MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

medical ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On 1/12/2014 I published a post in which I offered to give lectures to students of alternative medicine:

Getting good and experienced lecturers for courses is not easy. Having someone who has done more research than most working in the field and who is internationally known, might therefore be a thrill for students and an image-boosting experience of colleges. In the true Christmas spirit, I am today making the offer of being of assistance to the many struggling educational institutions of alternative medicine .

A few days ago, I tweeted about my willingness to give free lectures to homeopathic colleges (so far without response). Having thought about it a bit, I would now like to extend this offer. I would be happy to give a free lecture to the students of any educational institution of alternative medicine.

I did not think that this would create much interest – and I was right: only the ANGLO-EUROPEAN COLLEGE OF CHIROPRACTIC has so far hoisted me on my own petard and, after some discussion (see comment section of the original post) hosted me for a lecture. Several people seem keen on knowing how this went; so here is a brief report.

I was received, on 14/1/2015, with the utmost kindness by my host David Newell. We has a coffee and a chat and then it was time to start the lecture. The hall was packed with ~150 students and the same number was listening in a second lecture hall to which my talk was being transmitted.

We had agreed on the title CHIROPRACTIC: FALLACIES AND FACTS. So, after telling the audience about my professional background, I elaborated on 7 fallacies:

  1. Appeal to tradition
  2. Appeal to authority
  3. Appeal to popularity
  4. Subluxation exists
  5. Spinal manipulation is effective
  6. Spinal manipulation is safe
  7. Ad hominem attack

Numbers 3, 5 and 6 were dealt with in more detail than the rest. The organisers had asked me to finish by elaborating on what I perceive as the future challenges of chiropractic; so I did:

  1. Stop happily promoting bogus treatments
  2. Denounce obsolete concepts like ‘subluxation’
  3. Clarify differences between chiros, osteos and physios
  4. Start a culture of critical thinking
  5. Take action against charlatans in your ranks
  6. Stop attacking everyone who voices criticism

I ended by pointing out that the biggest challenge, in my view, was to “demonstrate with rigorous science which chiropractic treatments demonstrably generate more good than harm for which condition”.

We had agreed that my lecture would be followed by half an hour of discussion; this period turned out to be lively and had to be extended to a full hour. Most questions initially came from the tutors rather than the students, and most were polite – I had expected much more aggression.

In his email thanking me for coming to Bournemouth, David Newell wrote about the event: The general feedback from staff and students was one of relief that you possessed only one head, :-). I hope you may have felt the same about us. You came over as someone who had strong views, a fair amount of which we disagreed with, but that presented them in a calm, informative and courteous manner as we did in listening and discussing issues after your talk. I think everyone enjoyed the questions and debate and felt that some of the points you made were indeed fair critique of what the profession may need to do, to secure a more inclusive role in the health care arena.

 
As you may have garnered from your visit here, the AECC is committed to this task as we continue to provide the highest quality of education for the 21st C representatives of such a profession. We believe centrally that it is to our society at large and our communities within which we live and work that we are accountable. It is them that we serve, not ourselves, and we need to do that as best we can, with the best tools we have or can develop and that have as much evidence as we can find or generate. In this aim, your talk was important in shining a more ‘up close and personal’ torchlight on our profession and the tasks ahead whilst also providing us with a chance to debate the veracity or otherwise of yours and ours differing positions on interpretation of the evidence.

My own impression of the day is that some of my messages were not really understood, that some of the questions, including some from the tutors, seemed like coming from a different planet, and that people were more out to teach me than to learn from my talk. One overall impression that I took home from that day is that, even in this college which prides itself of being open to scientific evidence and unimpressed by chiropractic fundamentalism, students are strangely different from other health care professionals. The most tangible aspect of this is the openly hostile attitude against drug therapies voiced during the discussion by some students.

The question I always ask myself after having invested a lot of time in preparing and delivering a lecture is: WAS IT WORTH IT? In the case of this lecture, I think the answer is YES. With 300 students present, I am fairly confident that I did manage to stimulate a tiny bit of critical thinking in a tiny percentage of them. The chiropractic profession needs this badly!

 

Guest post by Nick Ross

If you’re a fan of Edzard Ernst – and who with a rational mind would not be – then you will be a fan of HealthWatch.

Edzard is a distinguished supporter. Do join us. I can’t promise much in return except that you will be part of a small and noble organisation that campaigns for treatments that work – in other words for evidence based medicine. Oh, and you get a regular Newsletter, which is actually rather good.

HealthWatch was inspired 25 years ago by Professor Michael Baum, the breast cancer surgeon who was incandescent that so many women presented to his clinic late, doomed and with suppurating sores, because they had been persuaded to try ‘alternative treatment’ rather than the real thing.

But like Edzard (and indeed like Michael Baum), HealthWatch keeps an open mind. If there are reliable data to show that an apparently weirdo treatment works, hallelujah. If there is evidence that an orthodox one doesn’t then it deserves a raspberry. HealthWatch has worked to expose quacks and swindlers and to get the Advertising Standards Authority to do its job regulating against false claims and flimflam. It has fought the NHS to have women given fair and balanced advice about the perils of mass screening. It has campaigned with Sense About Science, English Pen and Index to protect whistleblowing scientists from vexatious libel laws, and it has joined the AllTrials battle for transparency in drug trials. It has an annual competition for medical and nursing students to encourage critical analysis of clinical research protocols, and it stages the annual HealthWatch Award and Lecture which has featured Edzard (in 2005) and a galaxy of other champions of scepticism and good evidence including Sir Iain Chalmers, Richard Smith, David Colquhoun, Tim Harford, John Diamond, Richard Doll, Peter Wilmshurst, Ray Tallis, Ben Goldacre, Fiona Godlee and, last year, Simon Singh. We are shortly to sponsor a national debate on Lord Saatchi’s controversial Medical innovation Bill.

But we need new blood. Do please check us out. Be careful, because since we first registered our name a host of brazen copycats have emerged, not least Her Majesty’s Government with ‘Healthwatch England’ which is part of the Care Quality Commission. We have had to put ‘uk’ at the end of our web address to retain our identity. So take the link to http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/, or better still take out a (very modestly priced) subscription.

As Edmund Burke might well have said, all it takes for quackery to flourish is that good men and women do nothing.

I know, it’s not really original to come up with the 10000th article on “10 things…” – but you will have to forgive me, I read so many of these articles over the holiday period that I can’t help but jump on the already over-crowded bandwagon and compose yet another one.

So, here are 10 things which could, if implemented, bring considerable improvement in 2015 to my field of inquiry, alternative medicine.

  1. Consumers need to get better at acting as bull shit (BS) detectors. Let’s face it, much of what we read or hear about this subject is utter BS. Yet consumers frequently lap up even the worst drivel like it were some source of deep wisdom. They could save themselves so much money, if they learnt to be just a little bit more critical.
  2. Dr Oz should focus on being a heart surgeon. His TV show has been demonstrated far too often to be promoting dangerous quackery. Yet as a heart surgeon, he actually might do some good.
  3. Journalists ought to remember that they have a job that extends well beyond their ambition to sell copy. They have a responsibility to inform the public truthfully and responsibly.
  4. Book publishers should abstain from churning out book after book that does little else but mislead the public about alternative medicine in a way that all to often is dangerous to the readers’ health. The world does not need the 1000th book repeating nonsense on detox, wellness etc.!
  5. Alternative practitioners must realise that claiming that therapy x cures condition y is not just slightly over-optimistic (or based on ‘years of experience’); if the claim is not based on sound evidence, it is what most people would call an outright lie.
  6. Proponents of alternative medicine should learn that it is neither fair nor productive to fiercely attack everyone personally who disagrees with their enthusiasm for this or that form of alternative medicine. In fact, it merely highlights the acute lack of rational arguments.
  7. Researchers of alternative medicine have to remember how important it is to think critically – an uncritical scientist is at best a contradiction in terms and at worst a pseudo-scientist who is likely to cause harm.
  8. Authorities should amass the courage, the political power and the financial means of going after those charlatans who ruthlessly exploit the public by making a fast and easy buck on the gullibility of consumers. Only if there is the likelihood of hefty fines will we see a meaningful decrease in the current epidemic of alternative health fraud.
  9. Politicians should realise that alternative medicine is not just a trivial subject with which one might win votes, if one issues platitudes to please the majority; alternative medicine is used by so many people that it has become an important public health issue.
  10. Prince Charles need to learn how to control himself and abstain from meddling in health politics by using every conceivable occasion to promote what he thinks is ‘integrated medicine’ but which, in fact, can easily be disclosed to be quackery.

As you see, my list almost instantly turned into a wish-list, and the big questions that follow from it are:

  1. How could we increase the likelihood of these wishes to come true?
  2. And would there be anything left of alternative medicine, if all of these wishes miraculously became true in 2015?

I do not pretend to have the answers, but I do feel strongly that a healthy dose of critical thinking in all levels of education – from kindergartens to schools, from colleges to universities etc. – would be a good and necessary starting point.

I know, my list is not just a wish list, it also is a wishful thinking list. It would be hopelessly naïve to assume that major advances will be made in 2015. I am realistic, sometimes even quite pessimistic, about progress in alternative medicine. But this does not mean that I or anyone else should just give up. 2015 will be a year where at least one thing is certain: you will see me continuing me my fight for reason, critical analysis, rational debate and good evidence – and that’s a promise!

Adults using unproven treatments is one thing; if kids do it because they are told to, that is quite another thing. Children are in many ways more vulnerable than grown-ups and they usually cannot give fully informed consent. It follows that the use of such treatments for kids can be a delicate and complex matter.

A recent systematic review was aimed at summarizes the international findings for prevalence and predictors of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use among children/adolescents. The authors systematically searched 4 electronic databases (PubMed, Embase, PsycINFO, AMED; last update in 07/2013) and reference lists of existing reviews and all included studies. Publications without language restriction reporting patterns of CAM utilization among children/adolescents without chronic conditions were selected for inclusion. The prevalence rates for overall CAM use, homeopathy, and herbal drug use were extracted with a focus on country and recall period (lifetime, 1 year, current use). As predictors, the authors extracted socioeconomic factors, child‘s age, and gender.

Fifty-eight studies from 19 countries could be included in the review. There were strong variations regarding study quality. Prevalence rates for overall CAM use ranged from 10.9 – 87.6 % for lifetime use, and from 8 – 48.5 % for current use. The respective percentages for homeopathy (highest in Germany, United Kingdom, and Canada) ranged from 0.8 – 39 % (lifetime) and from 1 – 14.3 % (current). Herbal drug use (highest in Germany, Turkey, and Brazil) was reported for 0.8 – 85.5 % (lifetime) and 2.2 – 8.9 % (current) of the children/adolescents. Studies provided a relatively uniform picture of the predictors of overall CAM use: higher parental income and education, older children. But only a few studies analyzed predictors for single CAM modalities.

The authors drew the following conclusion: CAM use is widespread among children/adolescents. Prevalence rates vary widely regarding CAM modality, country, and reported recall period.

In 1999, I published a very similar review; at the time, I found just 10 studies. Their results suggested that the prevalence of CAM use by kids was variable but generally high. CAM was often perceived as helpful. Insufficient data existed about safety and cost. Today, the body of surveys monitoring CAM use by children seems to have grown almost six-fold, and the conclusions are still more or less the same – but have we made progress in answering the most pressing questions? Do we know whether all these CAM treatments generate more good than harm for children?

Swiss authors recently published a review of Cochrane reviews which might help answering these important questions. They performed a synthesis of all Cochrane reviews published between 1995 and 2012 in paediatrics that assessed the efficacy, and clinical implications and limitations of CAM use in children. Main outcome variables were: percentage of reviews that concluded that a certain intervention provides a benefit, percentage of reviews that concluded that a certain intervention should not be performed, and percentage of studies that concluded that the current level of evidence is inconclusive.

A total of 135 reviews were included – most from the United Kingdom (29/135), Australia (24/135) and China (24/135). Only 5/135 (3.7%) reviews gave a recommendation in favour of a certain intervention; 26/135 (19.4%) issued a conditional positive recommendation, and 9/135 (6.6%) reviews concluded that certain interventions should not be performed. Ninety-five reviews (70.3%) were inconclusive. The proportion of inconclusive reviews increased during three, a priori-defined, time intervals (1995-2000: 15/27 [55.6%]; 2001-2006: 33/44 [75%]; and 2007-2012: 47/64 [73.4%]). The three most common criticisms of the quality of the studies included were: more research needed (82/135), low methodological quality (57/135) and small number of study participants (48/135).

The Swiss authors concluded that given the disproportionate number of inconclusive reviews, there is an ongoing need for high quality research to assess the potential role of CAM in children. Unless the study of CAM is performed to the same science-based standards as conventional therapies, CAM therapies risk being perpetually marginalised by mainstream medicine.

And what about the risks?

To determine the types of adverse events associated with the use of CAM that come to the attention of Australian paediatricians. Australian researchers conducted a monthly active surveillance study of CAM-associated adverse events as reported to the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit between January 2001 and December 2003. They found 39 reports of adverse events associated with CAM use, including four reported deaths. Reports highlighted several areas of concern, including the risks associated with failure to use conventional medicine, the risks related to medication changes made by CAM practitioners and the significant dangers of dietary restriction. The reported deaths were associated with a failure to use conventional medicine in favour of a CAM therapy.

These authors concluded that CAM use has the potential to cause significant morbidity and fatal adverse outcomes. The diversity of CAM therapies and their associated adverse events demonstrate the difficulty addressing this area and the importance of establishing mechanisms by which adverse effects may be reported or monitored.

So, we know that lots of children are using CAMs because their parents want them to. We also know that most of the CAMs used for childhood conditions are not based on sound evidence. The crucial question is: can we be sure that CAM for kids generates more good than harm? I fear the answer is a clear and worrying NO.

Getting good and experienced lecturers for courses is not easy. Having someone who has done more research than most working in the field and who is internationally known, might therefore be a thrill for students and an image-boosting experience of colleges. In the true Christmas spirit, I am today making the offer of being of assistance to the many struggling educational institutions of alternative medicine .

A few days ago, I tweeted about my willingness to give free lectures to homeopathic colleges (so far without response). Having thought about it a bit, I would now like to extend this offer. I would be happy to give a free lecture to the students of any educational institution of alternative medicine. I suggest to

  • do a general lecture on the clinical evidence of the 4 major types of alternative medicine (acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, homeopathy) or
  • give a more specific lecture with in-depth analyses of any given alternative therapy.

I imagine that most of the institutions in question might be a bit anxious about such an idea, but there is no need to worry: I guarantee that everything I say will be strictly and transparently evidence-based. I will disclose my sources and am willing to make my presentation available to students so that they can read up the finer details about the evidence later at home. In other words, I will do my very best to only transmit the truth about the subject at hand.

Nobody wants to hire a lecturer without having at least a rough outline of what he will be talking about – fair enough! Here I present a short summary of the lecture as I envisage it:

  • I will start by providing a background about myself, my qualifications and my experience in researching and lecturing on the matter at hand.
  • This will be followed by a background on the therapies in question, their history, current use etc.
  • Next I would elaborate on the main assumptions of the therapies in question and on their biological plausibility.
  • This will be followed by a review of the claims made for the therapies in question.
  • The main section of my lecture would be to review the clinical evidence regarding the efficacy of therapies in question. In doing this, I will not cherry-pick my evidence but rely, whenever possible, on authoritative systematic reviews, preferably those from the Cochrane Collaboration.
  • This, of course, needs to be supplemented by a review of safety issues.
  • If wanted, I could also say a few words about the importance of the placebo effect.
  • I also suggest to discuss some of the most pertinent ethical issues.
  • Finally, I would hope to arrive at a few clear conclusions.

You see, all is entirely up to scratch!

Perhaps you have some doubts about my abilities to lecture? I can assure you, I have done this sort of thing all my life, I have been a professor at three different universities, and I will probably manage a lecture to your students.

A final issue might be the costs involved. As I said, I would charge neither for the preparation (this can take several days depending on the exact topic), nor for the lecture itself. All I would hope for is that you refund my travel (and, if necessary over-night) expenses. And please note: this is  time-limited: approaches will be accepted until 1 January 2015 for lectures any time during 2015.

I can assure you, this is a generous offer  that you ought to consider seriously – unless, of course, you do not want your students to learn the truth!

(In which case, one would need to wonder why not)

A German homeopathic journal, Zeitschrift Homoeopathie, has just published the following interesting article entitled HOMEOPATHIC DOCTORS HELP IN LIBERIA. It provides details about the international team of homeopaths that travelled to Liberia to cure Ebola. Here I take the liberty of translating it from German into English. As most of it is fairly self-explanatory, I abstain from any comments of my own – however, I am sure that my readers will want to add their views.

In mid-October, an international team of 4 doctors travelled to the West African country for three weeks. The mission in a hospital in Ganta, a town with about 40 000 inhabitants on the border to Guinea, ended as planned on 7 November. The exercise was organised by the World Association of Homeopathic Doctors, the Liga Medicorum Homoeopathica Internationalis (LMHI), with support of by the German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors. The aim was to support the local doctors in the care of the population and, if possible, also to help in the fight against the Ebola epidemic. The costs for the three weeks’ stay were financed mostly through donations from homeopathic doctors.

“We know that we were invited mainly as well-trained doctors to Liberia, and that or experience in homeopathy was asked for only as a secondary issue”, stresses Cornelia Bajic, first chairperson of the DZVhA (German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors). The doctors from India, USA, Switzerland and Germany were able to employ their expertise in several wards of the hospital, to help patients, and to support their Liberian colleagues. It was planned to use and document the homeopathic treatment of Ebola-patients as an adjunct to the WHO prescribed standard treatment. “Our experience from the treatment of other epidemics in the history of medicine allows the conclusion that a homeopathic treatment might significantly reduce the mortality of Ebola patients”, judges Bajic. The successful use of homeopathic remedies has been documented for example in Cholera, Diphtheria or Yellow Fever.

Overview of the studies related to the homeopathic treatment of epidemics

In Ganta, the doctors of the LMHI team treated patients with “at times most serious diseases, particularly inflammatory conditions, children with Typhus, meningitis, pneumonias, and unclear fevers – each time only under the supervision of the local doctor in charge”, reports Dr Ortrud Lindemann, who also worked obstetrically in Ganta. The medical specialist reports after her return: “When we had been 10 days in the hospital, the successes had become known, and the patients stood in queues to get treated by us.” The homeopathic doctors received thanks from the Ganta hospital for their work, it was said that it had been helpful for the patients and a blessing for the employees of the hospital.

POLITICAL CONSIDERATIONS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MEDICAL TREATMENT? 

This first LMHI team of doctors was forbidden to care for patients from the “Ebola Treatment Unit”. The decision was based on an order of the WHO. A team of Cuban doctors was also waiting in vain for being allowed to work. “We are dealing here with a dangerous epidemic and a large number of seriously ill patients. And despite a striking lack of doctors in West Africa political considerations are more important than the treatment of these patients”, criticises the DZVhA chairperson Bajic. Now a second team is to travel to Ganta to support the local doctors.

I recently tweeted the following short text: “THIS IS HOW HOMEOPATHY CAN KILL MILLIONS” and provided a link to a website where a homeopaths advocated using homeopathy to control blood sugar levels in diabetic patients. The exact text I objected to is reproduced below:

“Management of Blood sugar

The commonly used remedies are Uranium Nitricum, Phosphoric Acid, Syzygium Jambolanum, Cephalandra Indica etc. These are classical Homeopathic remedies. These are used in physiologically active doses such as Mother tincture, 3x etc. depending up on the level of the blood sugar and the requirement of the patient. Several pharmaceutical companies have also brought in propriety medicines with a combination of the few Homeopathic medicines. Biochemic remedies which is a part of Homeopathy advocates Biocombination No 7 as a specific for Diabetes. Another Biochemic medicine Natrum Phos 3x is widely used with a reasonable success in controlling the blood sugar. Scientific studies on the impact of homeopathic medicines in bringing down blood sugar are limited, but many of the above remedies have some positive effects either as a stand-alone remedy or as an adjunct along with other medications.”

A clearly annoyed homeopath responded by tweeting: “homeopathy has been a favorite complement to diabetes treatment for over 200 yrs. Your evidence of the contrary is?”

So I better explain to her what I mean, and as this cannot be done in 140 characters, I do it with this post instead.

The claim expressed on the website is not that homeopathy can complement diabetes treatment; the claim is clearly that it can be a sole treatment and a replacement of conventional anti-diabetic treatment. There is, of course, no evidence at all for that. If patients put this claim to the test, many will die. Because there are many millions of diabetics worldwide, this claim has the potential to kill millions. In other words, my initial tweet was perhaps blunt but certainly correct.

Now to the notion of homeopathy as a ‘complement to diabetes treatment': do I have evidence to the contrary? I think that is entirely the wrong question. The true question here is whether homeopaths who claim that homeopathic remedies can be an effective adjunct to conventional anti-diabetic treatments have any evidence for their claim (after all, in health care, as in most other walks of life, it is the one who makes a claim who has to prove it, not the one who doubts it!). So, is there good evidence?

To the best of my knowledge, the answer is NO!

If you disagree, please show me the evidence.

If you have diabetes, chances are that you need life-long treatment. Before effective anti-diabetic medications became available, diabetes amounted to a death sentence. Fortunately, these times are long gone.

…unless, of course, you decide to listen to the promises of alternative practitioners many of whom offer a cure for diabetes. Here is just one website of hundreds that does just that. The following is an abbreviated quote where I have changed nothing, not even the numerous spelling mistakes:

Modern medicine has no  permanent cure for diabetes but alternative medicines like yoga ,mudra,ayurveda is very useful to control and even cure diabetes.Ayurveda is an alternative medicine to cure diabetes.

Alternative medicine like ayurveda is a best to cure diabetes naturally.
A serious disorder of the glands,of pancreas to be exact,is diabetes,or madhumeha as described in ayurveda.It is one of the most insidious disorders of the metabolism and,if left undiagnosed or untreated,it may lead to rapid emaciation and ultimately death…
Ayurveda medicines to cure diabetes
In ayurveda the following medicines have been recommended for this disease
Shiljita ————————–240 mg
Nyagrodadhi churna ———3 gm
These should be given twice after meals with decoction of arni.
Vasantakusumakara rasa —120 mg
Shudha Shilajit ————–240 mg
Nag Bhasma —————–120 mg
Haldi ————————–500 mg
Amlaki Churna ————-500 mg
Twice daily with powder of rose-apple stones.Twice daily with honey.
Chadraprabha  Vati ——– 500 mg
Mudra the alternative treatment to cure diabetes naturally
Mudra is a non medical and no cost treatment to cure diabetes.You can perform mudras at any time or any position.It is an effective way of treatment you can get better result if you practice it regularly .

It goes without saying that none of these treatments would cure diabetes. A Cochrane review concluded that there is insufficient evidence at present to recommend the use of these interventions in routine clinical practice. It also goes without saying that not many patients would fall for the nonsense proclaimed on this or so many other websites. But even just one single patient dying because of some charlatan promising a cure for life-threatening diseases is one patient too many.

Rigorous research into the effectiveness of a therapy should tell us the truth about the ability of this therapy to treat patients suffering from a given condition — perhaps not one single study, but the totality of the evidence (as evaluated in systematic reviews) should achieve this aim. Yet, in the realm of alternative medicine (and probably not just in this field), such reviews are often highly contradictory.

A concrete example might explain what I mean.

There are numerous systematic reviews assessing the effectiveness of acupuncture for fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). It is safe to assume that the authors of these reviews have all conducted comprehensive searches of the literature in order to locate all the published studies on this subject. Subsequently, they have evaluated the scientific rigor of these trials and summarised their findings. Finally they have condensed all of this into an article which arrives at a certain conclusion about the value of the therapy in question. Understanding this process (outlined here only very briefly), one would expect that all the numerous reviews draw conclusions which are, if not identical, at least very similar.

However, the disturbing fact is that they are not remotely similar. Here are two which, in fact, are so different that one could assume they have evaluated a set of totally different primary studies (which, of course, they have not).

One recent (2014) review concluded that acupuncture for FMS has a positive effect, and acupuncture combined with western medicine can strengthen the curative effect.

Another recent review concluded that a small analgesic effect of acupuncture was present, which, however, was not clearly distinguishable from bias. Thus, acupuncture cannot be recommended for the management of FMS.

How can this be?

By contrast to most systematic reviews of conventional medicine, systematic reviews of alternative therapies are almost invariably based on a small number of primary studies (in the above case, the total number was only 7 !). The quality of these trials is often low (all reviews therefore end with the somewhat meaningless conclusion that more and better studies are needed).

So, the situation with primary studies of alternative therapies for inclusion into systematic reviews usually is as follows:

  • the number of trials is low
  • the quality of trials is even lower
  • the results are not uniform
  • the majority of the poor quality trials show a positive result (bias tends to generate false positive findings)
  • the few rigorous trials yield a negative result

Unfortunately this means that the authors of systematic reviews summarising such confusing evidence often seem to feel at liberty to project their own pre-conceived ideas into their overall conclusion about the effectiveness of the treatment. Often the researchers are in favour of the therapy in question – in fact, this usually is precisely the attitude that motivated them to conduct a review in the first place. In other words, the frequently murky state of the evidence (as outlined above) can serve as a welcome invitation for personal bias to do its effect in skewing the overall conclusion. The final result is that the readers of such systematic reviews are being misled.

Authors who are biased in favour of the treatment will tend to stress that the majority of the trials are positive. Therefore the overall verdict has to be positive as well, in their view. The fact that most trials are flawed does not usually bother them all that much (I suspect that many fail to comprehend the effects of bias on the study results); they merely add to their conclusions that “more and better trials are needed” and believe that this meek little remark is sufficient evidence for their ability to critically analyse the data.

Authors who are not biased and have the necessary skills for critical assessment, on the other hand, will insist that most trials are flawed and therefore their results must be categorised as unreliable. They will also emphasise the fact that there are a few reliable studies and clearly point out that these are negative. Thus their overall conclusion must be negative as well.

In the end, enthusiasts will conclude that the treatment in question is at least promising, if not recommendable, while real scientists will rightly state that the available data are too flimsy to demonstrate the effectiveness of the therapy; as it is wrong to recommend unproven treatments, they will not recommend the treatment for routine use.

The difference between the two might just seem marginal – but, in fact, it is huge: IT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MISLEADING PEOPLE AND GIVING RESPONSIBLE ADVICE; THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VIOLATING AND ADHERING TO ETHICAL STANDARDS.

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