medical ethics

1 2 3 11

On the website of the Bristol University Hospital, it was just revealed that UK homeopathy seems to have suffered another blow:

“Homeopathic medicine has been available in Bristol since 1852, when Dr Black first started dispensing from premises in the Triangle. During the next 69 years the service developed and expanded culminating in the commissioning in 1921 of a new hospital in the grounds of Cotham House. The Bristol Homeopathic Hospital continued to provide a full range of services until 1986 when the in-patient facilities were transferred to the Bristol Eye Hospital, where they continue to be provided, and outpatient services were moved to the ground floor of the Cotham Hill site. In 1994, following the sale of the main building to the University by the Bristol and District Health Authority, a new purpose built Department was provided in the Annexe buildings of the main building, adjoining the original Cotham House. The NHS Homeopathic Service is now being delivered on behalf of University Hospital Bristol by the Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine (PCIM), a Community Interest Company.”

The Portland Centre for Integrative Medicine has joined Litfield House offering medical homeopathy with Dr Elizabeth Thompson. And this is how the new service is described [I have added references in the following unabridged quote in bold which refer to my comments below]:

Medical Homeopathy is a holistic [1] approach delivered by registered health care professionals that uses a low dose of an activated [2] natural [3] substance [4] to stimulate a self-healing response in the body [5]. At the first appointment the doctor will take time to understand problem symptoms that might be physical, emotional or psychological and then a treatment plan will be discussed between the patient and the doctor [6], with homeopathic medicines chosen for you or your child on an individual basis.

Homeopathy can be safely [7] used to improve symptoms and well-being across a wide range of long term conditions: from childhood eczema [8] and ADHD [9]; to adults with medically unexplained conditions [10]; inflammatory bowel disease [11], cancer [12] or chronic fatigue syndrome [13]; and other medical conditions, including obesity [14] and depression [15]. Some people use homeopathy to stay well [16] and others use it to help difficult symptoms and/ or the side effects of conventional treatments [17].

This looks like a fairly bland and innocent little advertisement at first glance. If we analyse it closer, however, we find plenty of misleading claims. Here are the ones that caught my eye:

  1. Homeopaths claim that their approach is holistic and thus aim at differentiating it from conventional health care. This is misleading because ALL good medicine is by definition holistic.
  2. Nothing is ‘activated’; homeopaths believe that succession releases the ‘vital force’ in a remedy – but this is little more than hocus-pocus from the dark ages of medicine.
  3. Nothing is natural about endlessly diluting and shaking a medicine, while pretending that this ritual renders it more active and effective. And nothing is natural about remedies such as ‘Berlin Wall’.
  4. It is misleading to speak about ‘substance’ in relation to homeopathic remedies, because they can be manufactured also from non-material stuff too; examples are remedies such as X-ray, sol [sun light] or lunar [moonlight].
  5. The claim that homeopathic remedies stimulate the self-healing properties of the body is pure phantasy.
  6. “The doctor will take time to understand problem symptoms that might be physical, emotional or psychological and then a treatment plan will be discussed between the patient and the doctor” – this also applies to any consultation with any health care practitioner.
  7. Homeopathy is not as safe as homeopaths try to make us believe; several posts on this blog have dealt with this issue.
  8. There is no good evidence to support this claim.
  9. There is no good evidence to support this claim.
  10. There is no good evidence to support this claim.
  11. There is no good evidence to support this claim.
  12. There is no good evidence to support this claim.
  13. There is no good evidence to support this claim.
  14. There is no good evidence to support this claim.
  15. There is no good evidence to support this claim.
  16. True, some people use anything for anything; but there is no sound evidence to show that homeopathy is an effective prophylactic intervention for any disease.
  17. Nor is there good evidence that it is effective to “help difficult symptoms and/ or the side effects of conventional treatments”.

So, what we have here is a short paragraph which, on closer inspection, turns out to be full of misleading statements, bogus claims and dangerous lies. Not a good start for a new episode in the life of the now dramatically down-sized homeopathic clinic in Bristol, I’d say. And neither is it a publication of which the Bristol University Hospital can be proud. I suggest they correct it as a matter of urgency; otherwise they risk a barrage of complaints to the appropriate regulators by people who treasure the truth a little more than they seem to do themselves.

If you start reading the literature on chiropractic, you are bound to have surprises. The paucity of rigorous and meaningful research is one of them. I am constantly on the look-out for such papers but am regularly frustrated. Over the years, I got the impression that chiropractors tend to view research as an exercise in promotion – that is promotion of their very own trade.

Take this article, for instance. It seems to be a systematic review of chiropractic for breastfeeding. This is an interesting indication; remember: in 1998, Simon Singh wrote in the Guardian this comment “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.” As a consequence, he got sued for libel; he won, of course, but ever since, chiropractors across the world are trying to pretend that there is some evidence for their treatments after all.

The authors of the new review searched Pubmed [1966-2013], Manual, Alternative and Natural Therapy Index System (MANTIS) [1964-2013] and Index to Chiropractic Literature [1984-2013] for the relevant literature. The search terms utilized “breastfeeding”, “breast feeding”, “breastfeeding difficulties”, “breastfeeding difficulty”, “TMJ dysfunction”, “temporomandibular joint”, “birth trauma” and “infants”, in the appropriate Boolean combinations. They also examined non-peer-reviewed articles as revealed by Index to Chiropractic Literature and conducted a secondary analysis of references. Inclusion criteria for their review included all papers on breastfeeding difficulties regardless of peer-review. Articles were excluded if they were not written in the English language.

The following articles met the inclusion criteria: 8 case reports, 2 case series, 3 cohort studies and 6 manuscripts (5 case reports and a case series) that involved breastfeeding difficulties as a secondary complaint. The findings revealed a “theoretical and clinical framework based on the detection of spinal and extraspinal subluxations involving the cervico-cranio-mandibular complex and assessment of the infant while breastfeeding.”

Based on these results, the authors concluded that chiropractors care of infants with breastfeeding difficulties by addressing spinal and extraspinal subluxations involving the cervico-cranio-mandibular complex.

Have I promised too much?

I had thought that chiropractors had abandoned the subluxation nonsense! Not really, it seems.

I had thought that systematic reviews are about evidence of therapeutic effectiveness! Not in the weird world of chiropractic.

I would have thought that we all knew that ‘chiropractors care of infants with breastfeeding difficulties’ and do not need a review to confirm it! Yes, but what is good for business deserves another meaningless paper.

I would have thought that the conclusions of scientific articles need to be appropriate and based on the data provided! It seems that, in the realm of chiropractic, these rules do not apply.

An appropriate conclusion should have stated something like THERE IS NO GOOD EVIDENCE THAT CHIROPRACTIC CARE AIDS BREASTFEEDING. But that would have been entirely inappropriate from the chiropractic point of view because it is not a conclusion that promotes the sort of quackery most chiropractors rely upon for a living. And the concern over income is surely more important than telling the truth!

All across the world we see initiatives to regulate alternative medicine. The most recent news in this sphere comes from Switzerland. The ‘Swissinfo’ website reported that the training of alternative medicine practitioners is to be regulated by creating a ‘COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE DIPLOMA’.

The decision was welcomed by the Organisation of Swiss Alternative Medicine Professionals (OdA KT), which will conduct the exams for the diploma in question. The five therapies selected by the government for the complementary medicine diploma are yoga, ayurveda, shiatsu, craniosacral therapy and eutony. The first exams are expected to be held in 2016.

“Recognition by the state provides an important political basis for these therapies,” Christoph Q Meier, secretary general of OdA KT told “The diploma will also improve the quality of therapy offered in Switzerland, as until now anybody could call themselves a therapist.” Meier estimates that there are between 12-15,000 practitioners of complementary therapies in Switzerland. Applicants for the national diploma will first have to pass a series of pre-exams. However, those with recognised qualifications and at least five years of experience could be exempt from the pre-exams. The exam is open to foreign nationals but will only be offered in German, French and Italian. In April this year, ayurveda was also included for a separate national diploma in naturopathy medicine along with Chinese and European traditional medicine, as well as homeopathy. Switzerland has around 3,000 naturopaths.

Whenever issues like this come up, I ask myself: IS REGULATION OF ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE A GOOD OR A BAD THING?

On the one hand, one might be pleased to hear that therapists receive some training and that not everyone who feels like it can do this job. On the other hand, it has to be said that regulation of nonsense will inevitably result in nonsense. What is more, regulation will also be misused by the practitioners to claim that their treatment is now well-established and supported by the government. This phenomenon can already be seen in the comments above and it misleads the public who understandably believe that, once a form of health care is regulated officially, it must be evidence-based.

So, what is the solution? I wish I knew the answer.

Any suggestion is welcomed.

When it comes to alternative medicine, the public relies heavily on the writings of health journalists. We therefore have to count ourselves lucky to have some that are outstanding in their ability to inform the public honestly, objectively and responsibly. Here is an excerpt of what one particularly gifted and ethical heath journalist (and consultant!!!) just published regarding the treatment of babies and kids on a highly visible, popular website:

Homeopathy, or homeopathic medicine, is based on the principle that “like cures like.” Instead of treating an individual’s illness, homeopathy treats individual symptoms with substances from plants and minerals that are highly diluted and “succussed,” or shaken to release energy, said Sara Chana Silverstein, a homeopath, master herbalist and an international board-certified lactation consultant…Although homeopathy isn’t meant to replace Western medicine, it can be a complementary or alternative approach for ailments like colds, the stomach flu and teething. For example, if your pediatrician has diagnosed your baby with an upper respiratory infection, there’s not much you can do other than offer lots of fluids, rest and possibly acetaminophen or ibuprofen. In this case, a homeopathic remedy might help. Plus, since antibiotic overuse and antimicrobial resistance remain a major concern in the U.S., and antibiotics often have side effects, homeopathy could help heal without the need for a prescription. In fact, a study in the journal Homeopathy found that homeopathy for ear infections was just as effective as conventional treatment but patients in the homeopathic group had a faster improvement in symptoms. Although some studies show promising results, more research is needed to determine who homeopathic remedies work best for and in what situations, said Dr. Hilary McClafferty, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Section on Complementary and Integrative Medicine…

“In the United, States, the homeopathic products that carry the label, HPUS

Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States— are prepared with a very standardized, procedural monograph. So there is a map and regulations that ensure what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle,” McClafferty said…The only adverse effect of homeopathy, according to Silverstein, is that if a baby consumed a remedy too frequently, such as every hour for 10 hours, they would “prove” the remedy, or create the symptoms the remedy was trying to heal. “But if you gave it to a child 3 times a day at a low dose, personally I do not believe it could injure a child in anyway whatsoever,” she said…Your best bet is to see a trained homeopath who will target individual symptoms and give you pellets in the size that’s appropriate for your child’s age, Silverstein said. The bottom line when it comes to deciding between homeopathy, a medication or another remedy? “You want to be well educated, conservative and in touch with your pediatrician,” McClafferty said.

Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She’s also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at

As I said: outstanding!

With so much sound information about homeopathy and its merits in the treatment of childhood conditions, we are inclined to forgive the few tiny errors and marginally misleading statements that might require corrections such as:

  • homeopathy is very much meant as a replacement of conventional medicine by its inventor Hahnemann who was adamant that it must not be combined with other treatments because it is the only true healing art;
  • there is no good evidence that homeopathy is anything else than a placebo for children or, indeed, for anyone else;
  • the study in the journal ‘Homeopathy’ was lousy and does not allow any conclusions whatsoever about the effectiveness of homeopathy;
  • to state “some studies show promising results” is very misleading; the totality of the reliable evidence is negative;
  • more research is not needed to determine who benefits from homeopathy; there is no longer a debate about homeopathy within science;
  • the label of a typical homeopathic preparation does not tell you what’s in the bottle, at best it tells you what used to be there;
  • the main risk of homeopathy is that diseases are not treated effectively; in this way, homeopathy can kill.

Yes, these are but very minor flaws, I know. They should not distract from this journalist’s great achievement of getting her brilliantly informative article read by the widest possible audience. If Prince Charles offered an award for the best science writer of the year (why has he not yet thought of this publicity stunt?), she would certainly be a candidate.

An article in the Australian Journal of Pharmacy seems well worth mentioning on this blog. It throws some light on what is happening in Australia regarding an issue that I have repeatedly written about: the sale of homeopathic remedies by pharmacists.

Pharmaceutical Society of Australia have apparently published a ‘Complementary Medicines Position Paper’ which states that complementary medicines may be used as an adjunctive therapy with conventional medicines, provided there is evidence to support their use. The president of the PSA, Joe Demarte, says that the PSA is committed to supporting pharmacists help consumers make informed decisions regarding complementary medicines and continued to advocate strongly for a partnership approach with consumers to promote the Quality Use of Medicines and responsible self-medication. “This is a partnership between the pharmacist and the consumer where the pharmacist as the medicines expert can advise on the appropriate use of complementary medicines the consumer may be considering,” Demarte is quoted saying. He continues: “There is a wealth of information available about complementary medicines which can be confusing and the pharmacist can assist in ensuring that consumers are provided with the best available information about the current evidence for efficacy, as well as information on any potential side effects, drug interactions and risks of harm. In the event that a consumer chooses to use a product with limited evidence, the pharmacist must advise the consumer on the risks of rejecting or delaying treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. PSA strongly encourages all consumers considering taking complementary medicines to first consult their pharmacist for sound, evidence-based advice.”

So far so good – but what about disproven treatments such as homeopathy, I wonder.

Demarte says the PSA endorses the NHMRC report, released in March 2015, which found there were no health conditions for which there was reliable evidence that homeopathy was effective. And he states that the PSA does not support the sale of homeopathy products in pharmacies: “Our position is that pharmacists must use their professional judgement to prevent the supply of products with evidence of no effect.”

This surely is good news for all who stand up for evidence-based medicine and foremost for patients. It comes only a few months after the RPS Chief Scientist of the UK Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Professor Jayne Lawrence stated very similar things: “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.”

Now that we are (almost) all in perfect agreement, we only need one thing: adequate action by pharmacists!

We used to call it ‘alternative medicine’ (on this blog, I still do so, because I believe it is a term as good or bad as any other and it is the one that is easily recognised); later some opted for ‘complementary medicine’; since about 15 years a new term is en vogue: INTEGRATED MEDICINE (IM).

Supporters of IM are adamant that IM is not synonymous with the other terms. But how is IM actually defined?

One of IM’s most prominent defenders is, of course Prince Charles. In his 2006 address to the WHO, he explained: “We need to harness the best of modern science and technology, but not at the expense of losing the best of what complementary approaches have to offer. That is integrated health – it really is that simple.”

Perhaps a bit too simple?

There are several more academic definitions, and it seems that, over the years, IM-fans have been busy moving the goal post quite a bit. The original principle of ‘THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS’ has been modified considerably.

  • IM is a “comprehensive, primary care system that emphasizes wellness and healing of the whole person…” [Arch Intern Med. 2002;162:133-140]
  • IM “views patients as whole people with minds and spirits as well as bodies and includes these dimensions into diagnosis and treatment.” [BMJ. 2001; 322:119-120]

During my preparations for my lecture at the 16th European Sceptics Congress in London last week (which was on the subject of IM), I came across a brand-new (September 2015) definition. It can be found on the website of the COLLEGE OF MEDICINE  This Michael Dixon-led organisation can be seen as the successor of Charles’ ill-fated FOUNDATION FOR INTEGRATED HEALTH; it was originally to be called COLLEGE FOR INTEGRATED MEDICINE. We can therefore assume that they know best what IM truly is or aspires to be. The definition goes as follows:

IM is a holistic, evidence-based approach which makes intelligent use of all available therapeutic choices to achieve optimal health and resilience for our patients.

This may sound good to many who are not bothered or unable to think critically. It oozes political correctness and might therefore even impress some politicians. But, on closer scrutiny, it turns out to be little more than offensive nonsense. I feel compelled to publish a short analysis of it. I will do this by highlighting and criticising the important implications of this definition one by one.

1) IM is holistic

Holism has always been at the core of any type of good health care. To state that IM is holistic misleads people into believing that conventional medicine is not holistic. It also pretends that medicine might become more holistic through the addition of some alternative modalities. Yet I cannot imagine anything less holistic than diagnosing patients by merely looking at their iris (iridology) or assuming all disease stems from subluxations of the spine (chiropractic), for example. This argument is a straw-man, if there ever was one.

2) IM is evidence-based

This assumption is simply not true. If we look what is being used under the banner of IM, we find no end of treatments that are not supported by good evidence, as well as several for which the evidence is squarely negative.

3) IM is intelligent

If it were not such a serious matter, one could laugh out loud about this claim. Is the implication here that conventional medicine is not intelligent?

4) IM uses all available therapeutic choices

This is the crucial element of this definition which allows IM-proponents to employ anything they like. Do they seriously believe that patients should have ALL AVAILABLE treatments? I had thought that responsible health care is about applying the most effective therapies for the condition at hand.

5) IM aims at achieving optimal health

Another straw-man; it implies that conventional health care professionals do not want to restore their patients to optimal health.

In my lecture, which was not about this definition but about IM in general, I drew the following six conclusions:

  1. Proponents of IM mislead us with their very own, nonsensical terminology and definitions.
  2. They promote two main principles: use of quackery + holism.
  3. Holism is at the heart of all good medicine; IM is at best an unnecessary distraction.
  4. Using holism to promote quackery is dishonest and counter-productive.
  5. The integration of quackery will render healthcare not better but worse.
  6. IM flies in the face of common sense and medical ethics; it is a disservice to patients.

Who – apart from quacks – would not want to get rid of all quackery, once and for all? It would be a huge improvement to medicine, save thousands of lives, and reduce our expenditure for health care considerably.

But how? How can we possibly get rid of something that is as ancient as medicine itself?


All we need to do is to employ the existing ethical imperatives. I am thinking in particular about INFORMED CONSENT.

Informed consent is a process for obtaining permission from a patient before treating him/her. It requires the patient’s clear and full understanding of the relevant facts, implications, and consequences of the treatment. It is a ‘condition sine qua non’; no health care professional must commence a treatment without it.

And how would informed consent get rid of all quackery?

This is perhaps best explained by giving an example. Imagine a patient is about to receive a quack treatment – let’s take crystal healing (we could have chosen any other implausible non-evidence based therapy, e. g. homeopathy, chiropractic, Bach Flower Remedies, faith-healing, etc.) – for his/her condition – let’s say diabetes (we could have chosen any other condition, e. g. cancer, asthma, insomnia, etc.). Informed consent would require that, before starting the intervention, the therapist informs the patient about the relevant facts, implications and consequences of having crystal healing for diabetes. This would include the following:

  • the therapy is not plausible, it is not in line with the laws of nature as we understand them today,
  • there is no evidence that the treatment will cure your condition or ease your symptoms beyond a placebo-effect,
  • the treatment may harm you in several ways: 1) it might cause direct harm (unlikely with crystal healing but not with chiropractic, for instance), 2) it will harm your finances because the therapist wants to be paid, 3) most importantly, if you believe that it could help you and therefore forego effective therapy for your diabetes, it could easily kill you within a few days.

It is impossible to dispute that these facts are true and relevant, I think. And if they are relevant, the practitioner must convey them in such a way that they are fully appreciated by the patient. If the patient comprehends the implications fully, he/she is unlikely to agree to the treatment. If most patients refuse to be treated, the market for crystal healing quickly collapses, and crystal healers move into other, more productive jobs. This might even help the general economy!

But quacks are not in the habit of obtaining fully informed consent, I hear you say. I agree, and this is why they must be taught to do so in their quack colleges. If informed consent was taught to all budding quacks, they would soon realise that quackery is not a viable business and go to a proper school where they lean something useful (this too might help the economy). If that happens, the quack colleges would soon run out of money and close.

Meanwhile, one could remind the existing quacks that they break the law, if they neglect informed consent. In the interest of the patient, one could closely monitor the consent giving process, and even think of increasingly heavy finds for those who break the law.

As we see, almost all the means for rendering health care quack-free already exist. All we need to do is implement them. That shouldn’t be difficult, should it?


A recent article promised to provide details of the ’10 most mind-numbingly stupid alternative therapies’. Naturally I was interested what these might be. In descending order they are, according to the author of the most enjoyable piece:











This is quite a list, I have to admit. Despite some excellent choices, I might disagree with a few of them. Detoxifying foot pads will take care of a common and most annoying problem: smelly feet; therefore it cannot be all bad. And drinking your own urine can even be a life-saver! Lets assume someone has a kidney or bladder cancer. Her urine might, at one stage, be bright red with blood. The urine therapy enthusiast would realise early that something is wrong with her, go and see a specialist, get early treatment and save her life. No, no no, I cannot fully condemn urine therapy!

The other thing with the list is that one treatment which is surely mind-bogglingly stupid is missing: CHELATION THERAPY.

I have previously written about this form of treatment and pointed out that some practitioners of alternative medicine (doctors, naturopaths, chiropractors and others) earn a lot of money claiming that chelation therapy (a well-established mainstream treatment for acute heavy metal poisoning) is an effective therapy for cardiovascular and many other diseases. However, this claim is both implausible and not evidence-based. Several systematic reviews of the best evidence concluded less than optimistically:

…more controlled studies are required to determine the efficacy of chelation therapy in cardiovascular disease before it can be used broadly in the clinical setting.

The best available evidence does not support the therapeutic use of EDTA chelation therapy in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.

Given the potential of chelation therapy to cause severe adverse effects, this treatment should now be considered obsolete.

The available data do not support the use of chelation in cardiovascular diseases.

Despite all this, the promotion of chelation continues unabated. An Australian website, ironically entitled ‘LEADERS IN INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE’, might stand for many others when it informs its readers about chelation therapy. Here is a short passage:

Chelation therapy has the ability to remove the calcium from artery plaques as well as remove toxic ions, reduce free radical damage and restore circulation to all tissues of the body. A growing number of physicians use chelation therapy to reverse the process of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and as an alternative to angioplasty and bypass surgery.

Chelation therapy is a treatment to be considered for all conditions of reduced blood flow (coronary artery disease, cerebral vascular disease, peripheral vascular disease, angina, vertigo, tinnitus, senility), any situations of heavy metal toxicity or tissue overload and various chronic immune system disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis. Intravenous vitamin C is useful for the treatment of chronic and acute infections, fatigue, pre- and post-surgery and to boost the immune system while undergoing cancer therapies.

Not bad, isn’t it. How come such mind-numbing stupidity escaped the author of the above article? Was it an oversight? Was the choice just too overwhelming? Or did he not think chelation was all that funny? I ought to mention that it is not at all harmless like sampling your own urine or having a Reiki healer sending some ‘healing energy’.

Whatever the reason, I hope for an up-date of the list, he will consider chelation as a seriously mind-numbing contender.

A short report about a Scottish legal case is worth a mention, I think.

Honor Watt, 73 had sued Lothian Health Board after the authority stopped in June 2013 to provide homeopathic treatments to patients. Ms Watt, an arthritis sufferer, had previously received homeopathic medicine for this condition. There is, of course, no good evidence that homeopathic remedies are better than placebos for this (or any other) disease.

Ms Watt’s lawyers decided to challenge the board’s decision in the Court of Session claiming the health board acted illegally. There is reason to believe that Ms Watt was assisted by a professional organisation of homeopathy ( the judgement mentions that the Board’s submission stated that ‘the real force behind the petition was a charity, not the petitioner’).

In any case, Watt’s legal team claimed the Equality Act 2010 placed an obligation on the health board to ask their patients for their views on whether homeopathy should be continued to be funded. The legislation states that public sector organisations have an obligation to consider their decisions on the terms of what is called a public sector equality duty.

The case went to court and the judge, Lord Uist, recently ruled that the health board had acted legally. He therefore refused to overturn the board’s original decision. In a written judgement issued on Friday, Lord Uist confirmed that the health board acted correctly: “It is clear to me from an examination of the relevant documents that the board was from the outset consciously focusing on its PSED.”

The judgement explains that Ms Watt was first referred to the homeopathic service in 2003 when she was suffering from anxiety. Later, she was given a homeopathic medicine for her arthritis after telling her doctor that conventional medicine wasn’t controlling her problems with this condition. In January 2014, she had a final appointment with the homeopathic service and told that she was no longer entitled to homeopathic treatment. However, the judgement states that Ms Watt still receives a prescription of homeopathic medicine.

Lothian Health Board decided to end homeopathic provision after concluding the money would be better spent on conventional treatments. The board made the decision after holding a consultation exercise and concluding that only few NHS users would be affected by their decision. In a report, the reasons for why the board should stop spending money on homeopthy were set out.

Judge Uist confirmed that this report “stated that the withdrawal of funding for homeopathic services would have a limited negative impact on patients and staff, the majority of patients were from more affluent areas and it was felt that they could perhaps afford to self fund alternative provision.”

Ms Watt’s lawyers claimed that the board didn’t do enough to seek the views of those who used the service. They argued that the board broke the terms of the 2010 Equality Act. After examining the evidence, Judge Uist  concluded, however, that the health board had done everything in its power and had made the correct decision: “I am satisfied that reduction of the board’s decision of June 26 2013 would result only in a waste of time and public funds as it would inevitably result in exactly the same decision being taken by the board.”

From my perspective, this is an important decision. As a physician, I naturally dislike not giving patients what they want. However, I dislike it even more when there is not enough money for other patients to have essential treatments. Thus it is obvious that harsh decisions have to be made in order to spend the available funds as rationally as possible – and that, of course, means that treatments for which there is no good evidence must not be funded from public money. Homeopathy clearly falls in that category.

As I am not a lawyer, I see this case with the eyes of a medic and researcher. For me, it is about the age-old question: should patients get the treatment they want or the treatment they need? For me, health care is not a supermarket where people can their trolleys with everything they happen to fancy. For me, health care is not about satisfying the ‘wants’; it is about coping with the needs of people. For me, this is a question of medical ethics. For me, the Scottish judgement is spot on.

Medical ethics comprise a set of rules and principles which are essential for all aspects of medicine, including of course research. The main issues are:

  • Respect for autonomy – patients must have the right to refuse or choose their treatments.
  • Beneficence – researchers and clinicians must act in the best interest of the patient.
  • Non-maleficence – the expected benefits of interventions must outweigh their risks.
  • Justice – the distribution of health resources must be fair.
  • Respect for persons – patients must be treated with dignity.
  • Truthfulness and honesty – informed consent is an essential element in research and clinical practice.

While all of this has long been fairly standard in conventional health care, it is often neglected in alternative medicine. It is therefore timely to ask, how much of research in the realm of alternative medicine abides by the rules of medical ethics?

After more than two decades of involvement in this sector, I have serious and growing concerns. The subject is, of course complex, but the way I see it, in alternative medicine there are two main areas where medical ethics are violated with some regularity.

  1. Nonsensical research projects
  2. Lack of informed consent


At best, nonsensical research is a waste of precious resources, at worst it violates the beneficence principle. In alternative medicine, nonsensical research seems to happen ad nauseam. Regular readers of this blog will have seen plenty of examples of such abuse – for instance, if researchers conduct a clinical trial of chiropractic spinal manipulation for improving the singing voices of choir singers, or homeopaths test whether their remedies enhance female fertility. Often, nonsensical research happens when naïve enthusiasts decide to dabble a bit in science in order to promote their trade – but without realising that research would require a minimum of education.

But there are other occasions when it seems that the investigators know only too well what they are doing. Take for instance the plethora of ‘pragmatic’ trials which are currently so much ‘en vogue’ in alternative medicine. They can be designed in such a way that their results must produce what the researchers intended to show; the ‘A+B versus B’ study design is a prominent and obvious example of this type of abuse which I have repeatedly written about on this blog.

I use the term ‘abuse’ intentionally, because that is precisely what it is, in my view. Nonsensical research abuses the willingness of patients to participate by misleading them that it is a worthwhile sacrifice. In reality it is an unethical attempt to generate findings that can mislead us all. Moreover, it gives science a bad name and can lead to patients’ unwillingness to take part in research that does need doing. The damage done by nonsensical research projects is therefore immeasurable.


Informed consent is essential in research for protecting the interests of the volunteering patients. When a clinical trial is first conceived, the researchers need to work out all the details, write a protocol and submit it to their ethics committee. Their submission has to give evidence that all the participating patients have given informed consent in writing before they are enrolled into the study. That means, they have to be told the essential details about what might happen to them during the trial.

In a placebo-controlled trial of homeopathy, for instance, they might be told that they will receive either a homeopathic remedy or a placebo during the study period. They might also be informed that there is some encouraging evidence that the former works, and that the trial is designed to define to what extend this is so. Generating this knowledge, they might further be told, will help future patients and will be an important contribution to improving health care. Based on such phraseology, the ethics committee is likely to allow the study to go ahead, and patients are likely to agree to take part.

But, of course, this information is less than truthful. An honest and full information for patients would need to include the following points:

  • you will receive either a homeopathic remedy or a placebo,
  • the former contains no active molecules and the totality of the most reliable evidence does not show that it works for your condition,
  • this means that you will receive either a homeopathic or a conventional placebo,
  • neither of these can possibly help your condition,
  • the study can therefore not advance our knowledge in any way,
  • during the trial your condition will remain untreated which is likely to increase your suffering unnecessarily.

If any research team would truthfully disclose this information, no ethics committee would pass their protocol. If by some weird mistake they did, no patients would volunteer to participate in the study.

I have chosen here the example of homeopathy (because most readers will understand it quite easily), but I could have used almost any other alternative treatment. The issues are identical or very similar: informed consent is usually misinformed consent. If it were fully and truthfully informed, it would neither pass the hurdle of the essential ethics approval nor would it lend itself to recruiting sufficiently large numbers of patients.


There are, I think, very serious concerns about the ethical standards in alternative medicine research. I have been banging on about these issues since many years (for instance here and here and here and here). Predictably, this did not find much resonance in the realm of alternative medicine. Regrettably, very few ethicists have so far taken this subject seriously; they seem to feel that these problems are trivial compared to the important issues medical ethics face in conventional health care. I remain unconvinced that this is true and believe it is high time to systematically address the ethics of alternative medicine.

1 2 3 11
Recent Comments

Note that comments can now be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted.

Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.