MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

scientific misconduct

Prince Charles’ meddling beyond his constitutional role is yet again in the press today. I was sent the 2nd batch of ‘spider memos’ yesterday, studied them and commented as follows:

The letters demonstrate yet again that Prince Charles relentlessly meddles in UK health politics and thus disrespects his constitutional role. His arguments in favour of CAM, and in particular homeopathy, show a devastating lack of knowledge and understanding; they are ill-informed, invalid and embarrassingly naïve – but at the same time they are remarkably persistent. Charles tries to give the impression that he is motivated by passion and compassion, but in health care such drivers need solid evidence and expertise. Charles has neither which is not just regrettable, it is arrogant on his part and potentially harmful for public health.

If you get the feeling that I have little patience with Charles’ meddling, you may be right. I have little doubt that it was his interfering that led to the closure of my research unit at Exeter. In my book, A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND, I provide the full details of what happened. Here I would just like to reproduce the incredible ‘spider memo’ in question.

It was not actually authored by Charles but by Sir Michael Peat, his 1st private secretary. On 22 September 2005, Peat wrote on Clarence House note-paper to the Vice Chancellor of Exeter University wrongly accusing me of a serious breach of confidentiality:

I am writing both as The Prince of Wales’ Private Secretary and as Acting Chairman of His Royal Highness’ Foundation for Integrated Health.

There has been a breach of confidence by Professor Edzard Ernst in respect of a draft report on the efficacy of certain complementary therapies sent to him by Mr. Christopher Smallwood. The report was commissioned by The Prince of Wales.

Mr. Smallwood sent Professor Ernst an early and, at that stage, incomplete draft of the report for comment. The accompanying e-mail requested and stressed the need for confidentiality. Professor Ernst implicitly agreed to comment on the report on this basis but then, as you probably saw, gave his views about the report to the national press. I attach a copy of a letter from the Editor of the Lancet published by The Times which summarises the issues well. I also attach a copy of the e-mail sent to Professor Ernst by Mr. Smallwood.

I apologise for troubling you, but I felt that you should have this matter drawn to your attention.

What followed was embarrassing and shameful: my uni started a 13 month investigation, eventually I was pronounced innocent but my unit was closed down. Unbelievably, Clarence house denied that Charles even knew about this amazing attempt to meddle in academic affairs. As I say, you need to read my memoir to understand this story fully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homeopathy has many critics who claim that there is no good evidence for this type of therapy. Homeopaths invariably find this most unfair and point to a plethora of studies that show an effect. They are, of course, correct! There are plenty of trials that suggest that homeopathic remedies do work. The question, however, is HOW RELIABLE ARE THESE STUDIES?

Here is a brand new one which might stand for dozens of others.

In this study, homeopaths treated 50 multimorbid patients with homeopathic remedies identifies by a method called ‘polarity analysis’ (PA) and prospectively followed them over one year (PA enables homeopaths to calculate a relative healing probability, based on Boenninghausen’s grading of polar symptoms).

The 43 patients (86%) who completed the observation period experienced an average improvement of 91% in their initial symptoms. Six patients dropped out, and one did not achieve an improvement of 80%, and was therefore also counted as a treatment failure. The cost of homeopathic treatment was 41% of projected equivalent conventional treatment.

Good news then for enthusiasts of homeopathy? 91% improvement!

Yet, I am afraid that critics might not be bowled over. They might smell a whiff of selection bias, lament the lack of a control group or regret the absence of objective outcome measures. But I was prepared to go as far as stating that such results might be quite interesting… until I read the authors’ conclusions that is:

Polarity Analysis is an effective method for treating multimorbidity. The multitude of symptoms does not prevent the method from achieving good results. Homeopathy may be capable of taking over a considerable proportion of the treatment of multimorbid patients, at lower costs than conventional medicine.

Virtually nothing in these conclusions is based on the data provided. They are pure extrapolation and wild assumptions. Two questions seem to emerge from this:

  1. How on earth can we take this and so many other articles on homeopathy seriously?
  2. When does this sort of article cross the line between wishful thinking and scientific misconduct?

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.

When someone has completed a scientific project, it is customary to publish it [‘unpublished science is no science’, someone once told me many years ago]. To do so, he needs to write it up and submit it to a scientific journal. The editor of this journal will then submit it to a process called ‘peer review’.

What does ‘peer review’ entail? Well, it means that 2-3 experts are asked to critically assess the paper in question, make suggestions as to how it can be improved and submit a recommendation as to whether or not the article deserves to be published.

Peer review has many pitfalls but, so far, nobody has come up with a solution that is convincingly better. Many scientists are under pressure to publish [‘publish or perish’], and therefore some people resort to cheating. A most spectacular case of fraudulent peer review has been reported recently in this press release:

SAGE statement on Journal of Vibration and Control

London, UK (08 July 2014) – SAGE announces the retraction of 60 articles implicated in a peer review and citation ring at the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC). The full extent of the peer review ring has been uncovered following a 14 month SAGE-led investigation, and centres on the strongly suspected misconduct of Peter Chen, formerly of National Pingtung University of Education, Taiwan (NPUE) and possibly other authors at this institution.

In 2013 the then Editor-in-Chief of JVC, Professor Ali H. Nayfeh,and SAGE became aware of a potential peer review ring involving assumed and fabricated identities used to manipulate the online submission system SAGE Track powered by ScholarOne Manuscripts™. Immediate action was taken to prevent JVC from being exploited further, and a complex investigation throughout 2013 and 2014 was undertaken with the full cooperation of Professor Nayfeh and subsequently NPUE.

In total 60 articles have been retracted from JVC after evidence led to at least one author or reviewer being implicated in the peer review ring. Now that the investigation is complete, and the authors have been notified of the findings, we are in a position to make this statement.

While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.

Unbelievable? Perhaps, but sadly it is true; some scientists seem to be criminally ingenious when it comes to getting their dodgy articles into peer-reviewed journals.

And what does this have to do with ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, you may well ask. The Journal of Vibration and Control is not even medical and certainly would never consider publishing articles on alternative medicine. Such papers go to one of the many [I estimate more that 1000] journals that cover either alternative medicine in general or any of the modalities that fall under this wide umbrella. Most of these journals, of course, pride themselves with being peer-reviewed – and, at least nominally, that is correct.

I have been on the editorial board of most of the more important journals in alternative medicine, and I cannot help thinking that their peer review process is not all that dissimilar from the fraudulent scheme set up by Peter Chen and disclosed above. What happens in alternative medicine is roughly as follows:

  • a researcher submits a paper for publication,
  • the editor sends it out for peer review,
  • the peer reviewers are either those suggested by the original author or members of the editorial board of the journal,
  • in either case, the reviewers are more than likely to be uncritical and recommend publication,
  • in the end, peer review turns out to be a farcical window dressing exercise with no consequence,
  • thus even very poor research and pseudo-research are being published abundantly.

The editorial boards of journals of alternative medicine tend to be devoid of experts who are critical about the subject at hand. If you think that I am exaggerating, have a look at the editorial board members of ‘HOMEOPATHY’ (or any other journal of alternative medicine) and tell me who might qualify as a critic of homeopathy. When the editor, Peter Fisher, recently fired me from his board because he felt I had tarnished the image of homeopathy, this panel lost the only person who understood the subject matter and, at the same time, was critical about it (the fact that the website still lists me as an editorial board member is merely a reflection of how slow things are in the world of homeopathy: Fisher fired me more than a year ago).

The point I am trying to make is simple: peer review is never a perfect method but when it is set up to be deliberately uncritical, it cannot possibly fulfil its function to prevent the publication of dodgy research. In this case, the quality of the science will be inadequate and generate false-positive messages that mislead the public.

A remarkable article about homeopathy and immunisation entitled THE IMMUNISATION DILEMMA came to my attention recently. Its abstract promised: “evidence quantifying the effectiveness of vaccination and HP (homeoprophylaxis) will be examined. New international research describing and analysing HP interventions will be reported. An evidence-based conclusion will be reached.”

Sounds interesting? Let’s see what the article really offers. Here is the relevant text:

…evidence does exist to support claims regarding the effectiveness of homeopathic immunisation is undeniable.

I was first invited to visit Cuba in December 2008 to present at an international conference hosted by the Finlay Institute, which is a W. H. O.-accredited vaccine manufacturer. The Cubans described their use of HP to control an outbreak of leptospirosis (Weilʼs syndrome – a potentially fatal, water-born bacterial disease) in 2007 among the residents of the three eastern provinces which were most severely damaged by a severe hurricane – over 2.2 million people [7]. 2008 was an even worse year involving three hurricanes, and the countryʼs food production was only just recovering at the time of the conference. The HP program had been repeated in 2008, but data was not available at the conference regarding that intervention.

I revisited Cuba in 2010 and 2012, each time to work with the leader of the HP interventions, Dr. Bracho, to analyse the data available. Dr. Bracho is not a homeopath; he is a published and internationally recognised expert in the manufacture of vaccine adjuvants. He worked in Australia at Flinders University during 2004 with a team trying to develop an antimalarial vaccine.

In 2012 we accessed the raw leptospirosis surveillance data, comprising weekly reports from 15 provinces over 9 years (2000 to 2008) reporting 21 variables. This yielded a matrix with 147 420 possible entries. This included data concerning possible confounders, such as vaccination and chemoprophylaxis, which allowed a careful examination of possible distorting effects. With the permission of the Cubans, I brought this data back to Australia and it is being examined by mathematicians at an Australian university to see what other information can be extracted. Clearly, there is objective data supporting claims regarding the effectiveness of HP.

The 2008 result was remarkable, and could only be explained by the effectiveness of the HP intervention. Whilst the three hurricanes caused immense damage throughout the country it was again worse in the east, yet the three homeopathically immunised provinces experienced a negligible increase in cases whilst the rest of the country showed significant increases until the dry season in January 2009 [8].

This is but one example – there are many more. It is cited to show that there is significant data available, and that orthodox scientists and doctors have driven the HP interventions, in the Cuban case. Many people internationally now know this, so once again claims by orthodox authorities that there is no evidence merely serves to show that either the authorities are making uninformed/unscientific statements, or that they are aware but are intentionally withholding information. Either way, confidence is destroyed and leads to groups of people questioning what they are told…

Final Conclusions

The attacks against homeopathy in general and HP in particular will almost certainly continue. If we can achieve a significant level of agreement then we would be able to answer challenges to HP with a single, cohesive, evidence-based, and generally united response. This would be a significant improvement to the existing situation.

 

Reference 7 is the following article: Bracho G, Varela E, Fernández R et al. Large-scale application of highly-diluted bacteria for Leptospirosis epidemic control. Homeopathy 2010; 99: 156-166. The crucial bit if this paper are as follows:

A homeoprophylactic formulation was prepared from dilutions of four circulating strains of Leptospirosis. This formulation was administered orally to 2.3 million persons at high risk in an epidemic in a region affected by natural disasters. The data from surveillance were used to measure the impact of the intervention by comparing with historical trends and non-intervention regions.

After the homeoprophylactic intervention a significant decrease of the disease incidence was observed in the intervention regions. No such modifications were observed in non-intervention regions. In the intervention region the incidence of Leptospirosis fell below the historic median. This observation was independent of rainfall.

The homeoprophylactic approach was associated with a large reduction of disease incidence and control of the epidemic. The results suggest the use of HP as a feasible tool for epidemic control, further research is warranted.

The paper thus describes little more than an observational study. It shows that one region was less affected than another. I think it is quite clear that this could have many reasons which are unrelated to the homeopathic immunisation. Even the authors are cautious and speak in their conclusions not of a causal effect but of an “association”.

The 2012 data cited in the text remains unpublished; until it is available for public scrutiny, it is impossible to confirm that it is sound and meaningful.

Reference 8 refers to this article: Golden I, Bracho G. Adaptability of homœoprophylaxis in endemic, epidemic and stable background conditions. Homœopathic Links 2009; 22: 211-213. I have no access to this paper (if someone does, please fill us in) but, judging from both its title and the way it is described in the text, it does not seem to show reliable data about the efficacy of homeopathic immunisation.

So, is it true that “evidence does exist to support claims regarding the effectiveness of homeopathic immunisation”?

I do not think so!

Immunisation is by no means a trivial matter; wrong decisions in this area have the potential to cost the lives of millions. Therefore proofs of efficacy need to be published in peer-reviewed journals of high standing. These findings need then be criticised, replicated and re-criticised and re-replicated. Only when there is a wide consensus about the efficacy/safety or lack of efficacy/safety of a new form of immunisation, can it be generally accepted and implemented into clinical practice.

The current consensus about homeopathic immunisation is that it is nothing less than dangerous phantasy. Those who promote this quackery should be publicly exposed as charlatans of the worst kind.

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.

Dr. Oz, famous through his TV show promoting all types of quackery, recently testified before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on protecting consumers from false and deceptive advertising of weight loss products. This event turned out to be less than flattering for Dr Oz. One journalist commented that he “might as well be a cowardly lion — sent home with his tail between his legs after being accused at a congressional hearing of lying on his show about weight-loss claims.”

“I don’t get why you need to say this stuff, because you know it’s not true,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, who led the commerce subcommittee hearing. “The scientific community is almost monolithically against you in terms of the efficacy of the products you called ‘miracles,’ ” the Democratic senator from Missouri told Oz. “It’s a major problem when people are spending more and more money and they’re gaining more and more weight,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar.“Either you don’t talk about these things at all, or you’re going to have to be more specific because right now . . . this is not working.”

A source close to Dr Oz said he was perplexed: “We were invited down to Washington to testify at a hearing about scams and instead it became all about how much we hate your show.” Oz himself testified that he “heard the message…I do personally believe in the items that I talk about.”

“I intensively study them. I have given my family these products. . . . If you can lose a pound a week more than you would have lost by using them, it jump-starts you and gets you going. I think it makes sense.” “I’m surprised you’re defending this,” McCaskill replied. “It’s something that gives people false hope. I don’t see why you need to go there.”

Another journalist commented that the Senators repeatedly placed him on the defense over his weight loss products: “I know you know how much power you have. I know you know that. You are very powerful and [with] power comes a great deal of responsibility,” Senator Claire McCaskill , who led the Senate’s consumer protection hearing titled “Protecting Consumers from False and Deceptive Advertising of Weight-Loss Products…You are being made an example of today because of the power you have in this space…We didn’t call this hearing to beat up on you but we did call this hearing to talk about a real crisis in consumer protection. You can either be part of the police here or you can be part of the problem.”

Oz insisted he was no huckster but admitted the products promoted on his show don’t always have “the scientific muster” to present their benefits as “fact…I actually do personally believe in the items that I talk about in the show. I passionately studied them. I recognize that oftentimes they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact but nevertheless I would give my audience the advice I give my family all the time. And I have given my family these products,” he said.

Dr Oz also said that some alternative treatments, such as prayer, cannot be tested scientifically. “I don’t think this ought to be a referendum on the use of alternative medical therapies. Because if that’s the case, listen, I’ve been criticized for having folks coming on my show talking about the power of prayer,” he said. “I can’t prove that prayer helps people survive an illness.”

No, Dr Oz! I know you are mistaken! I have done the research – both on alternative slimming aids and on spiritual healing. The results quite clearly show that these methods are not more effective than a placebo.

Auricular acupuncture (AA), according to the ‘COLLEGE OF AURICULAR ACUPUNCTURE’, has its origins in Modern Europe. In 1957 Dr. Paul Nogier, a neurologist from Lyons in France, observed a locum doctor treating sciatica by cauterizing an area of the ear. This prompted extensive research culminating in the development of the somatopic correspondence of specific parts of the body to the ear based upon the concept of an inverted foetus. Dr. Nogier believed that pain and other symptoms in the body could be alleviated by needling, massaging or electronically stimulating the corresponding region of the ear. Auricular Acupuncture is a specialized complementary therapy where acupuncture points on the outer ear are treated, using either needles or acupunctoscopes (electrical location and stimulation machines) to help relieve many chronic complaints. There are over 200 acupuncture points on the ear, each point named after an area of our anatomy. The outer ear acts like a switchboard to the brain. Each acupuncture point being treated, triggers electrical impulses from the ear via the brain, to the specific part of the body being treated.

Sounds odd? Well, that’s because it is odd!

But just because something is odd does not mean it is ineffective – so, what does the reliable evidence tell us? Here are some conclusions from systematic reviews:

The evidence that auricular acupuncture reduces postoperative pain is promising but not compelling.

The evidence for the effectiveness of AA for the symptomatic treatment of insomnia is limited.

The benefit of ear-acupressure for symptomatic relief of allergic rhinitis is unknown…

All of these analyses point out that the quality of the studies is usually very poor, and stress that more and better research is required. It is therefore interesting to note that a new study has just been published. Perhaps it could settle the question about the effectiveness of AA?

The aim of this study was 1) to evaluate whether auricular acupuncture effective for reducing health care provider stress and anxiety and 2) to determine, if auricular acupuncture impacts provider capacity for developing caring relationships with patients. Pre-intervention and post-intervention surveys were evaluated to see, if auricular acupuncture was associated with changes in State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), Professional Quality of Life, and Caring Ability Inventory scores. The results indicate that, compared with baseline, participants had a significant reduction in state anxiety (STAI), trait anxiety (STAI), burnout, and secondary traumatic stress scores (Professional Quality of Life). Significant increases were noted in courage and patience, two dimensions of the Caring Ability Inventory.

From these findings, the authors conclude that auricular acupuncture is an effective intervention for the relief of stress/anxiety in providers and supports heightened capacity for caring.

Sounds odd again? Yes, because it is odd!

I would argue that a study of any controversial therapy that has already been tested repeatedly in poor quality trials must have sufficient scientific rigor to advance the field of inquiry. If it does not fulfil this criterion, it is quite simply not ethical. The new study does not even have a control group; we can therefore not begin to tell whether the observed outcomes were due to non-specific effects, the natural history of the condition or regression towards the mean (to mention but a few of the possible sources of bias). To conclude that AA is ‘an effective intervention’ is therefore utterly barmy.

All of this could be entirely trivial and inconsequential. I am afraid, however, that it is not. Alternative medicine is littered with such unethically flawed research conducted by naïve and clueless pseudo-scientists who arrive at outrageous conclusions. This relentless flow of false-positive findings misleads consumers, health care professionals, decision makers and everyone else to draw the wrong conclusions about bogus therapies. And, in the end, this sort of thing even does a grave disfavour to any branch of alternative medicine that might have some degree of respectability.

IT IS HIGH TIME THAT THIS NONSENSE STOPS! IT BORDERS ON SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT.

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.

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