Chiropractors are often proud of offering drugless treatments to their patients. Many even have an outright aversion against drugs which goes back to their founding father, DD Palmer, who disapproved of pharmaceuticals. On this background it seems surprising that, today, some chiropractors lobby hard to get prescription rights.
A recent article explains:
A legislative proposal that would allow Wisconsin chiropractors to prescribe narcotics has divided those in the profession and pitted those of them who support the idea against medical doctors. At a hearing on the bill Tuesday, representatives form the Wisconsin Chiropractic Association said back pain is a common reason people go see a medical doctor, but they argue that chiropractors with additional training could be helping those patients instead. Under the bill, chiropractors would be able to write prescriptions for painkillers and administer anesthesia under the direction of a physician.
Expanding the scope of practice, the WCA said, would give patients with pain faster relief when primary care physicians are busy. The Wisconsin Medical Society, though, has come out against the proposal. “This expands to something not seen anywhere else in the country,” said Don Dexter, chief medical officer for WMS.
Meanwhile, another chiropractic group, the Chiropractic Society of Wisconsin, is also skeptical. “We contend there is no public need or demand … to allow chiropractors to prescribe drugs,” said Dean Shepherd, the group’s president.
Opponents also pointed out that the changes could increase access to opioids at a time the state is trying to reduce abuse. “As you know, based on legislation passed in the last two sessions, we’re already dealing with an epidemic of opioid overuse,” Dexter said. “We don’t need new providers prescribing those medications.”
However, some practicing chiropractors like Jason Mackey, with Leutke Storm Mackey Chiropractic in Madison, argue that medical fields evolve: “We have always had change throughout the course of our professsion.” Mackey said there has been pushback with previous changes, like using X-ray or certain therapies and recommending vitamins.
END OF QUOTE
On this blog, we discussed the issue of chiropractic prescribing before. At the time, I argued against such a move and gave the following reasons:
- Patients might be put at risk by chiropractors who are less than competent in prescribing medicines.
- More unnecessary NAISDs would be prescribed.
- The vast majority of the drugs in question is already available OTC.
- Healthcare costs would increase.
- Prescribing rights would give more legitimacy to a profession that arguably does not deserve it.
- Chiropractors would then continue their lobby work and soon demand the prescription rights to be extended to other classes of drugs.
Considering the chiropractors’ arguments for prescribing rights stated in the above article, I see little reason to change my mind.
During Voltaire’s time, this famous quote was largely correct. But today, things are very different, and I often think this ‘bon mot’ ought to be re-phrased into ‘The art of alternative medicine consists in amusing the patient, while medics cure the disease’.
To illustrate this point, I shall schematically outline the story of a patient seeking care from a range of clinicians. The story is invented but nevertheless based on many real experiences of a similar nature.
Tom is in his mid 50s, happily married, mildly over-weight and under plenty of stress. In addition to holding a demanding job, he has recently moved home and, as a consequence of lots of heavy lifting, his whole body aches. He had previous episodes of back trouble and re-starts the exercises a physio once taught him. A few days later, the back-pain has improved and most other pains have subsided as well. Yet a dull and nagging pain around his left shoulder and arm persists.
He is tempted to see his GP, but his wife is fiercely alternative. She was also the one who dissuaded Tom from taking Statins for his high cholesterol and put him on Garlic pills instead. Now she gives Tom a bottle of her Rescue Remedy, but after a week of taking it Tom’s condition is unchanged. His wife therefore persuades him to consult alternative practitioners for his ‘shoulder problem’. Thus he sees a succession of her favourite clinicians.
THE CHIROPRACTOR examines Tom’s spine and diagnoses subluxations to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of spinal manipulations and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE ENERGY HEALER diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital energy as the root cause of his persistent pain. Tom thus receives a series of healing sessions and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE REFLEXOLOGIST examines Tom’s foot and diagnoses knots on the sole of his foot to cause energy blockages which are the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of most agreeable foot massages and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE ACUPUNCTURIST examines Tom’s pulse and tongue and diagnoses a chi deficiency to be the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a series of acupuncture treatments and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE NATUROPATH examines Tom and diagnoses some form of auto-intoxication as the root cause of his problem. Tom thus receives a full program of detox and feels a little improved each time. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore makes another appointment for him.
THE HOMEOPATH takes a long and detailed history and diagnoses a problem with Tom’s vital force to be the root cause of his pain. Tom thus receives a homeopathic remedy tailor-made for his needs and feels a little improved after taking it for a few days. But he is disappointed that the pain in the left shoulder and arm returns. His wife therefore tries to make another appointment for him.
But this time, Tom had enough. His pain has not really improved and he is increasingly feeling unwell.
At the risk of a marital dispute, he consults his GP. The doctor looks up Tom’s history, asks a few questions, conducts a brief physical examination, and arranges for Tom to see a specialist. A cardiologist diagnoses Tom to suffer from coronary heart disease due to a stenosis in one of his coronary arteries. She explains that Tom’s dull pain in the left shoulder and arm is a rather typical symptom of this condition.
Tom has to have a stent put into the affected coronary artery, receives several medications to lower his cholesterol and blood pressure, and is told to take up regular exercise, lose weight and make several other changes to his stressful life-style. Tom’s wife is told in no uncertain terms to stop dissuading her husband from taking his prescribed medicines, and the couple are both sent to see a dietician who offers advice and recommends a course on healthy cooking. Nobody leaves any doubt that not following this complex (holistic!) package of treatments and advice would be a serious risk to Tom’s life.
It has taken a while, but finally Tom is pain-free. More importantly, his prognosis has dramatically improved. The team who now look after him have no doubt that a major heart attack had been imminent, and Tom could easily have died had he continued to listen to the advice of multiple non-medically trained clinicians.
The root cause of his condition was misdiagnosed by all of them. In fact, the root cause was the atherosclerotic degeneration in his arteries. This may not be fully reversible, but even if the atherosclerotic process cannot be halted completely, it can be significantly slowed down such that he can live a full life.
My advice based on this invented and many real stories of a very similar nature is this:
- alternative practitioners are often good at pampering their patients;
- this may contribute to some perceived clinical improvements;
- in turn, this perceived benefit can motivate patients to continue their treatment despite residual symptoms;
- alternative practitioner’s claims about ‘root causes’ and holistic care are usually pure nonsense;
- their pampering may be agreeable, but it can undoubtedly cost lives.
The British press recently reported that a retired bank manager (John Lawler, aged 80) died after visiting a chiropractor in York. This tragic case was published in multiple articles, most recently in THE SUN. Personally, I find this regrettable – not the fact that the press warns consumers of chiropractic, but the tone and content of the articles.
Let me explain this by citing the one in THE SUN of today. Here is the critical bit that concerns me:
Ezvard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, published a study showing at least 26 people had died as a result. He said: “The evidence is not in favour of chiropractic treatments. Nobody knows how many have suffered severe complications or died.” Edvard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, says many have suffered complications or died from chiropractors treatments… A study from Exeter University shows at least 26 people have died as a result of treatment.
And what is wrong with this?
The answer is lots:
- My first name is consistently misspelled (a triviality, I agree).
- I am once named as Emeritus Professor and once as Professor of Complementary Medicine. The latter is wrong (another triviality, perhaps, but some of my more demented critics have regularly accused me of carrying wrong titles)
- The mention of 26 deaths after chiropractic treatments is problematic and arguably misleading (see below).
- Our ‘study’ was not a study but a systematic review (another triviality?).
Now you probably think I am being pedantic, but I feel that the article is regrettable not so much by what it says but by what it fails to say. To understand this better, I will below copy my emails to the journalist who asked for help in researching this article.
- My email of 17/10 answering all 7 of the journalist’s specific questions:
- 1. Why are you sceptical of chiropractic?
- I have researched the subject for more than 2 decades, and I know that the evidence is not in favour of chiropractic
- 2. How many people do you believe have died in Britain as a result of being treated by a chiropractor? If it’s not possible to say, can you estimate?
- nobody knows how many patients have suffered severe complications or deaths. there is no system to monitor such events that is comparable to the post-marketing surveillance of conventional medicine. we did some research and found that the under-reporting of cases of severe complications was close to 100% in the UK.
- 3. What is so dangerous about chiropractic? Is there a particular physical treatment than endangers life?
- manipulations that involve rotation and over-extension of the upper spine can lead to a vertebral artery breaking up. this causes a stroke which sometimes is fatal.
- 4. Is the industry well regulated?
- UK chiropractors are regulated by the General Chiropractic Council. it is debatable whether they are fit for purpose (see here:http://edzardernst.com/2015/02/the-uk-general-chiropractic-council-fit-for-purpose/)
- 5. Should we be suspicious of claims that chiropractic can cure things like IBS and autism?
- such claims are not based on good evidence and therefore misleading and unethical. sadly, however, they are prevalent.
- 6. Who trains chiropractors?
- there are numerous colleges that specialise in that activity.
- 7. Is it true Prince Charles is to blame for the rise in popularity/prominence of chiropractic?
- I am not sure. certainly he has been promoting all sorts of unproven treatments for decades.
- My email of 18/10 answering 3 further specific questions
- 1. Would you actively discourage anyone from being treated by a chiropractor?
yes, anyone I feel responsible for
2. Are older people particularly at risk or could one wrong move affect anyone?
older people are at higher risk of bone fractures and might also have more brittle arteries prone to dissection
3. If someone has, say, a bad back or stiff neck what treatment would you recommend instead of chiropractic?
I realise every case is different, but you are sceptical of all complementary treatments (as I understand it) so what would you suggest instead?
I would normally consider therapeutic exercises and recommend seeing a good physio.
- 3. My email of 23/10 replying to his request for specific UK cases
- the only thing I can offer is this 2001 paper
- where we discovered 35 cases seen by UK neurologists within the preceding year. the truly amazing finding here was that NONE of them had been reported anywhere before. this means under-reporting was exactly 100%.
END OF QUOTES
I think that makes it quite obvious that much relevant information never made it into the final article. I also know that several other experts provided even more information than I did which never appeared.
The most important issues, I think, are firstly the lack of a monitoring system for adverse events, secondly the level of under-reporting and thirdly the 50% rate of mild to moderate adverse-effects. Without making these issues amply clear, lay readers cannot possibly make any sense of the 26 deaths. More importantly, chiropractors will now be able to respond by claiming: 26 deaths compare very favourably with the millions of fatalities caused by conventional medicine. In the end, the message that will remain in the heads of many consumers is this: CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE IS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS THAN CHIROPRACTIC!!! (The 1st comment making this erroneous point has already been published: Don’t be stupid Andy. You wanna discuss how many deaths occur due to medication side effects and drug interactions? There is a reason chiros have the lowest malpractice rates.)
Don’t get me wrong, I am not accusing the author of the SUN-article. For all I know, he has filed a very thoughtful and complete piece. It might have been shortened by the editor who may also have been the one adding the picture of the US starlet with her silicone boobs. But I am accusing THE SUN of missing a chance to publish something that might have had the chance of being a meaningful contribution to public health.
Perhaps you still think this is all quite trivial. Yet, after having experienced this sort of thing dozens, if not hundreds of times, I disagree.
If you had chronic kidney disease (CKD), would you be attracted by an article entitled ‘How to Reduce Creatinine Level in Homeopathy’? (Elevated levels are normally caused by CKD which makes it an important diagnostic test to diagnose the condition) I am sure many patients would! A few days ago, an article with exactly this title caught my eye; it comes from this website. I find it remarkable and cannot resist showing you a short excerpt from it:
START OF QUOTE
…These [homeopathic] medicines work in two ways. First of all, they control the condition so that no more damage is done to the kidneys. Secondly, they start elimination the root causes of renal failure. Unlike allopathic medicines, there are no side effects associated with the use of Homeopathic medicines. If treatment is done in a right, patients starts feeling better within few weeks. After few months, most of the patients are recovered and their kidney starts functioning properly and normally. And then your creatinine level will come down…
Toxin-Removing Treatment for patients with high creatinine level
Here we recommend you another treatment. It is Toxin-Removing Treatment, which is a combination of various Chinese medicine. Compared with homeopathy, Chinese medicine has a particularly longer history. It can expel waste products and extra fluid out of body to make internal environment good for kidney self-healing and other medication application. It can also dilate blood vessels and remove stasis to improve blood circulation and increase blood flow into damaged kidneys so that enough essential elements can be transported into damaged kidneys to speed up kidney recovery. Besides, it can strengthen your immunity to fight against kidney disease. After about one week’s treatment, you will see floccules in urine, which are wastes being passed out. After about half month’s treatment, your high creatinine, high BUN and high uric acid level will go down. After about one month’s treatment, your kidney function will start to increase. With the improvement of renal function, creatinine can be excreted out naturally.
END OF QUOTE
After reading this article some CKD patients might decide to try homeopathy or Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHM) for their condition. This, however, would be very ill-advised.
Because there is not a jot of evidence to suggest that homeopathy works for CKD. If any homeopath reading this has a different opinion, please show us the evidence.
There is also, as far as I can see, little good evidence to suggest that CHM is effective for CKD. On the contrary, there is quite a bit of evidence to show that CHM can cause kidney damage.
The above article is misleading to the extreme! Or, to put it bluntly, it’s full of lies.
But why is this remarkable? On the Internet, we find thousands of similarly idiotic texts promoting bogus treatments for every disease known to mankind – and nobody seems to bat an eyelash about it. Nobody seems to think that the public needs to be better protected from the habitual liars who write such vile stuff. Many influential people and institutions not merely tolerate such abuse but seem to support it.
Precisely … and this is why I find this article, together with the thousands of similar ones, remarkable.
This is the question asked by the American Chiropractic Association. And this is their answer [the numbers in square brackets were inserted by me and refer to my comments below]:
Chiropractic is widely recognized  as one of the safest drug-free, non-invasive therapies available for the treatment of neuromusculoskeletal complaints . Although chiropractic has an excellent safety record , no health treatment is completely free of potential adverse effects. The risks associated with chiropractic, however, are very small . Many patients feel immediate relief following chiropractic treatment , but some may experience mild soreness, stiffness or aching, just as they do after some forms of exercise . Current research shows that minor discomfort or soreness following spinal manipulation typically fades within 24 hours …
Some reports have associated high-velocity upper neck manipulation with a certain rare kind of stroke, or vertebral artery dissection . However, evidence suggests that this type of arterial injury often takes place spontaneously in patients who have pre-existing arterial disease . These dissections have been associated with everyday activities such as turning the head while driving, swimming, or having a shampoo in a hair salon . Patients with this condition may experience neck pain and headache that leads them to seek professional care—often at the office of a doctor of chiropractic or family physician—but that care is not the cause of the injury. The best evidence indicates that the incidence of artery injuries associated with high-velocity upper neck manipulation is extremely rare—about one to three cases in 100,000 patients who get treated with a course of care . This is similar to the incidence of this type of stroke among the general population …
When discussing the risks of any health care procedure, it is important to look at that risk in comparison to other treatments available for the same condition . In this regard, the risks of serious complications from spinal manipulation for conditions such as neck pain and headache compare very favorably with even the most conservative care options. For example, the risks associated with some of the most common treatments for musculoskeletal pain—over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and prescription painkillers—are significantly greater than those of chiropractic manipulation …
Doctors of chiropractic are well trained professionals who provide patients with safe, effective care for a variety of common conditions. Their extensive education has prepared them to identify patients who have special risk factors  and to get those patients the most appropriate care, even if that requires referral to a medical specialist .
END OF QUOTE
- Appeal to tradition = fallacy
- …and every other condition that brings in cash.
- Not true.
- Probably not true.
- The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence.
- Not true, the adverse effects of spinal manipulation are different and more severe.
- Not true, they last 1-3 days.
- Not just ‘some reports’ but a few hundred.
- Which does not mean that spinal manipulation cannot provoke such events.
- True, but this does not mean that spinal manipulation cannot provoke such events.
- There are other estimates that gives much higher figures; without a proper monitoring system, nobody can provide an accurate incidence figure.
- Not true, see above.
- ‘Available’ is meaningless – ‘effective’ is what we need here.
- The difference between different treatments is not merely their safety but also their effectiveness; in the end it is the risk/benefit balance that determines their value.
- Not true, there are no good predictors to identify at-risk populations.
- Chiropractors are notoriously bad at referring to other healthcare professionals; they have a huge conflict of interest in keeping up their cash-flow.
So, is chiropractic a safe treatment?
My advice here is not to ask chiropractors but independent experts.
We all know Epsom salt, don’t we? This paper provides an interesting history of it: The purgative effect of the waters of Epsom, in southern England, was first discovered in the early seventeenth century. Epsom subsequently developed as one of the great English spas where high society flocked to take the medicinal waters. The extraction of the Epsom Salts from the spa waters and their chemical analysis, the essential feature of which was magnesium sulphate, were first successfully carried out by Doctor Nehemiah Grew, distinguished as a physician, botanist and an early Fellow of the Royal Society. His attempt to patent the production and sale of the Epsom Salts precipitated a dispute with two unscrupulous apothecaries, the Moult brothers. This controversy must be set against the backcloth of the long-standing struggle over the monopoly of dispensing of medicines between the Royal College of Physicians and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London.
Epsom salt has the reputation of being very safe. But unfortunately, even something as seemingly harmless as Epsom salt can become dangerous in the hand of people who have little understanding of physiology and medicine. Indian doctors have just published a paper in (‘BMJ Case Reports’) with the details of a 38-year-old non-alcoholic, non-diabetic man suffering from gallstones. The patient was prescribed three tablespoons of Epsom salt to be taken with lukewarm water for 15 days for ‘stone dissolution’ by a ‘naturopathy practitioner’. He subsequently developed loss of appetite and darkening of urine from the 12th day of treatment and jaundice from the second day after treatment completion. The patient denied fevers, skin rash, joint pains, myalgia, abdominal pain, abdominal distension and cholestatic symptoms.
Examination revealed a deeply icteric patient oriented to time, place and person without an enlarged liver or stigmata of chronic liver disease. Liver function tests were abnormal, and a liver biopsy revealed sub-massive necrosis with dense portal-based fibrosis, mixed portal inflammation, extensive peri-venular canalicular and hepatocellular cholestasis with macro-vesicular steatosis and peri-sinusoidal fibrosis (suggestive of steato-hepatitis) without evidence of granulomas, inclusion bodies or vascular changes suggestive of acute drug-induced liver injury.
After discontinuation of Epsom salt and adequate hydration, the patient had an uneventful recovery with normalisation of liver function tests after 38 days. The Roussel Uclaf Causality Assessment score was strongly suggestive of Epsom salt-induced liver injury.
I was invited to provide a comment and stated that, in my view, this case reminds us:
1) that naturopaths prescribe a lot of nonsense,
2) that not everything which is promoted as natural is safe,
3) that treatments which apparently have ‘stood the test of time’ can still be rubbish, and
4) that even a relatively harmless remedy can become life-threatening, if one takes it at a high dose for a prolonged period of time.
Naturopaths have advocated Epsom salt for gall-bladder problems since centuries, yet there is no good evidence that it works. It is time that alternative practitioners abide by the rules of evidence-based medicine.
A quick Medline search reveals that there is only one further report of a serious adverse effect after Epsom salt intake: a case of fatal hypermagnesemia caused by an Epsom salt enema. A 7-year-old male presented with cardiac arrest and was found to have a serum magnesium level of 41.2 mg/dL (33.9 mEq/L) after having received an Epsom salt enema earlier that day. The medical history of Epsom salt, the common causes and symptoms of hypermagnesemia, and the treatment of hypermagnesemia are reviewed. The easy availability of magnesium, the subtle initial symptoms of hypermagnesemia, and the need for education about the toxicity of magnesium should be of interest to physicians.
… and to alternative practitioners, I hasten to add.
I have often remarked on the fact that, in alternative medicine, more surveys get published than in any other medical field. Typically these surveys are not just useless but overtly counter-productive:
- they tend to be of very poor quality;
- their results are not generalizable and thus meaningless;
- they show that a sizable proportion of the population uses alternative therapies, pay out of their own pocket for them, and are satisfied with them;
- the authors then state that it must be unfair that only the affluent can benefit from alternative medicine;
- eventually, the conclusion is reached that alternative medicine should be paid for by the healthcare system and be free for all at the point of usage.
Therefore, I find that it is a waste of time to even read surveys of alternative medicine usage. But every now and then, one does come along that is worth discussing – like this one, for instance.
The survey evaluated dietary supplements (DS) usage by US adults aged ≥60 y to characterize the use of DSs, determine the motivations for use, and examine the associations between the use of DSs and selected demographic, lifestyle, and health characteristics. Data from 3469 older adults aged ≥60 y from the 2011-2014 NHANES were analyzed. DSs used in the past 30 d were ascertained via an interviewer-administered questionnaire in participants’ homes. The prevalence of overall DS use and specific types of DSs were estimated. The number of DSs reported and the frequency, duration, and motivation(s) for use were assessed. Logistic regression models were constructed to examine the association between DS use and selected characteristics.
Seventy percent of older adults reported using ≥1 DS in the past 30 d; 54% of users took 1 or 2 products, and 29% reported taking ≥4 products. The most frequently reported products were multivitamin or mineral (MVM) (39%), vitamin D only (26%), and omega-3 fatty acids (22%). Women used DSs almost twice as often as men. Those not reporting prescription medications were less likely to take a DS than those reporting ≥3 prescription medications. The most frequently reported motivation for DS use was to improve overall health (41%).
The authors concluded that the use of DSs among older adults continues to be high in the United States, with 29% of users regularly taking ≥4 DSs, and there is a high concurrent usage of them with prescription medications.
I find these data impressive – but not in a positive sense, I hasten to add.
The level of DS use in the US is staggering. Considering that 90% (my estimate) of the supplements are completely useless, the amount of money that is being wasted is huge. Even more concerning is the frequency of drug interactions that are being provoked by DS-intake.
And what’s the solution?
Obviously, it is better information for consumers (which is easier said than done – but I am trying my best!).
The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) is an umbrella organization representing 29 national and international scientific academies in Europe, including the Royal Society (UK) and Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. One of its aims is to influence policy and regulations across the European Union. Now, the EASAC has issued an important and long-awaited verdict on homeopathy:
The EASAC is publishing this Statement to build on recent work by its member academies to reinforce criticism of the health and scientific claims made for homeopathic products. The analysis and conclusions are based on the excellent science-based assessments already published by authoritative and impartial bodies. The fundamental importance of allowing and supporting consumer choice requires that consumers and patients are supplied with evidence-based, accurate and clear information. It is, therefore, essential to implement a standardised, knowledge-based regulatory framework to cover product efficacy, safety and quality, and accurate advertising practices, across the European Union (EU). Our Statement examines the following issues:
- Scientific mechanisms of action—where we conclude that the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts.
- Clinical efficacy—we acknowledge that a placebo effect may appear in individual patients but we agree with previous extensive evaluations concluding that there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect.
There are related concerns for patient-informed consent and for safety, the latter associated with poor quality control in preparing homeopathic remedies. Promotion of homeopathy—we note that this may pose significant harm to the patient if incurring delay in seeking evidence-based medical care and that there is a more general risk of undermining public confidence in the nature and value of scientific evidence. Veterinary practice—we conclude similarly that there is no rigorous evidence to
substantiate the use of homeopathy in veterinary medicine and it is particularly worrying when such products are used in preference to evidence-based medicinal products to treat livestock infections. We make the following recommendations.
1. There should be consistent regulatory requirements to demonstrate efficacy, safety and quality of all products for human and veterinary medicine, to be based on verifiable and objective evidence, commensurate with the nature of the claims being made. In the absence of this evidence, a product should be neither approvable nor registrable by national regulatory agencies for the designation medicinal product.
2. Evidence-based public health systems should not reimburse homeopathic products and practices unless they are demonstrated to be efficacious and safe by rigorous testing.
3. The composition of homeopathic remedies should be labelled in a similar way to other health products available: that is, there should be an accurate, clear and simple description of the ingredients and their amounts present in the formulation.
4. Advertising and marketing of homeopathic products and services must conform to established standards of accuracy and clarity. Promotional claims for efficacy, safety and quality should not be made without demonstrable and reproducible evidence.
END OF QUOTE
No comment needed!!!
It has been announced that Susan and Henry Samueli have given US$ 200 million to medical research at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Surely this is a generous and most laudable gift! How could anyone doubt it?
As with any gift, one ought to ask what precisely it is for. If someone made a donation to research aimed at showing that climate change is a hoax, that white supremacy is justified, or that Brexit is going to give Brits their country back, I doubt that it would be a commendable thing. My point is that research must always be aimed at finding the truth and discovering facts. Research that is guided by creed, belief or misinformation is bound to be counter-productive, and a donation to such activities is likely to be detrimental.
Back to the Samuelis! The story goes that Susan once had a cold, took a homeopathic remedy, and subsequently the cold went away. Ever since, the two Samuelis have been supporters not just of homeopathy but all sorts of other alternative therapies. I have previously called this strikingly common phenomenon an ‘epiphany‘. And the Samuelis’ latest gift is clearly aimed at promoting alternative medicine in the US. We only need to look at what their other major donation in this area has achieved, and we can guess what is now going to happen at UCI. David Gorski has eloquently written about the UCI donation, and I will therefore not repeat the whole, sad story.
Instead I want to briefly comment on what, in my view, should happen, if a wealthy benefactor donates a large sum of money to medical research. How can one maximise the effects of such a donation? Which areas of research should one consider? I think the concept of prior probability can be put to good use in such a situation. If I were the donor, I would convene a panel of recognised experts and let them advise me where there are the greatest chances of generating important breakthroughs. If one followed this path, alternative medicine would not appear anywhere near the top preferences, I dare to predict.
But often, like in the case of the Samuelis, the donors have concrete ideas about the area of research they want to invest in. So, what could be done with a large sum in the field of alternative medicine? I believe that plenty of good could come it. All one needs to do is to make absolutely sure that a few safeguards are in place:
- believers in alternative medicine must be kept out of any decisions processes;
- people with a solid background in science and a track-record in critical thinking must be put in charge;
- the influence of the donor on the direction of the research must be minimised as much as possible;
- a research agenda must be defined that is meaningful and productive (this could include research into the risks of alternative therapies, the ethical standards in alternative medicine, the fallacious thinking of promoters of alternative medicine, the educational deficits of alternative practitioners, the wide-spread misinformation of the public about alternative medicine, etc., etc.)
Under all circumstances, one needs to avoid that the many pseudo-scientists who populate the field of alternative or integrative medicine get appointed. This, I fear, will not be an easy task. They will say that one needs experts who know all about the subtleties of acupuncture, homeopathy, energy-healing etc. But such notions are merely smoke-screens aimed at getting the believers into key positions. My advice is to vet all candidates using my concept of the ‘trustworthiness index’.
How can I be so sure? Because I have been there, and I have seen it all. I have researched this area for 25 years and published more about it than any of the untrustworthy believers. During this time I trained about 90 co-workers, and I have witnessed one thing over and over again: someone who starts out as a believer, will hardly ever become a decent scientist and therefore never produce any worthwhile research; but a good scientist will always be able to acquire the necessary knowledge in this or that alternative therapy to conduct rigorous and meaningful research.
So, how should the UCI spend the $ 200 million? Apparently the bulk of the money will be to appoint 15 faculty chairs across medicine, nursing, pharmacy and population health disciplines. They envisage that these posts will go to people with expertise in integrative medicine. This sounds extremely ominous to me. If this project is to be successful, these posts should go to scientists who are sceptical about alternative medicine and their main remit should be to rigorously test hypotheses. Remember: testing a hypothesis means trying everything to show that it is wrong. Only when all attempts to do so have failed can one assume that perhaps the hypothesis was correct.
My experience tells me that experts in integrative medicine are quite simply intellectually and emotionally incapable of making serious attempts showing that their beliefs are wrong. If the UCI does, in fact, appoint people with expertise in integrative medicine, it is, I fear, unavoidable that we will see:
- research that fails to address relevant questions;
- research that is of low quality;
- promotion masquerading as research;
- more and more misleading findings of the type we regularly discuss on this blog;
- a further boost of the fallacious concept of integrative medicine;
- a watering down of evidence-based medicine;
- irreversible damage to the reputation of the UCI.
In a nutshell, instead of making progress, we will take decisive steps back towards the dark ages.
We have repeatedly discussed the fact that alternative medicine (AM) is by no means free of risks. I find it helpful to divide them into two broad categories:
- direct risks of the intervention (such as stroke due to neck manipulation, or cardiac tamponade caused by acupuncture, or liver damage due to a herbal remedy) and
- indirect risks usually due to the advice given by AM practitioners.
The latter category is often more important than the former. It includes delay of effective treatment due to treatment with an ineffective or less effective form of AM. It is clear that this will cause patients to suffer unnecessarily.
Several investigations have recently highlighted this important problem, including this study from Singapore which assessed the predictors of AM-use in patients with early inflammatory arthritis (EIA), and its impact on delay to initiation of disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARD). Data were collected prospectively from EIA patients aged ≥ 21 years. Current or prior AM-use was ascertained by face-to-face interviews. Predictors of AM-use and its effect on time to DMARD initiation were determined by multivariate logistic regression and Cox proportional hazards, respectively.
One hundred and eighty patients were included: 83.9% had rheumatoid arthritis, 57% were seropositive. Median (IQR). Chinese race, being non-English speaking, smoking and high DAS28 were independent predictors of AM-use. AM-users initiated DMARD later (median [IQR] 21.5 [13.1-30.4] vs. 15.6 [9.4-22.7] weeks in non-users, P = 0.005). AM-use and higher DAS28 were associated with a longer delay to DMARD initiation. Race, education level, being non-English speaking, smoking and sero-positivity were not associated.
The authors concluded that healthcare professionals should be aware of the unique challenges in treating patients with EIA in Asia. Healthcare beliefs regarding AM may need to be addressed to reduce treatment delay.
These findings are not dissimilar to results previously discussed, for instance:
- AM-use delays cancer diagnosis.
- The advice of non-medically qualified practitioners may delay cancer therapy.
- Chiropractic care may delay referral to effective treatment.
- Consultations with homeopaths can delay effective therapy.
The only solution to the problem I can think of would be to educate AM practitioners and the public such that they are aware of the issue and do everything possible to prevent such problems. But this is, of course, easier said than done, and it seems more than just optimistic to hope that such endeavours might be successful. The public is currently bombarded with misleading information and outright lies about AM (many of my previous post have addressed this problem). And practitioners would have to operate against their own financial interest to prevent these problems from occurring.
This means that treatment delays caused by AM-use and advice from AM practitioners are inevitable…
unless you have a better idea.
If so, please let me know.