MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

irrationality

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Many experts have argued that the growing popularity of alternative medicine (AM) mandates their implementation into formal undergraduate medical education. Most medical students seem to feel a need to learn about AM. Yet little is known about the student-specific need for AM education. The objective of this paper was address this issue, specifically the authors wanted to assess the self-reported need for AM education among Australian medical students.

Thirty second-year to final-year medical students participated in semi-structured interviews. A constructivist grounded theory methodological approach was used to generate, construct and analyse the data.

The results show that these medical students generally held favourable attitudes toward AM but had knowledge deficits and did not feel adept at counselling patients about AMs. All students were supportive of integrating AM into education, noting its importance in relation to the doctor-patient encounter, specifically with regard to interactions with medical management. Students recognised the need to be able to effectively communicate about AMs and advise patients regarding safe and effective AM use.

The authors of this survey concluded that Australian medical students expressed interest in, and the need for, AM education in medical education regardless of their opinion of it, and were supportive of evidence-based AMs being part of their armamentarium. However, current levels of AM education in medical schools do not adequately enable this. This level of receptivity suggests the need for AM education with firm recommendations and competencies to assist AM education development required. Identifying this need may help medical educators to respond more effectively.

One might object to such wide-reaching conclusions based on a sample size of just 30. However, there are several similar surveys from other parts of the world which seem to paint a similar picture: most medical students clearly do want to learn about AM. But this issue raises several important questions:

  • How can this be squeezed into the already over-full curriculum?
  • Should students learn about AM or should they learn how to practice AM?
  • Who should teach this subject?

In my view, students should learn the essentials about AM but not how to do this or that therapy. Most deans of medical schools seem to agree with me on that particular point.

The question as to who should teach students about AM is, however, much more contentious. Most conventional medical instructors have no interest in and/or no knowledge of the subject. Consequently, there is a tendency for medical schools to delegate AM by hiring a few alternative practitioners to cover AM. Thus we see homeopaths teaching medical students all (well, almost all) about homeopathy, acupuncturists teaching acupuncture, herbalists teaching herbal medicine etc. To many observers, this might sound right and reasonable – but I beg to differ resolutely.

Most alternative practitioners who I have met (and these were many over the last 20 years) are clearly not capable of teaching their own subject in a way that befits a medical school. They have little or no idea about the nature of scientific evidence and usually lack the slightest hint of critical analysis. Thus a homeopaths might teach homeopathy such that students get the impression that it is well grounded in evidence, for instance. Students who have been taught in this fashion are not likely to advise their future patients responsibly on the subject in question: THE TEACHING OF NONSENSE IS BOUND TO RESULT IN NONSENSICAL PRACTICE!

In my view, AM is an ideal subject to acquaint medical students with the concepts of critical thinking. In this respect, it offers an almost opportunity for medical schools to develop much-needed skills in their students. Sadly, however, this is not what is currently happening. All too often, medical school deans find themselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. In the end, they tend to delegate the subject of AM to people who are not competent and should not be let loose on impressionable students.

I fear that progress and care of future patients are bound to suffer.

 

The task of UK Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) is to ensure NHS funds are spent as effectively and responsibly as possible. This is particularly important in the current financial climate, as NHS budgets are under enormous pressure. For that reason, The Good Thinking Society (GTS, a pro-science charity) invited Liverpool CCG to reconsider whether the money (~ £ 30,000 pa) they spend on homeopathy represents good service to the public. Recently the CCG agreed to make a fresh decision on this contentious issue.

The GTS would prefer to see limited NHS resources spent on evidence-based medicine rather than on continued funding of homeopathy which, as readers of this blog will know, has repeatedly failed to demonstrate that it is doing more good than harm. It is encouraging to see Liverpool CCG take a first step in the right direction by agreeing to properly consider the best evidence and expertise on this issue.

Supporters of homeopathy frequently cite the concept of patient choice and claim that, if patients want homeopathy, they should have it free on the NHS. The principle is obviously important, but it is crucial that this choice is an informed one. The best evidence has conclusively shown that homeopathy is not an effective treatment, and to continue to offer ineffective treatments under the guise of patient choice raises troubling questions about the important concept of informed choice, and indeed of informed consent as well as medical ethics.

The GTS were represented by Salima Budhani and Jamie Potter of Bindmans LLP. Salima said: “This case underlines the necessity of transparent and accountable decision making by the controllers of health budgets, particularly in the light of the current financial climate in the NHS. CCGs have legal obligations to properly consider relevant evidence, as well as the views of experts and residents, in deciding how precious NHS resources are to be spent. It is essential that commissioning decisions are rational and evidence-based. Liverpool CCG’s decision to reconsider its position on the funding of homeopathy in these circumstances is to be welcomed.

“Our client has also called upon the Secretary of State for Health to issue guidance on the funding of homeopathy on the NHS. Public statements by the Secretary of State indicate that he does not support ongoing funding, yet he has so far declined to ask NICE to do any work on this issue. The provision of such guidance would be of significant benefit to CCGs in justifying decisions to terminate funding.”

Commenting on their decision, a Liverpool CCG spokesperson said: “Liverpool CCG currently resources a small homeopathy contract to the value of £30,000 per year that benefits a small number of patients in the city who choose to access NHS homeopathy care and treatment services. The CCG has agreed with the Good Thinking Society to carry out further engagement with patients and the general public to inform our future commissioning intentions for this service.”

Over the last two decades, prescriptions fulfilled in community pharmacies for homeopathy on the NHS in England have fallen  by over 94% and homeopathic hospitals have seen their funding reallocated. This reduction indicates that the majority of doctors and commissioning bodies have acted responsibly by terminating funding for homeopathic treatments.

The GTS are currently fundraising in order to fund further legal challenges – donate now to support our campaign at justgiving.com/Good-Thinking-Society-Appeal/.

As I grew up in Germany, it was considered entirely normal that I was given homeopathic remedies when ill. I often wondered whether, with the advent of EBM, this has changed. A recent paper provides an answer to this question.

In this nationwide German survey, data were collected from 3013 children on their utilization of medicinal products, including homeopathic and other alternative remedies.

In all, 26% of the reported 2489 drugs were from the realm of alternative medicine. The 4-week prevalence for homeopathy was 7.5%. Of the drugs identified as alternative, 53.7% were homeopathic remedies, and 30.8% were herbal drugs. Factors associated with higher medicinal use of alternative remedies were female gender, residing in Munich, and higher maternal education. A homeopathy user utilized on average homeopathic remedies worth EUR 15.28. The corresponding figure for herbal drug users was EUR 16.02, and EUR 18.72 for overall medicinal CAM users. Compared with data from 4 years before, the prevalence of homeopathy use had declined by 52%.

The authors concluded that CAM use among 15-year-old children in the GINIplus cohort is popular, but decreased noticeably compared with children from the same cohort at the age of 10 years. This is possibly mainly because German health legislation normally covers CAM for children younger than 12 years only.

The survey shows that homeopathy is still a major player in the health care of German children. From the point of view of a homeopath, this makes a lot of sense: children are supposed to respond particularly well to homeopathy. But is that really true? The short answer is NO.

Our systematic review of all relevant studies tells it straight: The evidence from rigorous clinical trials of any type of therapeutic or preventive intervention testing homeopathy for childhood and adolescence ailments is not convincing enough for recommendations in any condition.

In other words, the evidence is very much at odds with the practice. This begs the question, I think, HOW SHOULD WE INTERPRET THIS DISCREPANCY?

A few possibilities come into mind, and I would be grateful to hear from my readers which they think might be correct:

  • Homeopathy is used as a ‘benign placebo’ [clinicians know that most paediatric conditions are self-limiting and thus prefer to give placebos rather than drugs that can cause adverse effects].
  • Doctors prescribe homeopathy mainly because the kids’ parents insist on them.
  • Doctors believe that homeopathic remedies are more than just placebos [in which case they are clearly ill-informed].
  • German doctors do not believe in scientific evidence and prefer to rely on their intuition.
  • This high level of homeopathy usage misleads the next generation into believing in quackery.
  • It amounts to child abuse and should be stopped.

Distant healing is one of the most bizarre yet popular forms of alternative medicine. Healers claim they can transmit ‘healing energy’ towards patients to enable them to heal themselves. There have been many trials testing the effectiveness of the method, and the general consensus amongst critical thinkers is that all variations of ‘energy healing’ rely entirely on a placebo response. A recent and widely publicised paper seems to challenge this view.

This article has, according to its authors, two aims. Firstly it reviews healing studies that involved biological systems other than ‘whole’ humans (e.g., studies of plants or cell cultures) that were less susceptible to placebo-like effects. Secondly, it presents a systematic review of clinical trials on human patients receiving distant healing.

All the included studies examined the effects upon a biological system of the explicit intention to improve the wellbeing of that target; 49 non-whole human studies and 57 whole human studies were included.

The combined weighted effect size for non-whole human studies yielded a highly significant (r = 0.258) result in favour of distant healing. However, outcomes were heterogeneous and correlated with blind ratings of study quality; 22 studies that met minimum quality thresholds gave a reduced but still significant weighted r of 0.115.

Whole human studies yielded a small but significant effect size of r = .203. Outcomes were again heterogeneous, and correlated with methodological quality ratings; 27 studies that met threshold quality levels gave an r = .224.

From these findings, the authors drew the following conclusions: Results suggest that subjects in the active condition exhibit a significant improvement in wellbeing relative to control subjects under circumstances that do not seem to be susceptible to placebo and expectancy effects. Findings with the whole human database suggests that the effect is not dependent upon the previous inclusion of suspect studies and is robust enough to accommodate some high profile failures to replicate. Both databases show problems with heterogeneity and with study quality and recommendations are made for necessary standards for future replication attempts.

In a press release, the authors warned: the data need to be treated with some caution in view of the poor quality of many studies and the negative publishing bias; however, our results do show a significant effect of healing intention on both human and non-human living systems (where expectation and placebo effects cannot be the cause), indicating that healing intention can be of value.

My thoughts on this article are not very complimentary, I am afraid. The problems are, it seems to me, too numerous to discuss in detail:

  • The article is written such that it is exceedingly difficult to make sense of it.
  • It was published in a journal which is not exactly known for its cutting edge science; this may seem a petty point but I think it is nevertheless important: if distant healing works, we are confronted with a revolution in the understanding of nature – and surely such a finding should not be buried in a journal that hardly anyone reads.
  • The authors seem embarrassingly inexperienced in conducting and publishing systematic reviews.
  • There is very little (self-) critical input in the write-up.
  • A critical attitude is necessary, as the primary studies tend to be by evangelic believers in and amateur enthusiasts of healing.
  • The article has no data table where the reader might learn the details about the primary studies included in the review.
  • It also has no table to inform us in sufficient detail about the quality assessment of the included trials.
  • It seems to me that some published studies of distant healing are missing.
  • The authors ignored all studies that were not published in English.
  • The method section lacks detail, and it would therefore be impossible to conduct an independent replication.
  • Even if one ignored all the above problems, the effect sizes are small and would not be clinically important.
  • The research was sponsored by the ‘Confederation of Healing Organisations’ and some of the comments look as though the sponsor had a strong influence on the phraseology of the article.

Given these reservations, my conclusion from an analysis of the primary studies of distant healing would be dramatically different from the one published by the authors: DESPITE A SIZABLE AMOUNT OF PRIMARY STUDIES ON THE SUBJECT, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF DISTANT HEALING REMAINS UNPROVEN. AS THIS THERAPY IS BAR OF ANY BIOLOGICAL PLAUSIBILITY, FURTHER RESEARCH IN THIS AREA SEEMS NOT WARRANTED.

Twenty years ago, I published a short article in the British Journal of Rheumatology. Its title was ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, THE BABY AND THE BATH WATER. Reading it again today – especially in the light of the recent debate (with over 700 comments) on acupuncture – indicates to me that very little has since changed in the discussions about alternative medicine (AM). Does that mean we are going around in circles? Here is the (slightly abbreviated) article from 1995 for you to judge for yourself:

“Proponents of alternative medicine (AM) criticize the attempt of conducting RCTs because they view this is in analogy to ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’. The argument usually goes as follows: the growing popularity of AM shows that individuals like it and, in some way, they benefit through using it. Therefore it is best to let them have it regardless of its objective effectiveness. Attempts to prove or disprove effectiveness may even be counterproductive. Should RCTs prove that a given intervention is not superior to a placebo, one might stop using it. This, in turn, would be to the disadvantage of the patient who, previous to rigorous research, has unquestionably been helped by the very remedy. Similar criticism merely states that AM is ‘so different, so subjective, so sensitive that it cannot be investigated in the same way as mainstream medicine’. Others see reasons to change the scientific (‘reductionist’) research paradigm into a broad ‘philosophical’ approach. Yet others reject the RCTs because they think that ‘this method assumes that every person has the same problems and there are similar causative factors’.

The example of acupuncture as a (popular) treatment for osteoarthritis, demonstrates the validity of such arguments and counter-arguments. A search of the world literature identified only two RCTs on the subject. When acupuncture was tested against no treatment, the experimental group of osteoarthritis sufferers reported a 23% decrease of pain, while the controls suffered a 12% increase. On the basis of this result, it might seem highly unethical to withhold acupuncture from pain-stricken patients—’if a patient feels better for whatever reason and there are no toxic side effects, then the patient should have the right to get help’.

But what about the placebo effect? It is notoriously difficult to find a placebo indistinguishable to acupuncture which would allow patient-blinded studies. Needling non-acupuncture points may be as close as one can get to an acceptable placebo. When patients with osteoarthritis were randomized into receiving either ‘real acupuncture or this type of sham acupuncture both sub-groups showed the same pain relief.

These findings (similar results have been published for other AMs) are compatible only with two explanations. Firstly acupuncture might be a powerful placebo. If this were true, we need to establish how safe acupuncture is (clearly it is not without potential harm); if the risk/benefit ratio is favourable and no specific, effective form of therapy exists one might still consider employing this form as a ‘placebo therapy’ for easing the pain of osteoarthritis sufferers. One would also feel motivated to research this powerful placebo and identify its characteristics or modalities with the aim of using the knowledge thus generated to help future patients.

Secondly, it could be the needling, regardless of acupuncture points and philosophy, that decreases pain. If this were true, we could henceforward use needling for pain relief—no special training in or equipment for acupuncture would be required, and costs would therefore be markedly reduced. In addition, this knowledge would lead us to further our understanding of basic mechanisms of pain reduction which, one day, might evolve into more effective analgesia. In any case the published research data, confusing as they often are, do not call for a change of paradigm; they only require more RCTs to solve the unanswered problems.

Conducting rigorous research is therefore by no means likely to ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’. The concept that such research could harm the patient is wrong and anti-scientific. To follow its implications would mean neglecting the ‘baby in the bath water’ until it suffers serious damage. To conduct proper research means attending the ‘baby’ and making sure that it is safe and well.

In the realm of homeopathy there is no shortage of irresponsible claims. I am therefore used to a lot – but this new proclamation takes the biscuit, particularly as it currently is being disseminated in various forms worldwide. It is so outrageously unethical that I decided to reproduce it here [in a slightly shortened version]:

“Homeopathy has given rise to a new hope to patients suffering from dreaded HIV, tuberculosis and the deadly blood disease Hemophilia. In a pioneering two-year long study, city-based homeopath Dr Rajesh Shah has developed a new medicine for AIDS patients, sourced from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) itself.

The drug has been tested on humans for safety and efficacy and the results are encouraging, said Dr Shah. Larger studies with and without concomitant conventional ART (Antiretroviral therapy) can throw more light in future on the scope of this new medicine, he said. Dr Shah’s scientific paper for debate has just been published in Indian Journal of Research in Homeopathy…

The drug resulted in improvement of blood count (CD4 cells) of HIV patients, which is a very positive and hopeful sign, he said and expressed the hope that this will encourage an advanced research into the subject. Sourcing of medicines from various virus and bacteria has been a practise in the homeopathy stream long before the prevailing vaccines came into existence, said Dr Shah, who is also organising secretary of Global Homeopathy Foundation (GHF)…

Dr Shah, who has been campaigning for the integration of homeopathy and allopathic treatments, said this combination has proven to be useful for several challenging diseases. He teamed up with noted virologist Dr Abhay Chowdhury and his team at the premier Haffkine Institute and developed a drug sourced from TB germs of MDR-TB patients.”

So, where is the study? It is not on Medline, but I found it on the journal’s website. This is what the abstract tells us:

“Thirty-seven HIV-infected persons were registered for the trial, and ten participants were dropped out from the study, so the effect of HIV nosode 30C and 50C, was concluded on 27 participants under the trial.

Results: Out of 27 participants, 7 (25.93%) showed a sustained reduction in the viral load from 12 to 24 weeks. Similarly 9 participants (33.33%) showed an increase in the CD4+ count by 20% altogether in 12 th and 24 th week. Significant weight gain was observed at week 12 (P = 0.0206). 63% and 55% showed an overall increase in either appetite or weight. The viral load increased from baseline to 24 week through 12 week in which the increase was not statistically significant (P > 0.05). 52% (14 of 27) participants have shown either stability or improvement in CD4% at the end of 24 weeks, of which 37% participants have shown improvement (1.54-48.35%) in CD4+ count and 15% had stable CD4+ percentage count until week 24 week. 16 out of 27 participants had a decrease (1.8-46.43%) in CD8 count. None of the adverse events led to discontinuation of study.

Conclusion: The study results revealed improvement in immunological parameters, treatment satisfaction, reported by an increase in weight, relief in symptoms, and an improvement in health status, which opens up possibilities for future studies.”

In other words, the study had not even a control group. This means that the observed ‘effects’ are most likely just the normal fluctuations one would expect without any clinical significance whatsoever.

The homeopathic Ebola cure was bad enough, I thought, but, considering the global importance of AIDS, the homeopathic HIV treatment is clearly worse.

Homeopathy has a long history in Canada.  In 1842, James Lilli was probably the first Canadian homeopath to begin practicing in Toronto. Joseph J. Lancaster, who had studied in New York, began practicing sometime in the 1840s in Ontario. The ‘Homeopathic Medical Society of Canada’ was established in 1854 in Hamilton, Ontario.

Since these early days much has changed. At present, all health care professions in Ontario are governed by the ‘Regulated Health Professions Act’ which allows all health-care professions the same right to practice. This law upholds the belief that the public has the right to choose what health care it wishes, and that the government should only intervene to regulate where a profession poses a significant risk of harm to the public. Only allopathic professions are currently regulated, and, in Ontario, doctors are censured if they practice homeopathy.

All schools of homeopathy in Canada offer ‘diplomate status’ and all offer three-year, part-time courses (one or two weekends per month plus perhaps one or two evenings per week). There are no legal doctorate or university degree programs for homeopathy in Canada. A doctorate in any field other than allopathic medicine cannot legally be used while practicing homeopathy.

I have been reliably informed that the regulation of homeopathy in Ontario is about to change. A transitional council of the ‘College of Homeopaths of Ontario’ had already been appointed in September 2009. The next step in the regulatory process is now imminent. On April 1 this year,  Ontario will proclaim the ‘Homeopathy Act’. The bill will further empower the ‘College of Homeopaths of Ontario’. This regulatory body will hence forth have control over who gets to call themselves a homeopath. In addition, it will also have a complaint tracking system.

This moves comes only days after the ‘Australian National Health and Medical Research Council’ has published the most thorough and independent assessment of homeopathy in the history of this form of alternative therapy. It concluded that homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness.

In view of the fact that homeopathy has been disproven as a treatment that fails to have a positive risk/benefit balance, the move of the regulators in Ontario seems pure madness to me. It sends the wrong signal to consumers and gives credibility to a form of quackery.

In a nutshell: EVEN THE BEST REGULATION OF NONSENSE WILL RESULT IN NONSENSE!

The other day, I received a request from THE GUARDIAN: could I write a piece on homeopathy in relation to the Australian report which had just come out; they gave me ~700 words and all of 3 hours to do it. I had an extremely busy day, but accepted the challenge nevertheless.

My article was published the next day and the ‘headliner’ at THE GUARDIAN had elected to call it There is no scientific case for homeopathy: the debate is over.

What followed was a flurry of debate – well over 2200 comments – which was more than a little ironic, considering the headline.

Essentially, my article had repeated the well-rehearsed arguments which have so often been made on this blog and elsewhere:

Our trials failed to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.

Our reviews demonstrated that the most reliable of the 230 or so trials of homeopathy ever published are also not positive.

Studies with animals confirmed the results obtained on humans.

Surveys and case reports suggested that homeopathy can be dangerous.

The claims made by homeopaths to cure conditions like cancer, asthma or even Ebola were bogus.

The promotion of homeopathy is not ethical.

The comments that followed were mixed, of course; those that disagreed with me used a range of counter-arguments; in no specific order, these were the following:

  1. For several reasons, I cannot be trusted.
  2. I even once stated that I have treated my wife homeopathically.
  3. The Australian report was neither thorough nor reliable.
  4. The Australian expert panel were bought by Big Pharma.
  5. Homeopathic treatment must be individualised and can therefore not be tested in RCTs.
  6. Just because we don’t understand how homeopathy works, we should not conclude that it is ineffective.
  7. 200 years of positive experience with homeopathy clearly prove that it works.
  8. The huge popularity of homeopathy worldwide demonstrated its effectiveness.
  9. The fact that some very clever people support homeopathy shows that it works.
  10. Homeopathy works in animals and little children, therefore it cannot be just a placebo.
  11. The Queen and my aunt Doris use homeopathy.
  12. Placebos work.
  13. Patients must be able to choose; patient choice is an important principle in all health care.
  14. There’s more to evidence than just RCTs.
  15. Homeopathy works like vaccines.

With such an abundance of counter-arguments, the debate is clearly NOT over! Or is it? Let’s see how solid the arguments really are.

1) I cannot be trusted

Ad hominem attacks are no arguments at all; they are merely a sign that the person using them has no real arguments left.

2) I treated my wife homeopathically

This is true. At one stage in my life, I treated anyone who couldn’t run fast enough to escape me with homeopathy. What does that show? It simply shows that I can make mistakes too.

3) The Australian report was flawed

Perhaps it was not entirely faultless (no report ever is), but it certainly was rigorous – more so than any previous document in the entire history of homeopathy. If it excluded certain types of evidence, like the observational studies (which are so much loved by homeopaths), it did so because such data are wide open to bias.

4) The panel was not independent

Yes, it was! It even included a homeopath. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is internationally highly respected, and to defame it without evidence is, in a way, just another ad hominem attack.

5) Homeopathy must be individualised

This is a half-truth: classical homeopathy is mostly individualised, but lots of homeopathic prescribing is not individualised. And in any case, we have recently seen how totally unconvincing the results of strictly individualised trials of homeopathy are. This argument turns out to be a red herring.

6) We currently don’t understand how homeopathy works

What we do understand perfectly well, however, is the fact that no explanation exists which would not require throwing over board big chunks of the laws of nature. But even if we accepted that the mode of action is unknown, this would not change the lack of homeopathy’s clinical effectiveness. Lots of treatments work without us understanding how.

7) Experience shows it works

Experience is a very unreliable indicator of effectiveness; there are simply far too many confounders such as placebo effects, regression towards the mean or natural history of the disease. This is why we need evidence to be sure, and historically medicine finally started making progress when this lesson had been learnt.

8) The amazing popularity of homeopathy is proof of its effectiveness

This is the ‘argumentum ad populum’ fallacy. Think of the popularity of blood-letting to see how wrong this argument can be.

9) Homeopathy is backed by some very clever people

So what? Clever people are not always correct – look at me (just joking!)

10) Homeopathy works in animals and little children which proves that it is more than a placebo

First, animals and children do also show placebo-responses.

Second, the animal owner/parent might respond to placebo and thus mimic a placebo-response in the patient.

Third, the evidence for homeopathy is not positive neither in animals nor in children.

11) The Queen swears by homeopathy

Yes, so much so that, as soon as she is really ill, she makes use of what the very best of conventional medicine has to offer.

12) Placebos work

For sure! But that does not mean that we should prescribe placebos. If an effective treatment is given with compassion and empathy, the patient will also profit from a placebo effect – in addition to the effect of the treatment. Merely administering placebos means withholding the latter and is thus not in the best interest of the patient.

13) Patient choice

Yes, patient choice is important. However, it only applies to the choice between treatments that are demonstrably effective – if not choice becomes arbitrariness.

14) Evidence is more than just RCTs

True, there are many study designs other than RCTs. They all have their place in research – but when the research question is to test whether a treatment is effective beyond placebo, they are all open to different types of bias. The one that minimises bias best and thus produces more reliable findings than any other study design is the placebo-controlled, double-blind RCT.

15) Homeopathy works like vaccines

No! The ‘like cures like principle’ appears to be similar to the principles of vaccination, but this appearance is misleading. Vaccines contain small amounts of active material, while the typical homeopathic remedy doesn’t. Vaccines use the substance that causes the illness, e. g. (parts of) a virus, while homeopathy doesn’t.

So, is there still a debate? Obviously there is – the Guardian headliner was wrong – but it is a debate without reasonable arguments. And in the public domain, the debate is dominated by enthusiasts who endlessly repeat nonsensical notions which have been shown to be wrong over and over again.

In a nutshell:

Yes, there continues to be a debate.

No, there is no reasonable debate.

 

Reflexology is the treatment of reflex zones, usually on the sole of the feet, with manual massage and pressure. Reflexologists assume that certain zones correspond to certain organs, and that their treatment can influence the function of these organs. Thus reflexology is advocated for all sorts of conditions. Proponents are keen to point out that their approach has many advantages: it is pleasant (the patient feels well with the treatment and the therapist feels even better with the money), safe and cheap, particularly if the patient does the treatment herself.

Self-administered foot reflexology could be practical because it is easy to learn and not difficult to apply. But is it also effective? A recent systematic review evaluated the effectiveness of self-foot reflexology for symptom management.

Participants were healthy persons not diagnosed with a specific disease. The intervention was foot reflexology administered by participants, not by practitioners or healthcare providers. Studies with either between groups or within group comparison were included. The electronic literature searches utilized core databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, Cochrane, and CINAHL Chinese (CNKI), Japanese (J-STAGE), and Korean databases (KoreaMed, KMbase, KISS, NDSL, KISTI, and OASIS)).

Three non-randomized trials and three before-and-after studies met the inclusion criteria. No RCTs were located. The results of these studies showed that self-administered foot reflexology resulted in significant improvement in subjective outcomes such as perceived stress, fatigue, and depression. However, there was no significant improvement in objective outcomes such as cortisol levels, blood pressure, and pulse rate. We did not find any randomized controlled trial.

The authors concluded that this study presents the effectiveness of self-administered foot reflexology for healthy persons’ psychological and physiological symptoms. While objective outcomes showed limited results, significant improvements were found in subjective outcomes. However, owing to the small number of studies and methodological flaws, there was insufficient evidence supporting the use of self-performed foot reflexology. Well-designed randomized controlled trials are needed to assess the effect of self-administered foot reflexology in healthy people.

I find this review quite interesting, but I would draw very different conclusions from its findings.

The studies that are available turned out to be of very poor methodological quality: they lack randomisation or rely on before/after comparisons. This means they are wide open to bias and false-positive results, particularly in regards to subjective outcome measures. Predictably, the findings of this review confirm that no effects are seen on objective endpoints. This is in perfect agreement with the hypothesis that reflexology is a pure placebo. Considering the biological implausibility of the underlying assumptions of reflexology, this makes sense.

My conclusions of this review would therefore be as follows: THE RESULTS ARE IN KEEPING WITH REFLEXOLOGY BEING A PURE PLACEBO.

Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956) was an outspoken American journalist, essayist and literary critic famous for his vitriolic attacks on what he considered to be the hypocrisy of much of American life. In 1924, he published an essay on chiropractic which, I think, is still poignant today. I take the liberty of reproducing here in a slightly abbreviated form.

This preposterous quackery [chiropractic] flourishes lushly in the back reaches of the Republic, and begins to conquer the less civilized folk of the big cities. As the old-time family doctor dies out in the country towns, with no competent successor willing to take over his dismal business, he is followed by some hearty blacksmith or ice-wagon driver, turned into a chiropractor in six months, often by correspondence… [Chiropractic] pathology is grounded upon the doctrine that all human ills are caused by pressure of misplaced vertebrae upon the nerves which come out of the spinal cord — in other words, that every disease is the result of a pinch. This, plainly enough, is buncombe. The chiropractic therapeutics rest upon the doctrine that the way to get rid of such pinches is to climb upon a table and submit to a heroic pummeling by a retired piano-mover. This, obviously, is buncombe doubly damned.

…Any lout with strong hands and arms is perfectly equipped to become a chiropractor. No education beyond the elements is necessary. The takings are often high, and so the profession has attracted thousands of recruits — retired baseball players, work-weary plumbers, truck-drivers, longshoremen, bogus dentists, dubious preachers, cashiered school superintendents. Now and then a quack of some other school — say homeopathy — plunges into it. Hundreds of promising students come from the intellectual ranks of hospital orderlies.

…[The chiropractor’s] trade is mainly with ambulant patients; they must come to his studio for treatment. Most of them have lingering diseases; they tour all the neighborhood doctors before they reach him. His treatment, being nonsensical, is in accord with the divine plan. It is seldom, perhaps, that he actually kills a patient, but at all events he keeps any a worthy soul from getting well.

…But chiropractic, of course, is not perfect. It has superb potentialities, but only too often they are not converted into concrete cadavers. The hygienists rescue many of its foreordained customers, and, turning them over to agents of the Medical Trust, maintained at the public expense, get them cured. Moreover, chiropractic itself is not certainly fatal: even an Iowan with diabetes may survive its embraces. Yet worse, I have a suspicion that it sometimes actually cures. For all I know (or any orthodox pathologist seems to know) it may be true that certain malaises are caused by the pressure of vagrant vertebra upon the spinal nerves. And it may be true that a hearty ex-boilermaker, by a vigorous yanking and kneading, may be able to relieve that pressure. What is needed is a scientific inquiry into the matter, under rigid test conditions, by a committee of men learned in the architecture and plumbing of the body, and of a high and incorruptible sagacity. Let a thousand patients be selected, let a gang of selected chiropractors examine their backbones and determine what is the matter with them, and then let these diagnoses be checked up by the exact methods of scientific medicine. Then let the same chiropractors essay to cure the patients whose maladies have been determined. My guess is that the chiropractors’ errors in diagnosis will run to at least 95% and that their failures in treatment will push 99%. But I am willing to be convinced.

Where is there is such a committee to be found? I undertake to nominate it at ten minutes’ notice. The land swarms with men competent in anatomy and pathology, and yet not engaged as doctors. There are thousands of hospitals, with endless clinical material. I offer to supply the committee with cigars and music during the test. I offer, further, to supply both the committee and the chiropractors with sound wet goods. I offer, finally, to give a bawdy banquet to the whole Medical Trust at the conclusion of the proceedings.

I imagine that most chiropractors would find this comment rather disturbing. However, I do like it for several reasons:

  • it is refreshingly politically incorrect; today journalists seem to be obsessed with the notion of ‘balance’ thus often creating the impression that there are two valid sides to an issue where, in fact, there is only one;
  • it gets right at the heart of several problems which have plagued chiropractic from its beginning;
  • it even suggests a way to establishing the truth about the value of chiropractic which could easily been followed some 90 years ago;
  • finally it predicts a result of such a test – and I would not be surprised, if it turned out to be not far from the truth.

Please let me know what you think, regardless of whether you are a chiropractor or not.

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