MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

pseudo-science

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Recently, I was sent an interesting press release; here it is in full:

A new study has shed light on how cancer patients’ attitudes and beliefs drive the use of complementary and alternative medicine. Published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the findings may help hospitals develop more effective and accessible integrative oncology services for patients.

Although many cancer patients use complementary and alternative medicine, what drives this usage is unclear. To investigate, a team led by Jun Mao, MD and Joshua Bauml, MD, of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, conducted a survey-based study in their institution’s thoracic, breast, and gastrointestinal medical oncology clinics.

Among 969 participants surveyed between June 2010 and September 2011, patients who were younger, those who were female, and those who had a college education tended to expect greater benefits from complementary and alternative medicine. Nonwhite patients reported more perceived barriers to the use of complementary and alternative medicine compared with white patients, but their expectations concerning the medicine’s benefits were similar. Attitudes and beliefs about complementary and alternative medicine were much more likely to affect patients’ use than clinical and demographic characteristics.

“We found that specific attitudes and beliefs — such as expectation of therapeutic benefits, patient-perceived barriers regarding cost and access, and opinions of patients’ physician and family members — may predict patients’ use of complementary and alternative medicine following cancer diagnoses,” said Dr. Mao. “We also found that these beliefs and attitudes varied by key socio-demographic factors such as sex, race, and education, which highlights the need for a more individualized approach when clinically integrating complementary and alternative medicine into conventional cancer care.”

The researchers noted that as therapies such as acupuncture and yoga continue to demonstrate clinical benefits for reducing pain, fatigue, and psychological distress, the field of integrative oncology is emerging to bring complementary and alternative medicine together with conventional care to improve patient outcomes. “Our findings emphasize the importance of patients’ attitudes and beliefs about complementary and alternative medicine as we seek to develop integrative oncology programs in academic medical centers and community hospitals,” said Dr. Bauml. “By aligning with patients’ expectations, removing unnecessary structural barriers, and engaging patients’ social and support networks, we can develop patient-centered clinical programs that better serve diverse groups of cancer patients regardless of sex, race, and education levels.”

And here is the abstract of the actual article:

BACKGROUND:

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) incorporates treatments used by cancer survivors in an attempt to improve their quality of life. Although population studies have identified factors associated with its use, to the best of the authors knowledge, assessment of why patients use CAM or the barriers against its use have not been examined to date.

METHODS:

The authors conducted a cross-sectional survey study in the thoracic, breast, and gastrointestinal medical oncology clinics at an academic cancer center. Clinical and demographic variables were collected by self-report and chart abstraction. Attitudes and beliefs were measured using the validated Attitudes and Beliefs about CAM (ABCAM) instrument. This instrument divides attitudes and beliefs into 3 domains: expected benefits, perceived barriers, and subjective norms.

RESULTS:

Among 969 participants (response rate, 82.7%) surveyed between June 2010 and September 2011, patient age ≤65 years, female sex, and college education were associated with a significantly greater expected benefit from CAM (P<.0001 for all). Nonwhite patients reported more perceived barriers to CAM use compared with white patients (P<.0001), but had a similar degree of expected benefit (P = .76). In a multivariate logistic regression analysis, all domains of the ABCAM instrument were found to be significantly associated with CAM use (P<.01 for all) among patients with cancer. Attitudes and beliefs regarding CAM explained much more variance in CAM use than clinical and demographic variables alone.

CONCLUSIONS:

Attitudes and beliefs varied by key clinical and demographic characteristics, and predicted CAM use. By developing CAM programs based upon attitudes and beliefs, barriers among underserved patient populations may be removed and more patient centered care may be provided.

Why do I find this remarkable?

The article was published in the Journal CANCER, one of the very best publications in oncology. One would therefore expect that it contributes meaningfully to our knowledge. Remarkably, it doesn’t! Virtually every finding from this survey had been known or is so obvious that it does not require research, in my view. The article is an orgy of platitudes, and the press release is even worse.

But this is not what irritates me most with this paper. The aspect that I find seriously bad about it is its general attitude: it seems to accept that alternative therapies are a good thing for cancer patients which we should all welcome with open arms. The press release even states that, as therapies such as acupuncture and yoga continue to demonstrate clinical benefits for reducing pain, fatigue, and psychological distress, the field of integrative oncology is emerging to bring complementary and alternative medicine together with conventional care to improve patient outcomes.

I might be a bit old-fashioned, but I would have thought that, before we accept treatments into clinical routine, we ought to demonstrate that they generate more good than harm. Should we not actually show beyond reasonable doubt that patients’ outcomes are improved before we waffle about the notion? Is it not our ethical duty to analyse and think critically? If we fail to do that, we are, I think, nothing other than charlatans!

This article might be a mere triviality – if it were not symptomatic of what we are currently witnessing on a truly grand scale in this area. Integrative oncology seems fast to deteriorate into a paradise for pseudoscience and quacks.

You may feel that homeopaths are bizarre, irrational, perhaps even stupid – but you cannot deny their tenacity. Since 200 years, they are trying to convince us that their treatments are effective beyond placebo. And they seem to get more and more bold with their claims: while they used to suggest that homeopathy was effective for trivial conditions like a common cold, they now have their eyes on much more ambitious things. Two recent studies, for instance, claim that homeopathic remedies can help cancer patients.

The aim of the first study was to evaluate whether homeopathy influenced global health status and subjective wellbeing when used as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapy.

In this pragmatic randomized controlled trial, 410 patients, who were treated by standard anti-neoplastic therapy, were randomized to receive or not receive classical homeopathic adjunctive therapy in addition to standard therapy. The main outcome measures were global health status and subjective wellbeing as assessed by the patients. At each of three visits (one baseline, two follow-up visits), patients filled in two questionnaires for quantification of these endpoints.

The results show that 373 patients yielded at least one of three measurements. The improvement of global health status between visits 1 and 3 was significantly stronger in the homeopathy group by 7.7 (95% CI 2.3-13.0, p=0.005) when compared with the control group. A significant group difference was also observed with respect to subjective wellbeing by 14.7 (95% CI 8.5-21.0, p<0.001) in favor of the homeopathic as compared with the control group. Control patients showed a significant improvement only in subjective wellbeing between their first and third visits.

Our homeopaths concluded that the results suggest that the global health status and subjective wellbeing of cancer patients improve significantly when adjunct classical homeopathic treatment is administered in addition to conventional therapy.

The second study is a little more modest; it had the aim to explore the benefits of a three-month course of individualised homeopathy (IH) for survivors of cancer.

Fifteen survivors of any type of cancer were recruited by a walk-in cancer support centre. Conventional treatment had to have taken place within the last three years. Patients scored their total, physical and emotional wellbeing using the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy for Cancer (FACIT-G) before and after receiving four IH sessions.

The results showed that 11 women had statistically positive results for emotional, physical and total wellbeing based on FACIT-G scores.

And the conclusion: Findings support previous research, suggesting CAM or individualised homeopathy could be beneficial for survivors of cancer.

As I said: one has to admire their tenacity, perhaps also their chutzpa – but not their understanding of science or their intelligence. If they were able to think critically, they could only arrive at one conclusion: STUDY DESIGNS THAT ARE WIDE OPEN TO BIAS ARE LIKELY TO DELIVER BIASED RESULTS.

The second study is a mere observation without a control group. The reported outcomes could be due to placebo, expectation, extra attention or social desirability. We obviously need an RCT! But the first study was an RCT!!! Its results are therefore more convincing, aren’t they?

No, not at all. I can repeat my sentence from above: The reported outcomes could be due to placebo, expectation, extra attention or social desirability. And if you don’t believe it, please read what I have posted about the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ trial design (here and here and here and here and here for instance).

My point is that such a study, while looking rigorous to the naïve reader (after all, it’s an RCT!!!), is just as inconclusive when it comes to establishing cause and effect as a simple case series which (almost) everyone knows by now to be utterly useless for that purpose. The fact that the A+B versus B design is nevertheless being used over and over again in alternative medicine for drawing causal conclusions amounts to deceit – and deceit is unethical, as we all know.

My overall conclusion about all this:

QUACKS LOVE THIS STUDY DESIGN BECAUSE IT NEVER FAILS TO PRODUCE FALSE POSITIVE RESULTS.

If I tell you that I just read a book by a homeopath writing about homeopathy, would you doubt my sanity? But I did, and I read it in one session with great interest. The book is (in German) by Natalie Grams (perhaps I should mention that I had never heard of her before Springer sent me her book), a German doctor; it is entitled HOMOEOPATHIE NEU GEDACHT (Homeopathy newly considered). I liked it a lot.

The author discusses in some detail why basically everything homeopaths believe in is erroneous. You might think: so what, we all knew that. True, we did, but she then she concludes that homeopathy has still some value as some sort of psychotherapy. The remedy is effective because the consultation with a homeopath gives it a ‘meaning’ which is tailor-made for each patient. Now you will think: that this is hardly original, others have considered this before. And you are, of course, correct again.

So why did this book fascinate me? Mostly because, in a few passages, Natalie Grams tells her very personal story how she matured from an enthusiast to rationalist. This could be reminiscent of my own life, but it isn’t (and by no means do I agree with everything doctor Grams writes). I found myself in a homeopathic hospital directly after medical school, became a homeopath (of sorts), later I learnt to think critically and researched homeopathy. As a scientist, when the evidence was squarely negative, I said so loud and clear (I published the whole story with all the relevant details here).

Natalie Grams studied medicine and seemed to have become disenchanted with the lack of humanity in mainstream medicine (as a clinician, I often felt this too but always concluded that the solution was not to turn away from medicine but to re-introduce more humanity into it). Doctor Grams then experienced serious health problems which were cured/alleviated by homeopathy. This made her look into the subject a little closer. She decided to do the necessary courses, uncritically adopted most of what she was told by die-hard homeopaths and eventually fulfilled her dream: she opened her own private practice as a homeopath. In other words, she dropped out of real medicine and into homeopathy, while I, in a way, did the reverse.

Doctor Grams’ practice seemed to have been successful; many of her patients, even some with serious conditions, got better. All she had been told about homeopathy seemed to get confirmed in her clinical routine. Homeopaths, like most clinicians, remember their success stories and tend to forget their failures. If this happens over and over during an entire life-time, the last doubts a budding homeopath may have once had dissolve into thin air. The result is a clinician who is utterly convinced that like cures like and high dilutions are powerful medicines because water has a memory.

Up to this point, Dr Grams career is a textbook example of a homeopath who would bet on the life of her children that homeopathy is correct and science is wrong. The world is full of them, and I have personally met many. They are usually kind, empathetic and dedicated clinicians. But they are also totally impervious to reason. They have their experience and NOBODY is allowed to question it. If you do, you are no longer their friend.

This is where the typical story of homeopaths ends… and they happily lied ever after (to themselves, their patients and everyone else). Not so in the case of Natalie Grams!

When she was still an enthusiast, she decided to write a book. It was going to be a book that showed how good homeopathy was and how bad its critics were. To do this responsibly, she read a lot of the original literature. What she found shocked her. When reading her account, I could repeatedly feel the agony she must have felt through her discoveries. Eventually, she had no choice but to agree with most of the arguments of homeopathy’s critics and disagreed with practically all of the arguments of her fellow homeopaths.

I predict that Natalie’s painful ‘journey’ has not yet come to an end; she now argues that the 200 year old assumptions of homeopathy are all obsolete and homeopathy is certainly not an effective drug therapy. However, it may turn out to be a valuable ‘talking therapy’, she believes.

I hate to say it, but I am fairly certain that she will have to go through further agony and find that her discovery is not truly workable. It might have some theoretical value but, for a whole number of reasons, it will not function in real life heath care.

My hope is that Natalie will find her way back to what she calls ‘normal medicine’ (there is, of course, the danger that she does the opposite and wanders off into even more esoteric grounds). We need doctors like her who have empathy, compassion and understanding for their patients. These are qualities many homeopaths who I have met have in abundance – but these are qualities that belong not into the realm of quackery, they belong into real medicine.

On 26/5/2015, I received the email reproduced below. I thought it was interesting, looked up its author (“Shawn is a philosopher and writer educated at York University in Toronto, and the author of two books. He’s also worked with Aboriginal youth in the Northwest Territories of Canada”) and decided to respond by writing a blog-post rather than by answering Alli directly.

Hello Dr. Ernst, this is Shawn Alli from Canada, a blogger and philosopher. I recently finished a critical article on James Randi’s legacy. It gets into everything from ideological science, manipulation, ESP, faith healing, acupuncture and homeopathy.

Let me know what you think about it:

http://www.shawnalli.com/james-randi-disingenuous-legacy.html

It’s quite long so save it for a rainy day.

So far, the reply from skeptical organizations range from: “I couldn’t read further than the first few paragraphs because I disagree with the claims…” to one word replies: “Petty.”

It’s always nice to know how open-minded skeptical organizations are.

Hopefully you can add a bit more.

Sincerely,

Shawn

Yes, indeed, I can but try to add a bit more!

However, Alli’s actual article is far too long to analyse it here in full. I therefore selected just the bit that I feel most competent commenting on and which is closest to my heart. Below, I re-produce this section of Alli’s article in full. I add my comments at the end (in bold) by inserting numbered responses which refer to the numbers (in round brackets [the square ones refer to Alli’s references]) inserted throughout Alli’s text. Here we go:

Homeopathy & Acupuncture:

A significant part of Randi’s legacy is his war against homeopathy. This is where Randi shines even above mainstream scientists such as Dawkins or Tyson.

Most of his talks ridicule homeopathy as nonsense that doesn’t deserve the distinction of being called a treatment. This is due to the fact that the current scientific method is unable to account for the results of homeopathy (1). In reality, the current scientific method can’t account for the placebo effect as well (2).

But then again, that presents an internal problem as well. The homeopathic community is divided by those who believe it’s a placebo effect and those that believe it’s more than that, advocating the theory of water memory, which mainstream scientists ridicule and vilify (3).

I don’t know what camp is correct (4), but I do know that the homeopathic community shouldn’t follow the lead of mainstream scientists and downplay the placebo effect as, it’s just a placebo (5).

Remember, the placebo effect is downplayed because the current scientific method is unable to account for the phenomenon (3, 5). It’s a wondrous and real effect, regardless of the ridicule and vilification (6) that’s attached to it.

While homeopathy isn’t suitable as a treatment for severe or acute medical conditions, it’s an acceptable treatment for minor, moderate or chronic ones (7). Personally, I’ve never tried homeopathic treatments. But I would never tell individuals not to consider it. To each their own, as long as it’s within universal ethics (8).

A homeopathic community in Greece attempts to conduct an experiment demonstrating a biological effect using homeopathic medicine and win Randi’s million dollar challenge. George Vithoulkas and his team spend years creating the protocol of the study, only to be told by Randi to redo it from scratch. [29] (9) I recommend readers take a look at:

The facts about an ingenious homeopathic experiment that was not completed due to the “tricks” of Mr. James Randi.

Randi’s war against homeopathy is an ideological one (10). He’ll never change his mind despite positive results in and out of the lab (11). This is the epitome of dogmatic ideological thinking (12).

The same is true for acupuncture (13). In his NECSS 2012 talk Randi says:

Harvard Medical School is now offering an advanced course for physicians in acupuncture, which has been tested endlessly for centuries and it does not work in any way. And believe me, I know what I’m talking about. [30]

Acupuncture is somewhat of a grey area for mainstream scientists and the current scientific method. One ideological theory states that acupuncture operates on principles of non-physical energy in the human body and relieving pressure on specific meridians. The current scientific method is unable to account for non-physical human energy and meridians.

A mainstream scientific theory of acupuncture is one of neurophysiology, whereby acupuncture works by affecting the release of neurotransmitters. I don’t know which theory is correct; but I do know that those who do try acupuncture usually feel better (14).

In regards to the peer-reviewed literature, I believe (15) that there’s a publication bias against acupuncture being seen as a viable treatment for minor, moderate or chronic conditions. A few peer-reviewed articles support the use of acupuncture for various conditions:

Eight sessions of weekly group acupuncture compared with group oral care education provide significantly better relief of symptoms in patients suffering from chronic radiation-induced xerostomia. [31]

It is concluded that this study showed highly positive effects on pain and function through the collaborative treatment of acupuncture and motion style in aLBP [acute lower back pain] patients. [32]

Given the limited efficacy of antidepressant treatment…the present study provides evidence in supporting the viewpoint that acupuncture is an effective and safe alternative treatment for depressive disorders, and could be considered an alternative option especially for patients with MDD [major depressive disorder] and PSD [post-stroke depression], although evidence for its effects in augmenting antidepressant agents remains controversial. [33]

In conclusion: We find that acupuncture significantly relieves hot flashes and sleep disturbances in women treated for breast cancer. The effect was seen in the therapy period and at least 12 weeks after acupuncture treatment ceased. The effect was not correlated with increased levels of plasma estradiol. The current study showed no side effects of acupuncture. These results indicate that acupuncture can be used as an effective treatment of menopausal discomfort. [34]

In conclusion, the present study demonstrates, in rats, that EA [electroacupuncture] significantly attenuates bone cancer induced hyperalgesia, which, at least in part, is mediated by EA suppression of IL-1…expression. [35]

In animal model of focal cerebral ischemia, BBA [Baihui (GV20)-based Scalp acupuncture] could improve IV [infarct volume] and NFS [neurological function score]. Although some factors such as study quality and possible publication bias may undermine the validity of positive findings, BBA may have potential neuroprotective role in experimental stroke. [36]

In conclusion, this randomized sham-controlled study suggests that electroacupuncture at acupoints including Zusanli, Sanyinjiao, Hegu, and Zhigou is more effective than no acupuncture and sham acupuncture in stimulating early return of bowel function and reducing postoperative analgesic requirements after laparoscopic colorectal surgery. Electroacupuncture is also more effective than no acupuncture in reducing the duration of hospital stay. [37]

In conclusion, we found acupuncture to be superior to both no acupuncture control and sham acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain…Our results from individual patient data meta-analyses of nearly 18000 randomized patients in high-quality RCTs [randomized controlled trials] provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain. [38]

While Randi and many other mainstream scientists will argue (16) that the above claims are the result of ideological science and cherry picking, in reality, they’re the result of good science going up against dogmatic (17) and profit-driven (17) ideological (17) science.

Yes, the alternative medicine industry is now a billion dollar industry. But the global pharmaceutical medical industry is worth hundreds of trillions of dollars. And without its patients (who need to be in a constant state of ill health), it can’t survive (18).

Individuals who have minor, moderate, or chronic medical conditions don’t want to be part of the hostile debate between alternative medicine vs. pharmaceutical medical science (19). They just want to get better and move on with their life. The constant war that mainstream scientists wage against alternative medicine is only hurting the people they’re supposed to be helping (20).

Yes, the ideologies (21) are incompatible. Yes, there are no accepted scientific theories for such treatments. Yes, it defies what mainstream scientists currently “know” about the human body (22).

It would be impressive if a peace treaty can exist between both sides, where both don’t agree, but respect each other enough to put aside their pride and help patients to regain their health (23).

END OF ALLI’S TEXT

And here are my numbered comments:

(1) This is not how I understand Randi’s position. Randi makes a powerful point about the fact that the assumptions of homeopathy are not plausible, which is entirely correct – so much so that even some leading homeopaths admit that this is true.

(2) This is definitely not correct; the placebo effect has been studied in much detail, and we can certainly ‘account’ for it.

(3) In my 40 years of researching homeopathy and talking to homeopaths, I have not met any homeopaths who “believe it’s a placebo effect”.

(4) There is no ‘placebo camp’ amongst homeopaths; so this is not a basis for an argument; it’s a fallacy.

(5) They very definitely are mainstream scientists, like F Benedetti, who research the placebo effect and they certainly do not ‘downplay’ it. (What many people fail to understand is that, in placebo-controlled trials, one aims at controlling the placebo effect; to a research-naïve person, this may indeed LOOK LIKE downplaying it. But this impression is wrong and reflects merely a lack of understanding.)

(6) No serious scientist attaches ‘ridicule and vilification’ to it.

(7) Who says so? I know only homeopaths who hold this opinion; and it is not evidence-based.

(8) Ethics demand that patients require the best available treatment; homeopathy does not fall into this category.

(9) At one stage (more than 10 years ago), I was involved in the design of this test. My recollection of it is not in line with the report that is linked here.

(10) So far, we have seen no evidence for this statement.

(11) Which ones? No examples are provided.

(12) Yet another statement without evidence – potentially libellous.

(13) Conclusion before any evidence; sign for a closed mind?

(14) This outcome could be entirely unrelated to acupuncture, as anyone who has a minimum of health care knowledge should know.

(15) We are not concerned with beliefs, we concerned with facts here, aren’t we ?

(16) But did they argue this? Where is the evidence to support this statement?

(17) Non-evidence-based accusations.

(18) Classic fallacy.

(19) The debate is not between alt med and ‘pharmaceutical science’, it is between those who insist on treatments which demonstrably generate more good than harm, and those who want alt med regardless of any such considerations.

(20) Warning consumers of treatments which fail to fulfil the above criterion is, in my view, an ethical duty which can save much money and many lives.

(21) Yes, alt med is clearly ideology-driven; by contrast conventional medicine is not (if it were, Alli would have explained what ideology it is precisely). Conventional medicine changes all the time, sometimes even faster than we can cope with, and is mainly orientated on evidence which is not an ideology. Alt med hardly changes or progresses at all; for the most part, its ideology is that of a cult celebrating anti-science and obsolete traditions.

(22) Overt contradiction to what Alli just stated about acupuncture.

(23) To me, this seems rather nonsensical and a hindrance to progress.

In summary, I feel that Alli argues his corner very poorly. He makes statements without supporting evidence, issues lots of opinion without providing the facts (occasionally even hiding them), falls victim of logical fallacies, and demonstrates an embarrassing lack of knowledge and common sense. Most crucially, the text seems bar of any critical analysis; to me, it seems like a bonanza of unreason.

To save Alli the embarrassment of arguing that I am biased or don’t know what I am talking about, I’d like to declare the following: I am not paid by ‘Big Pharma’ or anyone else, I am not aware of having any other conflicts of interest, I have probably published more research on alt med (some of it with positive conclusions !!!) than anyone else on the planet, my research was funded mostly by organisations/donors who were in favour of alt med, and I have no reason whatsoever to defend Randi (I only met him personally once). My main motivation for responding to Alli’s invitation to comment on his bizarre article is that I have fun exposing ‘alt med nonsense’ and believe it is a task worth doing.

This is a question which I have asked myself more often than I care to remember. The reason is probably that, in alternative medicine, I feel surrounded by so much dodgy research that I simply cannot avoid asking it.

In particular, the co-called ‘pragmatic’ trials which are so much ‘en vogue’ at present are, in my view, a reason for concern. Take a study of cancer patients, for instance, where one group is randomized to get the usual treatments and care, while the experimental group receives the same and several alternative treatments in addition. These treatments are carefully selected to be agreeable and pleasant; each patient can choose the ones he/she likes best, always had wanted to try, or has heard many good things about. The outcome measure of our fictitious study would, of course, be some subjective parameter such as quality of life.

In this set-up, the patients in our experimental group thus have high expectations, are delighted to get something extra, even more happy to get it for free, receive plenty of attention and lots of empathy, care, time, attention etc. By contrast, our poor patients in the control group would be a bit miffed to have drawn the ‘short straw’ and receive none of this.

What result do we expect?

Will the quality of life after all this be equal in both groups?

Will it be better in the miffed controls?

Or will it be higher in those lucky ones who got all this extra pampering?

I don’t think I need to answer these questions; the answers are too obvious and too trivial.

But the real and relevant question is the following, I think: IS SUCH A TRIAL JUST SILLY AND MEANINGLESS OR IS IT UNETHICAL?

I would argue the latter!

Why?

Because the results of the study are clearly known before the first patient had even been recruited. This means that the trial was not necessary; the money, time and effort has been wasted. Crucially, patients have been misled into thinking that they give their time, co-operation, patience etc. because there is a question of sufficient importance to be answered.

But, in truth, there is no question at all!

Perhaps you believe that nobody in their right mind would design, fund and conduct such a daft trial. If so, you assumed wrongly. Such studies are currently being published by the dozen. Here is the abstract of the most recent one I could find:

The aim of this study was to evaluate the effectiveness of an additional, individualized, multi-component complementary medicine treatment offered to breast cancer patients at the Merano Hospital (South Tyrol) on health-related quality of life compared to patients receiving usual care only. A randomized pragmatic trial with two parallel arms was performed. Women with confirmed diagnoses of breast cancer were randomized (stratified by usual care treatment) to receive individualized complementary medicine (CM group) or usual care alone (usual care group). Both groups were allowed to use conventional treatment for breast cancer. Primary endpoint was the breast cancer-related quality of life FACT-B score at 6 months. For statistical analysis, we used analysis of covariance (with factors treatment, stratum, and baseline FACT-B score) and imputed missing FACT-B scores at 6 months with regression-based multiple imputation. A total of 275 patients were randomized between April 2011 and March 2012 to the CM group (n = 136, 56.3 ± 10.9 years of age) or the usual care group (n = 139, 56.0 ± 11.0). After 6 months from randomization, adjusted means for health-related quality of life were higher in the CM group (FACT-B score 107.9; 95 % CI 104.1-111.7) compared to the usual care group (102.2; 98.5-105.9) with an adjusted FACT-B score difference between groups of 5.7 (2.6-8.7, p < 0.001). Thus, an additional individualized and complex complementary medicine intervention improved quality of life of breast cancer patients compared to usual care alone. Further studies evaluating specific effects of treatment components should follow to optimize the treatment of breast cancer patients. 

The key sentence in this abstract is, of course: complementary medicine intervention improved quality of life of breast cancer patients… It provides the explanation as to why these trials are so popular with alternative medicine researchers: they are not real research but they are quite simply promotion! The next step would be to put a few of those pseudo-scientific trials together and claim that there is solid proof that integrating alternative treatments into conventional health care produces better results. At that stage, few people will bother asking whether this is really due to the treatments in questioning or to the additional attention, pampering etc.

My question is ARE SUCH TRIALS ETHICAL?

I would very much appreciate your opinion.

A recent post of mine prompted this categorical statement by one of the leading alt med researchers in Germany: naturopathy does not include homeopathy.” This caused several counter-comments claiming that homeopathy is an established part of naturopathy. Now a regular reader has alerted me to the current position paper on homeopathy by the ‘AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF NATUROPATHIC PHYSICIANS’ (AANP). It clarifies the issue fairly well, and I therefore take the liberty of citing it here in full:

“Overview of Naturopathic Medicine and Homeopathy

Homeopathy has been an integral part of naturopathic medicine since its inception and is a recognized specialty for which the naturopathic profession has created a distinct specialty organization, the Homeopathic Academy of Naturopathic Physicians. Homeopathy has been recognized, through rigorous testing and experimentation, as having significant scientific evidence supporting its efficacy and safety. Single medicines are given on the basis of an individual’s manifestation of a disease state in comparison to combination remedies which are given on the basis of a particular diagnostic category.

Homeopathic products are being subjected to intensified federal regulations and restrictions. Products are being promoted and marketed as “homeopathic” for a variety of uses ranging from weight-loss aids to immunizations. Many of these preparations are not homeopathic and many have not been satisfactorily proven to be efficacious. Homeopathy is practiced in a variety of traditional and non-traditional forms.

Position of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians:

  • Homeopathy is taught in the naturopathic colleges and its practice should be included in the naturopathic licensing laws. Naturopathic physicians recognize other licensed practitioners of the healing arts who are properly trained in homeopathy.
  • The naturopathic profession initiates more clinical trials and provings to further evaluate the effectiveness of homeopathy.
  • Naturopathic physicians shall be authorized to prescribe and dispense all products included in the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS).
  • Homeopathic products shall be subject to strict labeling requirements. Preparations which are not prepared in accord with the manufacturing principles in the HPUS should not use the term “homeopathic.” If parents choose homeopathic preparations for their children or their wards for the prophylaxis of infectious disease as an alternative to conventional immunizations, the physician should clearly state that they are unproven and that they are not legal substitutes for the state-mandated requirements.
  • Homeopathic prescriptions should be made with careful evaluation of their effect on the entire organism.
  • Electro-diagnostic testing is an investigational tool. Electro-diagnostic testing should be used according to accepted protocol and it is recommended that it not be relied on as the sole determinant in homeopathic prescribing.”

So, was Prof Michalsen wrong when he stated that “naturopathy does not include homeopathy. It is established in Germany as the application of nutritional therapy, exercise, herbal medicine, balneotherapy and stress reduction, defined by the German Board of Physicians. In conclusion, my general and last suggestion to these kinds of comments and blogs: Please first learn the facts and then comment.”? Not wrong, perhaps – but just a little Teutonic and provincial? The Germans like their own definitions which do not apply to the rest of the world. Nothing wrong with that, I think. But, in this case, they should make it clear that they are talking about something else than the international standard, and perhaps they should also publish their national drivel in their provincial journals in German language. This would avoid all sorts of misunderstandings, I am sure.

But this may just be a trivial aside. The more interesting issue here is the above AANP-statement itself. The AANP has the following vision: “Naturopathic physicians will guide and empower people to discover and experience improved health, optimal wellness, and effective management of disease through the principles and practices of naturopathic medicine.”

These are very nice words; but they are just that: WORDS. The AANP clearly does not believe in their own vision. If they did, they could never speak of ‘EFFECTIVE MANAGEMENT OF DISEASE’ while condoning the use of therapies that have been shown to be ineffective.

And this is where, in my view, the importance of their ‘position paper’ really lies: it demonstrates once again that, in the realm of alternative medicine, organisations and individuals make statements that sound fine and are politically correct, while at the same time disregarding these pompous aims/visions/objectives by promoting outright quackery. This sort of thing is so wide-spread that most of us just take it for granted and very few have the nerve to object. The result of this collective behaviour is obvious: on the one hand, charlatans can claim to be entirely in line with public health, EBM etc.; on the other hand, they are free to exploit the public with their bogus treatments.

Could this be the true common denominator of naturopathy in Germany and the rest of the world?

A recent comment to a post of mine (by a well-known and experienced German alt med researcher) made the following bold statement aimed directly at me and at my apparent lack of understanding research methodology:

C´mon , as researcher you should know the difference between efficacy and effectiveness. This is pharmacological basic knowledge. Specific (efficacy) + nonspecific effects = effectiveness. And, in fact, everything can be effective – because of non-specific or placebo-like effects. That does not mean that efficacy is existent.

The point he wanted to make is that outcome studies – studies without a control group where the researcher simply observe the outcome of a particular treatment in a ‘real life’ situation – suffice to demonstrate the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions. This belief is very wide-spread in alternative medicine and tends to mislead all concerned. It is therefore worth re-visiting this issue here in an attempt to create some clarity.

When a patient’s condition improves after receiving a therapy, it is very tempting to feel that this improvement reflects the effectiveness of the intervention (as the researcher mentioned above obviously does). Tempting but wrong: there are many other factors involved as well, for instance:

  • the placebo effect (mainly based on conditioning and expectation),
  • the therapeutic relationship with the clinician (empathy, compassion etc.),
  • the regression towards the mean (outliers tend to return to the mean value),
  • the natural history of the patient’s condition (most conditions get better even without treatment),
  • social desirability (patients tend to say they are better to please their friendly clinician),
  • concomitant treatments (patients often use treatments other than the prescribed one without telling their clinician).

So, how does this fit into the statement above ‘Specific (efficacy) + nonspecific effects = effectiveness’? Even if this formula were correct, it would not mean that outcome studies of the nature described demonstrate the effectiveness of a therapy. It all depends, of course, on what we call ‘non-specific’ effects. We all agree that placebo-effects belong to this category. Probably, most experts also would include the therapeutic relationship and the regression towards the mean under this umbrella. But the last three points from my list are clearly not non-specific effects of the therapy; they are therapy-independent determinants of the clinical outcome.

The most important factor here is usually the natural history of the disease. Some people find it hard to imagine what this term actually means. Here is a little joke which, I hope, will make its meaning clear and memorable.

CONVERATION BETWEEN TWO HOSPITAL DOCTORS:

Doc A: The patient from room 12 is much better today.

Doc B: Yes, we stared his treatment just in time; a day later and he would have been cured without it!

I am sure that most of my readers now understand (and never forget) that clinical improvement cannot be equated with the effectiveness of the treatment administered (they might thus be immune to the misleading messages they are constantly exposed to). Yet, I am not at all sure that all ‘alternativists’ have got it.

The founder of Johrei Healing (JH), Mokichi Okada, believed that “all human beings have toxins in their physical bodies. Some are inherited, others are acquired by ingesting medicines, food additives, unnatural food, unclean air, most drugs, etc. all of these contain chemicals which cannot be used by the body and are treated as poisons…….. Illness is no more than the body’s way of purifying itself to regain health…… The more we resist illness by taking suppressive medications, the harder and more built up the toxins become…… If we do not allow the toxins to be eliminated from the body, we will suffer more, and have more difficult purification…..on the other hand, if we allow illness to take its course by letting the toxins become naturally eliminated from our bodies, we will be healthier.”

Johrei healers channel light or energy or warmth etc. into the patient’s or recipient’s body in order to stimulate well-being and healing. Sounds wacky? Yes!

Still, at one stage my team conducted research into all sorts of wacky healing practices (detailed reasons and study designs can be found in my recent book ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND‘). Despite the wackiness, we even conducted a study of JH. Dr Michael Dixon, who was closely collaborating with us at the time, had persuaded me that it would be reasonable to do such a study. He brought some Japanese JH-gurus to my department to discuss the possibility, and (to my utter amazement) they were happy to pay £ 70 000 into the university’s research accounts for a small pilot study. I made sure that all the necessary ethical safe-guards were in place, and eventually we all agreed to design and conduct a study. Here is the abstract of the paper published once the results were available and written up.

Johrei is a form of spiritual healing comprising “energy channelling” and light massage given either by a trained healer or, after some basic training, by anyone. This pilot trial aimed to identify any potential benefits of family-based Johrei practice in childhood eczema and for general health and to establish the feasibility of a subsequent randomised controlled trial. Volunteer families of 3-5 individuals, including at least one child with eczema were recruited to an uncontrolled pilot trial lasting 12 months. Parents were trained in Johrei healing and then practised at home with their family. Participants kept diaries and provided questionnaire data at baseline, 3,6 and 12 months. Eczema symptoms were scored at the same intervals. Scepticism about Johrei is presently an obstacle to recruitment and retention of a representative sample in a clinical trial, and to its potential use in general practice. The frequency and quality of practise at home by families may be insufficient to bring about the putative health benefits. Initial improvements in eczema symptoms and diary recorded illness, could not be separated from seasonal factors and other potential confounders. There were no improvements on other outcomes measuring general health and psychological wellbeing of family members.”

Our findings were hugely disappointing for the JH-gurus, of course, but we did insist on our right to publish them. Dr Dixon was not involved in the day to day running of our trial, nor in evaluating its results, nor in writing up the paper. He nevertheless showed a keen interest in the matter, kept in contact with the Japanese sponsors, and arranged regular meetings to discuss our progress. It was at one of those gatherings when he mentioned that he was about to fly to Japan to give a progress report to the JH organisation that had financed the study. My team felt this was odd (not least because, at this point, the study was far from finished) and we were slightly irritated by this interference.

When Dixon had returned from Japan, we asked him how the meeting had been. He said the JH sponsors had received him extremely well and had appreciated his presentation of our preliminary findings. As an ‘aside’, he mentioned something quite extraordinary: he, his wife and his three kids had all flown business class paid for by the sponsors of our trial. This, we all felt, was an overt abuse of potential research funds, unethical and totally out of line with academic behaviour. Recently, I found this fascinating clip on youtube, and I wonder whether it was filmed when Dr Dixon visited Japan on that occasion. One does get the impression that the Johrei organisation is not short of money.

A few months later, I duly reported this story to my dean, Prof Tooke, who was about to get involved with Dr Dixon in connection with a postgraduate course on integrated medicine for our medical school (more about this episode here or in my book). He agreed with me that such a thing was a most regrettable violation of academic and ethical standards. To my great surprise, he then asked me not to tell anybody about it. Today I feel very little loyalty to either of these two people and have therefore decided to publish my account – which, by the way, is fully documented as I have kept all relevant records and a detailed diary (in case anyone should feel like speaking to libel lawyers).

In my last post, I claimed that researchers of alternative medicine tend to be less than rigorous. I did not link this statement to any evidence at all. Perhaps I should have at least provided an example!? As it happens, I just came across a brand new paper which nicely demonstrates what I meant.

According to its authors, this non-interventional study was performed to generate data on safety and treatment effects of a complex homeopathic drug. They treated 1050 outpatients suffering from common cold with a commercially available homeopathic remedy for 8 days. The study was conducted in 64 German outpatient practices of medical doctors trained in CAM. Tolerability, compliance and the treatment effects were assessed by the physicians and by patient diaries. Adverse events were collected and assessed with specific attention to homeopathic aggravation and proving symptoms. Each adverse effect was additionally evaluated by an advisory board of experts.

The physicians detected 60 adverse events from 46 patients (4.4%). Adverse drug reactions occurred in 14 patients (1.3%). Six patients showed proving symptoms (0.57%) and only one homeopathic aggravation (0.1%) appeared. The rate of compliance was 84% for all groups. The global assessment of the treatment effects resulted in the verdict “good” and “very good” in 84.9% of all patients.

The authors concluded that the homeopathic complex drug was shown to be safe and effective for children and adults likewise. Adverse reactions specifically related to homeopathic principles are very rare. All observed events recovered quickly and were of mild to moderate intensity.

So why do I think this is ‘positively barmy’?

The study had no control group. This means that there is no way anyone can attribute the observed ‘treatment effects’ to the homeopathic remedy. There are many other phenomena that may have caused or contributed to it, e. g.:

  • a placebo effect
  • the natural history of the condition
  • regression to the mean
  • other treatments which the patients took but did not declare
  • the empathic encounter with the physician
  • social desirability

To plan a study with the aim as stated above and to draw the conclusion as cited above is naïve and unprofessional (to say the least) on the part of the researchers (I often wonder where, in such cases, the boundary between incompetence and research misconduct might lie). To pass such a paper through the peer review process is negligent on the part of the reviewers. To publish the article is irresponsible on the part of the editor.

In a nut-shell: COLLECTIVELY, THIS IS ‘POSITIVELY BARMY’!!!

On this blog, we have discussed the Alexander Technique before; it is an educational method promoted for all sorts of conditions, including neck pain. The very first website I found when googling it stated the following: “Back and neck pain can be caused by poor posture. Alexander Technique lessons help you to understand how to improve your posture throughout your daily activities. Many people, even those with herniated disc or pinched nerve, experience relief after one lesson, often permanent relief after five or ten lessons.”

Sounds too good to be true? Is there any good evidence?

The aim of this study, a randomized controlled trial with 3 parallel groups, was to test the efficacy of the Alexander Technique, local heat and guided imagery on pain and quality of life in patients with chronic non-specific neck pain. A total of 72 patients (65 females, 40.7±7.9 years) with chronic, non-specific neck pain were recruited. They received 5 sessions of the Alexander Technique, while the control groups were treated with local heat application or guided imagery. All interventions were conducted once a week for 45 minutes each.

The primary outcome measure at week 5 was neck pain intensity quantified on a 100-mm visual analogue scale; secondary outcomes included neck disability, quality of life, satisfaction and safety. The results show no group differences for pain intensity for the Alexander Technique compared to local heat. An exploratory analysis revealed the superiority of the Alexander Technique over guided imagery. Significant group differences in favor of the Alexander Technique were also found for physical quality of life. Adverse events were mild and mainly included slightly increased pain and muscle soreness.

The authors concluded that Alexander Technique was not superior to local heat application in treating chronic non-specific neck pain. It cannot be recommended as routine intervention at this time. Further trials are warranted for conclusive judgment.

I am impressed with these conclusions: this is how results should be interpreted. The primary outcome measure failed to yield a significant effect, and therefore such a negative conclusion is the only one that can be justified. Yet such clear words are an extreme rarity in the realm of alternative medicine. Most researchers in this area would, in my experience, have highlighted the little glimpses of the possibility of a positive effect and concluded that this therapeutic approach may be well worth a try.

In my view, this article is a fine example for demonstrating the difference between true scientists (who aim at testing the effectiveness of interventions) and pseudo-scientists (who aim at promoting their pet therapy). I applaud the authors of this paper!

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