MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

progress

Over on ‘SPECTATOR HEALTH’, we have an interesting discussion (again) about homeopathy. The comments so far were not short of personal attacks but this one by someone who called himself (courageously) ‘Larry M’ took the biscuit. It is so characteristic of deluded homeopathy apologists that I simply have to share it with you:

Ernst grew up with homeopathy [1], saw how well it worked [2], and chose to become a so-called expert in alternative medicine [3]. To his surprise, he met with professional disapproval [4]. Being the weak ego-driven person that he is [5], he saw an opportunity to still come out on top. He sold his soul in exchange for the notoriety that he now receives for being the crotchety old homeopathy hater that he has become [6]. As with all homeopathy haters, his fundamentalist zeal [7] is evidence of his secret self-loathing [8] and fear that his true beliefs will be found out [9]. It’s no different than the evangelical preacher who rails against gays only to be eventually found out to be a closeted gay [10].

There is not much that makes me speechless these days, but this comment almost did. There is someone who clearly does not even know me and he takes it upon himself to interpret and re-invent my past, my motives and my actions at will. How deluded is that?

After re-reading the comment, I began to see the funny side of it, had a giggle and decided to add a few elements of truth in the form of this blog-post. So I took the liberty to insert some reference numbers into Larry’s text which refer to my brief points below.

  1. This is at least partly true; our family doctor was a prominent homeopath. Whenever one of us was truly ill, he employed conventional treatments.
  2. I was impressed as a young physician working in a homeopathic hospital to see that patients improved on homeopathy – even though, at medical school, I had been told that the remedies were pure placebos. This contradiction fascinated me, and I began to do some own research into the subject.
  3. I did not ‘choose’, I had a genuine interest; and I don’t think that I am a ‘so called’ expert – after 2 decades of research and hundreds of papers, this attribute seems a trifle unfitting.
  4. The disapproval came from the homeopathy fans who were irritated that someone had the audacity to undertake a truly CRITICAL assessment of their treatments and actions.
  5. The amateur psychology here speaks for itself, I think.
  6. Yes, I am no spring chicken! But I am not a ‘hater’ of anything – I try to create progress by convincing people that it is prudent to go for treatments that are evidence-based and avoid those that do not generate more good than harm.
  7. This attitude is not a ‘fundamental zeal’, it is the only responsible way forward.
  8. This made me laugh out loud! Nothing could be further from the truth.
  9. My ‘true belief’ is that patients deserve the best treatments available. I have no fear of being ‘found out’; on the contrary, during my career I stood up to several challenges of influential people who tried to trip me up.
  10. This is hilarious – does Larry not feel how pompously ridiculous and ridiculously pompous he truly is?

This might be all too trivial, if such personal attacks were not an almost daily event. The best I can do with them, I have concluded, is to expose them for what they are and demonstrate how dangerously deluded the advocates of quackery really are. In this way, I can perhaps minimize the harm these people do to public health and medical progress.

This recent report is worth a mention, I think:

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) is aware that some chiropractors are advertising and attempting to turn breech babies in utero using the “Webster Technique”.

On 7 March 2016, the Chiropractic Board of Australia released the following statement in relation to chiropractic care of pregnant women and their unborn child:

“Care of pregnant patients

Chiropractors are not trained to apply any direct treatment to an unborn child and should not deliver any treatment to the unborn child. Chiropractic care must not be represented or provided as treatment to the unborn child as an obstetric breech correction technique.

RANZCOG supports the Chiropractic Board of Australia in its clear position that chiropractic care must not be represented or provided as a treatment to the unborn child as an obstetric breech correction technique. Chiropractors should not be using the “Webster Technique” or any other inappropriate breech correction technique to facilitate breech version as there is insufficient scientific evidence to support this practice.

In addition, RANZCOG does not support chiropractors treating pregnant women to reduce their risk of caesarean delivery. There is insufficient evidence to make any claims to consumers regarding the benefits of chiropractic treatment to reduce the risk of caesarean delivery. We commend the Chiropractic Board on their statement that:

“Advertisers must ensure that any statements and claims made in relation to chiropractic care are not false, misleading or deceptive or create an unreasonable expectation of beneficial treatment.”1

Recommendations for the management of a breech baby at term are outlined in the RANZCOG statement, Management of breech presentation at term

External Cephalic Version (ECV) is a procedure where a care provider puts his or her hands on the outside of the mother’s belly and attempts to turn the baby from breech to cephalic presentation. It is recommended that women with a breech presentation at or near term should be informed about external cephalic version (ECV) and offered it if clinically appropriate. Attempting cephalic version at term reduces the chance of non-cephalic presentation at birth, vaginal cephalic birth not achieved and caesarean section. There is not enough evidence from randomised trials to assess complications of ECV at term. Large observational studies suggest that complications are rare. ECV should only be performed by suitably trained health professionals where there is facility for emergency caesarean section. Each institution should have its own documented protocol for offering and performing ECVs.

This communiqué highlights the need for patients to be adequately informed when making health care choices.

END OF QUOTE

These are clear and badly needed words. As we have discussed often on this blog, chiropractors make all sorts of bogus claims. Those directed at children and unborn babies are perhaps the most nonsensical of them all. I applaud the College for their clear statements and hope that other institutions follow this example.

I have moaned about the JACM several times on this blog (for instance here). It is a very poor journal, in my view, but it nevertheless is important because it is the one with the highest impact factor in this field. Despite all this I missed something important that recently happened to the JACM: a few months ago, it got a new editor in chief: John Weeks.

Had I been more attentive, I would have known this already in May when Weeks wrote in the HuffPo this: “I was asked a month ago, out of the blue, if I would like to become editor-in-chief of the first peer-reviewed, indexed journal in what is now the “integrative health and medicine” field. The journal was born 20 years ago when — as my father would have put it — “integrative medicine” was hardly a gleam in anyone’s eye. The publication is the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.”

I have a vague memory of meeting him once at a conference and sitting next to him during a dinner. For those who haven’t heard of him, here is how he once described himself:

I have been involved as an organizer-writer in the emerging fields of complementary, alternative and integrative medicine since 1983. Happily, I have learned some things. I was once called an “expert in alternative medicine” by Medical Economics and later an “alternative care (integration) expert” by Modern Healthcare. The name-calling was proud-making, even if I was so-dubbed by reporters who were on their first forays into the field.

Both anointed me before I went on sabbatical in Costa Rica and later Nicaragua with my family in 2002. Part of the reason for sabbatical was that whatever expertise I may have developed often ran frustratingly short of being able to offer robust, successful business models with readers and clients. More than once I counseled people against the initiatives they planned. Trends taught me to recognize the invisible handwriting of a sure failure event behind the bubbling enthusiasm of an initiate. I needed a break from the work. My family and I took it!

I was away from the United States for three years. I had my hand back in things for the last 2.5 years. I assisted a philanthropist on her integrative medicine investments in community clinics, CAM schools and academic health centers. From early 2004 forward, and out of home offices in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and then Granada, Nicaragua, I helped organize and direct the National Education Dialogue to Advance Integrated Health Care: Creating Common Ground

END OF QUOTE

Is Weeks going to be a good editor who throws out all the trash that JACM has been publishing on a far too regular basis? Well, the good news, I suppose, is that he cannot possibly be worse than his predecessor. Perhaps we should see for ourselves what the new man thinks and writes. Here is an excerpt from his recent editorial on the question of medical errors in conventional medicine and the role of integrative medicine in this difficult issue:

[A] whole-system solution to medical errors suggests many roles for traditional, alternative, complementary, and integrative approaches and practices. First, better use of these new therapies and provider types expands the tools and strategies for keeping the locus of care out in communities instead of in the problematic hospital environment. One of the commentators at Medscape for instance pointed out that when it comes to “errors” that lead to death, the most significant culprits are the errors individuals make in living the standard U.S. life-style. A starting place in limiting medical deaths is for us to take better care of ourselves. We’ll be less likely to need treatment or to be admitted if we do. The across-the-board engagement by multiple integrative and traditional medicine practitioners with life-style medicine, there are clearly important roles for integrative and traditional practices and practitioners.

More evidence that integrative practice keeps people healthy and out of hospitals would be useful. Our research needs to capture these life-changing outcomes better. The values movement is toward primary care and community medicine. Outpatient care offers a home-field advantage for traditional medical systems and licensed integrative health practitioners, from yoga and massage therapists to acupuncture and Oriental medicine specialists and integrative, chiropractic, and naturopathic doctors. And when people are admitted to hospitals, broader integrative teams need to be available to catch, hold, and treat the whole person and help keep them from being biomedically reduced. Such efforts would be served by research data that measure quadruple-aim outcomes. Think patient experience, enhancing life-style skills, faster healing times, diminished hospital stays, and more pleasure of practitioners in their caregiving. Some have begun gathering these outcomes. We need bushels more. We’ll also have a growing need for reports that delineate processes and obstacles overcome in highly functioning integrative care teams.

The whole-system response to medical deaths is opening minds and doors to integrative practices and to leadership from the integrative community. In one remarkable example, the state of Oregon is seeking to reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with opioids through prioritizing the care of chiropractors, acupuncturists, and massage and yoga therapists. To maximize our effectiveness as agents of change in helping create health in those we serve, more of us need to study up on the emerging language, goals, and methods of the value-based movement, then match up to these aims in our study designs and selections of outcomes. Advancing whole-person care and linking to the emerging values appear to be our best opportunities to help shape the path away from death and toward safety and health.

END OF QUOTE

Impressed? Me neither!

In my view, this reads like an accumulation of platitudes, wishful thinking and uncritical waffling. The passage that I found positively worrying was this one: More evidence that integrative practice keeps people healthy and out of hospitals would be useful. Our research needs to capture these life-changing outcomes better. The editor of a medical journal should, I think, know that research is not for confirming beliefs but for testing hypotheses. In all this verbose rambling, I really cannot find a good reason why integrative medicine might have a role in reducing medical errors. More worrying still, I cannot find a trace of critical thinking.

As I was writing this, I remembered more about the only personal encounter I had with Weeks years ago. For some reason we talked about THE ‘textbook’ of naturopaths, entitled THE TEXTBOOK OF NATURAL MEDICINE. I remember explaining to Weeks that it contained a lot of factual errors and outright nonsense. He very much disputed my view, seemed to take it personally, and even got quite stroppy. In the end, we agreed to disagree.

Neither this episode nor indeed the editorial are all that important – we will simply have to wait and see how the JACM does under its new editor.

For some time now, the research activity in and around alternative medicine has been seemingly buoyant. In each of the last 4 years, Medline listed around 2 000 articles is the category of ‘complementary alternative medicine’. This will surely look impressive to many!

Why then did I write ‘seemingly’? To comprehend this a little better, we should have some comparisons. Here are numbers of Medline-listed articles published in 2015 for a few other areas:

  • Surgery: 176 277
  • Psychology: 65 679
  • Internal medicine: 36 998
  • Obstetrics/gynaecology: 13 818
  • Pharmacology: 194 322
  • Paediatrics: 30 646

Now you see, I hope, why the 2 049 Medline-listed articles in the category of ‘complementary alternative medicine’ are only seemingly impressive. But what about specific alternative therapies? Here are numbers of Medline-listed articles published in 2015 for some major alternative treatments:

  • Homeopathy: 181
  • Herbal medicine: 1 572
  • Chiropractic: 314
  • Acupuncture: 1 784
  • Naturopathy: 45
  • Dietary supplements: 5 199

These figures are perhaps interesting but not easy to interpret. They might indicate that certain sections of alternative medicine are more open to scientific scrutiny than others. Or do they show that for some areas there are more research funds and expertise than others? I am not sure I know the answer.

If we look a little closer at the research activity in defined alternative therapies, we are bound to get disappointed. I have recently done this for homeopathy and for acupuncture and reached rather gloomy conclusions.

In the case of homeopathy the were:

  1. The research activity into homeopathy is currently very subdued.
  2. Arguably the main research question of efficacy does not seem to concern researchers of homeopathy all that much.
  3. There is an almost irritating abundance of papers that are data-free and thrive on opinion (my category of ‘other papers’).
  4. Given all this, I find it hard to imagine that this area of investigation is going to generate much relevant new knowledge or clinical progress.

And in the case of acupuncture, I stated:

  • Too little research is focussed on the two big questions: efficacy and safety.
  • In relation to the meagre output in RCTs, there are too many systematic reviews.
  • As long as we cannot be sure that acupuncture is more than a placebo, all these pre-clinical studies seem a bit out of place.
  • The vast majority of the articles were in low or very low impact journals.
  • There was only one paper that I would consider outstanding.

And what about the quality of the research into alternative medicine?

Well, this is a sad and depressing tale! If you doubt it, read my previous post or indeed any of the other ~500 which I have written on this particular subject in the past.

This is a post that I wanted to write for a while (I had done something similar on acupuncture moths ago); but I had to wait, and wait, and wait…until finally there were the awaited 100 Medline listed articles on homeopathy with a publication date of 2016. It took until the beginning of August to reach the 100 mark. To put this into perspective with other areas of alternative medicine, let me give you the figures for 3 other therapies:

  • there are currently  1 413 articles from 2016 on herbal medicine;
  • 875 on acupuncture;
  • and 256 on chiropractic.

And to give you a flavour of the research activity in some areas of conventional medicine:

  • there are currently almost 100 000 articles from 2016 on surgery;
  • 1 410 on statins;
  • and 33 033 on psychotherapy.

This suggests quite strongly, I think, that the research activity in homeopathy is relatively low (to put it mildly).

So, what do the first 100 Medline articles on homeopathy cover? Here are some of the findings of my mini-survey:

  • there were 4 RCTs;
  • 3 systematic reviews;
  • 8 papers on observational-type data (case series, observational studies etc.);
  • 9 animal studies;
  • 14 other pre-clinical or basic research studies;
  • 1 pilot study;
  • 14 investigations of the quality of homeopathic preparations;
  • 15 surveys;
  • 2 investigations into the adverse effects of homeopathic treatments;
  • 49 other papers (e. g. comments, opinion pieces, letters, perspective articles, editorials).

I should mention that, because I assessed 100 papers, the above numbers can be read both as absolute as well as percentage figures.

How should we interpret my findings?

As with my previous evaluation, I must caution not to draw generalizable conclusions from them. What follows should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt (or two):

  1. The research activity into homeopathy is currently very subdued.
  2. Arguably the main research question of efficacy does not seem to concern researchers of homeopathy all that much.
  3. There is an almost irritating abundance of papers that are data-free and thrive on opinion (my category of ‘other papers’).
  4. Given all this, I find it hard to imagine that this area of investigation is going to generate much relevant new knowledge or clinical progress.

A survey published in 2011 showed that one-third of Danish hospitals offered alternative therapies. In total, 38 hospitals offered acupuncture and one Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Light Therapy. The most commonly reported reason for offering CAM was “scientific evidence”.

Many readers of this blog might be amazed with both the high level of alternative medicine presence in Danish hospitals and the notion that this was due to ‘scientific evidence’. A recent article provides even more surprises about the Danish alternative medicine scene.

It revealed that 8 out of 10 Danes are interested in using some form of alternative medicine…Some 67 percent of Danes say the national healthcare system should be more open to alternative healing practices, such as homeopathy, acupuncture or chiropractic, and 60 percent would like to see these treatments covered by the public health insurance system. More than half of the 6,000 respondents believe alternative therapies can be just as effective as traditional medicine.

Charlotte Yde, the chairwoman at Sundhedsrådet, which is the umbrella organisation for alternative practitioners in Denmark, contends many Danes feel frustrated because they cannot freely discuss alternative treatment with their doctors. Alternative treatment researcher Helle Johannessen agrees that Danish doctors should openly discuss alternative medicine options with patients. “In other European countries doctors use alternative treatment to a much greater extent than doctors in Denmark,” Johannessen told DR. “[International experience] shows that some forms of alternative therapy can improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and nausea in cancer patients.”

This, it seems to me, is little more than a bonanza of fallacious thinking and misleading information.

  • The notion that popularity of a therapy has anything to do with its usefulness is a classical fallacy.
  • The notion that belief determines efficacy (More than half of the 6,000 respondents believe alternative therapies can be just as effective as traditional medicine.) or vice versa is complete nonsense.
  • The notion that many Danes … cannot freely discuss alternative treatment with their doctors is misleading: patients can discuss what they feel like with whom they feel like.
  • The notion that in other European countries doctors use alternative treatment to a much greater extent than doctors in Denmark is also misleading: there are many European countries where LESS alternative therapies are being paid for via the public purse.
  • Finally, the notion that that some forms of alternative therapy can improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and nausea in cancer patients – even if it were correct – does not mean that ALL alternative therapies are efficacious, safe, or cost-effective.

Who cares about Denmark?

Why should this be important?

Well, the Danes might care, and it is important because it provides an excellent example of how promoters of bogus treatments tend to argue – not just in Denmark, but everywhere. Unfortunately, politicians all too often fall for such fallacious notions. For them, a popular issue is a potential vote-winner. Within medical systems that are notoriously strapped for money, the looser will inevitably be optimal healthcare.

On this blog, I have discussed the lamentable quality of TCM products before (e. g. here, here and here). In a nutshell, far too high percentages of them are contaminated with toxic substances or adulterated with prescription drugs. It is no question: these deficits put many consumers at risk. Equally, there is no question that the problem has been known for decades.

For the Chinese exporters, such issues are a great embarrassment, not least because TCM-products are amongst the most profitable of all the Chinese exports. In the past, Chinese officials have tried to ignore or suppress the subject as much as possible. I presume they fear that their profits might be endangered by being open about the dubious quality of their TCM-exports.

Recently, however, I came across a website where unusually frank and honest statements of Chinese officials appeared about TCM-products. Here is the quote:

China is to unroll the fourth national survey of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) resources to ensure a better development of the industry, said a senior health official…

With the public need for TCM therapies growing, the number of medicine resources has decreased and people have turned to the cultivated ones. However, due to a lack of standards, the cultivated TCM resources are sometimes less effective or even unsafe for human use, said Wang Guoqiang, director of the State Administration of TCM, at a TCM seminar held in Kunming, Yunnan Province in southwest China.

There is a pressing need to protect TCM resources, Wang said. “I’ve heard people saying that medicine quality will spell doom for the TCM industry, which I must admit, is no exaggeration,” he said.

The survey has been piloted in 922 counties in 31 provinces in China since 2011. According to its official website, it will draw a clear picture of the variety, distribution, storage and growth trends of TCM resources, including herbs, animals, minerals and synthetic materials.

TCM includes a range of traditional medical practices originating in China. It includes such treatments as herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage (tuina), exercise (qigong) and dietary therapy.

Although well accepted in the mainstream of medical care throughout East Asia, TCM is considered an alternative medical system in much of the western world and has been a source of controversy. A milestone in the recognition of TCM came when Chinese pharmaceutical chemist Tu Youyou won a Nobel Prize in 2015 for her discovery of Artemisinin, a medicinal herb, to help treat malaria.

END OF QUOTE

Surely, these are remarkable, perhaps even unprecedented statements by Chinese officials:

…cultivated TCM resources are sometimes less effective or even unsafe for human use…

…medicine quality will spell doom for the TCM industry…

Let’s hope that, after such words, there will be appropriate actions… finally.

Nobody can doubt that, during the last 200 years, conventional medicine has made monumental progress. Homeopathy, however, has remained more or less like Hahnemann invented it. But now it seems as though homeopathy can celebrate an unprecedented step ahead. As so often in medicine, it originates from a commercial enterprise.

Genexa is a US firm that produces natural health products. On their website, they state that “At Genexa, we believe medicine should be free from unhealthy fillers and toxins”. They recently published a press-release introducing a line of homeopathic medicines certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Non-GMO Project verified. They are keen to point out that these products “do not contain any genetically modified ingredients.” In fact, several of their remedies do not contain any active ingredients to speak of: they are homeopathic!

“We are extremely proud of our organic and non-GMO certifications – the seals are prominently featured on all our products and website for easy label reading and patient education,” stated David Johnson, CEO of Genexa, in their press-release. “Our quality standards are among the highest in the over-the-counter medicine industry.”

Genexa’s 11 homeopathic formulations are being advertised for the treatment of common health issues such as flu, cold, allergies, stress, pain, leg cramps, sleeplessness and jet lag. An entire line of products is, according to the press-release, specially formulated for children and includes treatments for cold, allergy and calming.

Genexa’s CMO proudly announced that “It’s important to us that our retail customers feel confident in the products and know they can trust they are purchasing medicines free from unhealthy fillers and toxins and simply focus on healing.” Presumably that trust must include the trust into the efficacy of the homeopathic remedies! Yes, I am pleased to report that, apparently it does; elsewhere they confirm this by stating that “Genexa holds itself to the highest standards in both quality and ethics.” The highest standards of ethics surely include that the remedies in question are demonstrably efficacious.

But how can we be sure? Are any of these homeopathic remedies supported by reasonably strong evidence? Oddly enough, despite all these affirmations, I did get my doubts when I tried to dig a bit deeper.

Take the homeopathic remedy called SLEEPOLOGY, for instance. The website informs us that “This homeopathic formulation consists of nine leading remedies designed to treat sleeplessness, inability to fall asleep, frequent waking, restless sleep and sleeplessness from stress, exhaustion, nervousness, excitability, restlessness, worries, irritability, and pain.” So, it’s a complex homeopathic remedy with 9 different ingredients. But is there any evidence of efficacy for this mixture? I am not aware of any clinical trials that have tested its efficacy. But I must be wrong, because on the website we are being told that “Clinical trials have demonstrated efficacy for treating sleeplessness for piper methysticum, and valeriana officinalis.” That may be so, but the trials were done with herbal extracts, not with homeopathic potencies! Could the statement therefore be more than a little misleading?

On the internet, I found all sorts of fascinating bits about the new homeopathic lines (my compliments to the PR firm that organised the launch!); for instance the revelation that: “The company’s proprietary medicines were created by and are regularly reviewed and enhanced by its chief medical officer, Dr. Todd Rowe*, a nationally respected physician with an expertise in homeopathic medicine formulation. Working with the Genexa team, Dr. Rowe and his team of chemists and pharmacists spent hundreds of hours meticulously formulating and testing the products. The result is a line of effective, potent medicines that are certified organic by the USDA and non-GMO verified by the Non-GMO Project. “Our formulations are based on tried and true principles for miasmatic and energetic balance, so that the remedies potentiate each other and promote the most positive patient outcomes,” said Dr. Rowe. “These powerful medicines work with your body to help it heal itself.”” However, I was unable to find out which potencies are being used for the Genexa homeopathic products. This information might not be that relevant: according to the homeopathic ‘like cures like’ principle, the effects of a substance are reversed through potentiation. This is why coffee, for instance, is potentised by homeopath to generate a sleeping remedy. Does it not follow then that, potentising two or more herbal ingredients that have hypnotic effects (as in SLEEPOLOGY), must generate a remedy for preventing sleep? A similarly puzzling lack of ‘homeopathic logic’ seems to apply to several other products in Genexa’s line of homeopathic remedies.

I have to admit, I am confused.

Could it be that the ‘breakthrough’ turns out to be a breakdown of ‘homeopathic logic’?

Let’s hope someone from Genexa reads these lines and can enlighten us.

[*he is the President of the American Medical College of Homeopathy]

I am editor in chief of a journal called FACT. It has a large editorial board, and I am always on the look-out for people who might be a good, productive and colourful addition to it. On 3 June, I sent an invitation to Mel Koppelman, who is by now well known to regular readers of this blog. Here is a copy:

Hi Mel,

can I ask you a question?

would you consider joining the ed-board of FACT [as you mentioned it in one of your comments, I assume you know this journal – but you are wrong in implying that it has anything to do with the pharmaceutical or any other industry]? if you agree, we would expect you to write 2-3 ‘summaries/commentaries’ per year. in return you get a free subscription and, of course, can submit other articles.

no, this is not a joke or a set-up. I like to have the full spectrum of opinion/expertise on my ed-board, and I do think you understand science quite well. our opinions differ but that’s what I think is good for the journal.

think about it – please.

cheers

edzard

On 6 June, she replied as follows:

Hi Edzard,

Great to hear from you, I hope you enjoyed your weekend.

Thank you very much for the kind offer, it’s something I would consider. I certainly have no problem with, and in fact embrace, people who have different opinions and views from my own, so long as I feel that they have integrity in their approach.

Just a few questions / comments:

1) Regarding FACT’s affiliations, what I said in my comment was that it was a publication of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. According to Wiley’s website, Focus on Alternative and Complementary Medicine is copyright by Royal Pharmaceutical Society. It’s also listed on the Pharmaceutical Press website.

Are you telling me that’s incorrect? That I’m “wrong” in saying there’s a relationship? I obviously need to understand the nature of the publication whose editorial board I’m considering joining. Very confusing that you as editor say there’s no relationship to the RPS and yet they claim copyright over your publication. Incidentally, is FACT self-sufficient, earning all of its income from subscriptions? Or does any financial support come from the publishers?

2) As enticing as a free subscription to FACT is, I have access to more high quality peer-reviewed reading material than I could enjoy in many lifetimes. Because my skills seem to be in high demand and because I already spend 10-20 hours per week doing unpaid volunteer work, any additional projects that I take on at this time would need to be financially compensated. I understand that this may be a deal-breaker.   

3) While I have no issue with you having different views when it comes to medical research, in order to choose to work with your publication, it’s important to me that it’s run by people with a high level of academic integrity and put patient welfare at the forefront of it’s agenda.

In March, you came out in public support of the NICE draft guidelines. You were quoted in the Guardian as saying: “It is good to see that Nice have now caught up with the evidence. Neither spinal manipulation nor acupuncture are supported by good science when it comes to treating low back pain.”

Following this, it was brought to your attention that the recommendations were contrary to best evidence and that the conclusions were unsupportable. While you have the option of following this up to make sure that the record reflects best evidence, you have indicated that you have no interest in evaluating the situation and possibly admitting an error. This behaviour is concerning from the perspective of academic integrity, particularly when it directly leads to increased human suffering (policy in several countries has already been changed based on the draft), and I would be worried that by joining your board I could be associated with such unethical behaviour. 

Perhaps if I understood better your position, which seems to be to ignore the situation, not follow up on the concerns raised, and leave your comments uncorrected even though they may be inaccurate and backing guidelines that cause harm to patients, that might allay certain reservations.

Anyways, these are my initial thoughts. I hope you have an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful weather, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Mel

At that stage, I began to fear that I had made a mistake. But, giving her the benefit of the doubt, I swallowed my pride and replied as politely as I could to her concerns which, in my view, were odd, to say the least. This is what I wrote on 7 June:

Hi Mel,

Thank you for your reply to my invitation. Let me address your points in turn:

  1. I said that FACT has nothing to do with the pharma industry which is true [when you state that “you as editor say there’s no relationship to the RPS” – it suggests to me that you did not read my email properly]. In their own words, the RPS is the professional membership body for pharmacists and pharmacy in Great Britain and an internationally renowned publisher of medicines information.” [http://www.rpharms.com/home/about-us.asp] They have a similar status as the Royal Colleges. In the 2 decades that I am running the journal, there has been not a single instance of interference of any kind. We use them simply as an excellent publishing house. And yes, FACT is to the best of my knowledge self-sufficient and survives without funds from 3rd parties.
  2. I am delighted to hear that your skills are in demand.
  3. I have stated my position regarding the draft NICE guideline ad nauseam: I prefer to wait until I see their next version of the draft before I make further comments on it. In my view, this is both reasonable and honourable. If you disagree, I can do little about it other than expressing my sincere regrets.

I hope these brief clarifications are helpful for you to arrive at a decision.

Regards

Edzard

On 8 June, I received Mel’s reply:

Hi Edzard,
 
Thanks for your reply.
 
After thinking about it, I’ve decided to pass on your offer for the time being. This is mainly because I’m moving house towards the end of the summer and I’m in the process of simplifying and reducing my responsibilities so I can focus on that and getting settled in. After the move, I plan to reassess what I’d like to be involved with and how I’d like to spend my time.
 
I’d be happy to write the odd article for FACT as and when, if something comes up that you think I can make a helpful contribution to. 
 
Thanks for thinking of me, I appreciate the opportunity.
 
Best wishes,
Mel
I have to admit, I was very relieved, mainly because meanwhile someone had alerted me to the fact that Mel had posted all the correspondence on facebook (I would otherwise not have re-published it here because I usually don’t consider this sort of thing to be very elegant) where her friends were making ample comments. Here are a few (I have omitted the most infantile ones):

How interesting! Is he trying to ‘keep his enemies closer’ or am I being too skeptical? He has recognised your talents and dedication and intellect so he is not altogether stupid after all! I eagerly await his response to your reply.

Those who have studied with Ernst say that he’s a genuine chap and misunderstood – which I know is almost unimaginable given his behaviour – but we always have to allow for the possibility that we have misjudged people however remote! Also, people can turn – especially when they get older and near retirement. Alternatively he may just fancy you!… 

I think it’s an impressive offer. If only we were so lucky to be asked!  
 
“…You understand science quite well”  What a backhanded compliment! Your response is so articulate and balanced. 
 
That’s a compliment. I quite like Edzard. If you go for it hope all goes well. It raises the voice of the profession just in a different way. Best wishes. 
 
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” – Michael Corleone.
 
Terrific response Mel!! We’re all proud of you!! 
 
This does bring a chortle. Well done Mel. He’ll be rolling over for you to tickle his tummy before you know it 
 
Wow, quite surprising! If you can, it might be a good idea? To see how the other half lives…? 
 
Wow, this guy is a piece of work!
 
Excellent response Mel.
 
wow the white flag. Maybe thats his way of trying to save face
 
Excellent reply Mel .. indeed a perfect reply. I’m glad to hear that Charlie things Ernst is a genuine guy but having read his blogs and communicated with him quite a bit I would say he’s on the margins of some kind of personality disorder. I would be very cautious of getting into bed with him (as it were)
 
Go For It. A chance to debate is a chance to influence. If you have this opportunity to engage in an INVITED platform this is goldust. 
 
You very much understand science and of course more than ‘quite well’! I would imagine it is a difficult decision to make: both Peter Jonathan and Jani White have made good comments and as long as you are allowed to maintain your integrity within the position (and you can also get out if you want to), it might be a great opportunity to make real changes from within and open up all sorts of possibilitie and closed minds.
 
Well done. Your mind is as sharp as a needle can be.
 
I’ve come to this saga quite late yet regardless of my lack of knowledge..I LOVE paragraph 2…the first sentence especially. Freakin’ brilliant and hilarious!!! 
 
If you can’t beat them, join them. And then beat them! 
 
Curiouser and curiouser and I’m with Sandro but on the other hand I think you can beat them. 

Mel Koppelman Really enjoying hearing y’all’s thoughts on this. I just want to say that If I had thought that the chances of me being able to create positive change by joining FACT were high, I would have tempered the tone of my reply. But the simple fact that EE can’t even be factual or forthright about whose journal it is suggests an irreparable break with reality. And surely there’s an issue (academic? ethical? legal?) with recruiting someone to your board and denying an industry tie when there is one? Not to mention that if the RSP does fund his journal, he’s been lying about his conflicts of interest. Is that someone I want to spend time adding value to that could be spent with family, patients, time in nature or really making positive change by supporting the ANF? I’ll be interested to read his reply if there is one and especially how he responds regarding the relationship between FACT and RSP. Will keep y’all posted. 

Mel, you are amazing! Can’t wait to read how this plays out. Understand your concerns and think the way you have dealt with him is very professional. Go Mel!!
 
Great reply Mel. I would very much share your concerns about getting into bed with EE, so to speak (sorry for that image!). One day Hollywood will make a movie about this…
END OF FIRST SET OF COMMENTS; THE FOLLOWING COMMENTS WERE POSTED AFTER MEL PUBLISHED MY REPLY

Max Forrester keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer…

Ooh. ..he’s not a happy bunny
Such a soap opera…
 
I’m loving all these updates, who needs a telly lol. Jokes aside, thank you Mel for fighting our battles so eloquently. I would definitely buy the book if you decided to write one
 
OK this is interesting. The two American editors of FACT are William M. London who “currently writes and teaches about scientifically implausible and fraudulent health care practices”, and Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch (see a devastating critique of him here: http://www.quackpotwatch.org/quackpots/quackpots/barrett.htm). 
 
De-licensed MD Stephen Barrett. What kind of man would drop out of the medical profession and dedicate his life to STOPPING advancement in the health sciences?> <title>De</title> <base target=
quackpotwatch.org

John McDonald Healthy skepticism! Healthy journal! And it’s 99% fact-free! 

I think your talents are better used elsewhere than being co-opted to the Ernst prejudice-engine, Mel!
END OF COMMENTS

I hope that you find these exchanges as amusing as I did – but are they important? Perhaps not exactly, but revealing certainly. They shed some light on the mind-set of acupuncturists and perhaps other alternative practitioners as well. Let me try to explain.

What struck me first was the degree of suspicion, even outright hostility from the acupuncturists. I had made it quite clear that I was asking Mel to join my Editorial-Board because of her views which vastly differ from mine. In science, differences of opinions and backgrounds can be stimulating and often generate progress. That is not something that seems to be wanted by alternative practitioners; they do not seem to tolerate criticism, different perspectives or views. One cannot help asking to what degree this attitude is immature or even dogmatic.

The next thing that baffled me was the speed with which conclusions are jumped upon. Everyone seemed to be instantly convinced that I was via my journal FACT in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. Nobody even bothered to look up what the Royal Pharmaceutical Society truly stand for and to verify that they do NOT represent ‘BIG PHARMA’. This blindness to the possibility of being wrong confirms my fear that alternative therapists are guided by strong beliefs which must not be questioned and are hard to influence, even with facts that take less than a minute to research.

And then there are, of course, the personal attacks which came quick, thick and fast. Its authors might think that such attacks get under my skin. If so, they are mistaken: if anything, they amuse me! I have long been of the opinion that they are important victories of reason. When an acupuncturist went as far as diagnosing me as being borderline psychopathic, I almost fell off my chair laughing! To me, this remark (which has emerged several times before) is emblematic, as it suggests several things at once:

  • The author is obviously rude
  • He/she is incompetent, even stupid
  • He/she lacks empathy – after all, one would expect from a healthcare professional to show some understanding, if I were truly ill! And if not, one would expect more respect towards mentally ill patients.
  • But, of course, he/she did not mean it like that; he/she merely meant to insult me. And employing mental health issues for this purpose shows a remarkable lack of professionalism, in my view.
[Whenever I or someone in a similar position point out such things, the ‘other side’ starts shouting “AD HOMINEM!” Do they not see that my analysis of their attempted insult is merely a reaction to their ad hominem?]

Am I making too much of all this? Perhaps – sorry, I am almost done.

But first I need to briefly address Mel’s doubts about my integrity. She can, of course, question what she likes as often as she wants. My point is that repeating nonsensical arguments ad nauseam does not render then sensical.

Finally, there is Mel’s public claim that I have been lying about my conflict of interests. To me, it suggests a degree of desperation, perhaps even fanaticism, that is only surpassed by her inability to apologize after the truth had become undeniable even to her.

I know that there are some people who would have sued for libel.

Not I!

For that I find all this far too hilarious.

I have previously reported about the issue of homeopathy on the NHS in Liverpool here. Since then, the NHS Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) has conducted a consultation on whether to continue funding. Personally, I think such polls are a daft waste of resources.

Why?

I will explain in a moment; first read the (slightly shortened) summary:

In November 2015, NHS Liverpool CCG Governing Body stated a preference to decommission the homeopathy service and commenced the consultation exercise with the intent to ascertain how the public felt about it. This report was written by the Centre for Public Health, Liverpool John Moores University, and includes independent analysis of the consultation activities.

The consultation ran from 13th November – 22nd December 2015. The two main methods used were 1) a survey available online and in paper format. It was completed by 743 individual respondents and, of those who provided a valid postcode, 68% (323 individuals) lived within the Liverpool CCG area, 2) a small consultation event held on 4th December 2015 facilitated by Liverpool John Moores University. The event was attended by 29 individuals, the majority of whom were patients and staff from the Liverpool Medical Homeopathic Service. Eighteen of the participants at this event resided in Liverpool.

Two thirds of survey respondents (66%; 380 respondents) said they would never use homeopathy services in the future. The reasons for this included the lack of evidence and scientific basis of homeopathy; negative personal experiences of homeopathy; and believing it was an inappropriate use of NHS funding. Those who would be likely to use it in the future (28%) felt they wanted to be able to choose an alternative to conventional medicine; felt it was value for money for the NHS; appreciated the time, care and holistic consultation; and discussed their own positive experiences. Sixty six per cent of survey respondents (111) who had used homeopathy in the past reported an excellent or good experience. Those who reported a positive experience (66%) felt that homeopathy had improved their health where conventional medicine had not, and participants valued that the homeopathic practitioner had treated their emotional as well as their physical needs. Those who reported a below average or poor experience (31%) felt homeopathy had not improved their medical condition and some felt they had been misled and had not been told the remedy contained no active ingredients.

At the consultation event, the majority of the 29 participants were homeopathy service users and they described a positive experience of homeopathy and the ability to choose ‘holistic’ and non-pharmaceutical treatment. Participants also questioned what services they could use if they were unable to access homeopathy on the NHS and were concerned and angry about the service potentially being decommissioned. A small number of participants at this event agreed with the view that there is a lack of evidence regarding efficacy and felt it was an inappropriate use of NHS funds that would be better spent on other, more effective services.

Of the survey respondents, 73% (541 individuals) chose the option to stop funding all homeopathy services; when including only Liverpool residents in the analysis this decreased to 64%.  Twenty three per cent of survey respondents (170 individuals) wanted to continue to fund homeopathy services in Liverpool (either at current levels or to increase the budget); when only including Liverpool residents this proportion increased slightly to 30%. At the end of the consultation event the participants in the room (29 individuals) were asked to vote on their preferred funding option; twenty two participants (76%) wanted to continue the service and increase the maximum funding limit; three participants (14%) wanted to stay with the current situation and three participants (10%) wanted to stop funding the service.

There was some tension in what those in the consultation saw as acceptable and appropriate evidence about the effectiveness of homeopathy. Many participants in the survey and at the event reported their positive experience or anecdotal evidence as “proof” that homeopathy is effective.  There was a low understanding about how scientific research is conducted or evaluated. The NHS try to base funding decisions on rigorous, high-quality, unbiased, peer-reviewed research, however, the CCG is required to account of all evidence, including patient experience, when funding or discontinuing services.

Across the survey and the consultation event there was some confusion about what types of treatment come under the heading of “homeopathy”, with participants making reference to a range of herbal remedies and supplements. Iscador (a mistletoe extract) may be, in some cases, provided as a complementary treatment for patients with cancer, however, this is not a homeopathic remedy. There was also discussion (in the event and in the survey responses) about other herbal remedies and supplements.

END OF SUMMARY

So, why do I not think highly about exercises of this kind?

In general, surveys are tricky and often very dodgy research tools. Particularly in alternative medicine, they are as popular as they are useless. The potential problems arise from the way the methodology is often applied. For instance, sampling is crucial. If, like in the present case, no rigorous sampling techniques are applied, the results will inevitably be unreliable in reflecting the views of a population.

The findings of the survey above could easily be little more than a reflection of which camp had a better PR. Homeopaths usually are very good on such occasions at persuading others for homeopathy. In this case, the results show that, despite their best efforts, the overall vote was not positive for homeopathy. What we don’t know is whether this is a reflection on the ‘will of the people’. It could be that the public is much more against funding nonsense than this poll suggests.

I would also argue that letting people vote about the availability of medical interventions is nonsensical. The value of healthcare technologies is not determined by such ‘beauty contests’; the value depends on the scientific evidence, and that is not readily evaluated by non-experts. Imagine: next we might vote for or against bone-marrow transplants; who has the expertise to cast such a vote?

Oh yes, and the ‘small consultation’ – what was that supposed to be. Probably just an exercise in political correctness. Nobody in their right mind can have expected any meaningful insight coming from it.

Finally, I dispute that ‘patients’ experience’ is the same as ‘evidence’, as the summary above seems to claim. This is just nonsense. evidence is something entirely different from experience.

But politicians will disregard all this. They will say ‘the public has decided’ and will stop funding homeopathy on the NHS in Liverpool. More by coincidence than by design, this survey went into the right direction. Now one can only hope that the rest of the country will follow suit – on evidence, not on dodgy pseudo-evidence from surveys.

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