Edzard Ernst

MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

The UK Royal Pharmaceutical Society have published a quick reference guide on homeopathy. In it, they make the following 5 ‘key points’:

  • The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment because there is no scientific basis for homeopathy nor any evidence to support the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products beyond a placebo effect.
  • The RPS does not support the prescribing of homeopathic products on the NHS.
  • Pharmacists should ensure, wherever possible, that patients do not stop taking their prescribed conventional medication, if they are taking or are considering taking a homeopathic product.
  • Pharmacists must be aware that patients requesting homeopathic products may have serious underlying undiagnosed medical conditions which may require referral to another healthcare professional.
  • Pharmacists must advise patients considering a homeopathic product about their lack of efficacy beyond that of a placebo.

This publication is a few months old, but I only saw it recently. It could not be clearer and it is much more to the point than the General Pharmaceutical Council’s ‘Standards for Pharmacy Professionals‘ which state:

People receive safe and effective care when pharmacy professionals reflect on the application of their knowledge and skills and keep them up-to-date, including using evidence in their decision making. A pharmacy professional’s knowledge and skills must develop over the course of their career to reflect the changing nature of healthcare, the population they provide care to and the roles they carry out. There are a number of ways to meet this standard and below are examples of the attitudes and behaviours expected.

People receive safe and effective care when pharmacy professionals:

  • recognise and work within the limits of their knowledge and skills, and refer to others when needed
  • use their skills and knowledge, including up-to-date evidence, to deliver care and improve the quality of care they provide
  • carry out a range of continuing professional development (CPD) activities relevant to their practice
  • record their development activities to demonstrate that their knowledge and skills are up to date
  • use a variety of methods to regularly monitor and reflect on their practice, skills and knowledge

The two statements together should suffice to finally get some sense into UK pharmacies when it comes to the sale of homeopathic remedies. What is needed now, I think, is an (under-cover?) investigation to see how many UK community pharmacists abide by this guidance.

If anyone has the means to conduct it, I would be delighted to advise them on the best methodology.

I remember reading this paper entitled ‘Comparison of acupuncture and other drugs for chronic constipation: A network meta-analysis’ when it first came out. I considered discussing it on my blog, but then decided against it for a range of reasons which I shall explain below. The abstract of the original meta-analysis is copied below:

The objective of this study was to compare the efficacy and side effects of acupuncture, sham acupuncture and drugs in the treatment of chronic constipation. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the effects of acupuncture and drugs for chronic constipation were comprehensively retrieved from electronic databases (such as PubMed, Cochrane Library, Embase, CNKI, Wanfang Database, VIP Database and CBM) up to December 2017. Additional references were obtained from review articles. With quality evaluations and data extraction, a network meta-analysis (NMA) was performed using a random-effects model under a frequentist framework. A total of 40 studies (n = 11032) were included: 39 were high-quality studies and 1 was a low-quality study. NMA showed that (1) acupuncture improved the symptoms of chronic constipation more effectively than drugs; (2) the ranking of treatments in terms of efficacy in diarrhoea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome was acupuncture, polyethylene glycol, lactulose, linaclotide, lubiprostone, bisacodyl, prucalopride, sham acupuncture, tegaserod, and placebo; (3) the ranking of side effects were as follows: lactulose, lubiprostone, bisacodyl, polyethylene glycol, prucalopride, linaclotide, placebo and tegaserod; and (4) the most commonly used acupuncture point for chronic constipation was ST25. Acupuncture is more effective than drugs in improving chronic constipation and has the least side effects. In the future, large-scale randomized controlled trials are needed to prove this. Sham acupuncture may have curative effects that are greater than the placebo effect. In the future, it is necessary to perform high-quality studies to support this finding. Polyethylene glycol also has acceptable curative effects with fewer side effects than other drugs.

END OF 1st QUOTE

This meta-analysis has now been retracted. Here is what the journal editors have to say about the retraction:

After publication of this article [1], concerns were raised about the scientific validity of the meta-analysis and whether it provided a rigorous and accurate assessment of published clinical studies on the efficacy of acupuncture or drug-based interventions for improving chronic constipation. The PLOS ONE Editors re-assessed the article in collaboration with a member of our Editorial Board and noted several concerns including the following:

  • Acupuncture and related terms are not mentioned in the literature search terms, there are no listed inclusion or exclusion criteria related to acupuncture, and the outcome measures were not clearly defined in terms of reproducible clinical measures.
  • The study included acupuncture and electroacupuncture studies, though this was not clearly discussed or reported in the Title, Methods, or Results.
  • In the “Routine paired meta-analysis” section, both acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups were reported as showing improvement in symptoms compared with placebo. This finding and its implications for the conclusions of the article were not discussed clearly.
  • Several included studies did not meet the reported inclusion criteria requiring that studies use adult participants and assess treatments of >2 weeks in duration.
  • Data extraction errors were identified by comparing the dataset used in the meta-analysis (S1 Table) with details reported in the original research articles. Errors included aspects of the study design such as the experimental groups included in the study, the number of study arms in the trial, number of participants, and treatment duration. There are also several errors in the Reference list.
  • With regard to side effects, 22 out of 40 studies were noted as having reported side effects. It was not made clear whether side effects were assessed as outcome measures for the other 18 studies, i.e. did the authors collect data clarifying that there were no side effects or was this outcome measure not assessed or reported in the original article. Without this clarification the conclusion comparing side effect frequencies is not well supported.
  • The network geometry presented in Fig 5 is not correct and misrepresents some of the study designs, for example showing two-arm studies as three-arm studies.
  • The overall results of the meta-analysis are strongly reliant on the evidence comparing acupuncture versus lactulose treatment. Several of the trials that assessed this comparison were poorly reported, and the meta-analysis dataset pertaining to these trials contained data extraction errors. Furthermore, potential bias in studies assessing lactulose efficacy in acupuncture trials versus lactulose efficacy in other trials was not sufficiently addressed.

While some of the above issues could be addressed with additional clarifications and corrections to the text, the concerns about study inclusion, the accuracy with which the primary studies’ research designs and data were represented in the meta-analysis, and the reporting quality of included studies directly impact the validity and accuracy of the dataset underlying the meta-analysis. As a consequence, we consider that the overall conclusions of the study are not reliable. In light of these issues, the PLOS ONE Editors retract the article. We apologize that these issues were not adequately addressed during pre-publication peer review.

LZ disagreed with the retraction. YM and XD did not respond.

END OF 2nd QUOTE

Let me start by explaining why I initially decided not to discuss this paper on my blog. Already the first sentence of the abstract put me off, and an entire chorus of alarm-bells started ringing once I read further.

  • A meta-analysis is not a ‘study’ in my book, and I am somewhat weary of researchers who employ odd or unprecise language.
  • We all know (and I have discussed it repeatedly) that studies of acupuncture frequently fail to report adverse effects (in doing this, their authors violate research ethics!). So, how can it be a credible aim of a meta-analysis to compare side-effects in the absence of adequate reporting?
  • The methodology of a network meta-analysis is complex and I know not a lot about it.
  • Several things seemed ‘too good to be true’, for instance, the funnel-plot and the overall finding that acupuncture is the best of all therapeutic options.
  • Looking at the references, I quickly confirmed my suspicion that most of the primary studies were in Chinese.

In retrospect, I am glad I did not tackle the task of criticising this paper; I would probably have made not nearly such a good job of it as PLOS ONE eventually did. But it was only after someone raised concerns that the paper was re-reviewed and all the defects outlined above came to light.

While some of my concerns listed above may have been trivial, my last point is the one that troubles me a lot. As it also related to dozens of Cochrane reviews which currently come out of China, it is worth our attention, I think. The problem, as I see it, is as follows:

  • Chinese (acupuncture, TCM and perhaps also other) trials are almost invariably reporting positive findings, as we have discussed ad nauseam on this blog.
  • Data fabrication seems to be rife in China.
  • This means that there is good reason to be suspicious of such trials.
  • Many of the reviews that currently flood the literature are based predominantly on primary studies published in Chinese.
  • Unless one is able to read Chinese, there is no way of evaluating these papers.
  • Therefore reviewers of journal submissions tend to rely on what the Chinese review authors write about the primary studies.
  • As data fabrication seems to be rife in China, this trust might often not be justified.
  • At the same time, Chinese researchers are VERY keen to publish in top Western journals (this is considered a great boost to their career).
  • The consequence of all this is that reviews of this nature might be misleading, even if they are published in top journals.

I have been struggling with this problem for many years and have tried my best to alert people to it. However, it does not seem that my efforts had even the slightest success. The stream of such reviews has only increased and is now a true worry (at least for me). My suspicion – and I stress that it is merely that – is that, if one would rigorously re-evaluate these reviews, their majority would need to be retracted just as the above paper. That would mean that hundreds of papers would disappear because they are misleading, a thought that should give everyone interested in reliable evidence sleepless nights!

So, what can be done?

Personally, I now distrust all of these papers, but I admit, that is not a good, constructive solution. It would be better if Journal editors (including, of course, those at the Cochrane Collaboration) would allocate such submissions to reviewers who:

  • are demonstrably able to conduct a CRITICAL analysis of the paper in question,
  • can read Chinese,
  • have no conflicts of interest.

In the case of an acupuncture review, this would narrow it down to perhaps just a handful of experts worldwide. This probably means that my suggestion is simply not feasible.

But what other choice do we have?

One could oblige the authors of all submissions to include full and authorised English translations of non-English articles. I think this might work, but it is, of course, tedious and expensive. In view of the size of the problem (I estimate that there must be around 1 000 reviews out there to which the problem applies), I do not see a better solution.

(I would truly be thankful, if someone had a better one and would tell us)

For years, Margaret McCartney, a GP from Scotland, wrote a weekly column in the BMJ. It was invariably well-worth reading. Recently, she regrettably ended it by publishing her last article entitled  A summary of four and a half years of columns in one column. In it, she makes 36 short points. They are all poignant, but the one that made me think most (probably because it is relevant to my work and this blog) reads as follows:

Many people seek to make money from those who don’t understand science. Doctors should call out bollocksology when they see it.

On this blog, I have often discussed people who make money from consumers and patients who are unable to detect the quackery they are being sold. No doubt, the most famous case of me doing this was when, in 2009, I criticised Prince Charles and his ‘Dodgy Originals Detox Tincture’. It made many headlines; the BBC, for instance, reported:

Edzard Ernst, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, said the Duchy Originals detox tincture was based on “outright quackery”.

There was no scientific evidence to show that detox products work, he said.

Duchy Originals says the product is a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes”.

But Professor Ernst of Peninsula Medical School said Prince Charles and his advisers appeared to be deliberately ignoring science, preferring “to rely on ‘make-believe’ and superstition”.

He added: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.”

Marketed as Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, the artichoke and dandelion mix is described as “a food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”.

It costs £10 for a 50ml bottle…

At the time, I got a right blocking from my dean, Prof John Tooke, for my audacity. As far as I could see, there was almost no support from the UK medical profession. Since then, the exploitation of the public by quacks has not diminished; on the contrary, I have the feeling that it is thriving. And are doctors calling out bollocksology left right and centre? No, they are not!

Of course, some do occasionally raise their voices (and some do it even regularly). But mostly, it is the group of non-medical sceptics who open their mouths and try their best to prevent harm. Yet, I wholly agree with my friend Margret: doctors have a responsibility and must do more.

And why don’t they?

I think, there are several reasons for their inactivity:

  • doctors are frightfully busy,
  • doctors often don’t know how much bollocksology is out there,
  • doctors don’t (want to) see how dangerous much of this bollocksology is,
  • doctors fail to realise that it would be their ethical responsibility to speak out against bollocksology,
  • some doctors do not seem to understand science either,
  • some doctors are active bollocksologists themselves,
  • some doctors simply don’t care.

This clearly is a depressing state of affairs! But, at the same time, it also is a cheerful occasion for me to thank all those doctors who are the laudable exceptions, who do care, who do think critically, who see their ethical responsibility, and who do something about the never-ending flood of bollocksology endangering their patients’ health and wealth.

Some homeopaths claim that there is anecdotal support for the use of the homeopathic medicine Arsenicum album in preventing post-vaccination fever. As far as I know, the claim has not been tested in clinical trials. This study was aimed at evaluating the efficacy of this approach in preventing febrile episodes following vaccination.

In the community medicine out-patient of Mahesh Bhattacharyya Homoeopathic Medical College and Hospital, West Bengal, a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial was conducted on 120 children. All of them presented for the 2nd and 3rd dose of DPT-HepB-Polio vaccination and reported febrile episodes following the 1st dose. They were treated with Arsenicum album 30cH 6 doses or placebo (indistinguishable from verum), thrice daily for two subsequent days. Parents were advised to report any event of febrile attacks within 48h of vaccination.

The groups were comparable at baseline. Children reporting fever after the 2nd dose was 29.8% and 30.4% respectively for the homeopathy group and control group respectively [Relative Risk (RR)=1.008] with no significant difference (P=0.951) between groups. After the 3rd dose, children reporting fever were 31.5% and 28.3% respectively for the homeopathy group and control group respectively (RR=0.956) with no significant difference (P=0.719) between groups.

The authors concluded that empirically selected Arsenicum album 30cH could not produce differentiable effect from placebo in preventing febrile episodes following DPT-HepB-Polio vaccination.

I can hear it now, the chorus of homeopaths:

  • this is part of a conspiracy against homeopathy,
  • the authors of this study display an anti-homeopathy bias,
  • this study did not closely follow the principles of homeopathy,
  • it lacked the input by experience homeopaths,
  • no homeopath worth his money would use Arsenicum album 30cH for this purpose,
  • no homeopath in his right mind would employ 6 doses thrice daily for two subsequent days,
  • etc., etc.

Well guys, I have to disappoint you: the authors of this paper have the following affiliations:

  • Dept. of Pathology and Microbiology, Mahesh Bhattacharyya Homoeopathic Medical College and Hospital, Govt. of West Bengal
  • Dept. of Community Medicine, Mahesh Bhattacharyya Homoeopathic Medical College and Hospital, Govt. of West Bengal
  • Mahesh Bhattacharyya Homoeopathic Medical College and Hospital, Govt. of West Bengal
  • National Institute of Homoeopathy, Ministry of AYUSH, Govt. of India
  • Central Council of Homoeopathy, Vill, Champsara

So, perhaps it’s true: highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos.

 

In previous posts, I have been scathing about chiropractors (DCs) treating children; for instance here:

  • Despite calling themselves ‘doctors’, they are nothing of the sort.
  • DCs are not adequately educated or trained to treat children.
  • They nevertheless often do so, presumably because this constitutes a significant part of their income.
  • Even if they felt confident to be adequately trained, we need to remember that their therapeutic repertoire is wholly useless for treating sick children effectively and responsibly.
  • Therefore, harm to children is almost inevitable.
  • To this, we must add the risk of incompetent advice from DCs – just think of immunisations.

Now we have more data on this subject. This new study investigated the effectiveness of adding manipulative therapy to other conservative care for spinal pain in a school-based cohort of Danish children aged 9–15 years.

The design was a two-arm pragmatic randomised controlled trial, nested in a longitudinal open cohort study in Danish public schools. 238 children from 13 public schools were included. A text message system and clinical examinations were used for data collection. Interventions included either (1) advice, exercises and soft-tissue treatment or (2) advice, exercises and soft-tissue treatment plus manipulative therapy. The primary outcome was number of recurrences of spinal pain. Secondary outcomes were duration of spinal pain, change in pain intensity and Global Perceived Effect.

No significant difference was found between groups in the primary outcomes of the control group and intervention group. Children in the group receiving manipulative therapy reported a higher Global Perceived Effect. No adverse events were reported.

The authors – well-known proponents of chiropractic (who declared no conflicts of interest) – concluded that adding manipulative therapy to other conservative care in school children with spinal pain did not result in fewer recurrent episodes. The choice of treatment—if any—for spinal pain in children therefore relies on personal preferences, and could include conservative care with and without manipulative therapy. Participants in this trial may differ from a normal care-seeking population.

The study seems fine, but what a conclusion!!!

After demonstrating that chiropractic manipulation is useless, the authors state that the treatment of kids with back pain could include conservative care with and without manipulative therapy. This is more than a little odd, in my view, and seems to suggest that chiropractors live on a different planet from those of us who can think rationally.

 

The indefatigable Robert Mathie has published another systematic review/meta-analysis, and yet again he failed to come up with a convincingly positive result. This new paper reviews randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of individualised homeopathic treatment (IHT) in which the control (comparator) group was other than placebo (OTP). Its stated aim was to determine the comparative effectiveness of IHT on health-related outcomes in adults and children for any clinical condition that has been the subject of at least one OTP-controlled trial. 

For each eligible trial, published in the peer-reviewed literature up to the end of 2015, the authors assessed its risk of bias (internal validity) using the Cochrane tool, and its relative pragmatic or explanatory attitude (external validity) using the 10-domain PRECIS tool. All RCTs were categorised according to whether they examined IHT as an alternative treatment (study design Ia), adjunctively with another intervention (design Ib), or compared with a no-intervention group (design II). For each RCT, the researchers identified a ‘main outcome measure’ to use in meta-analysis: ‘relative effect size’ was reported as odds ratio (OR; values >1 favouring homeopathy) or standardised mean difference (SMD; values < 0 favouring homeopathy).

Eleven RCTs, representing 11 different medical conditions, were eligible for inclusion in this systematic review. Five of the RCTs (four of which in design Ib) were judged to have pragmatic study attitude, two were explanatory, and four were equally pragmatic and explanatory. Ten trials were rated ‘high risk of bias’ overall: one of these, a pragmatic study with design Ib, had high risk of bias solely regarding participant blinding (a bias that is intrinsic to such trials); the other trial was rated ‘uncertain risk of bias’ overall. Eight trials had data that were extractable for meta-analysis: for 4 heterogeneous trials with design Ia, the pooled OR was statistically non-significant; collectively for three clinically heterogeneous trials with design Ib, there was a statistically significant SMD favouring adjunctive IHT; in the remaining trial of design 1a, IHT was non-inferior to fluoxetine in the treatment of depression.

The authors concluded that due to the low quality, the small number and the heterogeneity of studies, the current data preclude a decisive conclusion about the comparative effectiveness of IHT. Generalisability of findings is limited by the variable external validity identified overall; the most pragmatic study attitude was associated with RCTs of adjunctive IHT. Future OTP-controlled trials in homeopathy should aim, as far as possible, to promote both internal validity and external validity.

Considering that almost all of the authors are known proponents of homeopathy – Mathie himself is employed by the London-based ‘Homeopathy Research Institute’ – one has to applaud their rigour and enthusiasm in publishing negative findings about their trade. But why so complicated? I would have thought that a much simpler conclusion would have been clearer: THESE ANALYSES FAILED TO GENERATE EVIDENCE TO SUGGEST THAT HOMEOPATHY IS EFFECTIVE.

 

“Physiotherapy generally offers a highly science based approach to clinical practice.” This was a recent comment by someone (I presume a physiotherapist) on this blog. It got me thinking – is it true or false? I am in no position to review the entire field of physiotherapy in a blog post. What I will do instead, is list a few alternative therapies often used by physiotherapists.

  1. Acupuncture: many physiotherapists seem to love acupuncture. In the UK, for example, they have their own organisations. The AACP is the largest professional body for acupuncture in the UK with a membership of around 6000 chartered physiotherapists, practising medical acupuncture. They state that there is an increasing number of research publications in the UK and worldwide proving the treatment effectiveness of acupuncture when compared to (chemical) medication for example.
  2. Applied kinesiology: some physiotherapists offer applied kinesiology. This clinic, for instance, states that applied Kinesiology combines a system of muscle tests with acupuncture, reflex points emotion and nutrition to find any imbalances present in the whole person.
  3. Bowen technique: many physiotherapists use the Bowen technique. This practice advertises it as follows. If you’re looking for a way to treat tightness in your upper back, neck or shoulders or are suffering from respiratory pain or headaches, The Bowen Technique could be the answer you’re searching for. Achieving all these things as well as being a great way to treat sports injuries and enhance sporting performance, this therapy also promotes emotional wellbeing. A non-invasive therapy, it is equally suited for the treatment of acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) conditions.
  4. Craniosacral therapy: some physios also employ craniosacral therapy. Here is an example. Craniosacral therapy as experienced by thousands of babies and people all around the country, has a proven track record at easing and relieving what makes babies upset. If your baby suffers from:
    • Colic
    • Wind
    • Digestive issues
    • Reflux
    • Unsettledness
    • Sleep problems
    • Ongoing crying
    • Difficulty with breast feeding/latch/suck
    • Other problems

    then call…

  5. Cupping: One physio writes this about cupping. It was good to see the public (Western cultures) exposed more to cupping therapy practice thanks to the recent Olympics in Rio 2016. Last Olympics in London 2012,  the Chinese and Japanese Athletes, amongst neighbouring nations, were readily seen to use and advocate the practice, along with the approval no doubt of their large team of Medical and Physiotherapy related support staff. This time however it has bridged to divide to Western World Athletes, such as Michael Phelps (he of 23 Olympic Golds fame). This advocacy of the practice and again the presumed support from his Medical and Sports science entourage with team USA, is a good barometer of the progress and acceptance within Western Medicine, for Cupping Therapy.
  6. Massage therapy: in many countries, massage and related techniques therapy always have been an integral part of physiotherapy.
  7. Feldenkrais method: The same applies to The Feldenkrais Method® is based on principles of physics, biomechanics, neuroscience, and the study of human motor development. Feldenkrais recognized the capability of the human brain to learn and relearn at any age – neuroplasticity. The method utilizes slow, gentle movements, and awareness of subtle differences to optimize learning, improve movement, and make changes in the brain.
  8. Kinesiology tape: If you have suffered an injury or illness that causes a problem with your functional mobility or normal activity, you may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist to help you return to your previous level of mobility.  Your physical therapist may use various exercises and modalities to help treat your specific problem.
  9. Reflexology: Here is what the UK Chartered Society of Physiotherapists writes about reflexology: Developed centuries ago in countries such as China, Egypt and India, reflexology is often referred to as a ‘gentle’ and ‘holistic’ therapy that benefits both mind and body. It centres on the feet because these are said by practitioners to be a mirror, or topographical map, for the rest of the body. Manipulation of certain pressure, or reflex, points is claimed to have an effect on corresponding zones in the body. The impact, say reflexologists, extends throughout – to bones, muscles, organs, glands, circulatory and neural pathways. The head and hands can also be massaged in some cases. The treatment is perhaps best known for use in connection with relaxation and relief from stress, anxiety, pain, sleep disorders, headaches, migraine, menstrual and digestive problems. But advocates say it can be used to great effect far more widely, often in conjunction with other treatments…
  10. Spinal manipulation: Physiotherapists learn spinal manipulation as part of continuing education courses in Canada. The Orthopaedic Division of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association is responsible for the standards of education and supervises exams required to meet the standards of the International Federation of Manipulative Physiotherapists (IFOMPT). In many other countries, the situation is similar.

These 10 therapies have all been discussed on this blog before. They lack

  • plausibility or
  • proof of efficacy or
  • proof of safety or
  • all of the above

In other words, they are NOT highly science-based.

QED

It has been reported that the faculty of medicine of Lille unversity in France has suspended its degree in homeopathy for the 2018-19 academic year. The university announced its decision on Twitter, and the faculty of medicine’s dean, Didier Gosset, confirmed it to the AFP news agency: “It has to be said that we teach medicine based on proof – we insist on absolute scientific rigour – and it has to be said that homeopathy has not evolved in the same direction, that it is a doctrine that has remained on the margins of the scientific movement, that studies on homeopathy are rare, that they are not very substantial,” he explained. “Continuing to teach it would be to endorse it.”

The decision is, of course, long overdue and must be welcomed. Personally, however, I wonder why defenders of reason like Prof Gosset often employ such unclear lines of argument. Would it not be clearer to make (some of) these simple points?

  1. The assumptions on which homeopathy is based are obsolete and implausible.
  2. It is not that we do not understand homeopathy’s mode of action, but we understand that there cannot be one that does not fly in the face of science.
  3. The clinical evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are more than placebos.
  4. Homeopathy can cause significant harm, e. g. through neglect.
  5. Homeopathy costs millions which would be much better used for evidence-based treatments.
  6. The practice of homeopathy hinders progress and does not provide benefit for the public.
  7. Teaching homeopathy at university-level is unscientific, unethical and nonsensical.

The French are among the world’s largest consumers of homeopathic remedies. The French social security system does normally reimburse homeopathic therapy. A group of doctors challenged this situation in an open letter in Le Figaro newspaper in March 2018. They called practitioners of homeopathy and other alternative medicines “charlatans”, pointing to a 2017 report by the European Academies Science Advisory Council that stressed, like a plethora of previous reports, the “absence of proof of homeopathy’s efficacy”. They challenged the French medical council to stop allowing doctors to practice homeopathy and asked the social security system to stop paying for it. Subsequently, a group of French homeopaths filed a formal complaint with the medical council against the signatories of this letter.

France’s health ministry has asked France’s National Health Authority to prepare and publish a report on whether homeopathy works and should be paid for by the public purse. It is due to be delivered in February 2019.

WATCH THIS SPACE

Psoriasis is one of those conditions that is

  • chronic,
  • not curable,
  • irritating to the point where it reduces quality of life.

In other words, it is a disease for which virtually all alternative treatments on the planet are claimed to be effective. But which therapies do demonstrably alleviate the symptoms?

This review (published in JAMA Dermatology) compiled the evidence on the efficacy of the most studied complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) modalities for treatment of patients with plaque psoriasis and discusses those therapies with the most robust available evidence.

PubMed, Embase, and ClinicalTrials.gov searches (1950-2017) were used to identify all documented CAM psoriasis interventions in the literature. The criteria were further refined to focus on those treatments identified in the first step that had the highest level of evidence for plaque psoriasis with more than one randomized clinical trial (RCT) supporting their use. This excluded therapies lacking RCT data or showing consistent inefficacy.

A total of 457 articles were found, of which 107 articles were retrieved for closer examination. Of those articles, 54 were excluded because the CAM therapy did not have more than 1 RCT on the subject or showed consistent lack of efficacy. An additional 7 articles were found using references of the included studies, resulting in a total of 44 RCTs (17 double-blind, 13 single-blind, and 14 nonblind), 10 uncontrolled trials, 2 open-label nonrandomized controlled trials, 1 prospective controlled trial, and 3 meta-analyses.

Compared with placebo, application of topical indigo naturalis, studied in 5 RCTs with 215 participants, showed significant improvements in the treatment of psoriasis. Treatment with curcumin, examined in 3 RCTs (with a total of 118 participants), 1 nonrandomized controlled study, and 1 uncontrolled study, conferred statistically and clinically significant improvements in psoriasis plaques. Fish oil treatment was evaluated in 20 studies (12 RCTs, 1 open-label nonrandomized controlled trial, and 7 uncontrolled studies); most of the RCTs showed no significant improvement in psoriasis, whereas most of the uncontrolled studies showed benefit when fish oil was used daily. Meditation and guided imagery therapies were studied in 3 single-blind RCTs (with a total of 112 patients) and showed modest efficacy in treatment of psoriasis. One meta-analysis of 13 RCTs examined the association of acupuncture with improvement in psoriasis and showed significant improvement with acupuncture compared with placebo.

The authors concluded that CAM therapies with the most robust evidence of efficacy for treatment of psoriasis are indigo naturalis, curcumin, dietary modification, fish oil, meditation, and acupuncture. This review will aid practitioners in advising patients seeking unconventional approaches for treatment of psoriasis.

I am sorry to say so, but this review smells fishy! And not just because of the fish oil. But the fish oil data are a good case in point: the authors found 12 RCTs of fish oil. These details are provided by the review authors in relation to oral fish oil trials: Two double-blind RCTs (one of which evaluated EPA, 1.8g, and DHA, 1.2g, consumed daily for 12 weeks, and the other evaluated EPA, 3.6g, and DHA, 2.4g, consumed daily for 15 weeks) found evidence supporting the use of oral fish oil. One open-label RCT and 1 open-label non-randomized controlled trial also showed statistically significant benefit. Seven other RCTs found lack of efficacy for daily EPA (216mgto5.4g)or DHA (132mgto3.6g) treatment. The remainder of the data supporting efficacy of oral fish oil treatment were based on uncontrolled trials, of which 6 of the 7 studies found significant benefit of oral fish oil. This seems to support their conclusion. However, the authors also state that fish oil was not shown to be effective at several examined doses and duration. Confused? Yes, me too!

Even more confusing is their failure to mention a single trial of Mahonia aquifolium. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Dermatology included 5 RCTs of Mahonia aquifolium which, according to these authors, provided ‘limited support’ for its effectivenessHow could they miss that?

More importantly, how could the reviewers miss to conduct a proper evaluation of the quality of the studies they included in their review (even in their abstract, they twice speak of ‘robust evidence’ – but how can they without assessing its robustness? [quantity is not remotely the same as quality!!!]). Without a transparent evaluation of the rigour of the primary studies, any review is nearly worthless.

Take the 12 acupuncture trials, for instance, which the review authors included based not on an assessment of the studies but on a dodgy review published in a dodgy journal. Had they critically assessed the quality of the primary studies, they could have not stated that CAM therapies with the most robust evidence of efficacy for treatment of psoriasis …[include]… acupuncture. Instead they would have had to admit that these studies are too dubious for any firm conclusion. Had they even bothered to read them, they would have found that many are in Chinese (which would have meant they had to be excluded in their review [as many pseudo-systematic reviewers, the authors only considered English papers]).

There might be a lesson in all this – well, actually I can think of at least two:

  1. Systematic reviews might well be the ‘Rolls Royce’ of clinical evidence. But even a Rolls Royce needs to be assembled correctly, otherwise it is just a heap of useless material.
  2. Even top journals do occasionally publish poor-quality and thus misleading reviews.

Medline is the biggest electronic databank for articles published in medicine and related fields. It is therefore the most important source of information in this area. I use it regularly to monitor what new papers have been published in the various fields of alternative medicine.

As the number of Medline-listed papers dated 2018 on homeopathy has just reached 100, I thought it might be the moment to run a quick analysis on this material. The first thing to note is that it took until August for 100 articles dated 2018 to emerge. To explain how embarrassing this is, we need a few comparative figures. At the same moment (6/9/18), we have, for instance:

  • 126576 articles for surgery
  • 5001 articles or physiotherapy
  • 30215 articles for psychiatry
  • 60161 articles for pharmacology

Even compared to other types of alternative medicine, homeopathy is being dwarfed. Currently the figures are, for instance:

  • 2232 for herbal medicine
  • 1949 for dietary supplements
  • 1222 for acupuncture

This does not look as though homeopathy is a frightfully active area of research, if I may say so. Looking at the type of articles (yes, I did look at all the 100 papers and categorised them the best I could) published in homeopathy, things get even worse:

  • 29 were comments, letters, editorials, etc.
  • 16 were basic and pre-clinical papers,
  • 12 were non-systematic reviews,
  • 10 were surveys,
  • 7 were case-reports,
  • 5 were pilot or feasibility studies,
  • 5 were systematic reviews,
  • 5 were controlled clinical trials,
  • 2 were case series,
  • the rest of the articles was not on homeopathy at all.

I find this pretty depressing. Most of the 100 papers turn out to be no real research at all. Crucial topics are not being covered. There was, for example, not a single paper on the risks of homeopathy (no, don’t tell me it is harmless; it can and does regularly cost the lives of patients who trust the bogus claims of homeopaths). There was no article investigating the important question whether the practice of homeopathy does not violate the rules of medical ethics (think of informed consent or the imperative to do more harm than good). And a mere 5 clinical trials is just a dismal amount, in my view.

In a previous post, I have already shown that, in 2015, homeopathy research was deplorable. My new analysis suggests that the situation has become much worse. One might even go as far as asking whether 2018 might turn out to be the year when homeopathy research finally died a natural death.

PROGRESS AT LAST!!!

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