Edzard Ernst

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

Can I tempt you to run a little (hopefully instructive) thought-experiment with you? It is quite simple: I will tell you about the design of a clinical trial, and you will tell me what the likely outcome of this study would be.

Are you game?

Here we go:

_____________________________________________________________________________

Imagine we conduct a trial of acupuncture for persistent pain (any type of pain really). We want to find out whether acupuncture is more than a placebo when it comes to pain-control. Of course, we want our trial to look as rigorous as possible. So, we design it as a randomised, sham-controlled, partially-blinded study. To be really ‘cutting edge’, our study will not have two but three parallel groups:

1.       Standard needle acupuncture administered according to a protocol recommended by a team of expert acupuncturists.

2.       Minimally invasive sham-acupuncture employing shallow needle insertion using short needles at non-acupuncture points. Patients in groups 1 and 2 are blinded, i. e. they are not supposed to know whether they receive the sham or real acupuncture.

3.       No treatment at all.

We apply the treatments for a sufficiently long time, say 12 weeks. Before we start, after 6 and 12 weeks, we measure our patients’ pain with a validated method. We use sound statistical methods to compare the outcomes between the three groups.

WHAT DO YOU THINK THE RESULT WOULD BE?

You are not sure?

Well, let me give you some hints:

Group 3 is not going to do very well; not only do they receive no therapy at all, but they are also disappointed to have ended up in this group as they joined the study in the hope to get acupuncture. Therefore, they will (claim to) feel a lot of pain.

Group 2 will be pleased to receive some treatment. However, during the course of the 6 weeks, they will get more and more suspicious. As they were told during the process of obtaining informed consent that the trial entails treating some patients with a sham/placebo, they are bound to ask themselves whether they ended up in this group. They will see the short needles and the shallow needling, and a percentage of patients from this group will doubtlessly suspect that they are getting the sham treatment. The doubters will not show a powerful placebo response. Therefore, the average pain scores in this group will decrease – but only a little.

Group 3 will also be pleased to receive some treatment. As the therapists cannot be blinded, they will do their best to meet the high expectations of their patients. Consequently, they will benefit fully from the placebo effect of the intervention and the pain score of this group will decrease significantly.

So, now we can surely predict the most likely result of this trial without even conducting it. Assuming that acupuncture is a placebo-therapy, as many people do, we now see that group 3 will suffer the most pain. In comparison, groups 1 and 2 will show better outcomes.

Of course, the main question is, how do groups 1 and 2 compare to each other? After all, we designed our sham-controlled trial in order to answer exactly this issue: is acupuncture more than a placebo? As pointed out above, some patients in group 2 would have become suspicious and therefore would not have experienced the full placebo-response. This means that, provided the sample sizes are sufficiently large, there should be a significant difference between these two groups favouring real acupuncture over sham. In other words, our trial will conclude that acupuncture is better than placebo, even if acupuncture is a placebo.

THANK YOU FOR DOING THIS THOUGHT EXPERIMENT WITH ME.

Now I can tell you that it has a very real basis. The leading medical journal, JAMA, just published such a study and, to make matters worse, the trial was even sponsored by one of the most prestigious funding agencies: the NIH.

Here is the abstract:

___________________________________________________________________________

Musculoskeletal symptoms are the most common adverse effects of aromatase inhibitors and often result in therapy discontinuation. Small studies suggest that acupuncture may decrease aromatase inhibitor-related joint symptoms.

Objective:

To determine the effect of acupuncture in reducing aromatase inhibitor-related joint pain.

Design, Setting, and Patients:

Randomized clinical trial conducted at 11 academic centers and clinical sites in the United States from March 2012 to February 2017 (final date of follow-up, September 5, 2017). Eligible patients were postmenopausal women with early-stage breast cancer who were taking an aromatase inhibitor and scored at least 3 on the Brief Pain Inventory Worst Pain (BPI-WP) item (score range, 0-10; higher scores indicate greater pain).

Interventions:

Patients were randomized 2:1:1 to the true acupuncture (n = 110), sham acupuncture (n = 59), or waitlist control (n = 57) group. True acupuncture and sham acupuncture protocols consisted of 12 acupuncture sessions over 6 weeks (2 sessions per week), followed by 1 session per week for 6 weeks. The waitlist control group did not receive any intervention. All participants were offered 10 acupuncture sessions to be used between weeks 24 and 52.

Main Outcomes and Measures:

The primary end point was the 6-week BPI-WP score. Mean 6-week BPI-WP scores were compared by study group using linear regression, adjusted for baseline pain and stratification factors (clinically meaningful difference specified as 2 points).

Results:

Among 226 randomized patients (mean [SD] age, 60.7 [8.6] years; 88% white; mean [SD] baseline BPI-WP score, 6.6 [1.5]), 206 (91.1%) completed the trial. From baseline to 6 weeks, the mean observed BPI-WP score decreased by 2.05 points (reduced pain) in the true acupuncture group, by 1.07 points in the sham acupuncture group, and by 0.99 points in the waitlist control group. The adjusted difference for true acupuncture vs sham acupuncture was 0.92 points (95% CI, 0.20-1.65; P = .01) and for true acupuncture vs waitlist control was 0.96 points (95% CI, 0.24-1.67; P = .01). Patients in the true acupuncture group experienced more grade 1 bruising compared with patients in the sham acupuncture group (47% vs 25%; P = .01).

Conclusions and Relevance:

Among postmenopausal women with early-stage breast cancer and aromatase inhibitor-related arthralgias, true acupuncture compared with sham acupuncture or with waitlist control resulted in a statistically significant reduction in joint pain at 6 weeks, although the observed improvement was of uncertain clinical importance.

__________________________________________________________________________

Do you see how easy it is to deceive (almost) everyone with a trial that looks rigorous to (almost) everyone?

My lesson from all this is as follows: whether consciously or unconsciously, SCAM-researchers often build into their trials more or less well-hidden little loopholes that ensure they generate a positive outcome. Thus even a placebo can appear to be effective. They are true masters of producing false-positive findings which later become part of a meta-analysis which is, of course, equally false-positive. It is a great shame, in my view, that even top journals (in the above case JAMA) and prestigious funders (in the above case the NIH) cannot (or want not to?) see behind this type of trickery.

The fact that many SCAM-practitioners are latent or even overt anti-vaxxers has often been addressed on this blog. The fact that the anti-vaccination guru, Andrew Wakefield, has his fingers deep in the SCAM-pie is less well appreciated.

In case you forgot who Wakefield is, let me remind you. As a gastroenterologist at the London Royal Free Hospital, he published evidence in the Lancet (1998) suggesting that the MMR vaccination was a cause of autism. It was discovered to be fraudulent. In 2010, a statutory tribunal of the GMC found three dozen charges proved, including 4 counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally delayed children. Consequently, he was struck off the register and lives in the US ever since where he, amongst many other things, enjoys lecturing to homeopaths and chiropractors about the dangers of vaccination.

Since Trump, who seems to share Wakefield’s anti-vaxx stance, has become president of the US, Wakefield has managed to creep back in the limelight. The Guardian recently reported: At one of President Trump’s inaugural balls in January last year, he was quoted as contemplating the overthrow of the (pro-vaccine) US medical establishment in words that brought to mind Trump himself. “What we need now is a huge shakeup at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – a huge shakeup. We need that to change dramatically.”

In the US, Wakefield also founded the ‘Autism Media Channel’ which makes videos alleging a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine. The film ‘Vaxxed’ was thus directed by Wakefield. It was put forward to premiere at the 2016 Tribeca film festival by Robert De Niro, the father of an autistic child. It alleges a cover-up of the alleged link between MMR and autism by the CDC – the institute Wakefield said needed a shake-up at the Trump inaugural ball. After much discussion, De Niro fortunately withdrew the film.

Wakefield’s private life has also seem significant changes. He is reported to have recently left his wife who had supported him throughout the debacle in the UK and is now ‘deliciously in love’ with the super-model and entrepreneur Elle Macpherson . Brian Burrowes, 48, who edited ‘Vaxxed’ was reported stating that he and Macpherson had begun dating after they were both guests at the ‘Doctors Who Rock‘ Awards in November last year. This event was to honour alternative medicine practitioners, with Macpherson handing out an award and Wakefield receiving one. Other awardees included Del Bigtree and Billy DeMoss DC.

Wakefield’s legacy in Europe is the recurrence of measles due to persistent doubts in vaccination safety. This regrettable phenomenon is fuelled by Wakefield’s multiple activities, including face-book, twitter and you-tube. Social media has provided an alternative to the “failings of mainstream media”, Wakefield was quoted in the Guardian saying – another phrase that could have come from a tweet by the US president himself. “In this country, it’s become so polarised now … No one knows quite what to believe,” Wakefield said. “So, people are turning increasingly to social media.”

And this is what I said about this strategy in today’s Times: “Such anti-vaccination propaganda is hugely harmful. It prompts many families to shun immunisations which means firstly they are unprotected, and secondly we as a people might lose herd immunity. The result is what we currently see throughout Europe: epidemics are threatening the lives of millions. It is in my view irresponsible for any institution to get involved in the anti-vaxx cult, particularly for universities who really should know better.”

We have previously seen that SCAM-use is associated with shorter survival of cancer patients. A new article now confirms this notion.

The investigators wanted to find out what patient characteristics are associated with use of SCAM for cancer and what is the association of SCAM with treatment adherence and survival. They thus  compared the overall survival between patients with cancer receiving conventional treatments with or without SCAM and the adherence to treatment and characteristics of patients in both groups.

Their retrospective observational study used data from the National Cancer Database on 1 901 815 patients from 1500 Commission on Cancer–accredited centers across the United States who were diagnosed with nonmetastatic breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer between January 1, 2004, and December 31, 2013. Patients were matched on age, clinical group stage, Charlson-Deyo comorbidity score, insurance type, race/ethnicity, year of diagnosis, and cancer type.  Overall survival, adherence to treatment, and patient characteristics were the study endpoints.

The cohort comprised 1 901 815 patients with cancer (258 patients in the SCAM group and 1 901 557 patients in the control group). In the main analyses following matching, 258 patients were in the SCAM group, and 1032 patients were in the control group. Patients who chose SCAM did not have a longer delay to initiation of conventional therapies, but had higher refusal rates of surgery, radiotherapy, and hormone therapy. Use of SCAM was associated with poorer 5-year overall survival compared with no SCAM (82.2% [95% CI, 76.0%-87.0%] vs 86.6% [95% CI, 84.0%-88.9%]; P = .001) and was independently associated with greater risk of death (hazard ratio, 2.08; 95% CI, 1.50-2.90) in a multivariate model that did not include treatment delay or refusal. However, there was no significant association between SCAM and survival once treatment delay or refusal was included in the model.

The authors concluded that patients who received CM were more likely to refuse additional CCT, and had a higher risk of death. The results suggest that mortality risk associated with CM was mediated by the refusal of CCT.

This new evidence confirms previous papers: SCAM-use is associated with shorter survival of cancer patients. As it is based on a large sample size, its results are more compelling. They indicate that it is not SCAM per se, but the attitude of SCAM-users to conventional therapies that is the cause of the effect. As I have said and written hundreds of times: the most serious risk of SCAM is not a direct but an indirect one: the risk of neglecting effective therapies. Essentially, this means that better information targeted at vulnerable patients must be the way forward (one of the main ambitions of this blog, I hasten to add).

“Non-reproducible single occurrences are of no significance to science”, this quote by Karl Popper often seems to get forgotten in medicine, particularly in alternative medicine. It indicates that findings have to be reproducible to be meaningful – if not, we cannot be sure that the outcome in question was caused by the treatment we applied.

This is thus a question of cause and effect.

The statistician Sir Austin Bradford Hill proposed in 1965 a set of 9 criteria to provide evidence of a relationship between a presumed cause and an observed effect while demonstrating the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. One of his criteria is consistency or reproducibility: Consistent findings observed by different persons in different places with different samples strengthens the likelihood of an effect.

By mentioning ‘different persons’, Hill seems to also establish the concept of INDEPENDENT replication.

Let me try to explain this with an example from the world of SCAM.

  1. A homeopath feels that childhood diarrhoea could perhaps be treated with individualised homeopathic remedies.  She conducts a trial, finds a positive result and concludes that the statistically significant decrease in the duration of diarrhea in the treatment group suggests that homeopathic treatment might be useful in acute childhood diarrhea. Further study of this treatment deserves consideration.
  2. Unsurprisingly, this study is met with disbelieve by many experts. Some go as far as doubting its validity, and several letters to the editor appear expressing criticism. The homeopath is thus motivated to run another trial to prove her point. Its results are consistent with the finding from the previous study that individualized homeopathic treatment decreases the duration of diarrhea and number of stools in children with acute childhood diarrhea.
  3. We now have a replication of the original finding. Yet, for a range of reasons, sceptics are far from satisfied. The homeopath thus runs a further trial and publishes a meta-analysis of all there studies. The combined analysis shows a duration of diarrhoea of 3.3 days in the homeopathy group compared with 4.1 in the placebo group (P = 0.008). She thus concludes that the results from these studies confirm that individualized homeopathic treatment decreases the duration of acute childhood diarrhea and suggest that larger sample sizes be used in future homeopathic research to ensure adequate statistical power. Homeopathy should be considered for use as an adjunct to oral rehydration for this illness.

To most homeopaths it seems that this body of evidence from three replication is sound and solid. Consequently, they frequently cite these publications as a cast-iron proof of their assumption that individualised homeopathy is effective. Sceptics, however, are still not convinced.

Why?

The studies have been replicated alright, but what is missing is an INDEPENDENT replication.

To me this word implies two things:

  1. The results have to be reproduced by another research group that is unconnected to the one that conducted the three previous studies.
  2. That group needs to be independent from any bias that might get in the way of conducting a rigorous trial.

And why do I think this latter point is important?

Simply because I know from many years of experience that a researcher, who strongly believes in homeopathy or any other subject in question, will inadvertently introduce all sorts of biases into a study, even if its design is seemingly rigorous. In the end, these flaws will not necessarily show in the published article which means that the public will be mislead. In other words, the paper will report a false-positive finding.

It is possible, even likely, that this has happened with the three trials mentioned above. The fact is that, as far as I know, there is no independent replication of these studies.

In the light of all this, Popper’s axiom as applied to medicine should perhaps be modified: findings without independent replication are of no significance. Or, to put it even more bluntly: independent replication is an essential self-cleansing process of science by which it rids itself from errors, fraud and misunderstandings.

Having yesterday been to a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event on MEDITATION in Cambridge (my home town since last year) I had to think about the subject quite a bit. As I have hardly covered this topic on my blog, I am today trying to briefly summarise my view on it.

The first thing that strikes me when looking at the evidence on meditation is that it is highly confusing. There seem to be:

  • a lack of clear definitions,
  • hundreds of studies, most of which are of poor or even very poor quality,
  • lots of people with ’emotional baggage’,
  • plenty of strange links to cults and religions,
  • dozens of different meditation methods and regimen,
  • unbelievable claims by enthusiasts,
  • lots of weirdly enthusiastic followers.

What was confirmed yesterday is the fact that, once we look at the reliable medical evidence, we are bound to find that the health claims of various meditation techniques are hugely exaggerated. There is almost no strong evidence to suggest that meditation does affect any condition. The small effects that do emerge from some meta-analyses could easily be due to residual bias and confounding; it is not possible to rigorously control for placebo effects in clinical trials of meditation.

Another thing that came out clearly yesterday is the fact that meditation might not be as risk-free as it is usually presented. Several cases of psychoses after meditation are on record; some of these are both severe and log-lasting. How often do they happen? Nobody knows! Like with most alternative therapies, there is no reporting system in place that could possibly give us anything like a reliable answer.

For me, however, the biggest danger with (certain forms of) meditation is not the risk of psychosis. It is the risk of getting sucked into a cult that then takes over the victim and more or less destroys his or her personality. I have seen this several times, and it is a truly frightening phenomenon.

In our now 10-year-old book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, we included a chapter on meditation. It concluded that “meditation appears to be safe for most people and those with sufficient motivation to practise regularly will probably find a relaxing experience. Evidence for effectiveness in any indication is week.” Even today, this is not far off the mark, I think. If I had to re-write it now, I would perhaps mention the potential for harm and also add that, as a therapy, the risk/benefit balance of meditation fails to be convincingly positive. 

PS

I highly recommend ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events to anyone who likes stimulating talks and critical thinking.

On this blog, we constantly discuss the shortcomings of clinical trials of (and other research into) alternative medicine. Yet, there can be no question that research into conventional medicine is often unreliable as well.

What might be the main reasons for this lamentable fact?

A recent BMJ article discussed 5 prominent reasons:

Firstly, much research fails to address questions that matter. For example, new drugs are tested against placebo rather than against usual treatments. Or the question may already have been answered, but the researchers haven’t undertaken a systematic review that would have told them the research was not needed. Or the research may use outcomes, perhaps surrogate measures, that are not useful.

Secondly, the methods of the studies may be inadequate. Many studies are too small, and more than half fail to deal adequately with bias. Studies are not replicated, and when people have tried to replicate studies they find that most do not have reproducible results.

Thirdly, research is not efficiently regulated and managed. Quality assurance systems fail to pick up the flaws in the research proposals. Or the bureaucracy involved in having research funded and approved may encourage researchers to conduct studies that are too small or too short term.

Fourthly, the research that is completed is not made fully accessible. Half of studies are never published at all, and there is a bias in what is published, meaning that treatments may seem to be more effective and safer than they actually are. Then not all outcome measures are reported, again with a bias towards those are positive.

Fifthly, published reports of research are often biased and unusable. In trials about a third of interventions are inadequately described meaning they cannot be implemented. Half of study outcomes are not reported.

END OF QUOTE

Apparently, these 5 issues are the reason why 85% of biomedical research is being wasted.

That is in CONVENTIONAL medicine, of course.

What about alternative medicine?

There is no question in my mind that the percentage figure must be even higher here. But do the same reasons apply? Let’s go through them again:

  1. Much research fails to address questions that matter. That is certainly true for alternative medicine – just think of the plethora of utterly useless surveys that are being published.
  2. The methods of the studies may be inadequate. Also true, as we have seen hundreds of time on this blog. Some of the most prevalent flaws include in my experience small sample sizes, lack of adequate controls (e.g. A+B vs B design) and misleading conclusions.
  3. Research is not efficiently regulated and managed. True, but probably not a specific feature of alternative medicine research.
  4. Research that is completed is not made fully accessible. most likely true but, due to lack of information and transparency, impossible to judge.
  5. Published reports of research are often biased and unusable. This is unquestionably a prominent feature of alternative medicine research.

All of this seems to indicate that the problems are very similar – similar but much more profound in the realm of alternative medicine, I’d say based on many years of experience (yes, what follows is opinion and not evidence because the latter is hardly available).

The thing is that, like almost any other job, research needs knowledge, skills, training, experience, integrity and impartiality to do it properly. It simply cannot be done well without such qualities. In alternative medicine, we do not have many individuals who have all or even most of these qualities. Instead, we have people who often are evangelic believers in alternative medicine, want to further their field by doing some research and therefore acquire a thin veneer of scientific expertise.

In my 25 years of experience in this area, I have not often seen researchers who knew that research is for testing hypotheses and not for trying to prove one’s hunches to be correct. In my own team, those who were the most enthusiastic about a particular therapy (and were thus seen as experts in its clinical application), were often the lousiest researchers who had the most difficulties coping with the scientific approach.

For me, this continues to be THE problem in alternative medicine research. The investigators – and some of them are now sufficiently skilled to bluff us to believe they are serious scientists – essentially start on the wrong foot. Because they never were properly trained and educated, they fail to appreciate how research proceeds. They hardly know how to properly establish a hypothesis, and – most crucially – they don’t know that, once that is done, you ought to conduct investigation after investigation to show that your hypothesis is incorrect. Only once all reasonable attempts to disprove it have failed, can your hypothesis be considered correct. These multiple attempts of disproving go entirely against the grain of an enthusiast who has plenty of emotional baggage and therefore cannot bring him/herself to honestly attempt to disprove his/her beloved hypothesis.

The plainly visible result of this situation is the fact that we have dozens of alternative medicine researchers who never publish a negative finding related to their pet therapy (some of them were admitted to what I call my HALL OF FAME on this blog, in case you want to verify this statement). And the lamentable consequence of all this is the fast-growing mountain of dangerously misleading (but often seemingly robust) articles about alternative treatments polluting Medline and other databases.

I have mentioned lymph drainage before. It is a gentle massage technique applied along the lymph vessels and nodes to stimulate lymph flow. All sorts of extraordinary claims are made for this treatment. In  particular, lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer, which can be a debilitating complication, is claimed to be preventable with this approach. This seems vaguely plausible, but does it really work?

This study tested whether manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) or active exercise (AE) are associated with improvements in shoulder range of motion (ROM), wound complication and changes in the lymphatic parameters after breast cancer (BC) surgery, and whether these parameters have an association with lymphoedema formation in the long run.

The researchers conducted a clinical trial with 106 women undergoing radical BC surgery. Women were matched for staging, age and body mass index and were allocated to AE or MLD, twice weekly during one month after surgery. The wound was evaluated two months after surgery. ROM, upper limb circumference measurement and upper limb lymphoscintigraphy were performed before surgery, and 2 and 30 months after surgery.

The incidence of seroma, dehiscence and infection did not differ between groups. Both groups showed ROM deficit of flexion and abduction in the second month postoperative and partial recovery after 30 months. Cumulative incidence of lymphoedema was 23.8% and did not differ between groups (p = 0.29). Concerning the lymphoscintigraphy parameters, there was a significant convergent trend between baseline degree uptake (p = 0.003) and velocity visualization of axillary lymph nodes (p = 0.001) with lymphoedema formation. A reduced marker uptake before or after surgery predicted lymphedema formation in the long run (>2 years). None of the lymphoscintigraphy parameters were shown to be associated with the study group. Age ≤39 years was the factor with the greatest association with lymphedema (p = 0.009). In women with age ≤39 years, BMI >24Kg/m2 was significantly associated with lymphedema (p = 0.017). In women over 39 years old, women treated with MLD were at a significantly higher risk of developing lymphedema (p = 0.011).

The authors concluded that lymphatic abnormalities precede lymphedema formation in BC patients. In younger women, obesity seems to be the major player in lymphedema development and, in older women, improving muscle strength through AE can prevent lymphedema. In essence, MLD is as safe and effective as AE in rehabilitation after breast cancer surgery.

I am not sure I agree with these conclusions; to me, they seem a bit over-optimistic. The results fail to show that MLD is clinically effective, as both AE and MLD might be equally ineffective. In fact, in the discussion section of the paper the authors state that their study suggests that AE may be more effective than MLD for the prevention of lymphedema in women older than 39 years.

So far, only very few controlled clinical trials tested the MLD effects in the prevention of lymphedema after  breast cancer. Some suggested that MLD administered early in the postoperative period can effectively prevent lymphedema, whereas others failed to find positive effects of MLD. Thus the question whether MLD is effective for lymphoedema after breast cancer remains open.

For once, the call for more and better research seems justified.

Doctor Jens Wurster is no stranger to this blog; previously I discussed his claim that he has treated more than 1000 cancer patients homeopathically and we could even cure or considerably ameliorate the quality of life for several years in some, advanced and metastasizing cases. So far, his claims were based not on evidence published in peer-reviewed journals (I cannot find a single Medline-listed paper by this man); but now Wurster has published an article in a German Journal (Wurster J. Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie … Deutsche Zeitschrift für Onkologie 2018; 50: 85–91; not Medline-listed, I am afraid). The paper is in German, but it has an English abstract; here it is:

____________________________________________________________________________

All over the world, oncology patients receive homeopathic treatment concomitant to conventional treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, in order to reduce the side effects of these therapies. It has been shown that cancer patients, who are receiving homeopathic treatment in addition to conventional therapies, have a higher quality of life and a longer survival rate. Studies in cancer cell research have shown the direct effects of highly potentized homeopathic medicines on tumor cell lines. Tumor inhibiting properties of homeopathic medicines have been proven in vivo as well as in vitro. Research projects into complementary medicine (CAMbrella) and research into personalized immunotherapies as well as additive homeopathy open the door to the future of integrative oncology.

_____________________________________________________________________________

In the article, Wurster states that he has 20 years of experience in treating cancer with homeopathy as an add-on to conventional care, and that he can confirm homeopathy’s effectiveness. He claims that ‘very many’ patients have thus benefitted by experiencing less side-effects of conventional treatments. And he offers two case-reports to illustrate this.

[Nach 20 Jahren klinischer Erfahrung in der Clinica St. Croce im Tessin mit der Behandlung onkologischer Patienten mithilfe der Homöopathie können wir deutlich den Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie in der Onkologie bestätigen [1]. So gelang es unserem Ärzteteam in den zurückliegenden Jahren bei sehr vielen Patienten, durch gezielten Einsatz homöopathischer Mittel die Nebenwirkungen von Chemotherapien oder Bestrahlungen erfolgreich zu reduzieren [1]. Wie dabei Schulmedizin und Homöopathie in der Praxis zusammenwirken, zeigt folgendes Beispiel. ([1] Wurster J. Die homöopathische Behandlung und Heilung von Krebs und metastasierten Tumoren. Norderstedt: Books on Demand; 2015)]

The two case-reports lack detail and are less than convincing, in my view. Both patients have had conventional therapies and Wurster claims that his homeopathic remedies reduced their side-effects. There is no way of verifying this claim, and the improvements might have occurred also without homeopathy.

In the discussion section of his paper, Wurster then elaborates that oncologists throughout Europe are now realising the potential of homeopathy. In support he mentions paediatric oncologists in Klagenfurt who managed to spare pain-killers by giving homeopathics. Similarly, at the Inselspital in Bern, they are offering homeopathic consultations to complement conventional treatments.

[Inzwischen haben auch einige Onkologen erkannt, wie eine gezielt eingesetzte homöopathische Behandlung die Nebenwirkungen von Chemotherapien oder Bestrahlungen reduzieren kann. Wir arbeiten inzwischen mit einigen Onkologen aus ganz Europa zusammen, die den Zusatznutzen der Homöopathie in der Onkologie erlebt haben. In der Kinderonkologie in Klagenfurt beispielsweise konnten mithilfe der Homöopathie Schmerzmittel bei den Kindern eingespart werden. Auch am Inselspital Bern werden zusätzliche homöopathische Konsile in der Kinderonkologie angeboten, um die konventionelle Behandlung begleiten zu können [8].]

At this point, Wurster inserts his reference number 8. As several of his references are either books or websites, this reference to an article in a top journal seems interesting. Here is its abstract:

___________________________________________________________________________________

BACKGROUND:

Though complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are frequently used by children and adolescents with cancer, there is little information on how and why they use it. This study examined prevalence and methods of CAM, the therapists who applied it, reasons for and against using CAM and its perceived effectiveness. Parent-perceived communication was also evaluated. Parents were asked if medical staff provided information on CAM to patients, if parents reported use of CAM to physicians, and what attitude they thought physicians had toward CAM.

STUDY DESIGN:

All childhood cancer patients treated at the University Children‘s Hospital Bern between 2002-2011 were retrospectively surveyed about their use of CAM.

RESULTS:

Data was collected from 133 patients (response rate: 52%). Of those, 53% had used CAM (mostly classical homeopathy) and 25% of patients received information about CAM from medical staff. Those diagnosed more recently were more likely to be informed about CAM options. The most frequent reason for choosing CAM was that parents thought it would improve the patient’s general condition. The most frequent reason for not using CAM was lack of information. Of those who used CAM, 87% perceived positive effects.

CONCLUSIONS:

Since many pediatric oncology patients use CAM, patients’ needs should be addressed by open communication between families, treating oncologists and CAM therapists, which will allow parents to make informed and safe choices about using CAM.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

Any hope that this paper might back up the statements made by Wurster is thus disappointed.

Altogether, this Wurster-paper contains no reliable evidence. The only clinical trial it seems to rely on is the one by Prof Frass which we have discussed previously here and here. The Frass-study is odd in several ways and, before we can take its results seriously, we need to see an independent replication of its findings. In this context, it is noteworthy that my own 2006 systematic review concluded that there is insufficient evidence to support clinical efficacy of homeopathic therapy in cancer care. In view of all this, I feel that the new Wurster-paper provides no reliable evidence and no reason to change my now somewhat dated conclusion of 2006. Moreover, I would insist that those who claim otherwise are unethical and behave irresponsible.

And finally, I need to reiterate what I stated in my previous post: the Wurster-paper indicates that something is amiss with medical publishing. How can it be that, in 2018, the ‘Deutsche Zeitschrift für Onkologie’ (or any other medical journal for that matter) can be so bar of critical thinking to publish such dangerously misleading nonsense? The editors of this journal (Univ.-Prof. Dr. med. Arndt Büssing, Witten/Herdecke; Dr. med. Peter Holzhauer, Bad Trissl und München) and its editorial board members (L. Auerbach, Wien; C. Bahne Bahnson, Kiel; J. Büntzel, Nordhausen; B. Freimüller-Kreutzer, Heidelberg; H.R. Maurer, Berlin; A. Mayr, Starnberg; R. Moss, New York; T. Ostermann, Witten/Herdecke; K. Prasad, Denver; G. Pulverer, Köln; H. Renner, Nürnberg; C.P. Siegers, Lübeck; W. Schmidt, Greifswald; G. Uhlenbruck, Köln; B. Wolf, München; K.S. Zänker, Witten/Herdecke) should ask themselves whether they are taking their moral obligations seriously enough, or whether their behaviour is not a violation of their most fundamental ethical duties.

In our book ‘MORE HARM THAN GOOD‘ we allude to such problems as follows: …Spurious results are frequently paraded by CAM advocates in support of implausible treatments… the more poorly conceived and executed a research project is, the more likely it is to produce false-positive results. These results then may lead to repetitive cycles of unproductive work to explain what was found—often to simply disprove the erroneous results. This is an unfortunate feature of various fields of scientific research, but it has particularly serious implications in medical research. Moreover, researchers who practice and behave as advocates of CAM may unintentionally or deliberately distort or exaggerate weak findings. Invalid CAM research claims tend not to be put to rest; instead they are repeatedly recycled…

And:

The CAM practitioner who promotes untruths has either failed to enlighten themselves as to the facts—this being a central requirement of professional ethics— or has chosen to deliberately deceive patients. Either of these reasons for promulgating falsehoods amounts to a serious breach in terms of virtue ethics. According to almost all forms of ethical theory, the truth-violating nature of CAM renders it immoral in both theory and practice.

The damage that can result from such violations of medical ethics is not merely a matter for the ‘ivory towers of academia’, it can virtually be a matter of life and death.

The two German authors start their article (it is in German but has an English abstract to which I refer here) by claiming that “homeopathy is steadily gaining in sympathy in the population.” This is a very odd statement, considering that the sales figures in Germany and elsewhere have, in fact, been declining. Any homeopathy-paper with such an opening is naturally of interest to me.

As I read on, I find further surprises: “the possible effectiveness and the modes of action are currently not scientifically elucidated.” These are two big assumptions which happen to be both untrue:

  1. The effectiveness of homeopathy has now been tested in about 500 clinical trials, and the totality of the reliable evidence from these studies fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are more than placebos.
  2. The mode of action of homeopathy isn’t “not scientifically elucidated“, but the relevant science tells us that there cannot be a mode of action that is in line with the laws of nature as we understand them today.

And the surprises keep on coming: “there is a whole series of positive evidence for the effects of homeopathic remedies for mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders and addiction.” This statement is not in keeping with the results of a systematic review (which, by the way was authored by ardent homeopaths); here is the abstract:

_________________________________________________________________________________________

OBJECTIVE:

To systematically review placebo-controlled randomized trials of homeopathy for psychiatric conditions.

DATA SOURCES:

Eligible studies were identified using the following databases from database inception to April 2010: PubMed, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Hom-Inform, Cochrane CENTRAL, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine grantee publications database, and ClinicalTrials.gov. Gray literature was also searched using Google, Google Scholar, the European Committee for Homeopathy, inquiries with homeopathic experts and manufacturers, and the bibliographic lists of included published studies and reviews. Search terms were as follows: (homeopath* or homoeopath*) and (placebo or sham) and (anxiety or panic or phobia or post-traumatic stress or PTSD or obsessive-compulsive disorder or fear or depress* or dysthym* or attention deficit hyperactivity or premenstrual syndrome or premenstrual disorder or premenstrual dysphoric disorder or traumatic brain injury or fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome or myalgic encephalitis or insomnia or sleep disturbance). Searches included only English-language literature that reported randomized controlled trials in humans.

STUDY SELECTION:

Trials were included if they met 7 criteria and were assessed for possible bias using the Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) 50 guidelines. Overall assessments were made using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation procedure. Identified studies were grouped into anxiety or stress, sleep or circadian rhythm complaints, premenstrual problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, mild traumatic brain injury, and functional somatic syndromes.

RESULTS:

Twenty-five eligible studies were identified from an initial pool of 1,431. Study quality according to SIGN 50 criteria varied, with 6 assessed as good, 9 as fair, and 10 as poor. Outcome was unrelated to SIGN quality. Effect size could be calculated in 16 studies, and number needed to treat, in 10 studies. Efficacy was found for the functional somatic syndromes group (fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome), but not for anxiety or stress. For other disorders, homeopathy produced mixed effects. No placebo-controlled studies of depression were identified. Meaningful safety data were lacking in the reports, but the superficial findings suggested good tolerability of homeopathy. A funnel plot in 13 studies did not support publication bias (χ(2)(1) = 1.923, P = .166).

CONCLUSIONS:

The database on studies of homeopathy and placebo in psychiatry is very limited, but results do not preclude the possibility of some benefit.

___________________________________________________________________________________

And specifically for depression, another review (also by proponents of homeopathy) is available; here is its abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

To systematically review the research evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for the treatment of depression and depressive disorders.

METHODS:

A comprehensive search of major biomedical databases including MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO and the Cochrane Library was conducted. Specialist complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) databases including AMED, CISCOM and Hom-Inform were also searched. Additionally, efforts were made to identify unpublished and ongoing research using relevant sources and experts in the field. Relevant research was categorised by study type and appraised according to study design. Clinical commentaries were obtained for studies reporting clinical outcomes.

RESULTS:

Only two randomised controlled trials (RCTs) were identified. One of these, a feasibility study, demonstrated problems with recruitment of patients in primary care. Several uncontrolled and observational studies have reported positive results including high levels of patient satisfaction but because of the lack of a control group, it is difficult to assess the extent to which any response is due to specific effects of homeopathy. Single-case reports/studies were the most frequently encountered clinical study type. We also found surveys, but no relevant qualitative research studies were located.: Adverse effects reported appear limited to ‘remedy reactions’ (‘aggravations’) including temporary worsening of symptoms, symptom shifts and reappearance of old symptoms. These remedy reactions were generally transient but in one study, aggravation of symptoms caused withdrawal of the treatment in one patient.

CONCLUSIONS:

A comprehensive search for published and unpublished studies has demonstrated that the evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy in depression is limited due to lack of clinical trials of high quality. Further research is required, and should include well-designed controlled studies with sufficient numbers of participants. Qualitative studies aimed at overcoming recruitment and other problems should precede further RCTs. Methodological options include the incorporation of preference arms or uncontrolled observational studies. The highly individualised nature of much homeopathic treatment and the specificity of response may require innovative methods of analysis of individual treatment response.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Back to the new article I started discussing above. Its authors make a vague attempt at being reasonable: “It is clear that homoeopathic remedies can only be used as an add-on and not alone.” I find this statement slightly puzzling. If (as the authors assume) homeopathy is effective for mental disorders, why not on its own? Can a therapy that must not be used as a sole treatment be called effective?

The authors continue with another caveat:  “These remedies belong in the hands of physicians experienced in homeopathic and psychiatric psychopharmacology.” That’s actually quite funny! As the average homeopath has no experience in psychiatric psychopharmacology, they must not use homeopathy for mental conditions. I would agree with the conclusion but not with the reason given for it.

And now to the ‘grand finale’, the conclusion: “It would be advisable to at least try out homeopathy for the well-being of the patient not only in the case of very mild disorders but also in severe chronic cases, since due to the generally good tolerability, no avoidable disadvantage should result.” That sort of conclusion makes me almost speechless. The evidence fails to show that it works, yet it is ADVISABLE to use it in severe chronic cases!

Such articles suggest to me that homeopathy is a cult where logic and reason are irrelevant and need to be supressed. They also indicate that something is amiss with medical publishing. How can it be that, in 2018, ‘Der Nervenarzt’ (or any other medical journal for that matter) can be so bar of critical thinking to publish such dangerously misleading nonsense? ‘Der Nervenarzt‘, by the way, claims to be an internationally recognized journal addressing neurologists and psychiatrists working in clinical or practical environments. Essential findings and current information from neurology, psychiatry as well as neuropathology, neurosurgery up to psychotherapy are presented.

Please bear with me and have a look at the three short statements quoted below:

1 Reiki

… a Reiki practitioner channels this pure ‘chi’, the ‘ki’ in Reiki, or energy through her hands to the recipient, enhancing and stimulating the individual’s natural ability to restore a sense of wellbeing. It is instrumental in lowering stress levels, and therefore may equip the recipient with increased resources to deal with the physical as well as the emotional, mental and spiritual problems raised by his/her condition. It is completely natural and safe, and can be used alongside conventional medicine as well as other complementary therapies or self-help techniques.

It has been documented that patients receiving chemotherapy have commented on feeling less distress and discomfort when Reiki is part of their care plan. Besides feeling more energy, hope and tranquillity, some patients have felt that the side-effects of chemotherapy were easier to cope with. Reiki has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, to raise energy levels in tired and apathetic patients. It is of great value in degenerative disease for the very reasons that pain and anxiety can be reduced.

The treatment is gentle, supportive and non-invasive, the patient always remains clothed. Even though the origins of reiki are spiritual in nature, Reiki imposes no set of beliefs. It can be used by people of different cultural backgrounds and faith, or none at all. This makes it particularly suitable in medical settings. Predicting who would or would not like to receive Reiki is impossible.

2 Emmett

EMMETT is a gentle soft tissue release technique developed by Australian remedial therapist Ross Emmett. It involves the therapist using light finger pressure at specific locations on the body to elicit a relaxation response within the area of concern.

Cancer impacts people in different ways throughout the journey of diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Many have found the EMMETT Technique to be very beneficial in a number of ways. Although pressure therapy isn’t new (e.g. acupressure and trigger point therapy are already well known), the amount of pressure required with EMMETT is much lighter and the placement of the pressure is unique to EMMETT Therapy.

Many cancer patients undergo surgery and experience post-surgery tightness and tension around the surgery site in the scar tissue and further afield through the connective tissue or fascia as the body heals. They experience restricted range of movement that may be painful too. Mastectomy patients as an example will usually experience pain or tenderness, swelling around the surgery site, limited arm or shoulder movement, and even numbness in the chest or upper arm. Here’s where EMMETT can assist.  With gentle pressure to specific points, many women have received relief from the pain, reduced swelling and much improved range of movement.  There are multiple EMMETT points that are used to help these women and that give the therapist a range of options depending on the patient’s specific concern.

Many cancer patients also experience fatigue, increased risk of infection, nausea, appetite changes and constipation as common side effects of chemotherapy.  These symptoms can also be greatly supported with a designated sequence where the EMMETT Therapist gently stimulates areas all around the body for an overall effect.  Patients report reduction in swelling, feelings of lightness, increased energy, more robust emotional well-being, less pain and feeling better generally within themselves.

3 Daoyin Tao

The theory behind this massage lies in traditional Chinese medicine, so covers yin and yang, five elements and Chinese face reading from a health perspective.  It enables the emotional elements behind disease to be explored. For example, the Chinese will say that grief is held in the Lung, anger in the liver, and fear in the kidney.

For this half hour massage there is no need for the patient to remove clothes, so it is a lovely way of receiving a massage where body image may be an issue, or where lines and feeds are in place, making removal of clothes difficult. This massage therapy can be given not only in a clinic, but also on the day unit, on hospital wards and even in an intensive care unit.

In working the meridian system the therapist is able to work the whole body, reaching areas other than the contact zone. Patients have commented that this deeply relaxing and soothing massage is; “one of the best massages I have ever had”. It has been proven to be beneficial with problems of; sleep, headaches, anxiety, watery eyes, shoulder and neck tension, sinusitis and panic attacks, jaw tension, fear, emotional trauma/distress.

END OF QUOTES

__________________________________________________________________________

Where do you think these statements come from?

They sound as though they come from a profoundly uncritical source, such as a commercial organisation trying to persuade customers to use some dodgy treatments, don’t they?

Wrong!

They come from the NHS! To be precise, they come from the NHS NATURAL HEALTH SCHOOL in Harrowgate, a service that offers a range of free complementary therapy treatments to patients and their relatives who are affected by a cancer diagnosis and are either receiving their cancer treatment at Harrogate or live in the Harrogate and Rural District.

This NHS school offers alternative treatments to cancer patients and claim that they know from experience, that when Complementary Therapies are integrated into patient care we are able to deliver safe, high quality care which fulfils the needs of even the most complex of patients.

In addition, they also run courses for alternative practitioners. Their reflexology course, for instance, covers all of the following:

  • Explore the history and origins of Reflexology
  • Explore the use of various mediums used in treatment including waxes, balms, powders and oils
  • Explore the philosophy of holism and its role within western bio medicine
  • Reading the feet/hands and mapping the reflex points
  • Relevant anatomy, physiology and pathology
  • Managing a wide range of conditions
  • Legal implications
  • Cautions and contraindications
  • Assessment and client care
  • Practical reflexology skills and routines
  • Treatment planning

I imagine that the initiators of the school are full of the very best, altruistic intentions. I therefore have considerable difficulties in criticising them. Yet, I do strongly feel that the NHS should be based on good evidence; and that much of the school’s offerings seems to be the exact opposite. In fact, the NHS-label is being abused for giving undeserved credibility to outright quackery, in my view.

I am sure the people behind this initiative only want to help desperate patients. I also suspect that most patients are very appreciative of their service. But let me put it bluntly: we do not need to make patients believe in mystical life forces, meridians and magical energies; if nothing else, this undermines rational thought (and we could do with a bit more of that at present). There are plenty of evidence-based approaches which, when applied with compassion and empathy, will improve the well-being of these patients without all the nonsense and quackery in which the NHS NATURAL HEALTH SCHOOL seems to specialise.

It is bad enough, I believe, that such nonsense is currently popular and increasingly politically correct, but let’s keep/make the NHS evidence-based, please!

1 2 3 131
If you want to be able to edit your comment for five minutes after you first submit it, you will need to tick the box: “Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.”

Recent Comments

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


Click here for a comprehensive list of recent comments.

Categories