Medical ethics comprise a set of rules and principles which are essential for all aspects of medicine, including of course research. The main issues are:
- Respect for autonomy – patients must have the right to refuse or choose their treatments.
- Beneficence – researchers and clinicians must act in the best interest of the patient.
- Non-maleficence – the expected benefits of interventions must outweigh their risks.
- Justice – the distribution of health resources must be fair.
- Respect for persons – patients must be treated with dignity.
- Truthfulness and honesty – informed consent is an essential element in research and clinical practice.
While all of this has long been fairly standard in conventional health care, it is often neglected in alternative medicine. It is therefore timely to ask, how much of research in the realm of alternative medicine abides by the rules of medical ethics?
After more than two decades of involvement in this sector, I have serious and growing concerns. The subject is, of course complex, but the way I see it, in alternative medicine there are two main areas where medical ethics are violated with some regularity.
- Nonsensical research projects
- Lack of informed consent
NONSENSICAL RESEARCH PROJECTS
At best, nonsensical research is a waste of precious resources, at worst it violates the beneficence principle. In alternative medicine, nonsensical research seems to happen ad nauseam. Regular readers of this blog will have seen plenty of examples of such abuse – for instance, if researchers conduct a clinical trial of chiropractic spinal manipulation for improving the singing voices of choir singers, or homeopaths test whether their remedies enhance female fertility. Often, nonsensical research happens when naïve enthusiasts decide to dabble a bit in science in order to promote their trade – but without realising that research would require a minimum of education.
But there are other occasions when it seems that the investigators know only too well what they are doing. Take for instance the plethora of ‘pragmatic’ trials which are currently so much ‘en vogue’ in alternative medicine. They can be designed in such a way that their results must produce what the researchers intended to show; the ‘A+B versus B’ study design is a prominent and obvious example of this type of abuse which I have repeatedly written about on this blog.
I use the term ‘abuse’ intentionally, because that is precisely what it is, in my view. Nonsensical research abuses the willingness of patients to participate by misleading them that it is a worthwhile sacrifice. In reality it is an unethical attempt to generate findings that can mislead us all. Moreover, it gives science a bad name and can lead to patients’ unwillingness to take part in research that does need doing. The damage done by nonsensical research projects is therefore immeasurable.
Informed consent is essential in research for protecting the interests of the volunteering patients. When a clinical trial is first conceived, the researchers need to work out all the details, write a protocol and submit it to their ethics committee. Their submission has to give evidence that all the participating patients have given informed consent in writing before they are enrolled into the study. That means, they have to be told the essential details about what might happen to them during the trial.
In a placebo-controlled trial of homeopathy, for instance, they might be told that they will receive either a homeopathic remedy or a placebo during the study period. They might also be informed that there is some encouraging evidence that the former works, and that the trial is designed to define to what extend this is so. Generating this knowledge, they might further be told, will help future patients and will be an important contribution to improving health care. Based on such phraseology, the ethics committee is likely to allow the study to go ahead, and patients are likely to agree to take part.
But, of course, this information is less than truthful. An honest and full information for patients would need to include the following points:
- you will receive either a homeopathic remedy or a placebo,
- the former contains no active molecules and the totality of the most reliable evidence does not show that it works for your condition,
- this means that you will receive either a homeopathic or a conventional placebo,
- neither of these can possibly help your condition,
- the study can therefore not advance our knowledge in any way,
- during the trial your condition will remain untreated which is likely to increase your suffering unnecessarily.
If any research team would truthfully disclose this information, no ethics committee would pass their protocol. If by some weird mistake they did, no patients would volunteer to participate in the study.
I have chosen here the example of homeopathy (because most readers will understand it quite easily), but I could have used almost any other alternative treatment. The issues are identical or very similar: informed consent is usually misinformed consent. If it were fully and truthfully informed, it would neither pass the hurdle of the essential ethics approval nor would it lend itself to recruiting sufficiently large numbers of patients.
There are, I think, very serious concerns about the ethical standards in alternative medicine research. I have been banging on about these issues since many years (for instance here and here and here and here). Predictably, this did not find much resonance in the realm of alternative medicine. Regrettably, very few ethicists have so far taken this subject seriously; they seem to feel that these problems are trivial compared to the important issues medical ethics face in conventional health care. I remain unconvinced that this is true and believe it is high time to systematically address the ethics of alternative medicine.