Edzard Ernst


Hard to believe that it’s been already two years! On 14 October 2012, I posted the very first article. It set out what I wanted to achieve:

Why another blog offering critical analyses of the weird and wonderful stuff that is going on in the world of alternative medicine? The answer is simple: compared to the plethora of uncritical misinformation on this topic, the few blogs that do try to convey more reflected, sceptical views are much needed; and the more we have of them, the better.

At the time, I had no idea how successful this venture into the unknown would become. Today, over 350 articles have been posted and almost 8000 comments have contributed to an often lively debate about almost all aspects of alternative medicine. Currently, the blog has well over 1000 – 2000 visitors every day. Selected posts have been translated and re-published in about half a dozen languages. I admit: I am quite proud of all that!

Back in 2012, I also had no idea how much fun I would derive from doing all this. Those who know me well would probably confirm that I am an unlikely candidate for getting his teeth into something like a blog. Thanks to mostly helpful and often brilliant comments from my readers, this blog has become a constant source of entertainment and information for me and, I hope, many others too.

My aims have remained very much the same during these last two years. Today I might formulate them as follows:

  • I want to inform the public about all matters related to alternative medicine.
  • I aim to review new evidence as it emerges.
  • I also wish to entertain my readers.
  • I feel a strong need to create a counter-balance to the thousands of blogs that are dangerously promotional and woefully uncritical.
  • And I want to help consumers to become much more effective ‘BULL-SHIT DETECTORS’ (I got this term recently from Sir Iain Chalmers).

Of course, none of these aims are achievable without active, critical, witty and outspoken readers and commentators. I would like to take the occasion of this second anniversary to thank everybody who has helped with and contributed to this blog. May the good work and intense fun continue!

Here and elsewhere, I have repeatedly written about the many things that can go wrong with acupuncture. This invariably annoys acupuncture fans who usually counter by accusing me of being alarmist. Despite their opposition, I continue to think it is important to regularly point out that acupuncture – contrary to what many acupuncturists would tell us – can result in serious injury. I will therefore carry on reporting new evidence about the harm caused by acupuncture. Here is a very brief review of new (2014) articles on this important topic.

A recent study found that the incidence of any adverse events per patient was 42.4% with traditional acupuncture, 40.7% with minimal acupuncture and 16.7% with non-invasive sham acupuncture. These figures are much higher than those around 10% previously reported.

Other authors described the case of a broken off acupuncture needle in a patient’s abdomen. A very long needle was used which happily is unusual in routine practice.

Pneumothorax has been often noted as a complication of acupuncture – it is by far the most frequently reported serious complication caused by acupuncture; well over 100 instances have been described in the medical literature which, of course, reflects only the tip of an iceberg – new cases are being reported almost on a monthly basis.

Cardiac tamponade is even more dangerous but fortunately also much rarer. A case of life-threatening cardiac tamponade due to penetration of an acupuncture needle directly into the right ventricle was recently published. Cardiac tamponade can happen when the patient is unfortunate enough to have a sternal foramen, an congenital abnormality that is not normally detected by simple inspection or palpation. An investigation found that the frequency of a sternal foramen is approximately 10.5%. The authors concluded that sternal acupuncture should be planned in the region of corpus-previous CT should be done to rule out this variation. Furthermore, we strongly recommend the acupuncture technique which prescribes a safe superficial-oblique approach to the sternum.

A review from Egypt noted that acupuncture presented a significant risks for acquiring hepatitis C infections.

Other types of infections can also be transmitted by acupuncture needles, if the therapist fails to adhere to proper procedures of sterility. One report described the diagnosis, treatment and >1 year follow-up of 30 patients presenting with acupuncture-induced primary inoculation tuberculosis.

Similarly, Chinese authors reported the case of a 54-year-old woman who presented with progressive low back pain and fever. She underwent surgical decompression, with an immediate improvement of her pain. A culture of the epidural abscess grew Serratia marcescens. One year postoperatively, magnetic resonance imaging revealed the almost complete eradication of the abscess. This case is the first case of Serratia marcescens-associated spinal epidural abscess formation secondary to acupuncture.

Other authors reported a rare case of isolated unilateral hypoglossal nerve injury following ipsilateral acupuncture for migraines in a 53-year-old lady.

Finally, Greek authors published a case of severe rhabdomyolysis and acute kidney injury after acupuncture sessions. Rhabdomyolysis is a rare condition that can be caused by muscle injury and presents with muscle weakness and pain. It is characterized by myoglobinuria which, in turn, may cause acute kidney injury.

I can hear the world of acupuncture arguing that all of these events are extreme rarities and that conventional treatments are much more dangerous. This may well be true but it also ignores the following facts:

  • The frequency of such events is essentially unknown. Contrary to conventional medicine, alternative medicine has no functioning systems to monitor adverse events. Therefore the true incidence figures of acupuncture-related complications are anyone’s guess.
  • Most conventional treatments in common use are backed up by good evidence for efficacy and therefore demonstrably do more good than harm, even if they regularly cause adverse effects. This is not the case for acupuncture. In the absence of solid evidence for efficacy, even relatively rare or minor adverse effects would mean that the risk/benefit profile of acupuncture is not positive.

For these reasons, it is an ethical imperative, I think, to keep a keen eye on the harm caused by acupuncture and to inform the public about the fact that it is undeniably not free of risks.

There are few concepts in medicine which are more often abused than that of ‘holistic medicine’. Professor Baum and many other well-reasoned observers have pointed out that true “holism in medicine is an open-ended and exquisitely complex understanding of human biology that over time has led to spectacular improvements in the length and quality of life of patients with cancer and that this approach encourages us to consider the transcendental as much as the cell and molecular biology of the human organism. ‘Alternative’ versions of holism are arid and closed belief systems, locked in a time warp, incapable of making progress yet quick to deny it in the field of scientific medicine.”

Holism does not belong to any type of health care, it is an essential characteristic of any type of good medicine; without it, health care is defective, almost by definition. This is not my personal opinion, it is and always has been the generally accepted view: it is a common misconception that holistic medicine is just ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medicine. Clinical holistic medicine actually dates as far back as Hippocrates. An holistic approach to patient care was also suggested by Percival in his book – the first textbook of medical ethics – first published in 1803. Percival stated: “The feeling and emotions of the patients require to be known and to be attended to, no less than the symptoms of their diseases.” More recently, John Macleod in his book ‘Clinical Examination’, first published in 1964, also commented that “we should aim to be holistic in our care”. Also, the seminal work by Michael Balint, ‘The Doctor, the Patient and his Illness’, first published in 1957, represents an important landmark in seeing the patient as a whole rather than as isolated pathology… An holistic approach is good practice and has been strongly advocated by the Royal College of General Practitioners for many years. 

Proponents of alternative medicine, however, tend to see this very differently. They have jumped on the ‘holistic band-wagon’ and frequently claim that they now own it: they pretend or imply to be the only clinicians who practice holistically. Thus a most effective straw man has been created, and conventional medicine is attacked by these ‘new-born holists’ for not being holistic.

One website may serve as an example for many: Holistic medicine (or holistic health) is a section of alternative medicine where practitioners believe that in order to successfully treat an illness or health problem, it is necessary to focus on the many components that make up an individual, including the mental and emotional aspects, rather than focusing exclusively on the physical symptoms or just the illness itself. Holistic medicine looks at the “whole package” in order to determine an appropriate path to healing.

More often than not, the ‘alternative path to healing’ turns out to consist of a series of bogus alternative treatments some of which may be directly harmful, while others are just useless but nevertheless detrimental because they replace effective therapies that would alleviate patients’ suffering.

In case you doubt this statement, I recommend searching the Internet for ‘holistic healing centres’. Just one website will have to stand for virtually thousands of others; this is the list of treatments offered in one UK holistic healing centre:

bio resonance
bowen technique
clinical psychology
cognitive hypnotherapy
cranial osteopathy
crystal healing
deep tissue massage
dr hauschka rhythmic treatments
emotional freedom technique
food allergy testing
indian head massage
la stone massage therapy
metamorphic technique
neuro-linguisitc programming
nutritional therapy
pregnancy massage
remedial massage
sports therapy
swedish massage

I think it is important to realise what has happened here and what charlatans have made of holism which is (I repeat) a central and essential element of conventional health care. They have hijacked it, claimed they have a monopoly on it, used it to create a straw man misleading the public, and perverted it into a tool for attracting and financially exploiting the often all too gullible public.

And the reaction of conventional medicine to all this? Hardly any! Many conventional health care professionals seem now resigned to delegating holism to quacks. Some organisations, like the infamous COLLEGE OF MEDICINE, run by Prince Charles’ sycophants, have even taken an active role in supporting this shameful take-over.

I strongly feel that this regressive development will, in the end, render all of medicine less effective, less humane and will thus turn out to be a great disservice to patients.

‘Healing, hype or harm? A critical analysis of complementary or alternative medicine’ is the title of a book that I edited and that was published in 2008. Its publication date coincided with that of ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and therefore the former was almost completely over-shadowed by the latter. Consequently few people know about it. This is a shame, I think, and this post is dedicated to encouraging my readers to have a look at ‘Healing, hype or harm?’

One reviewer commented on Amazon about this book as follows: Vital and informative text that should be read by everyone alongside Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ and Singh and Ernt’s ‘Trick or Treatment’. Everyone should be able to made informed choices about the treatments that are peddled to the desperate and gullible. As Tim Minchin famously said ‘What do you call Alternative Medicine that has been proved to work? . . . Medicine!’

This is high praise indeed! But I should not omit the fact that others have commented that they were appalled by our book and found it “disappointing and unsettling”. This does not surprise me in the least; after all, alternative medicine has always been a divisive subject.

The book was written by a total of 17 authors and covers many important aspects of alternative medicine. Some of its most famous contributors are Michael Baum, Gustav Born, David Colquhoun, James Randi and Nick Ross. Some of the most important subjects include:

  • Compassion
  • Quackademia
  • Impartiality
  • Ethics
  • Politics
  • Holism
  • Vitalism
  • Placebo

As already mentioned, our book is already 6 years old; however, this does not mean that it is now out-dated. The subject areas were chosen such that it will be timely for a long time to come. Nor does this book reflect one single point of view; as it was written by over a dozen different experts with vastly different backgrounds, it offers an entire spectrum of views and attitudes. It is, in a word, a book that stimulates critical thinking and thoughtful analysis.

I sincerely think you should have a look at it… and, in case you think I am hoping to maximise my income by telling you all this: all the revenues from this book go to charity.

Most pharmacies worldwide sell any bogus treatment to their unsuspecting customers, it seems – as long as it makes a profit, anything goes! Not in New Zealand!

The New Zealand’s Pharmacy Council’s Safe Effective Pharmacy Practice Code of Ethics 2011 section 6.9 requires of pharmacists that:

“YOU MUST… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.”

This instruction was the basis for a complaint against a New Zealand pharmacy selling a homeopathic remedy against jet lag called “No-Jet-Lag”. The New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) considered the complaint and decided to uphold it. The complaint, which was lodged with the ASA by the Society for Science Based Healthcare in July 2014, alleged that the advertisement’s claims about the product that “It Really Works” for “Homeopathic Jet Lag Prevention” were unsubstantiated and misleading.

In defence of their advertising, the manufacturer of the product, Miers Laboratories, submitted a study they had conducted with their product. However, the Advertising Standards Complaints Board ruled that: “the trial population in the pilot study was small, the methodology was not robust and the results had not been published or peer reviewed. The Complaints Board also noted the study was an in-house trial conducted by the Advertiser rather than independent research…Given the weaknesses in the study, the majority of the Complaints Board said the Advertiser had not satisfactorily substantiated the claim the product “really works” and, as such, the Complaints Board said the advertisement had the potential to mislead consumers. Consequently, the Complaints Board said the advertisement did not observe a high standard of social responsibility required of advertisements of this type.”

However, today I found the following text still on the website of the company: Jet lag is the curse of modern jet travel, but it doesn´t have to spoil your trip. The unique homeopathic remedy No-Jet-Lag helps ensure holiday enjoyment and working efficiency even after long airline flights. No-Jet-Lag is raved about by satisfied travellers globally, including business executives, sports teams, tour operators, and flight crews. It is safe, easy to take, and proven effective in tests.

Are the days of “No-Jet-Lag” counted?

Why do not all countries’ pharmacists have such codes of ethics?

Many experts have warned us that, when we opt for dietary supplements, we might get more than we bargained for. A recent article reminded us that the increased availability and use of botanical dietary supplements and herbal remedies among consumers has been accompanied by an increased frequency of adulteration of these products with synthetic pharmaceuticals. Unscrupulous producers may add drugs and analogues of various classes, such as phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE-5) inhibitors, weight loss, hypoglycemic, antihypertensive and anti-inflammatory agents, or anabolic steroids, to develop or intensify biological effects of dietary supplements or herbal remedies. The presence of such adulterated products in the marketplace is a worldwide problem and their consumption poses health risks to consumers.

Other authors recently warned that these products are often ineffective, adulterated, mislabeled, or have unclear dosing recommendations, and consumers have suffered injury and death as a consequence. When Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, it stripped the Food and Drug Administration of its premarket authority, rendering regulatory controls too weak to adequately protect consumers. State government intervention is thus warranted. This article reviews studies reporting on Americans’ use of dietary supplements marketed for weight loss or muscle building, notes the particular dangers these products pose to the youth, and suggests that states can build on their historical enactment of regulatory controls for products with potential health consequences to protect the public and especially young people from unsafe and mislabeled dietary supplements.

A new study has shown that these problems are not just theoretical but are real and common.

Twenty-four products suspected of containing anabolic steroids and sold in fitness equipment shops in the UK were analyzed for their qualitative and semi-quantitative content using full scan gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), accurate mass liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS), high pressure liquid chromatography with diode array detection (HPLC-DAD), UV-Vis, and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. In addition, X-ray crystallography enabled the identification of one of the compounds, where reference standard was not available.

Of the 24 products tested, 23 contained steroids including known anabolic agents; 16 of these contained steroids that were different to those indicated on the packaging and one product contained no steroid at all. Overall, 13 different steroids were identified; 12 of these are controlled in the UK under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Several of the products contained steroids that may be considered to have considerable pharmacological activity, based on their chemical structures and the amounts present.

The authors concluded that such adulteration could unwittingly expose users to a significant risk to their health, which is of particular concern for naïve users.

The Internet offers thousands of supplements for sale; specifically for bodybuilders there are hundreds of supplements all claiming things that are untrue or untested. The lax regulations that exist in this area seem to be often ignored completely. I think it is important to inform customers that most supplements are a waste of money and some even a waste of health.

Have you ever wondered why homeopathic remedies cost relatively much money? The less they contain, the more expensive they seem to be. The typical homeopathic remedy contains not a single molecule of what it says on the bottle, yet it can cost quite a lot. Why?

The reason is, of course, that these remedies are ‘potentized’ – meaning that the starting material is diluted and subsequently ‘succussed’. The latter term describes the process of vigorously shaking the remedy at each dilution step. Succussion is essential for transferring the life-energy from one dilution to the next, homeopaths insist. The most commonly used OTC remedies are in the ‘C30’ potency. This means that some pharmacist had to do 30 dilutions 1: 100, and each time he or she made a new dilution, he or she had to do the vigorous shaking as well.

Homeopaths are still debating as to how often and how hard the remedy needs to be shaken for the optimal transference of the life-energy; Hahnemann did it by banging the vial on his bible. Meanwhile, inventive manufacturers have developed machines that can manage the succussions semi-automatically. But even then, the process needs to be supervised, and all of this takes time and costs money, of course.

And now you understand why these remedies cannot be as cheap as to reflect the total absence of an active molecule!

And perhaps you also understand why some pharmacists might get truly fed-up doing the dilution/succession knowing that they might as well just put distilled water in the final vial – nobody on this planet could possibly ever tell the difference! I have always imagined that many of them throw the homeopathic rule book in the bin and forget about this tedious procedure.

Actually, I have more than imagined this.

Since I have been giving lectures on homeopathy on a fairly regular basis, I have encountered several pharmacists who told me of their frustration when they had to manufacture homeopathic remedies. Over the years, I met three of them who told me that they became so annoyed with the whole thing that they did precisely what I hinted at above: they just skipped all the dilution and succession and decided to dispense distilled water. Apparently nobody ever noticed.

These are, of course, just stories which people have told me. They may not even be true. I have no evidence whatsoever to substantiate them. But now, an ex-employee of an US homeopathic manufacturer has gone one step further. He published a short report of the time when he worked in the homeopathic industry. His account is so unique that I took the liberty of re-publishing it here:

I have worked at a homeopathic manufacturing plant. Yes, there is always a starting material, however sometimes it can get really shady. Homeopathics are regulated by the FDA under CFR 211, so if you make stuff up (like lie about having a starting material), and they find out about it, you’re in big trouble.

For most herbals, the actual herb is purchased, then tested to make sure it’s the right variety. This can mean TLC (thin layer chromatography), which is what I was responsible for doing when I worked there. A lot of times we got in a different species of the herb, but used it anyway.

Sometimes a pathogenic starting material is used – in that case, we contacted out to a third party micro lab that keep strains in a controlled environment. We paid the micro guy a contract fee to do the dilutions himself which ended up being about $3500 because only he was licensed to deal with pathogens. We made 200 30 mL units out of that which sold for less than $1200 total. Such a waste.

Sometimes a material of animal origin is used. If it’s something weird, like bovine trachea, there really isn’t a good method to test it, so we kind of took the supplier’s word for it. Pretty shady.

One time we needed to do an extraction of “morning dew”, so we went outside in the morning, shook some water off of some weeds, weighed it, then did the dilution.

My favorite story is this one: We needed to do a dilution of uranium 200X. Problem, is you can’t get uranium (unless you’re Doc Brown), so we went to Hanford (this was a looong time ago) carrying a vial of water. When we got there and did a tour (the plant manager knew what we were going to do), we took the vial and held it up against a glass wall that was a close as we could get to the cooling chamber. That became our “1X” dilution. We went back to our lab and diluted it to 200X, in ethanol. We had a lot left over, and because it’s illegal in WA to dump large quantities of ethanol down the drain, we needed a disposal service. Unfortunately, when we tried to explain that it was a 200X dilution (and that there wasn’t even a single atom of uranium in there to begin with), they still wouldn’t take it, because it said “uranium” on the label. So we took a shovel and buried in the back of the plant, and never told anyone.

I told you his story was unique. Did I promise too much?

One of the most commonly ‘accepted’ indications for acupuncture is anxiety. Many trials have suggested that it is effective for that condition. But is this really true? To find out, we need someone to conduct a systematic review or meta-analysis.

Korean researchers have just published such a paper; they wanted to assess the preoperative anxiolytic efficacy of acupuncture therapy and therefore conducted a meta-analysis of all RCTs on the subject. Four electronic databases were searched up to February 2014. Data were included in the meta-analysis from RCTs in which groups receiving preoperative acupuncture treatment were compared with control groups receiving a placebo for anxiety.

Fourteen publications with a total of 1,034 patients were included. Six RCTs, using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory-State (STAI-S), reported that acupuncture interventions led to greater reductions in preoperative anxiety relative to sham acupuncture. A further eight publications, employing visual analogue scales, also indicated significant differences in preoperative anxiety amelioration between acupuncture and sham acupuncture.

The authors concluded that aacupuncture therapy aiming at reducing preoperative anxiety has a statistically significant effect relative to placebo or nontreatment conditions. Well-designed and rigorous studies that employ large sample sizes are necessary to corroborate this finding.

From these conclusions most casual readers might get the impression that acupuncture is indeed effective. One has to dig a bit deeper to realise that is perhaps not so.

Why? Because the quality of the primary studies was often dismally poor. Most did not even mention adverse effects which, in my view, is a clear breach of publication ethics. What is more, all the studies were wide open to bias. The authors of the meta-analysis include in their results section the following short paragraph:

The 14 included studies exhibited various degrees of bias susceptibility (Figure 2 and Figure 3). The agreement rate, as measured using Cohen’s kappa, was 0.8 [32]. Only six studies reported concealed allocation; the other six described a method of adequate randomization, although the word “randomization” appeared in all of the articles. Thirteen studies prevented blinding of the participants. Participants in these studies had no previous experience of acupuncture. According to STRICTA, two studies enquired after patients’ beliefs as a group: there were no significant differences [20, 24].

There is a saying amongst experts about such meta-analyses: RUBBISH IN, RUBBISH OUT. It describes the fact that several poor studies, pooled meta-analytically, can never give a reliable result.

This does, however, not mean that such meta-analyses are necessarily useless. If the authors prominently (in the abstract) stress that the quality of the primary studies was wanting and that therefore the overall result is unreliable, they might inspire future researchers to conduct more rigorous trials and thus generate progress. Most importantly, by insisting on pointing out these limitations and by not drawing positive conclusions from flawed data, they would avoid misleading those health care professionals – and let’s face it, they are the majority – who merely read the abstract or even just the conclusions of such articles.

The authors of this review have failed to do any of this; they and the journal EBCAM have thus done a disservice to us all by contributing to the constant drip of misleading and false-positive information about the value of acupuncture.

Reflexology? Isn’t that an alternative therapy? And as such, a physiotherapist would not normally use it, most of us might think.

Well, think again! Here is what the UK Chartered Society of Physiotherapists writes about reflexology:

Developed centuries ago in countries such as China, Egypt and India, reflexology is often referred to as a ‘gentle’ and ‘holistic’ therapy that benefits both mind and body. It centres on the feet because these are said by practitioners to be a mirror, or topographical map, for the rest of the body. Manipulation of certain pressure, or reflex, points is claimed to have an effect on corresponding zones in the body. The impact, say reflexologists, extends throughout – to bones, muscles, organs, glands, circulatory and neural pathways. The head and hands can also be massaged in some cases. The treatment is perhaps best known for use in connection with relaxation and relief from stress, anxiety, pain, sleep disorders, headaches, migraine, menstrual and digestive problems. But advocates say it can be used to great effect far more widely, often in conjunction with other treatments.

Reflexology, or Reflex Therapy (RT) as some physiotherapists prefer to call it, clearly is approved by the UK Chartered Society of Physiotherapists. And what evidence do they have for it?

One hundred members of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Reflex Therapy (ACPIRT) participated in an audit to establish a baseline of practice. Findings indicate that experienced therapists use RT in conjunction with their professional skills to induce relaxation (95%) and reduce pain (86%) for patients with conditions including whiplash injury and chronic pain. According to 68% of respondents, RT is “very good,” “good” or “as good as” orthodox physiotherapy practices. Requiring minimal equipment, RT may be as cost effective as orthodox physiotherapy with regards to duration and frequency of treatment.

But that’s not evidence!!! I hear you grumble. No, it isn’t, I agree.

Is there good evidence to show that RT is effective?

I am afraid not!

My own systematic review concluded that the best evidence available to date does not demonstrate convincingly that reflexology is an effective treatment for any medical condition.

Does that mean that the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists promotes quackery?

I let my readers answer that question.

After the usually challenging acute therapy is behind them, cancer patients are often desperate to find a therapy that might improve their wellbeing. At that stage they may suffer from a wide range of symptoms which can seriously limit their quality of life. Any treatment that can be shown to restore them to their normal mental and physical health would be more than welcome.

Most homeopaths believe that their remedies can do just that, particularly if they are tailored not to the disease but to the individual patient. Sadly, the evidence that this might be so is almost non-existent. Now, a new trial has become available; it was conducted by Jennifer Poole, a chartered psychologist and registered homeopath, and researcher and teacher at Nemeton Research Foundation, Romsey.

The aim of this study was to explore the benefits of a three-month course of individualised homeopathy (IH) for survivors of cancer.  Fifteen survivors of any type of cancer were recruited from a walk-in cancer support centre. Conventional treatment had to have taken place within the last three years. Patients saw a homeopath who prescribed IH. After three months of IH, they scored their total, physical and emotional wellbeing using the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy for Cancer (FACIT-G). The results show that 11 of the 14 women had statistically positive outcomes for emotional, physical and total wellbeing.
The conclusions of the author are clear: Findings support previous research, suggesting CAM or IH could be beneficial for survivors of cancer.

This article was published in the NURSING TIMES, and the editor added a footnote informing us that “This article has been double-blind “.

I find this surprising. A decent peer-review should have picked up the point that a study of that nature cannot possibly produce results which tell us anything about the benefits of IH. The reasons for this are fairly obvious:

  • there was no control group,
  • therefore the observed outcomes are most likely due to 1) natural history, 2) placebo, 3) regression towards the mean and 4) social desirability; it seems most unlikely that IH had anything to do with the result
  • the sample size was tiny,
  • the patients elected to receive IH which means that had high expectations of a positive outcome,
  • only subjective outcome measures were used,
  • there is no good previous research suggesting that IH benefits cancer patients.

On the last point, a recent systematic review showed that the studies available on this topic had mixed results either showing a significantly greater improvement in QOL in the intervention group compared to the control group, or no significant difference between groups. The authors concluded that there existed significant gaps in the evidence base for the effectiveness of CAM on QOL in cancer survivors. Further work in this field needs to adopt more rigorous methodology to help support cancer survivors to actively embrace self-management and effective CAMs, without recommending inappropriate interventions which are of no proven benefit.

All this new study might tell us is that IH did not seem to harm these patients  – but even this finding is not certain; to be sure, we would need to include many more patients. Any conclusions about the effectiveness of IH are totally unwarranted. But are there ANY generalizable conclusions that can be drawn from this article? Yes, I can think of a few:

  • Some cancer patients can be persuaded to try the most implausible treatments.
  • Some journals will publish any rubbish.
  • Some peer-reviewers fail to spot the most obvious defects.
  • Some ‘researchers’ haven’t got a clue.
  • The attempts of misleading us about the value of homeopathy are incessant.

One might argue that this whole story is too trivial for words; who cares what dodgy science is published in the NURSING TIMES? But I think it does matter – not so much because of this one silly article itself, but because similarly poor research with similarly ridiculous conclusions is currently published almost every day. Subsequently it is presented to the public as meaningful science heralding important advances in medicine. It matters because this constant drip of bogus research eventually influences public opinion and determines far-reaching health care decisions.

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