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

The public is often impressed by scenes shown on TV where surgeons in China operate patients apparently with no other anaesthesia than acupuncture. Such films have undoubtedly contributed significantly to the common belief that acupuncture cannot possibly be a placebo (every single time I give a public talk about acupuncture, the issue comes up, and someone asks me: how can you doubt the efficacy of acupuncture when, in China, they use it for major operations?).

Some years ago, I have myself been involved is such a BBC broadcast and had to learn the hard way that such scenes are more than just a bit misleading.

Unfortunately, the experts rarely object to any of this. They seem to have become used to the false claims and overt propaganda that is rife in the promotion of acupuncture, and have resigned to the might of poor journalism.

The laudable exception is a team of French authors of a recent and excellent paper.

This unusual article analysed a clip from the program “Acupuncture, osteopathy, hypnosis: do complementary medicines have superpowers?” about acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures in China. Their aim was to propose a rational explanation for the phenomena observed and to describe the processes leading a public service broadcasting channel to offer this type of content at prime time and the potential consequences in terms of public health. For this purpose, they used critical thinking attitudes and skills, along with a bibliographical search of Medline, Google Scholar and Cochrane Library databases.

Their results reveal that the information delivered in the television clip is ambiguous. It did not allow the viewer to form an informed opinion on the relevance of acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures. It is reasonable to assume that the clip shows surgery performed with undisclosed epidural anaesthesia coupled with mild intravenous anaesthesia, sometimes performed in other countries.

What needs to be highlighted, the authors of this critique state, is the overestimation of acupuncture added to the protocol. The media tend to exaggerate the risks and expected effects of the treatments they report on, which can lead patients to turn to unproven therapies.

The authors concluded that broadcasting such a clip at prime time underlines the urgent need for the public and all health professionals to be trained in sorting and critically analysing health information.

In my view, broadcasting such misleading films also underlines the urgent need for journalists to be conscious of their responsibility not to mislead the public and do more rigorous research before reporting on matters of health.

5 Responses to ACUPUNCTURE: journalists, be aware of your responsibility not to mislead the public

  • I met an anaestetist who was at a meeting in China to show Western physicians the efficacy of acupuncture as a sedative. In the pause she went to the patient which was facing to the audience she looked at his back and saw that the patient had a periduralcatheder (epidural) leading behind the curtain at his back.

  • Years ago I saw a picture of a Chinese woman, conscious and smiling, lying on what appeared to be a double table similar to what magicians use to saw people in half…her head was at an impossible angle, too vertical, and there was a cadaver on top of the table with its rib cage split open and the whole monstrosity was awkwardly draped. I really wish I could find that article and photo again so I could dig into the origins…

  • News reports today of Acupuncture and Homeopathy to be banned in Spain. Meanwhile in the UK people are seriously misinformed about the racket that is acupuncture. My ex-partner has spent thousands of pounds attempting to become an acupuncturist, through a college in Reading, which offers a degree in acupuncture. The degree is accredited by an organisation calling itself the “British Acupuncture Accreditation Board” which operates out of the same address as the similarly official sounding “British Acupuncture Council”. There must be something fishy going on at this address where one company accredits degrees from the schools that supply members to the other trading entity.

    Upon qualification, it became apparent that there is no legislation covering the practice of sticking needles into people! An acupuncturist would need a qualification to work in the NHS, but she couldn’t get a job in the NHS with these qualifications – it prefers doctors and nurses. Loans were taken out – tens of thousands of pounds spent to arrive in a similar professional standing as she had before “training”.

    Fake news!! Healthy lifestyle press releases peddled as news or information in the papers and online have bought forth an environment where innocent people are drawn to pursuing a career that seems meaningful or helpful to others. Sadly, said career does not exist. Her classmates had similar experiences and could not create even a basic subsistence living as self employed acupuncturists.The whole acupuncture scheme in this country reeks of exploitation, but for some reason journalists don’t tell this story. Even “Watchdog” type TV programmes which should be investigating these cons are more likely to present an item with a theme of “acupuncture works, needs more evidence”. A sad state of affairs.

    • Sadly, just as you say, consumer protection seems to peter out where health care is concerned. Most people deprecate cowboy builders, used-car salesmen and fake investment schemes, but they seem to regard cowboy, pseudo-doctors with admiration. (At least, one gains that impression from many comments on this blog.)

      One can only admire people like Edzard Ernst (and those who run the blogs linked to on the home page) for being prepared to stick their heads above the battlements and decry quackery. The often aggressive attitudes of folk who appear to enjoy being conned is a weird phenomenon indeed!

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