The notorious tendency of pharmacist to behave like shop-keepers when it comes to the sale of bogus remedies has been the subject of this blog many times before. In my view, this is an important subject, and I will therefore continue to report about it.
On the website of the AUSTRALIAN JOURNAL OF PHARMACY (AJP), we find interesting new data on Australian pharmacists’ love affair with bogus alternative medicine. The AJP recently ran a poll asking readers: “Do you stock Complementary Medicines (CMs) in your pharmacy?” The results of this little survey so far show that 54% of all participating pharmacists say they stock CMs, including homeopathic products. About a quarter (28%) of respondents stock CMs but not homeopathic products. And 9% said they “only stock evidence-based CMs”. Three percent completely refuse to stock CMs, while 2% stock them but with clear in-store labels saying that they may not work. One person stated they stock CMs but have recently decided to no longer do so.
The President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) Joe Demarte commented on these findings: “The latest survey results, showing over 40% of pharmacists are adhering to PSA’s Code of Ethics on complementary medicines, are very encouraging… However it’s disappointing that some pharmacists are still stocking homeopathy products, which are not supported by PSA’s Code of Ethics or our Position Statement on Complementary Medicines… Irrespective of the products stocked in a pharmacy, the important thing is when discussing the use of complementary medicines with consumers, pharmacists must ensure that consumers are provided with the best available information about the current evidence for efficacy, as well as information on any potential side effects, drug interactions and risks of harm… It’s important for pharmacists to provide a fair, honest and balanced view of the current evidence available on all complementary medicines,” Demarte added.
NSW pharmacist Ian Carr, who is a member of the Friends of Science in Medicine group, commented that many pharmacists may not have much choice when it comes to stocking complementary and alternative medicines. “CMs policy is not being filtered through the professional assessment of the pharmacist… It’s basically a business deal with the franchise, and as a pharmacist taking on a franchise you’ve basically got to sign those rights away about what you get to sell. Some of the chains offer basically everything that is available, no questions asked. As an independent pharmacist I am able to make my own decisions about what to stock… We’ve got a ‘de-facto’ corporatisation happening with marketing groups and franchises, and I’m concerned the government will look at this trend and ask, why are we not deregulating the industry to reflect the apparent reality of pharmacy today? We’re only playing into the hands of people who want deregulation… We should be telling people in no uncertain terms that if something is on the shelf it doesn’t mean it’s been assessed or approved by the TGA… There is no doubt that there has been a long-term relationship between the supplement industry and pharmacy. But it was also a few decades ago that researchers started applying the concept of evidence-based medicine to healthcare generally. That should have been the point where we said, ‘we’re not just going to be a conduit for your products without questioning their basis in evidence’. That’s where we lost the plot. The question now is: where do we draw that line? I’m really trying to say to my fellow pharmacists: Please let us reassess the unquestioning support of the CM industry, or we’ll all be tarred with the same brush. I and many others are concerned about – and fighting for – the reputation of the pharmacy profession.”
A BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine survey by researchers from Alfred Hospital in Melbourne found that 92% thought pharmacists should provide safety information about CMs, while 93% thought it important for pharmacists to be knowledgeable about CMs. This shows a huge divide between what is happening in Australian pharmacy on the one side and ethical demands or public opinion on the other side. What is more, there is little reason to believe that the situation in other countries is fundamentally different.
And did you notice this little gem in the comments above? “…over 40% of pharmacists are adhering to PSA’s Code of Ethics…” – the PSA president finds this ‘VERY ENCOURAGING’.
When I saw this, I almost fell off my chair!
Does the president know that this means that 60% of his members are violating their own code of ethics?
Is that truly VERY ENCOURAGING, I ask myself.
My answer is no, this is VERY WORRYING.
Yes, to a large extend, quacks make a living by advertising lies. A paper just published confirms our worst fears.
This survey was aimed at identifying the frequency and qualitative characteristics of marketing claims made by Canadian chiropractors, naturopaths, homeopaths and acupuncturists relating to the diagnosis and treatment of allergy and asthma.
A total of 392 chiropractic, naturopathic, homeopathic and acupuncture clinic websites were located in 10 of the largest metropolitan areas in Canada. The main outcome measures were: mention of allergy, sensitivity or asthma, claim of ability to diagnose allergy, sensitivity or asthma, claim of ability to treat allergy, sensitivity or asthma, and claim of allergy, sensitivity or asthma treatment efficacy. Tests and treatments promoted were noted as qualitative examples.
The results show that naturopath clinic websites had the highest rates of advertising at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy or sensitivity (85%) and asthma (64%), followed by acupuncturists (68% and 53%, respectively), homeopaths (60% and 54%) and chiropractors (33% and 38%). Search results from Vancouver were most likely to advertise at least one of diagnosis, treatment or efficacy for allergy or sensitivity (72.5%) and asthma (62.5%), and results from London, Ontario were least likely (50% and 40%, respectively). Of the interventions advertised, few are scientifically supported; the majority lack evidence of efficacy, and some are potentially harmful.
The authors concluded that the majority of alternative healthcare clinics studied advertised interventions for allergy and asthma. Many offerings are unproven. A policy response may be warranted in order to safeguard the public interest.
In the discussion section, the authors state: “These claims raise ethical issues, because evidence in support of many of the tests and treatments identified on the websites studied is lacking. For example, food-specific IgG testing was commonly advertised, despite the fact that the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has recommended not to use this test due to the absence of a body of research supporting it. Live blood analysis, vega/electrodiagnostic testing, intravenous vitamin C, probiotics, homeopathic allergy remedies and several other tests and treatments offered all lack substantial scientific evidence of efficacy. Some of the proposed treatments are so absurd that they lack even the most basic scientific plausibility, such as ionic foot bath detoxification…
Perhaps most concerning is the fact that several proposed treatments for allergy, sensitivity or asthma are potentially harmful. These include intravenous hydrogen peroxide, spinal manipulation and possibly others. Furthermore, a negative effect of the use of invalid and inaccurate allergy testing is the likelihood that such testing will lead to alterations and exclusions in diets, which can subsequently result in malnutrition and other physiological problems…”
This survey originates from Canada, and one might argue that elsewhere the situation is not quite as bad. However, I would doubt it; on the contrary, I would not be surprised to learn that, in some other countries, it is even worse.
Several national regulators have, at long last, become aware of the dangers of advertising of outright quackery. Consequently, some measures are now beginning to be taken against it. I would nevertheless argue that these actions are far too slow and by no means sufficiently effective.
We easily forget that asthma, for instance, is a potentially life-threatening disease. Advertising of bogus claims is therefore much more than a forgivable exaggeration aimed at maximising the income of alternative practitioners – it is a serious threat to public health.
We must insist that regulators protect us from such quackery and prevent the serious harm it can do.
Alternative medicine suffers from what might be called ‘survey overload’: there are far too much such investigations and most of them are of deplorably poor quality producing nothing of value except some promotion for alternative medicine. Yet, every now and then, one finds a paper that is worth reading, and I am happy to say that this survey (even though it has several methodological shortcomings) belongs in this category.
This cross-sectional assessment of the views of general practitioners towards chiropractors and osteopaths was funded by the Department of Chiropractic at Macquarie University. It was designed as a quantitative descriptive study using an anonymous online survey that included closed and open-ended questions with opportunities provided for free text. The target population was Australian general practitioners. Inclusion criteria included current medical registration, membership of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and currently practicing as a general practitioner in Australia. The data being reported here were collected between May and December, 2014.
There were 630 respondents to the online survey during this period representing a response rate of 2.6 %. Results were not uniform for the two professions. More general practitioners believed chiropractic education was not evidence-based compared to osteopathic education (70 % and 50 % respectively), while the scope of practice was viewed as similar for both professions. A majority of general practitioners had never referred a patient to either profession (chiropractic: 60 %; osteopathy: 66 %) and indicated that they would not want to co-manage patients with either profession. Approximately two-thirds of general practitioners were not interested in learning more about their education (chiropractors: 68 %; osteopaths: 63 %).
The authors concluded that this study provides an indication of the current views of Australian general practitioners towards chiropractors and osteopaths. The findings suggest that attitudes may have become less favourable with a growing intolerance towards both professions. If confirmed, this has the potential to impact health service provision. The results from this cross-sectional study suggest that obtaining representative general practitioner views using online surveys is difficult and another approach is needed to supplement or replace the current recruitment strategy.
The authors do not speculate on the reasons why the attitudes of general practitioners towards chiropractic and osteopathy might have become more critical. Therefore I decided to offer a few possibilities here. The more negative views could be due to:
- better education of general practitioners,
- tightening of healthcare budgets,
- recent ‘bad press’ and loss of reputation (for instance, the BCA’s libel action against Simon Singh),
- the work of sceptics in informing the public about the numerous bogus claims made by osteopaths and chiropractors,
- the plethora of overtly bogus claims which nevertheless continue to be made by these practitioners on a daily basis,
- a more general realisation that these therapies can cause very serious harm,
- a mixture of the above factors.
Whatever the reasons are, the finding that there now seems to be a growing scepticism (in Australia, but hopefully elsewhere as well) about the value of chiropractic and osteopathy is something that cheers me up no end.
Chiropractors may not be good at treating diseases or symptoms, but they are certainly good at promoting their trade. As this trade hardly does more good than harm, one could argue that chiropractors are promoting bogus and potentially harmful treatments to fill their own pockets.
Does that sound too harsh? If you think so, please read what Canadian researchers have just published:
This study aimed to investigate the presence of critiques and debates surrounding efficacy and risk of Spinal Manipulative Therapy (SMT) on the social media platform Twitter. Specifically, it examined whether there is presence of debate and whether critical information is being widely disseminated.
An initial corpus of 31,339 tweets was compiled through Twitter’s Search Application Programming Interface using the query terms “chiropractic,” “chiropractor,” and “spinal manipulation therapy.” Tweets were collected for the month of December 2015. Post removal of tweets made by bots and spam, the corpus totalled 20,695 tweets, of which a sample (n=1267) was analysed for sceptical or critical tweets.
The results showed that there were 34 tweets explicitly containing scepticism or critique of SMT, representing 2.68% of the sample (n=1267). As such, there is a presence of 2.68% of tweets in the total corpus, 95% CI 0-6.58% displaying explicitly sceptical or critical perspectives of SMT. In addition, there are numerous tweets highlighting the health benefits of SMT for health issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), immune system, and blood pressure that receive scant critical attention. The presence of tweets in the corpus highlighting the risks of “stroke” and “vertebral artery dissection” is also minute (0.1%).
The authors drew the following conclusions: In the abundance of tweets substantiating and promoting chiropractic and SMT as sound health practices and valuable business endeavors, the debates surrounding the efficacy and risks of SMT on Twitter are almost completely absent. Although there are some critical voices of SMT proving to be influential, issues persist regarding how widely this information is being disseminated.
I have no doubt that this paper will be sharply criticised by chiropractors, other manipulators and lobbyists of quackery. Yet I think it is an interesting and innovative approach to describe what is and is not being said on public media. The fact that chiropractors hardly ever publicly criticise or challenge each other on Twitter or elsewhere for even the most idiotic claims is, in my view, most telling.
Few people would doubt that such platforms have become hugely important in forming public opinions, and it seems safe to assume that consumers views about SMT are strongly influenced by what they read on Twitter. If we accept this position, we also have to concede that Twitter et al. are a potential danger to public health.
The survey is, however, not flawless, and the authors are the first to point that out: Given the nature of Twitter discussions and the somewhat limited access provided by Twitter’s API, it can be challenging to capture a comprehensive collection of tweets on any topic. In addition, other potential terms such as “chiro” and “spinal adjustment” are present on Twitter, which may produce datasets with somewhat different results. Finally, although December 2015 was chosen at random, there is nothing to suggest that other time frames would be significantly similar or different. Despite these limitations, this study highlights the degree to which discussions of risk and critical views on efficacy are almost completely absent from Twitter. To this I would add that a comparison subject like nursing or physiotherapy might have been informative, and that somehow osteopaths have been forgotten in the discussion.
The big question, of course, is: what can be done about creating more balance on Twitter and elsewhere? I wish I had a practical answer. In the absence of such a solution, all I can offer is a plea to everyone who is able of critical thinking to become as active as they can in busting myths, disclosing nonsense and preventing the excesses of harmful quackery.
Let’s all work tirelessly and effectively for a better and healthier future!
An analysis of the 2012 National Health Interview Survey Data examined the associations between self-reported use of various forms of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies (dietary supplements, mind-body practices) and the number of days missed from job or business in the past 12 months due to illness or injury. Multivariable Poisson regression was used to determine the association between CAM use and absence from work among individuals with one or more chronic disease (n = 10,196).
Over half (54 %) of the study population reported having one chronic disease, while 19 % had three or more conditions. The three most common chronic diseases were high cholesterol (48 %), arthritis (35 %) and hypertension (31 %). More participants used dietary supplements (72 %) while fewer individuals reported using mind-body practices (17 %) in the past twelve months. Over half of individuals reported missing any number of days from job or business due to illness or injury (53 %). Of those who had missed any days from work, 42 % missed one or two days, 36 % missed three to five days, and 23 % missed six days or more.
In multivariable Poisson regression adjusting for demographic variables (race, age, gender, income, education) and potential confounders (BMI, general health, and use of CAM to improve energy), the rate of missing days from job or business in the past 12 months among those who used mind-body therapy was significantly greater than those who did not use these practices (IRR = 1.55, 95 % CI: 1.09, 2.21) (Table 4). Similar association was observed for dietary supplements use (IRR = 1.13, 95 % CI: 0.85, 1.51) (Table 4), although the result was not significant.
The authors concluded: Although nearly all individuals who practiced mind-body therapies reported being in good to excellent health, these individuals had a higher rate of absenteeism compared to non-users. Previous studies have shown that many individuals with chronic illness use CAM with the intent of alleviating the symptoms associated with chronic illness but this body of evidence is limited. Further studies are needed to examine the potential effects of these self-managed CAM therapies on the symptoms associated with chronic disease. Additionally, future studies should explore how managing these symptoms through the integration CAM therapies chronic disease management and employee programs could have a positive effect on absence from work, school, and other responsibilities.
How can these finding be interpreted?
The authors offer two possible explanations: Self-administered CAM practices may be more accessible to individuals with chronic disease regardless of socioeconomic status and other demographic factors. Alternatively, CAM use without the advisement of a practitioner may be harmful due to lack of knowledge on proper technique or dosage.
I am sure there are other ways to make sense of these data. How about this interpretation, for instance: CAM-use and absenteeism have in common that they are the things that the ‘worried well’ tend to do. Thus the two phenomena correlate because they are a characteristic of a certain type of consumer.
Yes, I am just guessing, because the data certainly does not give us anything like a conclusive explanation.
Nonetheless, one thing seems to be fairly clear: CAM-use in this population is not a thing that motivates consumers to go to work.
Yes, I admit it: over the years, I had formed a vague impression that homeopaths lack humour. Certainly, many comments on this blog seemed to confirm the notion. But now I changed my mind: some homeopaths are intensely funny.
Yesterday, I found a tweet which read: “NCH and homeopathy to be highlighted at the 2016 American Public Health Association’s conference in Denver”. The tweet provided a link which took me to an abstract authored by Alison Teitelbaum from the US National Center for Homeopathy (on their website, this organization tell us that they “inform legislators and work to secure homeopathy’s place in the U.S health care system while working to ensure that homeopathy is accurately represented in the media”).
The abstract in question summarized a presentation for the up-coming APHA-meeting in Denver. It is so hilariously comical that I simply have to share it with you (for those readers are homeopaths, I have added [in square brackets] a few footnotes explaining the humorous side of it):
Background: Over the last 25 years there has been a marked increase in consumer demand for information about complimentary  and alternative medicine, including homeopathy. Anecdotal data  suggest that homeopathic consumers are very satisfied with homeopathic medicines, and use them to treat acute, self-limiting conditions, however very little data exists in the published literature examining either topic . Therefore, the purpose of this project was to evaluate homeopathic consumers’ use and satisfaction with homeopathic medicines.
Methods: Survey of nearly 20,000 consumers  who had purchased at least 1 over-the-counter (OTC) homeopathic medicine in the past 2 years.
Results:  More than 95% of respondents indicated they were very or extremely satisfied with the most recent OTC homeopathic medicine they had purchased and used . More than 96% of respondents indicated they were very or extremely satisfied with the results of OTC homeopathic medicines that they had used in general . Over 98% of respondents reported that they were very likely to purchase OTC homeopathic medicines again in the future . More than 97% of respondents indicated that they were very likely to recommend homeopathic medicines to others . Finally, more than 80% of respondents indicated using OTC homeopathic medicines for acute, self-limiting conditions, such as aches and pains; cold and flu symptoms; and digestive upset .
Conclusion: These results support anecdotal evidence  that homeopathic consumers are satisfied with OTC homeopathic medicines , and are using them to treat acute, self-limiting conditions . Additional research is needed to further explore the use of OTC homeopathic medicine in the US for trends, access, and overall awareness about homeopathy . complimentary medicine = healthcare that costs nothing; complementary medicine = healthcare that complements real medicine; homeopathy should belong to the former category because it contains nothing.  please note how ‘anecdotal data’ becomes ‘anecdotal evidence’ by the time we reach the conclusion; little does the author know that THE PLURAL OF ANECDOTE IS NOT ‘DATA’ BUT ‘ANECDOTES’!!!  this statement implies that the author cannot cope with a Medline search, because there are plenty of articles on this subject.  ‘nearly 20 000’ perfectly reflects the scientific rigor of this project (is it really too demanding to provide the exact figure?)  how come we do not learn anything about the response rate of this survey (did ‘nearly’ everyone reply? or did ‘nearly’ everyone not reply?)?  considering that only homeopathy-fans were included, this figure should be 100%!  considering that only homeopathy-fans were included, this figure should be 100%!  considering that only homeopathy-fans were included, this figure should be 100%!  considering that only homeopathy-fans were included, this figure should be 100%!  ‘more than 80%’ of an unknown rate of responders is about as much as a tin of peas. But I am nevertheless relieved that the majority used placebos merely for self-limiting conditions; the 20% who might have used it for life-threatening conditions are probably all dead – sad!  see footnote number 2  this is like doing a survey in a hamburger joint concluding that all consumers love to eat hamburgers.  except, of course, the unknown percentage of non-responders who might all be dead.  I would re-phrase this last sentence as follows: MORE SUCH PRESENTATIONS ARE NEEDED TO PROVIDE COMIC RELIEF TO OTHERWISE DRY AND BORING MEETINGS ON PUBLIC HEALTH.
Yes, yes, yes, I know: we have too few women in our ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’. This is not because I have anything against them (quite the contrary) but, in alternative medicine research, the boys by far outnumber the girls, I am afraid.
You do remember, of course, you has previously been admitted to this austere club of excellence; only two women so far. Here is the current list of members to remind you:
David Peters (osteopathy, homeopathy, UK)
Nicola Robinson (TCM, UK)
Peter Fisher (homeopathy, UK)
Simon Mills (herbal medicine, UK)
Gustav Dobos (various, Germany)
Claudia Witt (homeopathy, Germany and Switzerland)
George Lewith (acupuncture, UK)
John Licciardone (osteopathy, US)
If you study the list carefully, you will also notice that, until now, I have totally ignored the chiropractic profession. This is a truly embarrassing omission! When it comes to excellence in research, who could possibly bypass our friends, the chiropractors?
Today we are going to correct these mistakes. Specifically, we are going to increase the number of women by 50% (adding one more to the previous two) and, at the same time, admit a deserving chiropractor to the ALT MED HALL OF FAME.
Cheryl Hawk is currently the Executive Director of Northwest Center for Lifestyle and Functional Medicine, University of Western States, Portland, USA. Previously she worked as Director of Clinical Research at the Logan University College of Chiropractic, Chesterfield, USA, and prior to that she was employed at various other institutions. Since many years she has been a shining light of chiropractic research. She is certainly not ‘small fry’ when it comes to the promotion of chiropractic.
Cheryl seems to prefer surveys as a research tool over clinical trials, and it was therefore not always easy to identify those of her 67 Medline-listed articles that reported some kind of evaluation of the value of chiropractic. Here are, as always, the 10 most recent papers where I could extract something like a data-based conclusion (in bold) from the abstract.
Hawk C, Schneider MJ, Vallone S, Hewitt EG.
J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2016 Mar-Apr;39(3):158-68
All of the seed statements in this best practices document achieved a high level of consensus and thus represent a general framework for what constitutes an evidence-based and reasonable approach to the chiropractic management of infants, children, and adolescents.
Clinical Practice Guideline: Chiropractic Care for Low Back Pain.
Globe G, Farabaugh RJ, Hawk C, Morris CE, Baker G, Whalen WM, Walters S, Kaeser M, Dehen M, Augat T.
J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2016 Jan;39(1):1-22
The evidence supports that doctors of chiropractic are well suited to diagnose, treat, co-manage, and manage the treatment of patients with low back pain disorders.
Ndetan H, Hawk C, Sekhon VK, Chiusano M.
J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2016 Apr;21(2):138-42.
The odds ratio for perceiving being helped by a chiropractor was 4.36 (95% CI, 1.17-16.31) for respondents aged 65 years or older; 9.5 (95% CI, 7.92-11.40) for respondents reporting head or neck trauma; and 13.78 (95% CI, 5.59-33.99) for those reporting neurological or muscular conditions as the cause of their balance or dizziness.
Schneider MJ, Evans R, Haas M, Leach M, Hawk C, Long C, Cramer GD, Walters O, Vihstadt C, Terhorst L.
Chiropr Man Therap. 2015 May 4;23:16.
American chiropractors appear similar to chiropractors in other countries, and other health professionals regarding their favorable attitudes towards EBP, while expressing barriers related to EBP skills such as research relevance and lack of time. This suggests that the design of future EBP educational interventions should capitalize on the growing body of EBP implementation research developing in other health disciplines. This will likely include broadening the approach beyond a sole focus on EBP education, and taking a multilevel approach that also targets professional, organizational and health policy domains.
Chiropractic identity, role and future: a survey of North American chiropractic students.
Gliedt JA, Hawk C, Anderson M, Ahmad K, Bunn D, Cambron J, Gleberzon B, Hart J, Kizhakkeveettil A, Perle SM, Ramcharan M, Sullivan S, Zhang L.
Chiropr Man Therap. 2015 Feb 2;23(1):4
The chiropractic students in this study showed a preference for participating in mainstream health care, report an exposure to evidence-based practice, and desire to hold to traditional chiropractic theories and practices. The majority of students would like to see an emphasis on correction of vertebral subluxation, while a larger percent found it is important to learn about evidence-based practice. These two key points may seem contradictory, suggesting cognitive dissonance. Or perhaps some students want to hold on to traditional theory (e.g., subluxation-centered practice) while recognizing the need for further research to fully explore these theories. Further research on this topic is needed.
Twist E, Lawrence DJ, Salsbury SA, Hawk C.
Chiropr Man Therap. 2014 Dec 10;22(1):40
These results strongly suggest that chiropractic clinical researchers are not developing ICDs at a readability level congruent with the national average acceptable level. The low number of elements in some of the informed consent documents raises concern that not all research participants were fully informed when given the informed consent, and it may suggest that some documents may not be in compliance with federal requirements. Risk varies among institutions and even within institutions for the same intervention.
Hawk C, Kaeser MA, Beavers DV.
J Chiropr Educ. 2013 Fall;27(2):135-40.
This active learning exercise appeared to be a feasible way to introduce tobacco counseling into the curriculum.
Hawk C, Schneider M, Evans MW Jr, Redwood D.
J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2012 Sep;35(7):556-67
This living document provides a general framework for an evidence-based approach to chiropractic wellness care.
Ndetan H, Evans MW Jr, Hawk C, Walker C.
J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Apr;18(4):347-53.
C/OM is primarily used for back and neck pain, which is increasing in prevalence in children. Teens are more likely to use it than are younger children.
Dougherty PE, Hawk C, Weiner DK, Gleberzon B, Andrew K, Killinger L.
Chiropr Man Therap. 2012 Feb 21;20(1):3.
Given the utilization of chiropractic services by the older adult, it is imperative that providers be familiar with the evidence for and the prudent use of different management strategies for older adults.
I am pleased to say that Prof Hawk gave me no problems at all; her case is clear: she is a champion of using research as a means for promoting chiropractic, has published many papers in this vein, clearly prefers the journals of chiropractic that nobody other than chiropractors ever access, and has an impeccable track record when it comes to avoiding negative conclusions which could harm chiropractic in any way.
Very well done indeed!
WELCOME, PROF HAWK, TO THE ‘ALT MED HALL OF FAME’.
I have previously reported about the issue of homeopathy on the NHS in Liverpool here. Since then, the NHS Liverpool Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) has conducted a consultation on whether to continue funding. Personally, I think such polls are a daft waste of resources.
I will explain in a moment; first read the (slightly shortened) summary:
In November 2015, NHS Liverpool CCG Governing Body stated a preference to decommission the homeopathy service and commenced the consultation exercise with the intent to ascertain how the public felt about it. This report was written by the Centre for Public Health, Liverpool John Moores University, and includes independent analysis of the consultation activities.
The consultation ran from 13th November – 22nd December 2015. The two main methods used were 1) a survey available online and in paper format. It was completed by 743 individual respondents and, of those who provided a valid postcode, 68% (323 individuals) lived within the Liverpool CCG area, 2) a small consultation event held on 4th December 2015 facilitated by Liverpool John Moores University. The event was attended by 29 individuals, the majority of whom were patients and staff from the Liverpool Medical Homeopathic Service. Eighteen of the participants at this event resided in Liverpool.
Two thirds of survey respondents (66%; 380 respondents) said they would never use homeopathy services in the future. The reasons for this included the lack of evidence and scientific basis of homeopathy; negative personal experiences of homeopathy; and believing it was an inappropriate use of NHS funding. Those who would be likely to use it in the future (28%) felt they wanted to be able to choose an alternative to conventional medicine; felt it was value for money for the NHS; appreciated the time, care and holistic consultation; and discussed their own positive experiences. Sixty six per cent of survey respondents (111) who had used homeopathy in the past reported an excellent or good experience. Those who reported a positive experience (66%) felt that homeopathy had improved their health where conventional medicine had not, and participants valued that the homeopathic practitioner had treated their emotional as well as their physical needs. Those who reported a below average or poor experience (31%) felt homeopathy had not improved their medical condition and some felt they had been misled and had not been told the remedy contained no active ingredients.
At the consultation event, the majority of the 29 participants were homeopathy service users and they described a positive experience of homeopathy and the ability to choose ‘holistic’ and non-pharmaceutical treatment. Participants also questioned what services they could use if they were unable to access homeopathy on the NHS and were concerned and angry about the service potentially being decommissioned. A small number of participants at this event agreed with the view that there is a lack of evidence regarding efficacy and felt it was an inappropriate use of NHS funds that would be better spent on other, more effective services.
Of the survey respondents, 73% (541 individuals) chose the option to stop funding all homeopathy services; when including only Liverpool residents in the analysis this decreased to 64%. Twenty three per cent of survey respondents (170 individuals) wanted to continue to fund homeopathy services in Liverpool (either at current levels or to increase the budget); when only including Liverpool residents this proportion increased slightly to 30%. At the end of the consultation event the participants in the room (29 individuals) were asked to vote on their preferred funding option; twenty two participants (76%) wanted to continue the service and increase the maximum funding limit; three participants (14%) wanted to stay with the current situation and three participants (10%) wanted to stop funding the service.
There was some tension in what those in the consultation saw as acceptable and appropriate evidence about the effectiveness of homeopathy. Many participants in the survey and at the event reported their positive experience or anecdotal evidence as “proof” that homeopathy is effective. There was a low understanding about how scientific research is conducted or evaluated. The NHS try to base funding decisions on rigorous, high-quality, unbiased, peer-reviewed research, however, the CCG is required to account of all evidence, including patient experience, when funding or discontinuing services.
Across the survey and the consultation event there was some confusion about what types of treatment come under the heading of “homeopathy”, with participants making reference to a range of herbal remedies and supplements. Iscador (a mistletoe extract) may be, in some cases, provided as a complementary treatment for patients with cancer, however, this is not a homeopathic remedy. There was also discussion (in the event and in the survey responses) about other herbal remedies and supplements.
END OF SUMMARY
So, why do I not think highly about exercises of this kind?
In general, surveys are tricky and often very dodgy research tools. Particularly in alternative medicine, they are as popular as they are useless. The potential problems arise from the way the methodology is often applied. For instance, sampling is crucial. If, like in the present case, no rigorous sampling techniques are applied, the results will inevitably be unreliable in reflecting the views of a population.
The findings of the survey above could easily be little more than a reflection of which camp had a better PR. Homeopaths usually are very good on such occasions at persuading others for homeopathy. In this case, the results show that, despite their best efforts, the overall vote was not positive for homeopathy. What we don’t know is whether this is a reflection on the ‘will of the people’. It could be that the public is much more against funding nonsense than this poll suggests.
I would also argue that letting people vote about the availability of medical interventions is nonsensical. The value of healthcare technologies is not determined by such ‘beauty contests’; the value depends on the scientific evidence, and that is not readily evaluated by non-experts. Imagine: next we might vote for or against bone-marrow transplants; who has the expertise to cast such a vote?
Oh yes, and the ‘small consultation’ – what was that supposed to be. Probably just an exercise in political correctness. Nobody in their right mind can have expected any meaningful insight coming from it.
Finally, I dispute that ‘patients’ experience’ is the same as ‘evidence’, as the summary above seems to claim. This is just nonsense. evidence is something entirely different from experience.
But politicians will disregard all this. They will say ‘the public has decided’ and will stop funding homeopathy on the NHS in Liverpool. More by coincidence than by design, this survey went into the right direction. Now one can only hope that the rest of the country will follow suit – on evidence, not on dodgy pseudo-evidence from surveys.
Over the years, I had to get used to some abominably poor research in alternative medicine, particularly homeopathy. This new paper takes the biscuit, in my fairly well-informed opinion.
The article in question reports a survey investigating the management of paediatric tonsillopharyngitis, with a focus on natural remedies. For that purpose, 138 paediatricians, general practitioners and ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialists from 7 countries were sent a self-made, non-validated questionnaire.
The results indicate that a rapid strept test (RST) to diagnose acute tonsillopharyngitis was routinely used by 41% of the respondents. The use of RST allowed 200 diagnosis/year compared with 125 diagnosis/year for clinicians who did not use this tool. Homeopathic remedies were prescribed as a supportive therapy by 62% of participants. Among different homeopathic remedies, SilAtro-5-90 was the most frequently prescribed. In the chronic setting, homeopathy was suggested as a supportive therapy by 59% of all participants, phytotherapy by 28% and vitamins/nutritional supplementation by 37%.
The authors of this paper concluded from these results that the management of tonsillopharyngitis in paediatric patients still remains empiric. Natural remedies, and homeopathy in particular, are used in the management of URTIs. An integrative approach to these infections may help reduce excessive antibiotic prescription.
No wonder that homeopathy and research into it are the laughing stock of the scientific community!
A survey of this nature is already a fairly daft idea. What could it possibly show? That health care professionals who like homeopathy answer, while the vast majority don’t!
But the pinnacle of silliness must be the conclusions drawn from such ‘research’. Let’s take them step by step:
- the management of tonsillopharyngitis in paediatric patients still remains empiric – this is not true nor is it borne out by the data generated.
- Natural remedies, and homeopathy in particular, are used in the management of URTIs – this may be true, but it has been known before; we therefore do not need to waste time and effort to re-state it.
- An integrative approach to these infections may help reduce excessive antibiotic prescription – this is not supported by the data and it also seems nonsensical: if it truly successful in reducing antibiotic prescribing, it is arguably no longer integrative but alternative.
Say no more!
Hurray, I can hear the Champagne corks popping: this month is ‘National Chiropractic Months’ in the USA – a whole month! This has depleted my stock of the delicious fizz already in the first three days.
Now that my bottles are empty (is there a chiropractic cure for a hang-over?), I must find other ways to celebrate. How about a more sober look at what has been published in the medical literature on chiropractic during the last few days?
A quick look into Medline identifies several articles of interest. The very first one is a case-report:
Spinal epidural hematoma (SEH) occurring after chiropractic spinal manipulation therapy (CSMT) is a rare clinical phenomenon. Our case is unique because the patient had an undiagnosed cervical spinal arteriovenous malformation (AVM) discovered on pathological analysis of the evacuated hematoma. Although the spinal manipulation likely contributed to the rupture of the AVM, there was no radiographic evidence of the use of excessive force, which was seen in another reported case. As such, patients with a known AVM who have not undergone surgical intervention should be cautioned against symptomatic treatment with CSMT, even if performed properly. Regardless of etiology, SEH is a surgical emergency and its favorable neurological recovery correlates inversely with time to surgical evacuation.
This is important, I think, in more than one way. Many chiropractors simply deny that their manipulations cause serious complications of this nature. Yet such cases are being reported with depressing regularity. Other chiropractors claim that excessive force is necessary to cause the damage. This paper seems to refute this notion quite well, I think.
But let’s not be inelegant and dwell on this unpleasant subject; it might upset chiros during their month of celebration.
The next article fresh from the press is a survey – chiropractors are very fond of this research tool, it seems. It produced a lot of intensely boring data – except for one item that caught my eye: the authors found that ‘virtually all Danish chiropractors working in the primary sector made use of manipulation as one of their treatment modalities.’
Why is that interesting? Whenever I point out that there is no good evidence that chiropractic manipulations generate more good than harm, chiropractors tend to point out that they do so much more than that. Manipulations are not administered to all their patients, they say. This survey is a reminder (there is plenty more evidence on this issue) of the fact that the argument is not very convincing.
Another survey which has just been published in time for the ‘celebratory month’ is worth mentioning. It reports the responses of patients to questions about chiropractic by providing the ‘positive angle’, e.g.: ‘Most (61.4%) respondents believed that chiropractic care was effective at treating neck and back pain…’ Just for the fun of it, I thought it might be worth doing the opposite: 39% did not believe that chiropractic care was effective at treating neck and back pain… If we use this approach, the new survey also indicates that about half of the respondents did not think chiropractors were trustworthy, and 86% have not consulted a chiropractor within the last year.
Oh, so sorry – I did not mean to spoil the celebrations! Better move on then!
A third survey assessed the attitudes of Canadian obstetricians towards chiropractic. Overall, 70% of respondents did not hold a positive views toward chiropractic, 74% did not agree that chiropractic had a role in treatment of non-musculoskeletal conditions, 60% did not refer at least some patients for chiropractic care each year, and comments of the obstetricians revealed concerns regarding safety of spinal manipulation and variability among chiropractors.
And now I better let you get on with your well-deserved celebrations and look for another bottle!