MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

research

Twenty years ago, when I started my Exeter job as a full-time researcher of complementary/alternative medicine (CAM), I defined the aim of my unit as applying science to CAM. At the time, this intention upset quite a few CAM-enthusiasts. One of the most prevalent arguments of CAM-proponents against my plan was that the study of CAM with rigorous science was quite simply an impossibility. They claimed that CAM included mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and other complex interventions which cannot not be put into the ‘straight jacket’ of conventional research, e. g. a controlled clinical trial. I spent the next few years showing that this notion was wrong. Gradually and hesitantly CAM researchers seemed to agree with my view – not all, of course, but first a few and then slowly, often reluctantly the majority of them.

What followed was a period during which several research groups started conducting rigorous tests of the hypotheses underlying CAM. All too often, the results turned out to be disappointing, to say the least: not only did most of the therapies in question fail to show efficacy, they were also by no means free of risks. Worst of all, perhaps, much of CAM was disclosed as being biologically implausible. The realization that rigorous scientific scrutiny often generated findings which were not what proponents had hoped for led to a sharp decline in the willingness of CAM-proponents to conduct rigorous tests of their hypotheses. Consequently, many asked whether science was such a good idea after all.

But that, in turn, created a new problem: once they had (at least nominally) committed themselves to science, how could they turn against it? The answer to this dilemma was easier that anticipated: the solution was to appear dedicated to science but, at the same time, to argue that, because CAM is subtle, holistic, complex etc., a different scientific approach was required. At this stage, I felt we had gone ‘full circle’ and had essentially arrived back where we were 20 years ago – except that CAM-proponents no longer rejected the scientific method outright but merely demanded different tools.

A recent article may serve as an example of this new and revised stance of CAM-proponents on science. Here proponents of alternative medicine argue that a challenge for research methodology in CAM/ICH* is the growing recognition that CAM/IHC practice often involves complex combination of novel interventions that include mind and body practices, holistic therapies, and others. Critics argue that the reductionist placebo controlled randomized control trial (RCT) model that works effectively for determining efficacy for most pharmaceutical or placebo trial RCTs may not be the most appropriate for determining effectiveness in clinical practice for either CAM/IHC or many of the interventions used in primary care, including health promotion practices. Therefore the reductionist methodology inherent in efficacy studies, and in particular in RCTs, may not be appropriate to study the outcomes for much of CAM/IHC, such as Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM) or other complex non-CAM/IHC interventions—especially those addressing comorbidities. In fact it can be argued that reductionist methodology may disrupt the very phenomenon, the whole system, that the research is attempting to capture and evaluate (i.e., the whole system in its naturalistic environment). Key issues that surround selection of the most appropriate methodology to evaluate complex interventions are well described in the Kings Fund report on IHC and also in the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) guidelines for evaluating complex interventions—guidelines which have been largely applied to the complexity of conventional primary care and care for patients with substantial comorbidity. These reports offer several potential solutions to the challenges inherent in studying CAM/IHC. [* IHC = integrated health care]

Let’s be clear and disclose what all of this actually means. The sequence of events, as I see it, can be summarized as follows:

  • We are foremost ALTERNATIVE! Our treatments are far too unique to be subjected to reductionist research; we therefore reject science and insist on an ALTERNATIVE.
  • We (well, some of us) have reconsidered our opposition and are prepared to test our hypotheses scientifically (NOT LEAST BECAUSE WE NEED THE RECOGNITION THAT THIS MIGHT BRING).
  • We are dismayed to see that the results are mostly negative; science, it turns out, works against our interests.
  • We need to reconsider our position.
  • We find it inconceivable that our treatments do not work; all the negative scientific results must therefore be wrong.
  • We always said that our treatments are unique; now we realize that they are far too holistic and complex to be submitted to reductionist scientific methods.
  • We still believe in science (or at least want people to believe that we do) – but we need a different type of science.
  • We insist that RCTs (and all other scientific methods that fail to demonstrate the value of CAM) are not adequate tools for testing complex interventions such as CAM.
  • We have determined that reductionist research methods disturb our subtle treatments.
  • We need pragmatic trials and similarly ‘soft’ methods that capture ‘real life’ situations, do justice to CAM and rarely produce a negative result.

What all of this really means is that, whenever the findings of research fail to disappoint CAM-proponents, the results are by definition false-negative. The obvious solution to this problem is to employ different (weaker) research methods, preferably those that cannot possibly generate a negative finding. Or, to put it bluntly: in CAM, science is acceptable only as long as it produces the desired results.

Blinding patients in clinical trials is a key methodological procedure for minimizing bias and thus making sure that the results are reliable. In alternative medicine, blinding is not always straight forward, and many studies are therefore not patient-blinded. We all know that this can introduce bias into a trial, but how large is its effect on study outcomes?

This was the research question addressed by a recent systematic review of randomized clinical trials with one sub-study (i.e. experimental vs control) involving blinded patients and another, otherwise identical, sub-study involving non-blinded patients. Within each trial, the researchers compared the difference in effect sizes (i.e. standardized mean differences) between the two sub-studies. A difference <0 indicates that non-blinded patients generated a more optimistic effect estimate. The researchers then pooled the differences with random-effects inverse variance meta-analysis, and explored reasons for heterogeneity.

The main analysis included 12 trials with a total of 3869 patients. Ten of these RCTs were studies of acupuncture. The average difference in effect size for patient-reported outcomes was -0.56 (95% confidence interval -0.71 to -0.41), (I(2 )= 60%, P = 0.004), indicating that non-blinded patients exaggerated the effect size by an average of 0.56 standard deviation, but with considerable variation. Two of the 12 trials also used observer-reported outcomes, showing no indication of exaggerated effects due lack of patient blinding.

There was an even larger effect size difference in the 10 acupuncture trials [-0.63 (-0.77 to -0.49)], than in the two non-acupuncture trials [-0.17 (-0.41 to 0.07)]. Lack of patient blinding was also associated with increased attrition rates and the use of co-interventions: ratio of control group attrition risk 1.79 (1.18 to 2.70), and ratio of control group co-intervention risk 1.55 (0.99 to 2.43).

The authors conclude that this study provides empirical evidence of pronounced bias due to lack of patient blinding in complementary/alternative randomized clinical trials with patient-reported outcomes.

This is a timely, rigorous and important analysis. In alternative medicine, we currently see a proliferation of trials that are not patient-blinded. We always suspected that they are at a high risk of generating false-positive results – now we know that this is, in fact, the case.

What should we do with this insight? In my view, the following steps would be wise:

  1. Take the findings from the existing trials that are devoid of patient-blinding with more than just a pinch of salt.
  2. Discourage the funding of future studies that fail to include patient-blinding.
  3. If patient-blinding is truly and demonstrably impossible – which is not often the case – make sure that the trialists at least include blinding of the assessors of the primary outcome measures.

There must be well over 10 000 clinical trials of acupuncture; Medline lists ~5 000, and many more are hidden in the non-Medline listed literature. That should be good news! Sadly, it isn’t.

It should mean that we now have a pretty good idea for what conditions acupuncture is effective and for which illnesses it does not work. But we don’t! Sceptics say it works for nothing, while acupuncturists claim it is a panacea. The main reason for this continued controversy is that the quality of the vast majority of these 10 000 studies is not just poor, it is lousy.

“Where is the evidence for this outraging statement???” – I hear the acupuncture-enthusiasts shout. Well, how about my own experience as editor-in-chief of FACT? No? Far too anecdotal?

How about looking at Cochrane reviews then; they are considered to be the most independent and reliable evidence in existence? There are many such reviews (most, if not all [co-]authored by acupuncturists) and they all agree that the scientific rigor of the primary studies is fairly awful. Here are the crucial bits of just the last three; feel free to look for more:

All of the studies had a high risk of bias

All included trials had a high risk of bias…

The studies were not judged to be free from bias…

Or how about providing an example? Good idea! Here is a new trial which could stand for numerous others:

This study was performed to compare the efficacy of acupuncture versus corticosteroid injection for the treatment of Quervain’s tendosynovitis (no, you do not need to look up what condition this is for understanding this post). Thirty patients were treated in two groups. The acupuncture group received 5 acupuncture sessions of 30 minutes duration. The injection group received one methylprednisolone acetate injection in the first dorsal compartment of the wrist. The degree of disability and pain was evaluated by using the Quick Disabilities of the Arm, Shoulder, and Hand (Q-DASH) scale and the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) at baseline and at 2 weeks and 6 weeks after the start of treatment. The baseline means of the Q-DASH and the VAS scores were 62.8 and 6.9, respectively. At the last follow-up, the mean Q-DASH scores were 9.8 versus 6.2 in the acupuncture and injection groups, respectively, and the mean VAS scores were 2 versus 1.2. Thus there were short-term improvements of pain and function in both groups.

The authors drew the following conclusions: Although the success rate was somewhat higher with corticosteroid injection, acupuncture can be considered as an alternative option for treatment of De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.

The flaws of this study are exemplary and numerous:

  • This should have been a study that compares two treatments – the technical term is ‘equivalence trial – and such studies need to be much larger to produce a meaningful result. Small sample sizes in equivalent trials will always make the two treatments look similarly effective, even if one is a pure placebo.
  • There is no gold standard treatment for this condition. This means that a comparative trial makes no sense at all. In such a situation, one ought to conduct a placebo-controlled trial.
  • There was no blinding of patients; therefore their expectation might have distorted the results.
  • The acupuncture group received more treatments than the injection group; therefore the additional attention might have distorted the findings.
  • Even if the results were entirely correct, one cannot conclude from them that acupuncture was effective; the notion that it was similarly ineffective as the injections is just as warranted.

These are just some of the most fatal flaws of this study. The sad thing is that similar criticisms can be made for most of the 10 000 trials of acupuncture. But the point here is not to nit-pick nor to quack-bust. My point is a different and more serious one: fatally flawed research is not just a ‘poor show’, it is unethical because it is a waste of scarce resources and, even more importantly, an abuse of patients for meaningless pseudo-science. All it does is it misleads the public into believing that acupuncture might be good for this or that condition and consequently make wrong therapeutic decisions.

In acupuncture (and indeed in most alternative medicine) research, the problem is so extremely wide-spread that it is high time to do something about it. Journal editors, peer-reviewers, ethics committees, universities, funding agencies and all others concerned with such research have to work together so that such flagrant abuse is stopped once and for all.

Yesterday, BBC NEWS published the following interesting text about a BBC4 broadcast entitled ‘THE ROYAL ACTIVIST’ aired on the same day:

Prince Charles has been a well-known supporter of complementary medicine. According to a… former Labour cabinet minister, Peter Hain, it was a topic they shared an interest in.

“He had been constantly frustrated at his inability to persuade any health ministers anywhere that that was a good idea, and so he, as he once described it to me, found me unique from this point of view, in being somebody that actually agreed with him on this, and might want to deliver it.”
Mr Hain added: “When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2005-7, he was delighted when I told him that since I was running the place I could more or less do what I wanted to do.***
“I was able to introduce a trial for complementary medicine on the NHS, and it had spectacularly good results, that people’s well-being and health was vastly improved.

“And when he learnt about this he was really enthusiastic and tried to persuade the Welsh government to do the same thing and the government in Whitehall to do the same thing for England, but not successfully,” added Mr Hain.

*** obviously there is no homeopathic remedy for megalomania (but that’s a different story)

Oh really?

A TRIAL?

SPECTACULARLY GOOD RESULTS?

NO KIDDING?

Let’s have a look at the ‘trial’ and its results. An easily accessible report provides the following details about it:

From February 2007 to February 2008, Get Well UK ran the UK’s first government-backed complementary therapy pilot. Sixteen practitioners provided treatments including acupuncture, osteopathy and aromatherapy, to more than 700 patients at two GP practices in Belfast and Derry.   

The BBC made an hour long documentary following our trials and tribulations, which was broadcast on BBC1 NI on 5 May 2008.

Following the successful completion of the pilot, the results were analysed by Social and Market Research and recommendations were made to the Health Minister

Aims and Objectives 

The aim of the project was to pilot services integrating complementary medicine into existing primary care services in Northern Ireland. Get Well UK provided this pilot project for the Department for Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) during 2007.

The objectives were:

  • To measure the health outcomes of the service and monitor health improvements.
  • To redress inequalities in access to complementary medicine by providing therapies through the NHS, allowing access regardless of income.
  • To contribute to best practise in the field of delivering complementary therapies through primary care.
  • To provide work for suitably skilled and qualified practitioners.
  • To increase patient satisfaction with quick access to expert care.
  • To help patients learn skills to improve and retain their health.
  • To free up GP time to work with other patients.
  • To deliver the programme for 700 patients.

Results 

The results of the pilot were analysed by Social and Market Research, who produced this report.

The findings can be summarised as follows: 

Following the pilot, 80% of patients reported an improvement in their symptoms, 64% took less time off work and 55% reduced their use of painkillers.

In the pilot, 713 patients with a range of ages and demographic backgrounds and either physical or mental health conditions were referred to various complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies via nine GP practices in Belfast and Londonderry. Patients assessed their own health and wellbeing pre and post therapy and GPs and CAM practitioners also rated patients’ responses to treatment and the overall effectiveness of the scheme.

Health improvement
• 81% of patients reported an improvement in their physical health
• 79% reported an improvement in their mental health
• 84% of patients linked an improvement in their health and wellbeing directly to their CAM treatment
• In 65% of patient cases, GPs documented a health improvement, correlating closely to patient-reported improvements
• 94% of patients said they would recommend CAM to another patient with their condition
• 87% of patient indicated a desire to continue with their CAM treatment

Painkillers and medication
• Half of GPs reported prescribing less medication and all reported that patients had indicated to them that they needed less
• 62% of patients reported suffering from less pain
• 55% reported using less painkillers following treatment
• Patients using medication reduced from 75% before treatment to 61% after treatment
• 44% of those taking medication before treatment had reduced their use afterwards

Health service and social benefits
• 24% of patients who used health services prior to treatment (i.e. primary and secondary care, accident and emergency) reported using the services less after treatment
• 65% of GPs reported seeing the patient less following the CAM referral
• Half of GPs said the scheme had reduced their workload and 17% reported a financial saving for their practice
• Half of GPs said their patients were using secondary care services less.

Impressed? Well, in case you are, please consider this:

  • there was no control group
  • therefore it is not possible to attribute any of the outcomes to the alternative therapies offered
  • they could have been due to placebo-effects
  • or to the natural history of the disease
  • or to regression towards the mean
  • or to social desirability
  • or to many other factors which are unrelated to the alternative treatments provided
  • most outcome measures were not objectively verified
  • the patients were self-selected
  • they would all have had conventional treatments in parallel
  • this ‘trial’ was of such poor quality that its findings were never published in a peer-reviewed journal
  • this was not a ‘trial’ but a ‘pilot study’
  • pilot studies are not normally for measuring outcomes but for testing the feasibility of a proper trial
  • the research expertise of the investigators was close to zero
  • the scientific community merely had pitiful smiles for this ‘trial’ when it was published
  • neither Northern Ireland nor any other region implemented the programme despite its “spectacularly good results”.

So, is the whole ‘trial’ story an utterly irrelevant old hat?

Certainly not! Its true significance does not lie in the fact that a few amateurs are trying to push bogus treatments into the NHS via the flimsiest pseudo-research of the century. The true significance, I think, is that it shows how Prince Charles, once again, oversteps the boundaries of his constitutional role.

Arnold Relman has died aged 91. He was a great personality, served for many years as editor-in-chief of ‘The New England Journal of Medicine’ and was professor of medicine and social medicine at Harvard Medical School. He also was an brilliantly outspoken critic of alternative medicine, and I therefore believe that he deserves to be remembered here. The following excerpts are from an article he wrote in 1998 about Andrew Weil, America’s foremost guru of alternative medicine; I have taken the liberty of extracting a few paragraphs which deal with alternative medicine in general terms.

Until now, alternative medicine has generally been rejected by medical scientists and educators, and by most practicing physicians. The reasons are many, but the most important reason is the difference in mentality between the alternative practitioners and the medical establishment. The leaders of the establishment believe in the scientific method, and in the rule of evidence, and in the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology upon which the modern view of nature is based. Alternative practitioners either do not seem to care about science or explicitly reject its premises. Their methods are often based on notions totally at odds with science, common sense, and modern conceptions of the structure and the function of the human body. In advancing their claims, they do not appear to recognize the need for objective evidence, asserting that the intuitions and the personal beliefs of patients and healers are all that is needed to validate their methods. One might have expected such thinking to alienate most people in a technologically advanced society such as ours; but the alternative medicine movement, and the popularity of gurus such as Weil, are growing rapidly…

That people usually “get better,” that most relatively minor diseases heal spontaneously or seem to improve with simple common remedies, is hardly news. Every physician, indeed every grandmother, knows that. Yet before we accept Weil’s contention that serious illnesses such as “bone cancer,” “Parkinson’s disease,” or “scleroderma” are similarly curable, or respond to alternative healing methods, we need at least to have some convincing medical evidence that the patients whom he reports in these testimonials did indeed suffer from these diseases, and that they were really improved or healed. The perplexity is not that Weil is using “anecdotes” as proof, but that we don’t know whether the anecdotes are true.

Anecdotal evidence is often used in the conventional medical literature to suggest the effectiveness of treatment that has not yet been tested by formal clinical trials. In fact, much of the mainstream professional literature in medicine consists of case reports — “anecdotes,” of a kind. The crucial difference between those case reports and the testimonials that abound in Weil’s books (and throughout the literature of alternative medicine) is that the case reports in the mainstream literature are almost always meticulously documented with objective data to establish the diagnosis and to verify what happened, whereas the testimonials cited by alternative medicine practitioners usually are not. Weil almost never gives any objective data to support his claims. Almost everything is simply hearsay and personal opinion.

To the best of my knowledge, Weil himself has published nothing in the peer-reviewed medical literature to document objectively his personal experiences with allegedly cured patients or to verify his claims for the effectiveness of any of the unorthodox remedies he uses. He is not alone in this respect. Few proponents of alternative medicine have so far published clinical reports that would stand the rigorous scientific scrutiny given to studies of traditional medical treatments published in the serious medical journals. Alternative medicine is still a field rich in undocumented claims and anecdotes and relatively lacking in credible scientific reports…

… Thus Weil can believe in miraculous cures even while claiming to be rational and scientific, because he thinks that quantum theory supports his views.

Yet the leading physicists of our time do not accept such an interpretation of quantum theory. They do not believe quantum theory says anything about the role of human consciousness in the physical world. They see quantum laws as simply a useful mathematical formulation for describing subatomic phenomena that are not adequately handled by classical physical theory, although the latter remains quite satisfactory for the analysis of physical events at the macro-level. Steven Weinberg has observed that “quantum mechanics has been overwhelmingly important to physics, but I cannot find any messages for human life in quantum mechanics that are different in any important way from those of Newtonian physics.” And overriding all discussions of the meaning of quantum physics is the fundamental fact that quantum theory, like all other scientific law, is only valid to the extent that it predicts and accords with the evidence provided by observation and objective measurement. Richard Feynman said it quite simply: “Observation is the ultimate and final judge of the truth of an idea.” Feynman also pointed out that scientific observations need to be objective, reproducible, and, in a sense, public — that is, available to all interested scientists who wish to check the observations for themselves.

Surely almost all scientists would agree with Feynman that, regardless of what theory of nature we wish to espouse, we cannot escape the obligation to support our claims with objective evidence. All theories must conform to the facts or be discarded. So, if Weil cannot produce credible evidence to validate the miraculous cures that he claims for the healing powers of the mind, and if he does not support with objective data the claims he and others make for the effectiveness of alternative healing methods, he cannot presume to wear the mantle of science, and his appeal to quantum theory cannot help him.

Some apologists for alternative medicine have argued that since their healing methods are based on a “paradigm” different from that of traditional medicine, traditional standards of evidence do not apply. Weil sometimes seems to agree with that view, as when he talks about “stoned thinking” and the “ambivalent” nature of reality, but more recently — as he seeks to integrate alternative with allopathic medicine — he seems to acknowledge the need for objective evidence. This, at least, is how I would interpret one of his most recent and ambitious publishing ventures, the editorship of the new quarterly journal Integrative Medicine***.

Integrative Medicine describes itself as a “peer-reviewed journal … committed to gathering evidence for the safety and efficacy of all approaches to health according to the highest standards of scientific research, while remaining open to new paradigms and honoring the healing power of nature.” The Associate Editors and Editorial Board include prominent names in both alternative medicine and allopathic medicine, who presumably support that mission. Yet the first two issues will disappoint those who were looking for original clinical research based on new, objective data. Perhaps subsequent issues will be different, but in any case it is hard to understand the need for Weil’s new journal if he truly intends to hold manuscripts to accepted scientific standards: there already exist many leading peer-reviewed medical journals that will review research studies of alternative healing methods on their merits. During the past decade or so, only a few such studies have passed rigorous review and have been published in first-rate journals. Recently, more studies have been published, but very few of them report significant clinical effects. And that is pretty much where matters now stand. Despite much avowed interest in research on alternative medicine and increased investment in support of such research, the evidentiary underpinnings of unconventional healing methods are still largely lacking…

The alternative medicine movement has been around for a long time, but it was eclipsed during most of this century by the success of medical science. Now there is growing public disenchantment with the cost and the impersonality of modern medical care, as well as concern about medical mistakes and the complications and side-effects of pharmaceuticals and other forms of medical treatment. For their part, physicians have allowed the public to perceive them as uninterested in personal problems, as inaccessible to their patients except when carrying out technical procedures and surgical operations. The “doctor knows best” attitude, which dominated patient-doctor relations during most of the century, has in recent decades given way to a more activist, consumer-oriented view of the patient’s role. Moreover, many other licensed health-care professionals, such as nurse-practitioners, psychotherapists, pharmacists, and chiropractors, are providing services once exclusively reserved to allopathic physicians.

The net result of all these developments has been a weakening of the hegemony that allopathic medicine once exercised over the health care system, and a growing interest by the public in exploring other healing approaches. The authority of allopathic medicine is also being challenged by a swelling current of mysticism and anti-scientism that runs deep through our culture. Even as the number and the complexity of urgent technological and scientific issues facing contemporary society increase, there seems to be a growing public distrust of the scientific outlook and a reawakening of interest in mysticism and spiritualism.

All this obscurantism has given powerful impetus to the alternative medicine movement, with its emphasis on the power of mind over matter. And so consumer demand for alternative remedies is rising, as is public and private financial support for their study and clinical use. It is no wonder that practicing physicians, the academic medical establishment, and the National Institutes of Health are all finding reasons to pay more attention to the alternative medicine movement. Indeed, it is becoming politically incorrect for the movement’s critics to express their skepticism too strongly in public…

There is no doubt that modern medicine as it is now practiced needs to improve its relations with patients, and that some of the criticisms leveled against it by people such as Weil — and by many more within the medical establishment itself — are valid. There also can be no doubt that a few of the “natural” medicines and healing methods now being used by practitioners of alternative medicine will prove, after testing, to be safe and effective. This, after all, has been the way in which many important therapeutic agents and treatments have found their way into standard medical practice in the past. Mainstream medicine should continue to be open to the testing of selected unconventional treatments. In keeping an open mind, however, the medical establishment in this country must not lose its scientific compass or weaken its commitment to rational thought and the rule of evidence.

There are not two kinds of medicine, one conventional and the other unconventional, that can be practiced jointly in a new kind of “integrative medicine.” Nor, as Andrew Weil and his friends also would have us believe, are there two kinds of thinking, or two ways to find out which treatments work and which do not. In the best kind of medical practice, all proposed treatments must be tested objectively. In the end, there will only be treatments that pass that test and those that do not, those that are proven worthwhile and those that are not. Can there be any reasonable “alternative”?

 

*** the journal only existed for a short period of time

If we search on ‘Medline’ for ‘complementary alternative medicine’ (CAM), we currently get about 13000 hits. A little graph on the side of the page demonstrates that, during the last 4 years, the number of articles on this subject has grown exponentially.

Surely, this must be very good news: such intense research activity will soon tell us exactly which alternative treatments work for which conditions and which don’t.

I beg to differ. Let me explain why.

The same ‘Medline’ search informs us that the majority of the recent articles were published in an open access journal called ‘Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ (eCAM). For example, of the 80 most recent articles listed in Medline (on 26/5/2014), 53 came from that journal. The publication frequency of eCAM and its increase in recent years beggars belief: in 2011, they published just over 500 articles which is already a high number, but, in 2012, the figure had risen to >800, and in 2013 it was >1300 (the equivalent 2013 figure for the BMJ/BMJ Open by comparison is 4, and that for another alt med journal, e.g. Forsch Komplement, is 10)

How do they do it? How can eCAM be so dominant in publishing alt med research? The trick seems to be fairly simple.

Let’s assume you are an alt med researcher and you have an article that you would like to see published. Once you submit it to eCAM, your paper is sent to one of the ~150 members of the editorial board. These people are almost all strong proponents of alternative medicine; critics are a true rarity in this group. At this stage, you are able to suggest the peer reviewers for your submission (all who ever accepted this task are listed on the website; they amount to several thousand!), and it seems that, with the vast majority of submissions, the authors’ suggestions are being followed.

It goes without saying that most researchers suggest colleagues for peer reviewing who are not going to reject their work (the motto seems to be “if you pass my paper, I will pass yours). Therefore even faily flimsy bits of research pass this peer review process and get quickly published online in eCAM.

This process explains a lot, I think: 1) the extraordinarily high number of articles published 2) why currently more than 50% of all alt med research originate from eCAM 3) why so much of it is utter rubbish.

Even the mere titles of some of the articles might demonstrate my point. A few examples have to suffice:

  • Color distribution differences in the tongue in sleep disorder
  • Wen-dan decoction improves negative emotions in sleep-deprived rats by regulating orexin-a and leptin expression.
  • Yiqi Huoxue Recipe Improves Heart Function through Inhibiting Apoptosis Related to Endoplasmic Reticulum Stress in Myocardial Infarction Model of Rats.
  • Protective Effects of Bu-Shen-Huo-Xue Formula against 5/6 Nephrectomy-Induced Chronic Renal Failure in Rats
  • Effects and Mechanisms of Complementary and Alternative Medicine during the Reproductive Process
  • Evidence-based medicinal plants for modern chronic diseases
  • Transforming Pain into Beauty: On Art, Healing, and Care for the Spirit

This system of uncritical peer review and fast online publication seems to suit many of the people involved in this process: the journal’s owners are laughing all the way to the bank; there is a publication charge of US$ 2000 per article, and, in 2013, the income of eCAM must therefore have been well over US$2 000 000. The researchers are equally delighted; they get even their flimsiest papers published (remember: ‘publish or perish’!). And the evangelic believers in alternative medicine are pleased because they can now claim that their field is highly research-active and that there is plenty of evidence to support the use of this or that therapy.

But there are others who are not served well by eCAM habit of publishing irrelevant, low quality articles:

  • professionals who would like to advance health care and want to see reliable evidence as to which treatments work and which don’t,
  • the public who, in one way or another, pay for all this and might assume that published research tends to be relevant and reliable,
  • the patients who have given their time to researchers in the hope that their gift will improve health care,
  • ill individuals who hope that alternative treatments might relieve their suffering,
  • politicians who rely on research to be reliable in order to arrive at the right decisions.

Come to think of it, the vast majority of people should be less than enchanted with eCAM and similar journals.

Manufacturers of homeopathic remedies are having a hard time, it seems. The following press release has just reached me, and I thought it might be worth sharing it with my readers:

 

Baden-Baden, Germany, May 23, 2014 – Heel Group today announced the cessation of its business activities in the United States and Canada on August 31, 2014.

 

In the USA and Canada, manufacturers of OTC homeopathic medicinal products have been confronted with accusations through class action lawsuits. Heel Inc., the Heel Group’s U.S.-based subsidiary, was also faced with two such attempts recently. Both cases have been settled without conceding the allegations. The financial burden on Heel Inc., however, was substantial.

In a subsequent risk-benefit analysis of its global activities, the Heel Group decided to focus on strengthening its excellent position in South America, Central Europe and Eastern Europe and to withdraw from business activities in the USA and Canada for the time being.

Heel’s operations in both the USA and Canada will accordingly be discontinued as of August 31, 2014.

In the USA, negotiations with MediNatura Inc., a Delaware Corporation, are close to completion by which the Heel Group will transfer its stock in Heel Inc., to MediNatura by the end of August 2014. The transaction does, however, not include any of Heel’s trusted and leading global brands such as Traumeel, Neurexan, Zeel, Oculoheel, Luffeel, Sinusin, Vinceel, Nectadyn, Adrisin, Gripp-Heel, Viburcol, Vertigoheel, Spascupreel, Engystol, and Lymphomyosot*. Completion of the acquisition is subject to standard closing procedures.

As a trailblazer and leader in the field of scientific research into natural healthcare and a leading manufacturer of homeopathic medicines, the Heel Group will continue to invest in research and development on a global scale, also involving the medical-scientific community in North America.

Ralph Schmidt, CEO of the Heel Group: “As a global player, we are continuously reviewing our portfolio. This means that we are sometimes required to focus on specific regions at the expense of others in order to efficiently carry out our ambitious expansion plans. I would not exclude the possibility of re-entering the markets in the USA and Canada with a new business concept.”

It is somewhat sobering from my point of view to realise that all the science proving that homeopathy had no health effects beyond placebo had little effect on the market for homeopathic remedies. If anything, the sales figures seemed to get better and better as the evidence got more and more negative during the last decades. The ‘globulisation’ of the world seemed imminent due to those homeopathic manufacturers who wanted to become ‘global players’ (is there not a homeopathic remedy against megalomania?). It was only the legal actions that seemed to have an effect. The multiple North American class actions were more effective than the science, it seems.

Is there a lesson here? Perhaps! It could be that scientists working on their own are not always powerful enough to improve health care. Particularly when confronted with an alliance of evangelic belief and commercial interests, scientists, sceptics, journalists, lawyers, politicians and other professions might have to co-operate to bring about meaningful change.

 

Today, there are several dozens of journals publishing articles on alternative medicine. ‘The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine’ is one of the best known, and it has one of the highest impact factors of them all. The current issue holds a few ‘gems’ which might be worthy of a comment or two. Here I have selected three articles reporting clinical studies, and I reproduce their abstracts (almost) in full (in italics) and add my comments (for clarity in bold). All the articles are available electronically, and I have provided the links for those who want to investigate beyond the abstracts.

STUDY No 1

The first ‘pilot study‘ was aimed to demonstrate the potential of auricular acupuncture (AAT) for insomnia in maintenance haemodialysis (MHD) patients and to prepare for a future randomized controlled trial.

Eligible patients were enrolled into this descriptive pilot study and received AAT designed to manage insomnia for 4 weeks. Questionnaires that used the Pittsburgh sleep quality index (PSQI) were completed at baseline, after a 4-week intervention, and 1 month after completion of treatment. Sleep quality and other clinical characteristics, including sleeping pills taken, were statistically compared between different time points.

A total of 22 patients were selected as eligible participants and completed the treatment and questionnaires. The mean global PSQI score was significantly decreased after AAT intervention (p<0.05). Participants reported improved sleep quality (p<0.01), shorter sleep latency (p<0.05), less sleep disturbance (p<0.01), and less daytime dysfunction (p=0.01). They also exhibited less dependency on sleep medications, indicated by the reduction in weekly estazolam consumption from 6.98±4.44 pills to 4.23±2.66 pills (p<0.01). However, these improvements were not preserved 1 month after treatment.

Conclusions: In this single-center pilot study, complementary AAT for MHD patients with severe insomnia was feasible and well tolerated and showed encouraging results for sleep quality.

My comments:

In alternative medicine research, it has become far too common (almost generally accepted) to call a flimsy trial a ‘pilot study’. The authors give their game away by stating that, by conducting this trial, they want to ‘demonstrate the potential of AAT’. This is not a legitimate aim of research; science is for TESTING hypotheses, not for PROVING them!

The results of this trial show that patients experienced improvements after receiving AAT which, however, did not last. As there was no placebo control group, the most likely explanation for these outcomes would be that AAT generated a short-lasting placebo effect.

A sample size of 22 is, of course, far to small to allow any conclusions about the safety of the intervention. Despite these obvious facts, the authors seem convinced that AAT is both safe and effective.

STUDY No 2

The aim of the second study was to compare the therapeutic effect of Yamamoto new scalp acupuncture (YNSA), a recently developed microcupuncture system, with traditional acupuncture (TCA) for the prophylaxis and treatment of migraine headache.

In a randomized clinical trial, 80 patients with migraine headache were assigned to receive YNSA or TCA. A pain visual analogue scale (VAS) and migraine therapy assessment questionnaire (MTAQ) were completed before treatment, after 6 and 18 sections of treatment, and 1 month after completion of therapy.

All the recruited patients completed the study. Baseline characteristics were similar between the two groups. Frequency and severity of migraine attacks, nausea, the need for rescue treatment, and work absence rate decreased similarly in both groups. Recovery from headache and ability to continue daily activities 2 hours after medical treatment showed similar improvement in both groups (p>0.05).

Conclusions: Classic acupuncture and YNSA are similarly effective in the prophylaxis and treatment of migraine headache and may be considered as alternatives to pharmacotherapy.

My comments:

This is what is technically called an ‘equivalence trial’, i.e. a study that compares an experimental treatment (YNSA) to one that is (assumed to be) effective. To demonstrate equivalence, such trials need to have large sample sizes, and this study is woefully underpowered. As it stands, the results show nothing meaningful at all; if anything, they suggest that both interventions were similarly useless.

STUDY No 3

The third study determined whether injection with hypertonic dextrose and morrhuate sodium (prolotherapy) using a pragmatic, clinically determined injection schedule for knee osteoarthritis (KOA) results in improved knee pain, function, and stiffness compared to baseline status.

The participants were 38 adults who had at least 3 months of symptomatic KOA and who were in the control groups of a prior prolotherapy randomized controlled trial (RCT) (Prior-Control), were ineligible for the RCT (Prior-Ineligible), or were eligible but declined the RCT (Prior-Declined).

The injection sessions at occurred at 1, 5, and 9 weeks with as-needed treatment at weeks 13 and 17. Extra-articular injections of 15% dextrose and 5% morrhuate sodium were done at peri-articular tendon and ligament insertions. A single intra-articular injection of 6 mL 25% dextrose was performed through an inferomedial approach.

The primary outcome measure was the validated Western Ontario McMaster University Osteoarthritis Index (WOMAC). The secondary outcome measure was the Knee Pain Scale and postprocedure opioid medication use and participant satisfaction.

The Prior-Declined group reported the most severe baseline WOMAC score (p=0.02). Compared to baseline status, participants in the Prior-Control group reported a score change of 12.4±3.5 points (19.5%, p=0.002). Prior-Decline and Prior-Ineligible groups improved by 19.4±7.0 (42.9%, p=0.05) and 17.8±3.9 (28.4%, p=0.008) points, respectively; 55.6% of Prior-Control, 75% of Prior-Decline, and 50% of Prior-Ineligible participants reported score improvement in excess of the 12-point minimal clinical important difference on the WOMAC measure. Postprocedure opioid medication resulted in rapid diminution of prolotherapy injection pain. Satisfaction was high and there were no adverse events.

Conclusions: Prolotherapy using dextrose and morrhuate sodium injections for participants with mild-to-severe KOA resulted in safe, significant, sustained improvement of WOMAC-based knee pain, function, and stiffness scores compared to baseline status.

My Comments:

This study had nothing that one might call a proper control group: all the three groups mentioned were treated with the experimental treatment. No attempt was made to control for even the most obvious biases: the observed effects could have been due to placebo or any other non-specific effects. The authors conclusions imply a causal relationship between the treatment and the outcome which is wrong. The notion that the experimental treatment is ‘safe’ is based on just 38 patients and therefore not reasonable.

IMPLICATION

All of this might seem rather trivial, and my comments could be viewed as a deliberate and vicious attempt to discredit one of the most respected journals of alternative medicine. Yet, considering that articles of this nature are more the rule than the exception in alternative medicine, I do think that this flagrant lack of scientific rigour is a relevant issue and has important implications.

As long as research in this area continues to be deeply flawed, as long as reviewers turn a blind eye to (or are not smart enough to detect) even the most obvious mistakes, as long as journal editors accept any rubbish in order to fill their pages, there is a great danger that we are being continuously being mislead about the supposed therapeutic value of alternative therapies.

Many who read this blog will, of course, have the capacity to think critically and might therefore not fall into the trap of accepting the conclusions of fatally flawed research. But many other people, including politicians, journalists and consumers, might not have the necessary appraisal skills and will thus not be able to tell that such studies can serve only one purpose: to popularise bogus treatments and thereby render health care less effective and more dangerous. Enthusiasts of alternative medicine are usually fully convinced that such studies amount to evidence and ram this pseudo-information down the throat of health care decision makers – the effects of such lobbying on public health can be disastrous.

And there is another downside to the publication of such dismal drivel: assuming (as I do) that not all of alternative medicine is completely useless, such embarrassingly poor research will inevitably have detrimental effects on the discipline of alternative medicine. After being exposed to a seemingly endless stream of pseudo-research, critics will eventually give up taking any of it seriously and might claim that none of it is worth the bother. In other words, those who conduct, accept or publish such nonsensical papers are not only endangering medical progress in general, they are also harming the very cause they try so desperately hard to advance.

The efficacy or effectiveness of medical interventions is, of course, best tested in clinical trials. The principle of a clinical trial is fairly simple: typically, a group of patients is divided (preferably at random) into two subgroups, one (the ‘verum’ group) is treated with the experimental treatment and the other (the ‘control’ group) with another option (often a placebo), and the eventual outcomes of the two groups is compared. If done well, such studies are able to exclude biases and confounding factors such that their findings allow causal inference. In other words, they can tell us whether an outcome was caused by the intervention per se or by some other factor such as the natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean etc.

A clinical trial is a research tool for testing hypotheses; strictly speaking, it tests the ‘null-hypothesis': “the experimental treatment generates the same outcomes as the treatment of the control group”. If the trial shows no difference between the outcomes of the two groups, the null-hypothesis is confirmed. In this case, we commonly speak of a negative result. If the experimental treatment was better than the control treatment, the null-hypothesis is rejected, and we commonly speak of a positive result. In other words, clinical trials can only generate positive or negative results, because the null-hypothesis must either be confirmed or rejected – there are no grey tones between the black of a negative and the white of a positive study.

For enthusiasts of alternative medicine, this can create a dilemma, particularly if there are lots of published studies with negative results. In this case, the totality of the available trial evidence is negative which means the treatment in question cannot be characterised as effective. It goes without saying that such an overall conclusion rubs the proponents of that therapy the wrong way. Consequently, they might look for ways to avoid this scenario.

One fairly obvious way of achieving this aim is to simply re-categorise the results. What, if we invented a new category? What, if we called some of the negative studies by a different name? What about NON-CONCLUSIVE?

That would be brilliant, wouldn’t it. We might end up with a simple statistic where the majority of the evidence is, after all, positive. And this, of course, would give the impression that the ineffective treatment in question is effective!

How exactly do we do this? We continue to call positive studies POSITIVE; we then call studies where the experimental treatment generated worst results than the control treatment (usually a placebo) NEGATIVE; and finally we call those studies where the experimental treatment created outcomes which were not different from placebo NON-CONCLUSIVE.

In the realm of alternative medicine, this ‘non-conclusive result’ method has recently become incredibly popular . Take homeopathy, for instance. The Faculty of Homeopathy proudly claim the following about clinical trials of homeopathy: Up to the end of 2011, there have been 164 peer-reviewed papers reporting randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in homeopathy. This represents research in 89 different medical conditions. Of those 164 RCT papers, 71 (43%) were positive, 9 (6%) negative and 80 (49%) non-conclusive.

This misleading nonsense was, of course, warmly received by homeopaths. The British Homeopathic Association, like many other organisations and individuals with an axe to grind lapped up the message and promptly repeated it: The body of evidence that exists shows that much more investigation is required – 43% of all the randomised controlled trials carried out have been positive, 6% negative and 49% inconclusive.

Let’s be clear what has happened here: the true percentage figures seem to show that 43% of studies (mostly of poor quality) suggest a positive result for homeopathy, while 57% of them (on average the ones of better quality) were negative. In other words, the majority of this evidence is negative. If we conducted a proper systematic review of this body of evidence, we would, of course, have to account for the quality of each study, and in this case we would have to conclude that homeopathy is not supported by sound evidence of effectiveness.

The little trick of applying the ‘NON-CONCLUSIVE’ method has thus turned this overall result upside down: black has become white! No wonder that it is so popular with proponents of all sorts of bogus treatments.

This article was posted a few months ago. Then it mysteriously vanished without a trace; nobody knows quite why or how. Today I found an old draft on my computer, so I post the article again. It might not be identical with the original but it is close enough, I think.

Some time ago, Andy Lewis formulated a notion which he called ‘Ernst’s law’. Initially, I felt this was a bit o.t.t., then it made me chuckle, and eventually it got me thinking: could there be some truth in it, and if so, why?

The ‘law’ stipulates that, if a scientist investigating alternative medicine is much liked by the majority of enthusiasts in this field, the scientist is not doing his/her job properly. In any other area of healthcare, such a ‘law’ would be absurd. Why then does it seem to make sense, at least to some degree, in alternative medicine? The differences between any area of conventional and alternative medicine are diverse and profound.

Take neurology, for instance: here we have an organ-system, anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, etiology and nosology all related more or less specifically to this field and all based on facts, rigorous science and substantial evidence. None of this knowledge, science and evidence is static, but each has evolved and can be predicted to do so in future. What we knew about neurology 50 years ago, for example, was dramatically different from what we know today. Scientific discovery discoveries in neurology link up with the knowledge gathered in other areas of medicine to generate a (more or less) complete bigger picture.

In alternative medicine or any single branch thereof, we have no specific organ-system, anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, etiology or nosology to speak of. We also have few notions that are transferable from one branch of alternative medicine to another – on the contrary, the assumptions of homeopathy, for example, are in overt contradiction to those of acupuncture which, in turn, are out of sync with those of reflexology, aromatherapy and Reiki.

Instead, each branch of alternative medicine has its own axioms that are largely detached from reality or, indeed, from the axioms of other branches of alternative medicine. In acupuncture, for instance, we have concepts such as yin and yang, qi, meridians and acupuncture points, and there is hardly any development of these concepts. This renders them akin to dogmas, and there is no chance in hell that the combination of all the branches of alternative medicine would add up to provide a sensible ‘bigger picture’.

If a scientist were to instill scientific, critical, progressive thought in a field like neurology, thus overthrowing current concepts and assumptions, they would be greeted with open arms among many like-minded researchers who all pursue the aim of advancing their field and contributing to the knowledge base by overturning wrong assumptions and discovering new truths. If researchers were to spend their time trying to analyse the concepts or treatments of alternative medicine, thus overthrowing current concepts and assumptions, they would not only not be appreciated by the majority of the experts working in this field, they would be castigated for their actions.

If a scientist dedicated decades of hard work to the rigorous assessment of alternative medicine, that person would become a thorn in the flesh of believers. Instead of welcoming him with open arms, some disappointed enthusiasts of alternative treatments might even pay for defaming them.

On the other hand, if a researcher merely misused the tools of science to confirm the implausible assumptions of alternative medicine, he would quickly become the celebrated ‘heroes’ of this field.

This is the bizarre phenomenon that ‘Ernst’s law’ seems to capture quite well – and this is why I believe the ‘law’ is worth more than a laugh and a chuckle. In fact, ‘Ernst’s law’ might even describe the depressing reality of retrograde thinking in alternative medicine more accurately than most of us care to admit.

What do my readers feel? Their comments following this blog may well confirm or refute my theory.

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