MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

progress

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.

 

Quackademia is an apt term for the teaching or promotion of quackery in universities. Sadly, this is a serious problem, and we have therefore discussed it already several times (see here, here and here). If you have read my memoir, you know that I had my fair share of quackademia ‘hands-on’, so to speak. This article from Australia has more on the subject:

START OF QUOTE

Friends of Science in Medicine have complained that alternative practitioners who speak at events were then using the names and logos of universities on their promotional material. Edith Cowan University recently cancelled a workshop promoting pranic crystal healing — which claims to use crystals to energise and heal the body — after complaints from FSM that it had no scientific basis. The university also cancelled Brisbane-based nutrition author Christine Cronau, who was due to promote her low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet on June 25. In response to a website petition calling on the university to cancel Cronau’s seminar, ECU said it rejected the booking because “it does not align with our evidence-based approach to dietetics teaching and research”.

The talk has been moved to Murdoch University, which, despite being lobbied to cancel the booking, said in a statement this week that it would go ahead. Murdoch said it promoted critical thinking and learning through discussion, debate and exposure to alternatives points of view. “One way to achieve this is to welcome other voices on campus in the form of guest speakers or visiting lecturers,” the statement said. “The university takes a common sense approach to the debate of controversial issues and we encourage respectful and insightful debate of thought- provoking topics.”

FSM president John Dwyer said universities should review the content of external health seminars before they hired out their venues. “We don’t have an issue with free speech, but some of the material is just not scientific,” Professor Dwyer said. “Often universities don’t know about the nature of the pseudo-scientific events they are hosting.”

Cronau said she was disappointed ECU had cancelled her talk but her faith in common sense had been restored by Murdoch University. “My approach has actually become a lot less controversial, so I don’t know why it has generated such comments,” she said.

END OF QUOTE

I find this story interesting. It reveals several things:

  • Quacks love to infiltrate universities; this gives them a veneer of respectability, they think.
  • This discloses their schizophrenic attitude to the ‘scientific establishment’ in an exemplary fashion: they often are fiercely against science but, at the same time, they are only too happy to jump at opportunities of decorating themselves with scientific feathers.
  • Universities are run like businesses these days. They tend to take the money where they can get it. Issues like scientific credibility rarely figure high on the agenda.
  • When challenged, universities claim they are favouring free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate.
  • This usually is but a lame excuse.

I remember protesting while at Exeter against a weekend course of pure quackery which the organisers were advertising under the logo of my university. My protest fell on deaf ears, and my peers pretended to favour free speech, open-mindedness and respectful debate. After I had retired, the University of Exeter even allowed quacks to infiltrate and made this surprising announcement: Our complementary therapists will be offering 15-20 minute taster sessions in our complementary therapies yurt. The therapy taster sessions on offer will include: shaitsu bodywork, reflexology, indian head Massage, seated back massage and much more. To take advantage of these free taster sessions just pop along to the yurt on the day of the festival.

But the Australian events also offer a glimmer of hope in this usually bleak situation. Sometimes our protests do have an effect! I therefore urge everyone to not give up. Quackademia is a pest, and for the sake of future generations, we must not allow it to infest our universities.

According to Wikipedia, “the Bundesverband der Pharmazeutischen Industrie (BPI) with headquarters in Berlin is an Eingetragener Verein and the German industry association/trade group for the pharmaceutical industry. It represents 240 German pharmaceutical and Biotech companies in with altogether approximately 70,000 employees. BPI has an office in Brussels. The focus of the BPI is on political consulting and public relations on the EU-level.” 

The BPI has recently published a remarkable press-release about homeopathy. As it is in German, I will translate it for you (and append the original text for those who can read German).

HERE WE GO:

Homeopathy is a recognised and proven therapy for patients in Germany [1]. This is demonstrated by a new, BPI-sponsored survey [2]. About half of all questioned had experience with homeopathic remedies [3]. More than 70% of those people are satisfied or very satisfied with their effectiveness and safety [4].

“Homeopathic remedies are important for many patients in Germany”[3], says Dr. Norbert Gerbsch, deputy chair of the BPI. ” If therapists and patients use them correctly, they can support the therapeutic success [5]. Therefore, they should be recognised by conventional medicine as an integrative medicine [5] – that is what patients in Germany clearly want [6].”

Two thirds of the people surveyed think it is important or very important, that therapies like anthroposophical medicine and homeopathy are supported politically next to conventional medicine [7]. More than 70% find it personally important or very important that health insurances pay for selected anthroposophical and homeopathic services [8]. More than 80% said they would favour this. Thus, the majority is for keeping homeopathy amongst the services that can be chosen by the insurances for reimbursement [8].

Dr. Norbert Gerbsch: “The survey proves that very many individuals integrate, use and treasure homeopathy as an additional and usually safe therapy [3]. Those who aim at curtailing therapeutic freedom patronise numerous patients in Germany who can benefit from it [9]. There are numerous diseases for which homeopathy can be used as an integrative therapeutic option [10]. Thus, many conventional physicians employ homeopathic and anthroposophic remedies in parallel to guideline-orientated medicine [3, 11].”

(Homöopathie ist eine anerkannte und bewährte Therapieform für Patienten in Deutschland. Das belegt eine neue, vom BPI beauftragte Forsa-Umfrage. Rund die Hälfte der Befragten hat demnach bereits Erfahrung mit homöopathischen Arzneimitteln. Über 70 Prozent von ihnen sind zufrieden oder sehr zufrieden mit der Wirksamkeit und Verträglichkeit.

„Homöopathische Arzneimittel haben für viele Patienten in Deutschland einen hohen Stellenwert“, sagt Dr. Norbert Gerbsch, stellvertretender BPI-Hauptgeschäftsführer. „Wenn Behandler und Patienten sie richtig und verantwortungsvoll einsetzen, kann sie den Therapieerfolg unterstützen. Sie sollte insofern als wichtige Ergänzung der Schulmedizin im Sinne einer Integrativen Medizin anerkannt werden – das wünschen sich die Patienten in Deutschland eindeutig.“

Fast zwei Drittel der von Forsa Befragten finden es wichtig bis sehr wichtig, dass sich die Politik neben schulmedizinischen Behandlungsmethoden auch aktiv für Heilmethoden wie etwa Homöopathie oder Anthroposophische Medizin einsetzt. Über 70 Prozent finden es persönlich wichtig bis sehr wichtig, dass Krankenkassen ihren Versicherten auch die Kosten für ausgewählte Leistungen aus dem Bereich der homöopathischen Medizin erstatten. Mit über 80 Prozent überdurchschnittlich häufig plädieren Befragte mit Homöopathie-Erfahrung für die Kostenübernahme ausgewählter Leistungen durch die Krankenkassen. Damit stimmt die Mehrheit für den Erhalt der Homöopathie im Rahmen von sogenannten Satzungsleistungen, die von den Krankenkassen individuell festgelegt werden können.

Dr. Norbert Gerbsch: „Die Umfrage belegt, dass sehr viele Menschen Homöopathie als ergänzende und in der Regel nebenwirkungsarme Therapieoption in die Behandlung integrieren, sie nutzen und achten. Wer die Therapiefreiheit und -vielfalt beschneiden will, bevormundet zahlreiche Patienten in Deutschland, die davon profitieren können. Es gibt eine Vielzahl an Erkrankungen, bei denen homöopathische Arzneimittel als integraler Bestandteil von Therapien einsetzbar sind. So nutzen viele Schulmediziner neben dem gesamten Spektrum der leitlinienorientierten Medizin gleichzeitig die integrativen Angebote der Homöopathie und Anthroposophischen Medizin.“)

I DO APPOLOGISE FOR MY POOR TRANSLATION; I HAVE ALWAYS FOUND THAT IT IS VERY HARD TO TRANSLATE SOMETHING THAT SIMPLY DOES NOT MAKE SENSE!

I have rarely seen such an unscientific, irrational, nonsensical and promotional comment from an organisation and an individual that should know better. Mr. Gerbsch studied biotechnology and graduated in 1997 in bioprocess engineering. He headed a scientific team following his promotion to director of a trans-departmental research topic with 13 professorships at the Technical University of Berlin. He later took on responsibilities as commissioner, officer and director of various companies. Since 2006, Mr. Gerbsch works as department manager of biotechnology / research & development at BPI and is responsible for the biotechnology department and innovation & research committee.

Here are just a few short points of criticism referring to the numbers I have added in my translation:

  1. Homeopathy is recognised and proven to be a pure placebo-therapy.
  2. A survey of this nature can at best gauge the current opinion.
  3. Fallacy: appeal to popularity.
  4. Perceived effectiveness/safety is not the same as true effectiveness/safety.
  5. There is no good evidence for this statement.
  6. What patients want might be interesting, but it cannot determine what they need; medicine is not a supermarket!
  7. I suspect this is the result of a leading question.
  8. This is where the BPI discloses the aim of the survey and their comment about it: they want the German health insurances to continue paying for homeopathic and anthroposophical placebos because some of their member companies earn their money selling them. In other words, the BPI actively hinder progress.
  9. No, those who advocate not paying for placebos want to encourage progress in healthcare for the benefit of patients and society.
  10. “Can be used” is an interesting phraseology! It is true, one can use homeopathy – but one cannot use it effectively because it has no effect beyond placebo.
  11. Yes, many physicians are sadly more focussed on their own cash-flow than on the best interest of their patients. Not all that different from the BPI, it seems.

It is beyond me how an organisation like the BPI can produce such shamefully misleading, dangerous and unethical drivel. Not one word about the fact that all international bodies have condemned homeopathy as being a useless and dangerous placebo-therapy! Who ever thought that the BPI was an independent organisation (homeopathy manufacturers belong to its membership) has been proven wrong by the above press-release.

The BPI clearly needs reminding of their duty to inform the public responsibly. I recommend that the leading heads of this organisation urgently attend one course on critical thinking followed by another on medical ethics.

Currently, over 50 000 000 websites promote alternative medicine, and consumers are bombarded with information not just via the Internet, but also via newspapers, magazines and other sources. This has the potential of needlessly separating them from their cash or even seriously harming their health. As there is little that protects us from greedy entrepreneurs and over-enthusiastic therapists, we should think about protecting ourselves. Here I will provide five simple tips that may fortify you against fake news in the realm of alternative medicine.

Imagine you read somewhere that the condition you are affected by is curable (or at least improvable) by THERAPY XY. It is only natural that you are exited by this news. Before you now rush to the next health shop or alternative medicine centre, it is worth asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is the claim plausible? As a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Not so long ago, UK newspapers reported that a herbal mixture called ‘CARCTOL’ had been discovered to be an efficacious and safe cancer cure (before that, it was Essiac, shark cartilage, Laetrile and many more). I only needed a minimal amount of research to find that the claim had no basis in fact. Come to think of it, it is not plausible that any alternative therapy will ever emerge as a miracle cure for any condition, particularly a serious disease like cancer. It is also not plausible that a herbal mixture would ever prove to be a cure for a wide range of different cancers. The very idea of such ‘cures’ is a contradiction in terms. If an alternative therapy ever did turn out to be efficacious, it would become mainstream even before the clinical tests to prove its efficacy are fully concluded. The notion of an alternative cure presumes that conventional scientists and clinicians reject a treatment simply because it originated from the realm of alternative medicine. There is no precedent that this has ever occurred, and I am sure it will never happen in future.
  • What is the evidence for the claim? In the case of CARCTOL, the claim was based on a UK doctor apparently observing that, in several patients, tumours had been melting like butter in the sun after they took this herbal mixture. One particularly irresponsible headline read: “I’ve seen herbal remedy make tumours disappear, says respected cancer doctor.” This, however, is no evidence but mere anecdotes, and we confuse the two at our peril. Remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence. With anecdotes, we can never be sure about cause and effect. Therapeutic claims must be based on good evidence, e.g. controlled clinical trials.
  • Who is behind the claim? In the UK, the CARCTOL claim emerged around 2004 and originated mainly from Dr Rosy Daniel. In the above newspaper article, she was called ‘a respected cancer doctor’. Personally, I do NOT ‘respect’  someone who makes claims of this nature without having good evidence. And a ‘cancer doctor’ is usually understood to be an oncologist; to the best of my knowledge, Dr Daniel is NOT an oncologist. In fact, she now calls herself a ‘Lifestyle and Integrative Medicine Consultant’. Faced with an important new health claim, one should always check who is behind it. Check out whether this person is reputable and free of conflicts of interest. An affiliation to a reputable university is usually more convincing than being a director of your own private heath centre.
  • Where was the claim published? The CARCTOL story had been published in newspapers – and nowhere else! Even today, there is only one Medline-listed publication on the subject. It is my own review of the evidence which, in 2004, concluded that “The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.”   *** If important new therapeutic claims like ‘therapy xy cures cancer’ are reported in the popular media, you should always check where they were first published (or simply dismiss it without researching it). It is unthinkable that such an important claim is not made first in a proper, peer-reviewed article in a good medical journal. Go on ‘Medline’, conduct a quick search and find out whether the new findings have been published. If the claim does not come from peer-reviewed journals, forget about it. If it has been published in any journal that has alternative, complementary, integrative or similar terms in its name, take it with a good pinch of salt.
  • Is there money involved? In the case of CARCTOL, the costs were high. I was called once by a woman who had read my article telling me that she was pursued by the doctor who had treated her husband. Tragically, the man had nevertheless died of his cancer, and the widow was now pursued for £8 000 which she understandably was reluctant to pay. Many new treatments are expensive. So, high costs are not necessarily suspicious. Still, I advise you to be extra cautious in situations where there is the potential for someone to make a fast buck. Financial exploitation is sadly rife in the realm of alternative medicine.

A similar checklist originates from a team of experts. Researchers from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Norway, and England, worked to identify the most important ideas a person would need to grasp thinking critically about health claims. They came up with excellent points:

  1. Just because a treatment is popular or old does not mean it’s beneficial or safe.
  2. New, brand-name, or more expensive treatments may not be better than older ones.
  3. Treatments usually come with both harms and benefits.
  4. Beware of conflicts of interest — they can lead to misleading claims about treatments.
  5. Personal experiences, expert opinions, and anecdotes aren’t a reliable basis for assessing the effects of most treatments.
  6. Instead, health claims should be based on high-quality, randomized controlled trials.

Alternative medicine can easily turn into a jungle or even a nightmare. Before you fall for any dubious claim that THERAPY XY is good for you, please go through the simple sets of questions above. This might protect you from getting ripped off or – more importantly – from getting harmed.

 

*** After this article had been published, I received letters from layers threatening me with legal action unless I withdrew the paper. I decided to ignore them, and no legal action followed.

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