When I come across a study with the aim to “examine the effectiveness of acupuncture to relieve symptoms commonly observed in patients in a hospice program” my hopes are high. When I then see that its authors are from the ‘New England School of Acupuncture’, the ‘All Care Hospice and the ‘Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, my hopes for a good piece of science are even higher. So, let’s see what this new paper has to offer.

A total of 26 patients participated in this acupuncture ‘trial’, receiving a course of weekly treatments that ranged from 1 to 14 weeks. The average number of treatments was five. The Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) was used to assess the severity of pain, tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, appetite, well-being, and dyspnoea. A two-tailed, paired t test was applied to the data to compare symptom scores pre- versus post-acupuncture treatment. Patients enrolled in All Care Hospice’s home care program were given the option to receive acupuncture to supplement usual care offered by the hospice team. Treatment was provided by licensed acupuncturists in the patient’s place of residence.

The results indicated that 7 out of 9 symptoms were significantly improved with acupuncture, the exceptions being drowsiness and appetite. Although the ESAS scale demonstrated a reduction in symptom severity post-treatment for both drowsiness and appetite, this reduction was not found to be significant.

At tis stage, I have lost most of my hopes for good science. This is not a ‘trial’ but a glorified case-series. There is no way that the stated aim can be pursued with this type of methodology. There is no reason whatsoever to assume that the observed outcome can be attributed to acupuncture; the additional attention given to these patients is but one of several factors that are quite sufficient to explain their symptomatic improvements.

This is yet another disappointment then from the plethora of ‘research’ into alternative medicine that, on closer inspection, turns out to be little more than thinly disguised promotion of quackery. These days, I can bear such disappointments quite well – after all, I had many years to get used to them. What I find more difficult to endure is the anger that overcomes me when I read the authors’ conclusion: Acupuncture was found to be effective for the reduction and relief of symptoms that commonly affect patient QOL. Acupuncture effectively reduced symptoms of pain, tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, and shortness of breath, and enhanced feelings of well-being. More research is required to assess the long-term benefits and symptom reduction of acupuncture in a palliative care setting.

This is not disappointing; in my view, this is scientific misconduct by

  • the authors,
  • the institutions employing the authors,
  • the ethics committee that has passed the ‘research’,
  • the sponsors of the ‘research’,
  • the peer-reviewers of the paper,
  • the journal and its editors responsible for publishing this paper.

The fact that this sort of thing happens virtually every day in the realm of alternative medicine does not render this case less scandalous, it merely makes it more upsetting.

4 Responses to In my view, this piece of acupuncture ‘research’ constitutes scientific misconduct

  • Thanks for finding and sharing this so called study with us. While the same happens in medicine every day as well it is not the standard there and studies like this are criticized severely by the public and of course the scientific community. In alt-med however, this kind of “research” seems to be the norm and that’s what so upsetting about it. One might come to think that junk science like this case is the only way of supporting the claims made by the alt-med community.

    • Quite so.
      If it wasn’t junk it would be accepted into the orthodox canon.
      IMHO this piece was not science in any meaninful sense and therefore cannot constitute ‘scientific misconduct’.
      Whether fraud has been commited is another matter.

      Were persons induced to purchasing the publication having been misled and believing this ‘research’ was indeed ‘science’?
      Did the publishers defraud their readers?
      Or must emptors simply caveat?

  • It would seem that this is one more publication to add the the growing mountain of “evidence” that alt-med is effective. The conclusions are political in nature not scientific. They are just fine for supporting the beliefs of the faithful. Like religious apologetics they are not about discovering anything but making an argument to support what is already concluded. In a society that is increasingly willing to view science as a tool for supporting beliefs instead of challenging them, this is just the other side of the mirror, Alice.

  • It seems the word ‘trial’ is changing its meaning in some circumstances. It is now applied to any procedure which a person or group wants to use to support uncritically a certain point of view of which they are a proponent. Perhaps we need another word to describe real trials.

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