MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

regulation

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

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

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

Seven major responsibilities emerged:

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

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

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

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

And has there been any noticeable change?

Not as far as I can see!

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

 

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

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

HERE WE GO:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 2006, the World Health Organization and UNICEF created the ‘Global Immunization Vision and Strategy’, a 10-year strategy with 4 main goals:

  1. to immunize more people against more diseases,
  2. to introduce a range of newly available vaccines and technologies,
  3. to integrate other critical health interventions with immunization,
  4. to manage vaccination programmes within the context of global interdependence.

More than a decade later, we have to realise that this vision has been frustrated, not least by fans of alternative medicine (FAMs). They are almost by definition more negative about the value and achievements of conventional medicine and science. This shows in all sorts of ways; the clearest this phenomenon is documented must be the FAMs’ attitude towards immunisations. Few rational thinkers would doubt that vaccinations are amongst the most important achievement in the history of medicine.

Vaccination is a miracle of modern medicine. In the past 50 years, it’s saved more lives worldwide than any other medical product or procedure.”

Yet FAMs are not impressed by such statements and often refuse to have their kids vaccinated according to the recommended schedule. This trend has significantly contributed to vaccination rates that, in some parts of the world, are now dropping so low that our ‘herd immunity’ is jeopardised.

One such place is Germany, and the German government is now making a controversial move against parents who choose to refrain from vaccinating their children. Germany is presently passing a law that will force kindergartens to inform the authorities, if parents don’t provide evidence that they have gotten advice from their doctor on vaccinations for their children.

The US ‘FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSION’ has issued an important statement about homeopathic products. The full text with references can be found here; below are a few quotes which I thought were crucial:

“…Homeopathy, which dates back to the late-eighteenth century, is based on the view that disease symptoms can be treated by minute doses of substances that produce similar symptoms when provided in larger doses to healthy people.  Many homeopathic products are diluted to such an extent that they no longer contain detectable levels of the initial substance.  In general, homeopathic product claims are not based on modern scientific methods and are not accepted by modern medical experts, but homeopathy nevertheless has many adherents…

Efficacy and safety claims for homeopathic drugs are held to the same standards as similar claims for non-homeopathic drugs.  As articulated in the Advertising Substantiation Policy Statement, advertisers must have “at least the advertised level of substantiation.”  Absent express or implied reference to a particular level of support, the Commission, in evaluating the types of evidence necessary to substantiate a claim, considers “the type of claim, the product, the consequences of a false claim, the benefits of a truthful claim, the cost of developing substantiation for the claim, and the amount of substantiation experts believe is reasonable.”  For health, safety, or efficacy claims, the FTC has generally required that advertisers possess “competent and reliable scientific evidence,” defined as “tests, analyses, research, or studies that have been conducted and evaluated in an objective manner by qualified persons and [that] are generally accepted in the profession to yield accurate and reliable results.”  In general, for health benefit claims, particularly claims that a product can treat or prevent a disease or its symptoms, the substantiation required has been well-designed human clinical testing.

For the vast majority of OTC homeopathic drugs, the case for efficacy is based solely on traditional homeopathic theories and there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing the product’s efficacy.  Accordingly, marketing claims that such homeopathic products have a therapeutic effect lack a reasonable basis and are likely misleading in violation of Sections 5 and 12 of the FTC Act.  However, the FTC has long recognized that marketing claims may include additional explanatory information in order to prevent the claims from being misleading.  Accordingly, the promotion of an OTC homeopathic product for an indication that is not substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence may not be deceptive if that promotion effectively communicates to consumers that: (1) there is no scientific evidence that the product works and (2) the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.  To be non-misleading, the product and the claims must also comply with requirements for homeopathic products and traditional homeopathic principles.  Of course, adequately substantiated claims for homeopathic products would not require additional explanation.

Perfunctory disclaimers are unlikely to successfully communicate the information necessary to make claims for OTC homeopathic drugs non-misleading.  The Commission notes:

• Any disclosure should stand out and be in close proximity to the efficacy message; to be effective, it may actually need to be incorporated into the efficacy message.

• Marketers should not undercut such qualifications with additional positive statements or consumer endorsements reinforcing a product’s efficacy.

• In light of the inherent contradiction in asserting that a product is effective and also disclosing that there is no scientific evidence for such an assertion, it is possible that depending on how they are presented many of these disclosures will be insufficient to prevent consumer deception.  Marketers are advised to develop extrinsic evidence, such as consumer surveys, to determine the net impressions communicated by their marketing materials.

• The Commission will carefully scrutinize the net impression of OTC homeopathic advertising or other marketing employing disclosures to ensure that it adequately conveys the extremely limited nature of the health claim being asserted.  If, despite a marketer’s disclosures, an ad conveys more substantiation than the marketer has, the marketer will be in violation of the FTC Act.

In summary, there is no basis under the FTC Act to treat OTC homeopathic drugs differently than other health products.  Accordingly, unqualified disease claims made for homeopathic drugs must be substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence.  Nevertheless, truthful, nonmisleading, effective disclosure of the basis for an efficacy claim may be possible.  The approach outlined in this Policy Statement is therefore consistent with the First Amendment, and neither limits consumer access to OTC homeopathic products nor conflicts with the FDA’s regulatory scheme.  It would allow a marketer to include an indication for use that is not supported by scientific evidence so long as the marketer effectively communicates the limited basis for the claim in the manner discussed above.”

 

 

We have discussed this notorious problem before: numerous charities (such as one that treats HIV and malaria with homeopathy in Botswana, or the one claiming that homeopathy can reverse cancer) are a clear danger to public health. I have previously chosen the example of ‘YES TO LIFE’ and explained that they promote unproven and disproven alternative therapies as cures for cancer (and if you want to get really sickened, look who act as their supporters and advisors). It is clear to me that such behaviour can hasten the death of many vulnerable patients.

Yet, many such charities get tax and reputational benefits by being registered charities in the UK. The question is CAN THIS SITUATION BE JUSTIFIED?

Currently, the UK Charity commission want to answer it. Specifically, they are asking you the following question:

  • Question 1: What level and nature of evidence should the Commission require to establish the beneficial impact of CAM therapies?
  • Question 2: Can the benefit of the use or promotion of CAM therapies be established by general acceptance or recognition, without the need for further evidence of beneficial impact? If so, what level of recognition, and by whom, should the Commission consider as evidence?
  • Question 3: How should the Commission consider conflicting or inconsistent evidence of beneficial impact regarding CAM therapies?
  • Question 4: How, if at all, should the Commission’s approach be different in respect of CAM organisations which only use or promote therapies which are complementary, rather than alternative, to conventional treatments?
  • Question 5: Is it appropriate to require a lesser degree of evidence of beneficial impact for CAM therapies which are claimed to relieve symptoms rather than to cure or diagnose conditions?
  • Question 6: Do you have any other comments about the Commission’s approach to registering CAM organisations as charities?

I am sure that most readers of this blog have something to say about these questions. So, please carefully study the full document, go on the commission’s website, and email your response to: legalcharitablestatus@charitycommission.gsi.gov.uk . Don’t delay it; do it now!

THANK YOU!

CBC news (Canada) reported yesterday that, more than a decade ago, the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission had been tasked to review the cost effectiveness of chiropractic services. It therefore prepared a report in 2004 for the Manitoba province and the Manitoba Chiropractors Association. Since then, this report has been kept secret. The report makes 37 recommendations, including:

  • Manitoba Health should limit its funding to “chiropractic treatment of acute lower back pain.”
  • Manitoba Health should provide “limited coverage of the treatment of neck pain.” The report called the literature around the efficacy of chiropractic care for neck pain “ambiguous or at best weakly supportive” and noted such treatment carried a “not insignificant safety risk.”
  • Manitoba Health should not fund chiropractic treatment anyone under 18 “as the literature does not unequivocally justify” the “efficacy or safety” of such treatment.

A Manitoba Ombudsman’s Office report from 2012 might shed some light on why the Manitoba Chiropractic Health Care Commission’s report was never made public. Someone had attempted to get a copy of the report, but large parts of it were redacted. “Access to this record was refused on the basis that disclosure would be harmful to a third party’s business interest,” the ombudsman report notes, “and harm the economic or financial interests or negotiating position of a public body.”

The report also challenged claims that chiropractic treatments can be address a wide variety of medical conditions. It stated that there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective in treating muscle tension, migraines, HIV, carpal tunnel syndrome, gastrointestinal problems, infertility or cancer, or as a preventive care treatment. It also said there was not enough evidence to conclude chiropractic treatments are effective for children.

The report urged Manitoba Health to establish a monitoring system to keep a closer eye on “the advertising practices of the Manitoba Chiropractors Association and its members to ensure claims regarding treatments are restricted to those for which proof of efficacy and safety exist.” It suggested the government should have regulatory powers over chiropractic ads.

A recent CBC I-Team investigation found Manitoba chiropractors advertising treatment for a wide range of conditions including Alzheimer’s, autism and pediatric services. The commission report contained sharp criticisms of previous reports that suggested funding chiropractic care could save the health-care system money. Dr. Pranlal Manga authored two widely cited reports which claim that by offering publicly funded chiropractic care, provinces can cut health-care costs. “The Manga study on Manitoba must be rejected as a guide to public policy,” the commission report states, “because its assumptions, methodology and costing of recommendations are all deeply flawed.” The reports states, “What limited evidence the Commission has suggests he [Manga] grossly exaggerates possible medical savings.” Dr. Manga did not respond to CBC’s repeated attempts to contact him.

The commission report also made recommendations around the use of X-ray machines by chiropractors. It suggested chiropractors not own and operate X-ray machines “Given the restrictive conditions under which X-rays are advisable, their poor correlation with low-back problems, their apparent limitation as a guide to appropriate treatment …[and] the apparent complete lack of monitoring [of] the use of X-ray by chiropractors.”  Instead, it recommended consulting with radiologists when imaging is deemed necessary. “The Commission is of the view that the public interest, and even chiropractic itself, would be better served if chiropractors had access to radiologists for this service, rather than perform it themselves,” the report said.

All three report authors declined comment. Calls to Dave Chomiak, who was health minister at the time the report was prepared, were not returned. In an email to CBC, Manitoba Chiropractors Association president Perry Taylor said, “I personally have never seen this 13-year-old document and [it] pre-dates my time as President. As such I have no comment on this.” The CBC I-Team offered to go through the report with Taylor but he did not respond.

MY COMMENT:

This report seems to confirm much of what we have discussed repeatedly on this blog: Chiropractic is not nearly as effective and safe as chiropractors try to make us believe. To hide this fact is certainly dishonest and unethical, but it is in some ways understandable: this knowledge would directly threaten the income of most chiropractors.

Yesterday I commented on another post: “the conflict of interest seems obvious: if homeopaths speak the truth, they are out of business. therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and eventually end up believing them. there is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent them from making false claims. if not, this will go on for another 200 years and damage many patients’ health”. In the light of the above report, I will now re-phrase this: the conflict of interest seems obvious: if chiropractors allowed the truth to be known, they would soon be out of business. Therefore, they are taught untruths from the first day of their training and many end up believing them. There is only one solution, as far as I can see: regulators must prevent chiropractors from making false claims. If not, this abuse will go on for another 120 years and damage many patients’ health.

“Millions of people have adverse drug reactions to prescribed medicine; it is ranked as the third leading causes of death. In the US, health-care spending reached $1.6 trillion in 2003. Considering this enormous expenditure, we should have the best medicine in the world. But we don’t. Bottom line, people are suffering. The public is calling out for a reform in mainstream medicine.” These seem to be the conclusions of a new film about homeopathy entitled JUST ONE DROP. It was shown recently for the first time in London, and we already have a fascinating comment about it.

“This professional, eight-year effort attempted to be quite even-handed, while featuring many compelling and documented success stories”, states “The World’s No. 1 Authority on Intention, Spirituality and the New Science”, Lynne Mc Taggart. An ‘even-handed’ effort is worth pursuing, I thought, and so I read on.

When I reached the point where Lynne writes “The greatest revelation had to do with the dirty pool employed by the Australian government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), when it decided to assess the effectiveness of homeopathy by reviewing all research that had been done to date”, I got a little suspicious. We discussed the NHMRC report here and here and I had an entirely different impression of it.

Lynne also elaborated at length on the infamous ‘Swiss report’: “The Swiss team had comprehensively reviewed all the major evidence for homeopathy, everything from preclinical research to double-blind, placebo-controlled studies and meta-analyses. After assessing all the available data, the Swiss team concluded that the high-quality investigations of preclinical basic research proved that homeopathic high-potency remedies induce “regulative and specific changes in cells or living organisms”. Of the systematic reviews of human research, said the report, 20 out of 22 detected “at least a trend in favor of homeopathy”, and five showed “clear evidence for homeopathic therapy”.  The report found particularly strong evidence for the use of homeopathy for upper respiratory tract infections and allergic reactions.  Perhaps most significantly, the report concluded that the effectiveness of homeopathy “can be supported by clinical evidence” and “regarded as safe”.(Forsch Komple-mentmed, 2006; 13 Suppl 2: 19–29).”

This report has been evaluated by many experts (see for instance here). One expert even called it ‘research misconduct’ and concluded that “…the authors of this report adopted a very unusual strategy in what should have been an impartial evidence appraisal. It appears that their goal was not to provide an independent assessment but to choose criteria that would lead to their chosen conclusion that homeopathy is effective. To this end, they chose to adopt a highly questionable criterion of “real-world” effectiveness, ignore negative findings concerning homeopathy in favour of implausible reinterpretation of results, and attack RCTs. This use of a unique and suspect methodology in an appraisal designed to assess healthcare objectively gives cause for particular concern; one imagines that the Swiss government wanted homeopathy to be judged against existing standards rather than new ones created specially for the evaluation. In doing so the authors have distorted the evidence and misled the public; these actions, combined with their conflicts of interest, strongly suggest that they are guilty of research misconduct. It is extremely unfortunate that the Swiss government lent legitimacy to this report by attaching its name to it, and also unfair that the English-language text is not available free of charge to the public when it is being widely misrepresented all over the world as proof of the efficacy of homeopathy. It remains possible that homeopathy is effective, but the authors of this report do the practice a grave disservice.”

Could it be that Lynne does not know all this?

Or is she not interested in an ‘even-handed’ approach?

For me, the last drop arrived when Lynne started writing about my friend “Simon Singh, the self-appointed attack dog on all things alternative”, as she calls him. This is where I began to feel nauseous, so much so that I had to reach for my Nux Vomica C30. Alas, it did not help – Lynne’s writing was too overpoweringly sickening, particularly when she tried to motivate her readers to defend charities that endanger public health by promoting bogus treatments for life-threatening conditions: “If you value alternative medicine, here’s what to write the CC before the deadline: Tell them to read the Swiss report on homeopathy, the most contentious of alternative therapies, which shows very good evidence for it. Demand a level playing field. If they are going to challenge charities for alternative medicine based on scientific evidence, then they need to evaluate Cancer Research UK, Arthritis Research UK and every other charity partly or wholly funded by pharmaceutical companies, an estimated 75 percent of whose research is massaged, manipulated or fabricated.”

My only hope now is that the film JUST ONE DROP is less bonkers than Lynne’s comment about it!

On 13 March, the UK Charity Commission published the following announcement:

This consultation is about the Commission’s approach to deciding whether an organisation which uses or promotes CAM therapies is a charity. For an organisation to be charitable, its purposes must be exclusively charitable. Some purposes relate to health and to relieve the needs of the elderly and disabled.

We are seeking views on:

  • the level and nature of evidence to support CAM
  • conflicting and inconsistent evidence
  • alternative therapies and the risk of harm
  • palliative alternative therapy

Last year, lawyers wrote to the Charity Commission on behalf of the Good Thinking Society suggesting that, if the commission refused to revoke the charitable status of organisations that promote homeopathy, it could be subject to a judicial review. The commission responded by announcing their review which will be completed by 1 July 2017.

Charities must meet a “public benefit test”. This means that they must be able to provide evidence that the work they do benefits the public as a whole. Therefore the consultation will have to determine what nature of evidence is required to demonstrate that a CAM-promoting charity provides this benefit.

In a press release, the Charity Commission stated that it will consider what to do in the face of “conflicting or inconsistent” evidence of a treatment’s effectiveness, and whether it should approach “complementary” treatments, intended to work alongside conventional medicine, differently from “alternative” treatments intended to replace it. In my view, however, this distinction is problematic and often impossible. Depending on the clinical situation, almost any given alternative therapy can be used both as a complementary and as an alternative treatment. Some advocates seem to cleverly promote their therapy as complementary (because this is seen as more acceptable), but clearly employ it as an alternative. The dividing line is often far too blurred for this distinction to be practical, and I have therefore long given up making it.

John Maton, the commission’s head of charitable status, said “Our consultation is not about whether complementary and alternative therapies and medicines are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but about what level of evidence we should require when making assessments about an organisation’s charitable status.” Personally, I am not sure what this means. It sounds suspiciously soft and opens all sorts of escape routes for even the most outright quackery, I fear.

Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society said “We are pleased to see the Charity Commission making progress on their review. Too often we have seen little effective action to protect the public from charities whose very purpose is the promotion of potentially dangerous quackery. However, the real progress will come when the commission considers the clear evidence that complementary and alternative medicine organisations currently afforded charitable status often offer therapies that are completely ineffective or even potentially harm the public. We hope that this review leads to a policy to remove such misleading charities from the register.”

On this blog, I have occasionally reported about charities promoting quackery (for instance here, here and here) and pointed out that such activities cannot ever benefit the public. On the contrary, they are a danger to public health and bring many good charities into disrepute. I would therefore encourage everyone to use this unique occasion to write to the Charity Commission and make their views felt.

 

The notorious tendency of pharmacist to behave like shop-keepers when it comes to the sale of bogus remedies has been the subject of this blog many times before. In my view, this is an important subject, and I will therefore continue to report about it.

On the website of the AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PHARMACY (AJP), we find interesting new data on Australian pharmacists’ love affair with bogus alternative medicine. The AJP recently ran a poll asking readers: “Do you stock Complementary Medicines (CMs) in your pharmacy?” The results of this little survey so far show that 54% of all participating pharmacists say they stock CMs, including homeopathic products. About a quarter (28%) of respondents stock CMs but not homeopathic products. And 9% said they “only stock evidence-based CMs”. Three percent completely refuse to stock CMs, while 2% stock them but with clear in-store labels saying that they may not work. One person stated they stock CMs but have recently decided to no longer do so.

The President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) Joe Demarte commented on these findings: “The latest survey results, showing over 40% of pharmacists are adhering to PSA’s Code of Ethics on complementary medicines, are very encouraging… However it’s disappointing that some pharmacists are still stocking homeopathy products, which are not supported by PSA’s Code of Ethics or our Position Statement on Complementary Medicines… Irrespective of the products stocked in a pharmacy, the important thing is when discussing the use of complementary medicines with consumers, pharmacists must ensure that consumers are provided with the best available information about the current evidence for efficacy, as well as information on any potential side effects, drug interactions and risks of harm… It’s important for pharmacists to provide a fair, honest and balanced view of the current evidence available on all complementary medicines,” Demarte added.

NSW pharmacist Ian Carr, who is a member of the Friends of Science in Medicine group, commented that many pharmacists may not have much choice when it comes to stocking complementary and alternative medicines. “CMs policy is not being filtered through the professional assessment of the pharmacist… It’s basically a business deal with the franchise, and as a pharmacist taking on a franchise you’ve basically got to sign those rights away about what you get to sell. Some of the chains offer basically everything that is available, no questions asked. As an independent pharmacist I am able to make my own decisions about what to stock… We’ve got a ‘de-facto’ corporatisation happening with marketing groups and franchises, and I’m concerned the government will look at this trend and ask, why are we not deregulating the industry to reflect the apparent reality of pharmacy today? We’re only playing into the hands of people who want deregulation… We should be telling people in no uncertain terms that if something is on the shelf it doesn’t mean it’s been assessed or approved by the TGA… There is no doubt that there has been a long-term relationship between the supplement industry and pharmacy. But it was also a few decades ago that researchers started applying the concept of evidence-based medicine to healthcare generally. That should have been the point where we said, ‘we’re not just going to be a conduit for your products without questioning their basis in evidence’. That’s where we lost the plot. The question now is: where do we draw that line? I’m really trying to say to my fellow pharmacists: Please let us reassess the unquestioning support of the CM industry, or we’ll all be tarred with the same brush. I and many others are concerned about – and fighting for – the reputation of the pharmacy profession.”

A BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine survey by researchers from Alfred Hospital in Melbourne found that 92% thought pharmacists should provide safety information about CMs, while 93% thought it important for pharmacists to be knowledgeable about CMs. This shows a huge divide between what is happening in Australian pharmacy on the one side and ethical demands or public opinion on the other side. What is more, there is little reason to believe that the situation in other countries is fundamentally different.

And did you notice this little gem in the comments above?  “…over 40% of pharmacists are adhering to PSA’s Code of Ethics…” – the PSA president finds this ‘VERY ENCOURAGING’.

When I saw this, I almost fell off my chair!

Does the president know that this means that 60% of his members are violating their own code of ethics?

Is that truly VERY ENCOURAGING, I ask myself.

My answer is no, this is VERY WORRYING.

 

A recent article in the Guardian revealed that about one third of Australian pharmacists are recommending alternative medicines with little-to-no evidence for their efficacy, including useless homeopathic products and potentially harmful herbal products.

For this survey of 240 Australian pharmacies, mystery shoppers were sent in to speak to a pharmacist at the prescription dispensing counter and ask for advice about feeling stressed. The results show that three per cent of the pharmacists recommended homeopathic products, despite a comprehensive review of all existing studies on homeopathy finding that there is no evidence they work in treating any condition and that ‘people who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments’. Twenty-six percent of all pharmacists recommended Bach flower remedies to relieve stress. A comprehensive review of all existing studies on Bach flower remedies found no difference between the remedies and placebos. Fifty-nine per cent of people were just told the complementary and alternative product recommended to them worked, and 24% were told the product was scientifically proven, without any evidence being provided to them.

Asked about these findings, Dr Ken Harvey, a prominent Australian expert, said they demonstrated that some pharmacists were failing in their professional duty to consumers. “Pharmacists are giving crazy advice, and it is dangerous in some cases,” he said. “My view is that pharmacists, if they are going to sell these products, need to have a big shining sign over the shelves of the complementary and alternative medicine section that says ‘these products have not been assessed by the government regulators to see if they work, please talk to pharmacist’.Pharamacists are giving poor advice and they clearly have a conflict of interest,” Harvey said.

If you had hoped that in other countries pharmacists behave more responsibly, I must disappoint you. The information available shows that, when it comes to alternative medicine, pharmacists across the globe act much more like shop-keepers than like health care professionals. They are in the habit of putting profit before their duty to abide by the rules of evidence-based practice. And, in doing do, they violate their own ethical codes so regularly that I ask myself why they bothered to even implement one.

On this blog I have written so often about this issue that one could come to the conclusion that I have a bee under my bonnet:

The truth, however, is not that I am the victim of a bee.

The truth is that this is a very important public health issue.

The truth is that pharmacists show little signs of even trying to get to grips with it.

The truth is that pharmacists who sell bogus medicines put profit before professional ethics.

The truth is that such behaviour is not that of health care professionals but that of shop-keepers.

The truth is that I intend to carry on reminding these pharmacists that they are behaving like charlatans.

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