is completely abolished, or is reformed such that it no longer poses a threat to public health in Germany. Our document makes concrete suggestions for such reforms.

Our suggestions have already received lots of attention in Germany, and we are therefore hopeful that they will be taken seriously, start a much-needed debate and eventually bring about progress.

How often have we heard that chiropractic has moved on and has given up the concept of subluxation/malalignment? For sure there is no evidence for such nonsense, and it would be high time to give it up!  But, as has been argued here and elsewhere, if chiros give it up, what is there left? What then would differentiate them from physios ? The answer is not a lot.

In any case, chiros have by no means given up subluxation. One can argue this point ad nauseam; yet, most chiros remain in denial.

For this post, I have chosen a different approach to make my point. I simply went on twitter and had a look what messages chiros tweet. The impression I got is that the majority of chiros are totally immersed in subluxation. To provide some proof, I have copied a few images – if chiros do not listen to words, perhaps they understand pictures, I thought.

So, here we go – enjoy!

[please click to see them full size]

 

Isn’t it wonderful when your long-held views are confirmed by someone with influence?

This, of course, is a rhetorical question – I can tell you: it is wonderful!

Matthew Stanbrook, MD PhD recently published an editorial in CMAJ which I find delightful; let me present you a few quotes from it:

The multibillion-dollar market for “natural” health products has flourished under lax government regulations. These regulations have enabled manufacturers to exploit the public’s difficulty in distinguishing nonprescription drugs, with scientifically proven therapeutic benefits, from herbal or homeopathic preparations and supplements that often make similar health claims with little or no evidence and are frequently grounded in unscientific belief systems about health and disease…

In pharmacies, supermarkets and convenience stores, natural health products are displayed side by side with nonprescription drugs. Both tout their approval by Health Canada as an implicit endorsement of efficacy and safety on package labels that make similar health claims. However, although nonprescription drugs and their therapeutic claims require scientific evidence that is carefully scrutinized by Health Canada, natural health products have a separate regulatory system that typically imposes such minimal requirements that it is effectively a rubber stamp. Unlike nonprescription drugs, if a problem arises with a natural health product, Health Canada has little or no authority to compel any changes to its manufacture, labelling or sale.

…Risk is often difficult to perceive accurately without direct evidence. For example, under the proposed framework, Health Canada would continue to classify most homeopathic preparations as low-risk products and, thus, exempt from scientific review. Recently, a homeopathic product sold in the United States that claimed to relieve teething pain in infants and supposedly contained a very dilute extract from the belladonna plant was associated with several deaths of infants who manifested classic signs of anticholinergic poisoning…

…If consumers are unable to separate products with no scientific proof behind them from products supported by evidence, then we need to separate them in stores. Natural health products should be pulled from the shelves where they are mixed with nonprescription drug products and confined to their own separate section, away from any signage implying a therapeutic use.

The double standard perpetuated by both regulators and retailers that enables the deception of unsuspecting Canadians must end. Alternative medicines with claims based on alternative facts do not deserve an alternative, easy regulatory road to market — at the very least, they need to be moved to an alternative shelf.

END OF QUOTES

This, of course, is Canada. But elsewhere progress is also being made.The Australian reported about plans in Australia whereby pharmacies would be banned from selling useless and possibly dangerous homoeopathic remedies. The Australian last year ­revealed a review of pharmacy regulation, headed by Stephen King from the Productivity ­Commission, identified a potential conflict of interest in pharmacists selling vitamins, for example, that may not have a significant ­evidence base, alongside more stringently regulated and government-subsidised medicines. In its interim report, the review panel was “concerned that the sale of complementary medicines alongside other medicines may mislead consumers”. It therefore concludes that “complementary medicines should be held in a separate area within community pharmacies, where customers can easily access a pharmacist for appropriate advice.”

“To avoid potential harm, or the confusion between the efficacies of different types of medicines, pharmacists need to be easily ­accessible to give needed advice when consumers choose a complementary or pharmacy-only medicine,” the review panel said. It was scathing of homo­eopathy and the perception of legitimacy given to those so-called remedies sold in pharmacies. “The only defence put to the panel regarding homoeopathy was that it was harmless and able to be used as a placebo in certain circumstances,” the review panel noted. “The panel does not believe that this argument is sufficient to justify the continued sale of these products in pharmacies …”

AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PHARMACY (AJP) noted that the interim report of the Review of Pharmacy Remuneration and Regulation states that “there are unacceptable risks where community pharmacies are allowed to sell homeopathic products”.

In 2015 Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) said it did not support the sale of homeopathy in pharmacy. “Our position is that pharmacists must use their professional judgement to prevent the supply of products with evidence of no effect,” PSA president Joe Demarte said at the time. Ian Carr, of Saxby’s Pharmacy in Taree, NSW, and Friends of Science in Medicine member, told the AJP that “in terms of homeopathic products being recommended not to be sold by PBS-approved pharmacies, I one hundred per cent heartily agree with that finding. “I love saying that I believe homeopathy works. But it has never been shown to work better than placebo. There are many things that will work as well as placebo, but it’s not ethical to be selling them as a cure or treatment for something. I would have a bit more time for it if there was a plausible theory behind it, but its basis is entirely implausible – it pushes all the buttons for being a pseudoscience, so I agree it has no place in Australian pharmacy. However, I am at a bit of a loss to understand why they haven’t carried some of that logic over into the comments on complementary medicines generally.”

Mr Carr also told the AJP that “If one conceives of complementary medicines as being vitamins and minerals, that’s one thing. But the marketing of those items has become so diffuse and so wide that on most of these CM shelves we have traditional medicines, we’ve got herbal medicines, we’ve got items that are basically just marketing formulas for certain conditions. The evidence behind most of these things is very very slim, and we still have the possibility of health fraudsters just marching in and taking advantage of the lack of regulation in the industry.”

So, Canada and Australia are making progress in protecting consumers from bogus healthcare products and from pharmacists selling them.

Hurray!!!

When, I ask myself, are the UK, the US and other countries following suit?

 

Alternative medicine differs from conventional medicine in numerous ways. One important difference is that patients often opt to try this or that product without consulting any healthcare professional at all. In such cases, the pharmacist might be the ONLY professional who can advise the patient who is about to purchase such a product.

This is why the role of the pharmacist in alternative medicine is crucial, arguably more so than in conventional medicine. And this is why I am banging on about pharmacists who far too often behave like shop-keepers and not like ethical healthcare professionals. A new review addresses these issues and provides relevant information.

Pharmacists from the University of Macau in Macau, China conducted a literature review to extract publications from 2000 to 2015 that related pharmacist to alternative medicine products. 41 publications which reported findings from exploratory studies or discussed pharmacists’ responsibilities towards such products were selected for inclusion.

Seven major responsibilities emerged:

  • to acknowledge the use of alternative medicine products;
  • to be knowledgeable about such products;
  • to ensure safe use of such products;
  • to document the use of such products;
  • to report ADRs related to such products;
  • to educate about such products;
  • to collaborate with other health care professionals in respect to such products.

One point that is not directly covered here is the duty of pharmacists to comply with their own ethical codes. As I have pointed out ad nauseam, this would mean in many instances to not sell alternative medicine products at all, because there is no good evidence to show that they are generating more good than harm and thus are potentially harmful as well as wasteful.

Some pharmacists have realised that there is a problem. Some pharmacists are trying to initiate discussions about these issues within their profession. Some pharmacists are urging to change things. Some pharmacists are well-aware that healthcare ethics are being violated on a daily basis.

All this has been going on now for well over a decade.

And has there been any noticeable change?

Not as far as I can see!

Perhaps it is time to realise that not merely the sale of bogus medicines by pharmacists is unethical, but so is dragging one’s feet in initiating improvements.

 

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