In recent days, journalists across the world had a field day (mis)reporting that doctors practising integrative medicine were doing something positive after all. I think that the paper shows nothing of the kind – but please judge for yourself.
The authors of this article wanted to determine differences in antibiotic prescription rates between conventional General Practice (GP) surgeries and GP surgeries employing general practitioners (GPs) additionally trained in integrative medicine (IM) or complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) (referred to as IM GPs) working within National Health Service (NHS) England.
They conducted a retrospective study on antibiotic prescription rates per STAR-PU (Specific Therapeutic group Age–sex weighting Related Prescribing Unit) using NHS Digital data over 2016. Publicly available data were used on prevalence of relevant comorbidities, demographics of patient populations and deprivation scores. setting Primary Care. Participants were 7283 NHS GP surgeries in England. The association between IM GPs and antibiotic prescribing rates per STAR-PU with the number of antibiotic prescriptions (total, and for respiratory tract infection (RTI) and urinary tract infection (UTI) separately) as outcome. results IM GP surgeries (n=9) were comparable to conventional GP surgeries in terms of list sizes, demographics, deprivation scores and comorbidity prevalence.
Statistically significant fewer total antibiotics were prescribed at NHS IM GP surgeries compared with conventional NHS GP surgeries. In contrast, the number of antibiotics prescribed for UTI were similar between both practices.
The authors concluded that NHS England GP surgeries employing GPs additionally trained in IM/CAM have lower antibiotic prescribing rates. Accessibility of IM/CAM within NHS England primary care is limited. Main study limitation is the lack of consultation data. Future research should include the differences in consultation behaviour of patients self-selecting to consult an IM GP or conventional surgery, and its effect on antibiotic prescription. Additional treatment strategies for common primary care infections used by IM GPs should be explored to see if they could be used to assist in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.
The study was flimsy to say the least:
- It was retrospective and is therefore open to no end of confounders.
- There were only 9 surgeries in the IM group.
Moreover, the results were far from impressive. The differences in antibiotic prescribing between the two groups of GP surgeries were minimal or non-existent. Finally, the study was financed via an unrestricted grant of WALA Heilmittel GmbH, Germany (“approx. 900 different remedies conforming to the anthroposophic understanding of man and nature”) and its senior author has a long track record of publishing papers promotional for anthroposophic medicine.
Such pseudo-research seems to be popular in the realm of CAM, and I have commented before on similarly futile projects. The comparison, I sometimes use is that of a Hamburger restaurant:
Employees by a large Hamburger chain set out to study the association between utilization of Hamburger restaurant services and vegetarianism. The authors used a retrospective cohort design. The study population comprised New Hampshire residents aged 18-99 years, who had entered the premises of a Hamburger restaurant within 90 days for a primary purpose of eating. The authors excluded subjects with a diagnosis of cancer. They measured the likelihood of vegetarianism among recipients of services delivered by Hamburger restaurants compared with a control group of individuals not using meat-dispensing facilities. They also compared the cohorts with regard to the money spent in Hamburger restaurants. The adjusted likelihood of being a vegetarian was 55% lower among the experimental group compared to controls. The average money spent per person in Hamburger restaurants were also significantly lower among the Hamburger group.
To me, it is obvious that such analyses must produce a seemingly favourable result for CAM. In the present case, there are several reasons for this:
- GPs who volunteer to be trained in CAM tend to be in favour of ‘natural’ treatments and oppose synthetic drugs such as antibiotics.
- Education in CAM would only re-inforce this notion.
- Similarly, patients electing to consult IM GPs tend to be in favour of ‘natural’ treatments and oppose synthetic drugs such as antibiotics.
- Such patients might be less severely ill that the rest of the patient population (the data from the present study do in fact imply this to be true).
- These phenomena work in concert to generate less antibiotic prescribing in the IM group.
In the final analysis, all this finding amounts to is a self-fulfilling prophecy: grocery shops sell less meat than butchers! You don’t believe me? Perhaps you need to read a previous post then; it concluded that physicians practicing integrative medicine (the 80% who did not respond to the survey were most likely even worse) not only use and promote much quackery, they also tend to endanger public health by their bizarre, irrational and irresponsible attitudes towards vaccination.
What is upsetting with the present paper, in my view, are the facts that:
- a reputable journal published this junk,
- the international press has a field-day reporting this study implying that CAM is a good thing.
The fact is that it shows nothing of the kind. Imagine we send GPs on a course where they are taught to treat all their patients with blood-letting. This too would result in less prescription of antibiotics, wouldn’t it? But would it be a good thing? Of course not!
True, we prescribe too much antibiotics. Nobody doubts that. And nobody doubts that it is a big problem. The solution to this problem is not more CAM, but less antibiotics. To realise the solution we do not need to teach GPs CAM but we need to remind them of the principles of evidence-based practice. And the two are clearly not the same; in fact, they are opposites.