MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

medical ethics

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The Americans call it ‘INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE'; in the UK, we speak of ‘INTEGRATED MEDICINE’ – and we speak about it a lot: these terms are, since several years, the new buzz-words in the alternative medicine scene. They sound so convincing, authoritative and politically correct that I am not surprised their use spread like wild-fire.

But what is INTEGRATED MEDICINE?

Let’s find out.

If the BRITISH SOCIETY OF INTEGRATED MEDICINE (BSIM) cannot answer this question, who can? So let’s have a look and find out (all the passages in bold are direct quotes from the BSIM):

Integrated Medicine is an approach to health and healing that provides patients with individually tailored health and wellbeing programmes which are designed to address the barriers to healing and provide the patient with the knowledge, skills and support to take better care of their physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health. Rather than limiting treatments to a specific specialty, integrated medicine uses the safest and most effective combination of approaches and treatments from the world of conventional and complementary/alternative medicine. These are selected according to, but not limited to, evidence-based practice, and the expertise, experience and insight of the individuals and team members caring for the patient.

That’s odd! If the selected treatments are not limited to evidence, expertise, experience or insight, what ARE they based on?

Fascinated I read on and discover that there are ‘beliefs’. To be precise, a total of 7 beliefs that healthcare 

  1. Is individualised to the person – in that it takes into account their needs, insights, beliefs, past experiences, preferences, and life circumstances
  2. Empowers the individual to take an active role in their own healing by providing them with the knowledge and skills to meet their physical and emotional needs and actively manage their own health.
  3. Attempts to identify and address the main barriers or blockages to a person experiencing their health and life goals. This includes physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, social and spiritual factors.
  4. Uses the safest, most effective and least invasive procedures wherever possible.
  5. Harnesses the power of compassion, respect and the therapeutic relationship
  6. Focuses predominantly on health promotion, disease prevention and patient empowerment
  7. Encourages healthcare practitioners to become the model of healthy living that they teach to others.

I cannot say that, after reading this, I am less confused. Here is why:

  1. All good medicine has always been ‘individualised to the person’, etc.
  2. Patient empowerment is a key to conventional medicine.
  3. Holism is at the heart of any good health care.
  4. I do not know a form of medicine that focusses on unsafe, ineffective, unnecessarily invasive procedures.
  5. Neither am I aware of one that deliberately neglects compassion or disrespects the therapeutic relationship.
  6. I was under the impression that disease prevention is a thing conventional medicine takes very seriously.
  7. Teaching by example is something that we all know is important (but some of us find it harder than others; see below).

Could it be that these ‘beliefs’ have been ‘borrowed’ from the mainstream? Surely not! That would mean that ‘integrated medicine’ is not only not very original but possibly even bogus. I need to find out more!

One of the first things I discover is that the ‘Founder President’ of the BSIM is doctor Julian Kenyon. Now, that name rings a bell – wasn’t he mentioned in a previous post not so long ago? Yes, he was!

Here is the post in question; Kenyon was said to have misdiagnosed/mistreated a patient, exposed on TV, and eventually he ended up in front of the General Medical Council’s conduct tribunal. The panel heard that, after a 20-minute consultation, which cost £300, Dr Kenyon told one terminally-ill cancer patient: “I am not claiming we can cure you, but there is a strong possibility that we would be able to increase your median survival time with the relatively low-risk approaches described here.” He also made bold statements about the treatment’s supposed benefits to an undercover reporter who posed as the husband of a woman with breast cancer. After considering the full details of the case, Ben Fitzgerald, for the General Medical Council, called for Dr Kenyon to be suspended, but the panel’s chairman argued that Dr Kenyon’s misconduct was not serious enough for this. The panel eventually imposed restrictions on Kenyon’s licence lasting for 12 months.

Teaching by example, hey???

This finally makes things a bit clearer for me. There is only one question left to my mind: DOES BSIM PERHAPS STAND FOR ‘BULL SHIT IN MEDICINE’?

I thought I had seen everything that is lamentable about homeopathy. When I came across this article, I had to change my opinion. It is a more despicable, unethical and dangerous promotion of falsehoods than I could have imagined.

Strong words? Read for yourself:

There are treatments that can heal vaccine damage, but few physicians in the conventional medical care system know about them, since vaccine injuries are usually denied as the cause of any illness. Some parents with autistic children report that homeopathy has completely reversed their children’s autism and healed other serious health conditions caused by vaccines. This article explains how homeopathic remedies can bring about healing for many types of vaccine injuries.

Homeopathy is not the only treatment that has helped children and adults recover from vaccine damage, but it is the one that is the focus of this article. I will describe how homeopathy can bring about a true cure for the harm that vaccines have caused to children and adults…

It is a tragedy when a normal young child suddenly starts losing the ability to speak sentences or even to speak words after receiving vaccines. The ability to have positive social interactions with other children or adults can disappear in a matter of days after vaccines have been given to children. Intellectual development can be lost and even successful potty training skills can disappear. The ability to sit quietly, listen to a story being read, and the ability to learn can suddenly be replaced with hand flapping, body spinning, head banging, food allergies, asthma, agitation, hyperactivity, learning disabilities, chronic colds and fevers, constant stomach pain, constipation, and a general failure to grow and thrive. There are also serious consequences for adults who use vaccines. Formerly productive adults can lose their independence and become paralyzed, infertile, chronically ill, and even die, because of vaccine damage. It happens every day, yet few people make the connection between their illnesses and vaccine use…

By the time parents fully awaken to the harm that has occurred to their children, many have already resigned themselves to a lifetime of caretaking their disabled children. Some parents will even receive counsel from their physicians to give up their children to the care of the state, because they have no treatments to offer and can offer no hope of recovery. Some physicians will try to convince parents that this is a genetic problem that might be cured someday, but not in the near future. The conventional medical care system leaves parents feeling like helpless victims without any good options. The truth is there are good options for restoring health after vaccine damage, and homeopathy is one of them!…

Homeopathy does not wage war on disease and seek to destroy the symptoms of disease through brute force. It does not bring substances into the body as is done with allopathic drugs, for the purpose of doing hand to hand combat against disease. Instead, homeopathy and its remedies are intended to gently stimulate and strengthen the body so that it can overcome illness through its own vital force and strength. Homeopathic remedies restore the natural ability of the body to defend itself against illness and to heal itself. When this happens, a person is truly cured of what ails him…

Allopathic drugs and treatments do not have a positive effect upon the vital force in the body. They do not improve the strength of a person, and they do not provide for physical, emotional, or mental renewal. Rather, they just suppress symptoms, and add side effects…

You may also wish to ask for a referral from your chiropractor, osteopath, or acupuncturist. Such practitioners are often aware of good homeopaths in the area. Sometimes the person who is responsible for managing supplements and remedies sold at health food stores will be aware of experienced homeopaths as well…

I know, apologists will claim that such extreme idiocy is always the work of a few ‘rotten apples’, even most homeopaths would object to such dangerous and amoral lunacy. But the fact is, they don’t! If you disagree, please show me the protests from homeopaths or other alternative practitioners.

When Wakefield was shown to be a fraud endangering public health with his bogus claims about vaccine damage, there were protests in abundance, and he was ousted by the medical and scientific communities. Where are the protests by the alternative medicine fraternity against this article and the many, many others like it?

NOBODY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO ENDANGER PUBLIC HEALTH IN THIS WAY.

PS

In case you wonder who wrote the above article, it is John P. Thomas. He is a health writer for Health Impact News. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. John specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.

One could define alternative medicine by the fact that it is used almost exclusively for conditions for which conventional medicine does not have an effective and reasonably safe cure. Once such a treatment has been found, few patients would look for an alternative.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is certainly one such condition. Despite intensive research, we are still far from being able to cure it. It is thus not really surprising that AD patients and their carers are bombarded with the promotion of all sorts of alternative treatments. They must feel bewildered by the choice and all too often they fall victim to irresponsible quacks.

Acupuncture is certainly an alternative therapy that is frequently claimed to help AD patients. One of the first websites that I came across, for instance, stated boldly: acupuncture improves memory and prevents degradation of brain tissue.

But is there good evidence to support such claims? To answer this question, we need a systematic review of the trial data. Fortunately, such a paper has just been published.

The objective of this review was to assess the effectiveness and safety of acupuncture for treating AD. Eight electronic databases were searched from their inception to June 2014. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) with AD treated by acupuncture or by acupuncture combined with drugs were included. Two authors extracted data independently.

Ten RCTs with a total of 585 participants were included in a meta-analysis. The combined results of 6 trials showed that acupuncture was better than drugs at improving scores on the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) scale. Evidence from the pooled results of 3 trials showed that acupuncture plus donepezil was more effective than donepezil alone at improving the MMSE scale score. Only 2 trials reported the incidence of adverse reactions related to acupuncture. Seven patients had adverse reactions related to acupuncture during or after treatment; the reactions were described as tolerable and not severe.

The Chinese authors of this review concluded that acupuncture may be more effective than drugs and may enhance the effect of drugs for treating AD in terms of improving cognitive function. Acupuncture may also be more effective than drugs at improving AD patients’ ability to carry out their daily lives. Moreover, acupuncture is safe for treating people with AD.

Anyone reading this and having a friend or family member who is affected by AD will think that acupuncture is the solution and warmly recommend trying this highly promising option. I would, however, caution to remain realistic. Like so very many systematic reviews of acupuncture or other forms of TCM that are currently flooding the medical literature, this assessment of the evidence has to be taken with more than just a pinch of salt:

  • As far as I can see, there is no biological plausibility or mechanism for the assumption that acupuncture can do anything for AD patients.
  • The abstract fails to mention that the trials were of poor methodological quality and that such studies tend to generate false-positive findings.
  • The trials had small sample sizes.
  • They were mostly not blinded.
  • They were mostly conducted in China, and we know that almost 100% of all acupuncture studies from that country draw positive conclusions.
  • Only two trials reported about adverse effects which is, in my view, a sign of violation of research ethics.

As I already mentioned, we are currently being flooded with such dangerously misleading reviews of Chinese primary studies which are of such dubious quality that one could do probably nothing better than to ignore them completely.

Isn’t that a bit harsh? Perhaps, but I am seriously worried that such papers cause real harm:

  • They might motivate some to try acupuncture and give up conventional treatments which can be helpful symptomatically.
  • They might prompt some families to spend sizable amounts of money for no real benefit.
  • They might initiate further research into this area, thus drawing money away from research into much more promising avenues.

IT IS HIGH TIME THAT RESEARCHERS START THINKING CRITICALLY, PEER-REVIEWERS DO THEIR JOB PROPERLY, AND JOURNAL EDITORS STOP PUBLISHING SUCH MISLEADING ARTICLES.

If you talk to advocates of homeopathy, you are bound to hear claims that are false or misleading; in fact, you hear them so regularly that you might begin to doubt the truth. For those who have such doubts or are in need of some correct counter-arguments, I have listed here those 12 bogus claims which, in my experience, are most common together with short, suitable, and factual rebuttals.

1) THERE IS NOTHING MYSTERIOUS ABOUT HOMEOPATHY’S MODE OF ACTION, IT WORKS LIKE VACCINATIONS

This argument is used by enthusiasts in response the fact that most homeopathic remedies are too highly diluted to have pharmacological effects. Vaccines are also highly diluted and they are, of course, very effective; therefore, so the bogus notion, there is nothing odd about homeopathy.

The argument is wrong on several levels; the easiest way to refute, I think, it is to point out that vaccines contain measurable amounts of material and lead to measurable changes in the immune system. By contrast, the typical homeopathic remedy (beyond the C12 potency) contains not a single molecule of an active substance and leads to no measurable changes in any system.

2) SIGNIFICANTLY MORE CONTROLLED CLINICAL TRIALS OF HOMEOPATHY ARE POSITIVE THAN NEGATIVE

Several websites of homeopathic organisations make this claim and even provide simple statistics to back it up. Consequently, many homeopathy fans have adopted it.

The statistics they present show that x % of studies are positive, y % are negative and z % are neutral; the whole point is that x is larger than y. The percentage figures may even be correct but they rely on the spurious definitions used: positive = superior to placebo, negative = placebo superior to homeopathy, neutral = no difference between homeopathy and placebo. The latter category was created so that homeopathy comes out trumps.

For all intents and purposes, a study where the experimental treatment is no better than placebo is not a study neutral but a negative result. Thus the negative category in such statistics must be y + z which is, of course, larger than x. In other words, the majority of trials is, in truth, negative.

3) HOMEOPATHY IS SUPPORTED BY NOBEL PRIZE WINNERS

I don’t know of a single Nobel Prize winner who has stated or implied that homeopathy works better than a placebo. Some have tried to find a mechanism of action for homeopathy by doing some basic research and have published theories about it. None of those has been accepted by science.

And if there ever should be a Nobel Prize winner or similarly brilliant person who supports homeopathy, this would merely show that even bright individuals can make mistakes!

4) HOMEOPATHY IS SAFE

Tell that to the child that has just been reported to have died because her parents used homeopathy for an ear infection which (could have been easily treated with antibiotics but) degenerated into a brain abscess with homeopathic therapy. There are many more such tragic cases than I care to remember.

The risks of homeopathy are, of course, minor compared to many conventional treatments, but the risk/benefit balance of homeopathy can never be positive because, unlike those high risk conventional treatments, it has no benefit.

5) HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT LEND ITSELF TO BEING TESTED IN CLINICAL TRIALS

The best way to disprove this argument is to point out that ~ 250 controlled clinical trials are currently available. Every homeopath on the planet boasts about clinical trials – provided they are positive.

6) HOMEOPATHY WORKS VIA QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENT

I do not understand quantum mechanics and, I suspect, neither do the homeopaths who use this argument. But physicists who do understand this subject well are keen to stress that homeopathy cannot be explained in this way.

7) THERE IS NO PROOF THAT HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT WORK

The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, homeopaths like to exclaim. And they are, of course, correct! However, they forget that, science cannot prove a negative and that, in routine health care, we do not even look for a proof of ineffectiveness. We use those treatments that have a positive proof of effectiveness – everything else is irresponsible.

8) EVEN IF HOMEOPATHY WERE JUST A PLACEBO, IT STILL HELPS PATIENTS AND IS THEREFORE A USEFUL TREATMENT

It is true, of course, that placebo effects can help patients. But it is not true that, for generating a placebo response, we need a placebo. If a clinician administers an effective treatment with compassion, the patient will benefit from a placebo response plus from the specific effects of the treatment. Only giving placebos is therefore tantamount to cheating the patient.

9) THERE IS A WORLDWIDE CONSPIRACY AGAINST HOMEOPATHY

In a way, this argument merely suggests that homeopathic remedies are ineffective in treating paranoia. I have not ever seen a jot of evidence for it – and neither can anyone who uses this claim produce any.

10) YOU NEED TO BE A HOMEOPATH TO BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND AND ADEQUATELY JUDGE THE VALUE OF HOMEOPATHY

With this notion, homeopaths want to claim that the critics of homeopathy are incompetent. It is like saying that only people who believe in god are allowed to criticise religion. By definition, homeopaths are believers, and therefore they are unlikely to be free of bias when judging the value of homeopathy. Homeopathy is a health technology that must be evaluated like all other health technologies: by independent scientists who know their job.

11) HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN PROVEN TO WORK FOR LITTLE CHILDREN AND ANIMALS

The argument here is that animals and children cannot possibly respond to placebo. Therefore homeopathy must be more than a placebo.

This notion is twice wrong. Firstly, both animals and children can respond to placebo, if only ‘by proxy’, i.e. via their carers. Secondly, if we consider the totality of the reliable data, we find that neither for children nor for animals is the evidence convincingly positive.

12) HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN USED VERY SUCCESSFULLY IN MAJOR EPIDEMICS, AND THAT FACT IS PROOF ENOUGH FOR ITS EFFICACY

Yes, there are some rather fascinating historical accounts which homeopaths interpret in this fashion. But if we look a little closer, we invariably find explanations which are much more plausible than the assumption of homeopathy’s effectiveness. Epidemiological observations of this nature can almost never establish cause and effect, and the clinical outcome could have been due to a myriad of confounders unrelated to homeopathy.

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed: I recently published a ‘memoir‘.

Of all the books I have written, this one was by far the hardest. It covers ground that I felt quite uncomfortable with. At the same time, I felt compelled to write it. For over 5 years I kept at it, revised it, re-revised it, re-conceived the outline, abandoned the project altogether only to pick it up again.

When it eventually was finished, we had to find a suitable title. This was far from easy; my book is not a book about alternative medicine, it is a book about all sorts of things that have happened to me, including alternative medicine. Eventually we settled for A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND. A MEMOIR OF SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE. This seemed to describe its contents quite well, I thought (the German edition is entitled NAZIS, NADELN UND INTRIGEN. ERINNERUNGEN EINES SKEPTIKERS which indicates why it was so difficult to put the diverse contents into a short title).

Then a further complication presented itself: at the very last minute, my publisher insisted that the text had to be checked by libel lawyers. This was not only painful and expensive, following their advice and thus changing or omitting passages also took some of the ‘edge’ off it.

Earlier this year, my ‘memoir’ was finally published; to say that I was nervous about how it might be received must be the understatement of the year. As it turned out, it received so many reviews that today I feel deeply humbled (and very proud), particularly as they were all full of praise and appreciation. In case you are interested, I provide some quotes and the links to the full text reviews below.

[Ah, yes! Some people will surely claim that I did all this for the money. To those of my critics, I respond by saying that, had I done paper rounds or worked as a gardener or a window-cleaner during all the time I spent on this book, I would today be considerably better off. As it stands, the costs for the libel read are not yet covered by the income generated through the sales of this book.]

AND HERE ARE THE PROMISED QUOTES

Times Higher Education Book of the Week

Times Higher Education – Helen Bynum, Jan 29, 2015

“[F]or all its trenchant arguments about evidence-based science, the second half of A Scientist in Wonderland remains a very human memoir, and Ernst’s account of the increasingly personal nature of the attacks he faced when speaking to CAM practitioners and advocacy groups is disturbing… Ben Goldacre’s 2012 book Bad Pharma created a storm via its exposure of the pharmaceutical industry’s unhealthy links with mainstream medicine. Ernst’s book deserves to do the same for the quackery trading under the name of complementary and alternative medicine.”

Spectator article

The Spectator – Nick Cohen, Jan 31, 2015

“If you want a true measure of the man, buy Edzard Ernst’s memoir A Scientist in Wonderland, which the Imprint Academic press have just released. It would be worth reading [even] if the professor had never been the victim of a royal vendetta.”

The Bookbag review

The Bookbag – Sue Magee, Jan 28, 2015

“Ernst isn’t just an academic – he’s also an accomplished writer and skilled communicator. He puts over some quite complex ideas without resorting to jargon and I felt informed without ever struggling to understand, despite being a non-scientist. I was pulled into the story of his life and read most of the book in one sitting… I was impressed by what Ernst had to say and the way in which he said it.”

Science-Based Medicine review

Science-Based Medicine – Harriet Hall, Feb 3, 2015

“Edzard Ernst is one of those rare people who dare to question their own beliefs, look at the evidence without bias, and change their minds… In addition to being a memoir, Dr. Ernst’s book is a paean to science… He shows how misguided ideas, poor reasoning, and inaccurate publicity have contributed to the spread of alternative medicine… This is a well-written, entertaining book that anyone would enjoy reading and that advocates of alternative medicine should read: they might learn a thing or two about science, critical thinking, honesty, and the importance of truth.”

Nature review

Nature – Barbara Kiser, Feb 5, 2015

“[T]his ferociously frank autobiography… [is] a clarion call for medical ethics.”

Times review

The Times – Robbie Millen, Feb 9, 2015

A Scientist in Wonderland is a rather droll, quick read… [and] it’s an effective antidote to New Age nonsense, pseudo-science and old-fashioned quackery.”

AntiCancer review

AntiCancer.org.uk – Pan Pantziarka, Feb 19, 2015

“It should be required reading for everyone interested in medicine – without exception.”

Mail Online review

Mail Online – Katherine Keogh, Feb 28, 2015

“In his new book, A Scientist In Wonderland: A Memoir Of Searching For Truth And Finding Trouble, no one from the world of alternative medicine is safe from Professor Edzard Ernst’s firing line.”

James Randi Educational Foundation review

James Randi Educational Foundation – William M. London, Mar 9, 2015

“The writing in A Scientist in Wonderland is clear and engaging. It combines good storytelling with important insights about medicine, science, and analytic thinking. Despite all the troubles Ernst encountered, I found his story to be inspirational. I enthusiastically recommend the book to scientists, health professionals, and laypersons who like to see nonsense and mendacity exposed to the light of reason.”

The Pharmaceutical Journal review

The Pharmaceutical Journal – Andrews Haynes, Mar 26, 2015

“This engaging book is a memoir by a medical researcher whose passion for discovering the truth about untested therapies eventually forced him out of his job… [This] highly readable book concentrates on fact rather than emotion. It should be required reading for anyone interested in medical research.”

Skepticat review

Skepticat – Maria MacLachlan, Apr 18, 2015

A Scientist in Wonderland is more than an autobiography and I’m not sure I can do justice to the riches to be found in its pages. Sometimes it’s reminiscent of a black comedy, other times it’s almost too painful to read.”

Spiked! review

Spiked! – Robin Walsh ,May 15, 2015

“Ernst’s book is a reminder of the need to have the courage to tell the truth as you understand it, and fight your corner against those in authority, while never losing a compassion for patients and a commitment to winning the debate. ”

Australasian Science review

Australasian Science – Loretta Marron, Jun 10, 2015

“Edzard Ernst is a living legend… The book is easy to read and hard to put down. I would particularly recommend it to anyone, with an open mind, who is interested in the truth or otherwise of CAM.”

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Review

JRSM – Michael Baum, June 2015

“This is a deeply moving and deeply disturbing book yet written with a light touch, humour and self-deprecation.”

THE BUFFALO NEWS

These enlightening books await summer readers. 21 June 2015

“Medical researcher Edzard Ernst spent most of his career stepping on toes. He first exposed the complicity of the German medical profession in the Nazi genocide. Then he accepted appointment as the world’s first chairman of alternative medicine at England’s University of Exeter. There he studied systematically the claims of the proponents of complementary medicine, a field dominated by evangelic and enthusiastic promoters, including Prince Charles. Needless to say, they did not take kindly to his exposures of many of their widely accepted therapies. His book, “A Scientist in Wonderland: A Memoir of Searching for Truth and Finding Trouble,” is a charming account of a committed life.”

Today, I came across this intriguing bit of information:

This week is homeopathy awareness week and once again the controversial practice is in the news.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment. In its reference guide on homeopathic and herbal products, the RPS makes it clear that there is no evidence of the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products, beyond a placebo effect, and no scientific basis for the practice.

The RPS Chief Scientist Professor Jayne Lawrence has blogged on the history of homeopathy and why even in the face of the lack of evidence that it works, people are still actively seeking homeopathic treatment today. Jayne lays down a challenge to the profession; are we ready to remove homeopathy from the shelves of pharmacies?

And here are the relevant passages from Jayne Lawrence’s post:

…it is easy to see why homeopathy, with its use of ultralow doses of the treatment material, became so popular so quickly, despite the fact that a clinical trial performed as early as 1835 showed that homeopathy as a method of treatment was wholly ineffective.

…for homeopathy to work as claimed, we would have to completely revise our understanding of science. Any scientific evidence claiming to support homeopathy has either been shown to be flawed or not repeatable under controlled conditions. Furthermore, systematic reviews of modern clinical trials have supported the first early clinical trial showing that homeopathy has no more clinical effect than a placebo.

Is homeopathy’s popularity due to a distrust of modern medicines as has been recently suggested by the Chief Medical Officer for England who has just called for an independent review of the safety and efficacy of medicines? Or it is that patients are worried about the side effects associated with medicines, preferring what they perceive to be a safer approach; after all homeopathic preparations have not unsurprisingly no known toxic effects in over 200 years of use? Whatever the reason, as an evidence-based profession, why do we continue to sell homeopathic preparations in our pharmacies when the evidence shows that they do not work?

The public have a right to expect pharmacists and other health professionals to be open and honest about the effectiveness and limitations of treatments. Surely it is now the time for pharmacists to cast homeopathy from the shelves and focus on scientifically based treatments backed by clear clinical evidence.

Read the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Homeopathic and herbal products quick reference guide.

And here are the ‘key points’ of this ‘reference guide':

• There is no evidence to support the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products beyond a placebo effect, and no scientific basis for homeopathy.

• Pharmacists selling homeopathic products must be competent to do so and be able to discuss with patients the lack of evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic products and their formulation.

• Pharmacists should ensure, wherever possible, that patients do not stop taking their prescribed conventional medication when they take a homeopathic product.

• Pharmacists should be aware that patients requesting homeopathic products may have serious underlying undiagnosed medical conditions that would require referral to another healthcare professional.

• Pharmacists should not knowingly sell homeopathic products for serious medical conditions. However, it is recognised people will self select homeopathic products from open display often without consulting a pharmacist.

• Royal Pharmaceutical Society does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment.

And finally, here is my very brief and somewhat impatient comment on all this.

I have pointed out these facts ad nauseam for many years. At one stage, pharmacists used to invite me to their conferences for me to tell them so. When this became too unpopular, I published articles and blog posts about this issue. Some pharmacists agreed with me, but their majority seemed just not interested. Some argued that, in the large chain pharmacies, they have little choice but to comply with their employer’s demands. Some found even more lame excuses. I usually replied that there is no choice: pharmacists have ethical codes that clearly prohibit the sale of bogus remedies. Selling homeopathic remedies in pharmacies means violating important ethical principles. Pharmacists have to decide whether they want to be shop keepers or health care professionals.

IT IS HIGH TIME THAT WORDS ARE FOLLOWED BY ACTIONS FROM PHARMACISTS AND THEIR PROFESSIONAL ORGANISATIONS.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. The meaning of this proverb is fairly clear:

  • In the Oxford Dictionary the proverb has been defined as– when the need for something becomes imperative, you are forced to find ways of getting or achieving it.
  • According to the Cambridge Dictionary, this is “an expression that means that if you really need to do something, you will think of a way of doing it.”
  • Finally, the Longman dictionary has defined the proverb as– “if someone really needs to do something, they will find a way of doing it.”

In the world of chiropractic the proverb acquires a special meaning: chiropractic relies almost entirely on inventions. A few examples have to suffice:

  • first, instead of pathophysiology, they invented subluxations,
  • this required the invention of adjustments which were needed for their imagined subluxation,
  • then they invented the ‘inate’,
  • then they invented the idea that all sorts of conditions are caused by subluxations and therefore require adjustments,
  • finally, they invented the notion that regular adjustments are needed for a healthy person to stay healthy.

I was reminded of the unique inventive capacity of chiropractic when I came across the website of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP). The F4CP is, according to their own statements, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the value of chiropractic care (which is, of course, another invention).

Experts at the F4CP point out that a growing number of professional athletic teams utilize chiropractic care to maximize overall health and maintain peak performance. “Repetitive motion injuries, including shoulder tendinitis, elbow, lower back pain and muscle spasms, are common conditions and injuries among professional baseball players that can be successfully prevented, managed and treated with chiropractic care,” says Hirad N. Bagy, DC. “Chiropractic adjustments, in conjunction with soft tissue mobilization, provide athletes with proper structure, function and balance to reduce the risk of injury, accelerate recovery time and improve overall performance,” he continues – and he must know, because he has received specialized training and certifications specific to sports medicine, which include the Graston Technique®, Active Release Technique®, Myofascial Release Technique, Impact Concussion Testing and Functional Dry Needling. Dr. Bagy continues: “A number of athletes that I treat regularly understand the importance of chiropractic maintenance care, and also seek treatment when an injury arises. Through the restoration of proper bio-mechanics, doctors of chiropractic are now positioned as key health care providers throughout all of the sports teams that I work with.”

BRAVO! We are impressed! So much so, that we almost forgot to ask: “Is there any evidence for all of these therapeutic claims?”

Just as well! Because had we asked and perhaps even did a bit of research, we would have found that almost none of these far-reaching claims are evidence-based.

But who would be so petty? Instead of criticising the incessant flow of bogus claims made by chiropractors worldwide, we should really admire their remarkable skill of invention:

  • When the need for profit becomes imperative, CHIROPRACTORS are forced to find ways of getting or achieving it.
  • If CHIROPRACTORS really need to do something, they will think of a way of doing it.
  • If a CHIROPRACTOR really needs money, he will advocate ‘maintenance care’.

AND THAT’S WHAT IS CALLED ‘CHIROPRACTIC PROGRESS’!

Recently, I was sent an interesting press release; here it is in full:

A new study has shed light on how cancer patients’ attitudes and beliefs drive the use of complementary and alternative medicine. Published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the findings may help hospitals develop more effective and accessible integrative oncology services for patients.

Although many cancer patients use complementary and alternative medicine, what drives this usage is unclear. To investigate, a team led by Jun Mao, MD and Joshua Bauml, MD, of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, conducted a survey-based study in their institution’s thoracic, breast, and gastrointestinal medical oncology clinics.

Among 969 participants surveyed between June 2010 and September 2011, patients who were younger, those who were female, and those who had a college education tended to expect greater benefits from complementary and alternative medicine. Nonwhite patients reported more perceived barriers to the use of complementary and alternative medicine compared with white patients, but their expectations concerning the medicine’s benefits were similar. Attitudes and beliefs about complementary and alternative medicine were much more likely to affect patients’ use than clinical and demographic characteristics.

“We found that specific attitudes and beliefs — such as expectation of therapeutic benefits, patient-perceived barriers regarding cost and access, and opinions of patients’ physician and family members — may predict patients’ use of complementary and alternative medicine following cancer diagnoses,” said Dr. Mao. “We also found that these beliefs and attitudes varied by key socio-demographic factors such as sex, race, and education, which highlights the need for a more individualized approach when clinically integrating complementary and alternative medicine into conventional cancer care.”

The researchers noted that as therapies such as acupuncture and yoga continue to demonstrate clinical benefits for reducing pain, fatigue, and psychological distress, the field of integrative oncology is emerging to bring complementary and alternative medicine together with conventional care to improve patient outcomes. “Our findings emphasize the importance of patients’ attitudes and beliefs about complementary and alternative medicine as we seek to develop integrative oncology programs in academic medical centers and community hospitals,” said Dr. Bauml. “By aligning with patients’ expectations, removing unnecessary structural barriers, and engaging patients’ social and support networks, we can develop patient-centered clinical programs that better serve diverse groups of cancer patients regardless of sex, race, and education levels.”

And here is the abstract of the actual article:

BACKGROUND:

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) incorporates treatments used by cancer survivors in an attempt to improve their quality of life. Although population studies have identified factors associated with its use, to the best of the authors knowledge, assessment of why patients use CAM or the barriers against its use have not been examined to date.

METHODS:

The authors conducted a cross-sectional survey study in the thoracic, breast, and gastrointestinal medical oncology clinics at an academic cancer center. Clinical and demographic variables were collected by self-report and chart abstraction. Attitudes and beliefs were measured using the validated Attitudes and Beliefs about CAM (ABCAM) instrument. This instrument divides attitudes and beliefs into 3 domains: expected benefits, perceived barriers, and subjective norms.

RESULTS:

Among 969 participants (response rate, 82.7%) surveyed between June 2010 and September 2011, patient age ≤65 years, female sex, and college education were associated with a significantly greater expected benefit from CAM (P<.0001 for all). Nonwhite patients reported more perceived barriers to CAM use compared with white patients (P<.0001), but had a similar degree of expected benefit (P = .76). In a multivariate logistic regression analysis, all domains of the ABCAM instrument were found to be significantly associated with CAM use (P<.01 for all) among patients with cancer. Attitudes and beliefs regarding CAM explained much more variance in CAM use than clinical and demographic variables alone.

CONCLUSIONS:

Attitudes and beliefs varied by key clinical and demographic characteristics, and predicted CAM use. By developing CAM programs based upon attitudes and beliefs, barriers among underserved patient populations may be removed and more patient centered care may be provided.

Why do I find this remarkable?

The article was published in the Journal CANCER, one of the very best publications in oncology. One would therefore expect that it contributes meaningfully to our knowledge. Remarkably, it doesn’t! Virtually every finding from this survey had been known or is so obvious that it does not require research, in my view. The article is an orgy of platitudes, and the press release is even worse.

But this is not what irritates me most with this paper. The aspect that I find seriously bad about it is its general attitude: it seems to accept that alternative therapies are a good thing for cancer patients which we should all welcome with open arms. The press release even states that, as therapies such as acupuncture and yoga continue to demonstrate clinical benefits for reducing pain, fatigue, and psychological distress, the field of integrative oncology is emerging to bring complementary and alternative medicine together with conventional care to improve patient outcomes.

I might be a bit old-fashioned, but I would have thought that, before we accept treatments into clinical routine, we ought to demonstrate that they generate more good than harm. Should we not actually show beyond reasonable doubt that patients’ outcomes are improved before we waffle about the notion? Is it not our ethical duty to analyse and think critically? If we fail to do that, we are, I think, nothing other than charlatans!

This article might be a mere triviality – if it were not symptomatic of what we are currently witnessing on a truly grand scale in this area. Integrative oncology seems fast to deteriorate into a paradise for pseudoscience and quacks.

You may feel that homeopaths are bizarre, irrational, perhaps even stupid – but you cannot deny their tenacity. Since 200 years, they are trying to convince us that their treatments are effective beyond placebo. And they seem to get more and more bold with their claims: while they used to suggest that homeopathy was effective for trivial conditions like a common cold, they now have their eyes on much more ambitious things. Two recent studies, for instance, claim that homeopathic remedies can help cancer patients.

The aim of the first study was to evaluate whether homeopathy influenced global health status and subjective wellbeing when used as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapy.

In this pragmatic randomized controlled trial, 410 patients, who were treated by standard anti-neoplastic therapy, were randomized to receive or not receive classical homeopathic adjunctive therapy in addition to standard therapy. The main outcome measures were global health status and subjective wellbeing as assessed by the patients. At each of three visits (one baseline, two follow-up visits), patients filled in two questionnaires for quantification of these endpoints.

The results show that 373 patients yielded at least one of three measurements. The improvement of global health status between visits 1 and 3 was significantly stronger in the homeopathy group by 7.7 (95% CI 2.3-13.0, p=0.005) when compared with the control group. A significant group difference was also observed with respect to subjective wellbeing by 14.7 (95% CI 8.5-21.0, p<0.001) in favor of the homeopathic as compared with the control group. Control patients showed a significant improvement only in subjective wellbeing between their first and third visits.

Our homeopaths concluded that the results suggest that the global health status and subjective wellbeing of cancer patients improve significantly when adjunct classical homeopathic treatment is administered in addition to conventional therapy.

The second study is a little more modest; it had the aim 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 by a walk-in cancer support centre. Conventional treatment had to have taken place within the last three years. Patients scored their total, physical and emotional wellbeing using the Functional Assessment of Chronic Illness Therapy for Cancer (FACIT-G) before and after receiving four IH sessions.

The results showed that 11 women had statistically positive results for emotional, physical and total wellbeing based on FACIT-G scores.

And the conclusion: Findings support previous research, suggesting CAM or individualised homeopathy could be beneficial for survivors of cancer.

As I said: one has to admire their tenacity, perhaps also their chutzpa – but not their understanding of science or their intelligence. If they were able to think critically, they could only arrive at one conclusion: STUDY DESIGNS THAT ARE WIDE OPEN TO BIAS ARE LIKELY TO DELIVER BIASED RESULTS.

The second study is a mere observation without a control group. The reported outcomes could be due to placebo, expectation, extra attention or social desirability. We obviously need an RCT! But the first study was an RCT!!! Its results are therefore more convincing, aren’t they?

No, not at all. I can repeat my sentence from above: The reported outcomes could be due to placebo, expectation, extra attention or social desirability. And if you don’t believe it, please read what I have posted about the infamous ‘A+B versus B’ trial design (here and here and here and here and here for instance).

My point is that such a study, while looking rigorous to the naïve reader (after all, it’s an RCT!!!), is just as inconclusive when it comes to establishing cause and effect as a simple case series which (almost) everyone knows by now to be utterly useless for that purpose. The fact that the A+B versus B design is nevertheless being used over and over again in alternative medicine for drawing causal conclusions amounts to deceit – and deceit is unethical, as we all know.

My overall conclusion about all this:

QUACKS LOVE THIS STUDY DESIGN BECAUSE IT NEVER FAILS TO PRODUCE FALSE POSITIVE RESULTS.

Dear Professor Robinson,

please forgive me for writing to you in a matter that, you might think, is really none of my business. I have been following the news and discussions about the BLACKMORE CHAIR at your university. Having been a professor of complementary medicine at Exeter for ~20 years and having published more papers on this subject than anyone else on the planet, I am naturally interested and would like to express some concerns, if you allow me to.

With my background, I would probably be the last person to argue that a research chair in alternative medicine is not a good and much-needed thing. However, accepting an endowment from a commercially interested source is, as you are well aware, a highly problematic matter.

I am confident that you intend to keep the sponsor at arm’s length and plan to appoint a true scientist to this post who will not engage in the promotional activities which the alternative medicine scene might be expecting. And I am equally sure that the money will be put to good use resulting in good and fully independent science.

But, even if all of this is the case, there are important problems to consider. By accepting Blackmore’s money, you have, perhaps inadvertently, given credit to a commercially driven business empire. As you probably know, Blackmores have a reputation of being ‘a bit on the cavalier side’ when it comes to rules and regulations. This is evidenced, for instance, by the number of complaints that have been upheld against them by the Australian authorities.

For these reasons, the creation of the new chair is not just a step towards generating research, it could (and almost inevitably will) be seen as a boost for quackery. It is foremost this aspect which might endanger the reputation of your university, I am afraid.

My own experience over the last two decades has taught me to be cautious and sceptical regarding the motives of many involved in the multi-billion alternative medicine business. I have recently published my memoir entitled ‘A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND. SEARCHING FOR TRUTH AND FINDING TROUBLE'; it might be a helpful read for you and the new professor.

I hope you take my remarks as they were meant: constructive advice from someone who had to learn it all the hard way. If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to ask me.

Sincerely

Edzard Ernst

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