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

Monthly Archives: December 2020

2020 was certainly a difficult year (please note, I am trying a British understatement here). From the point of view of running this blog, it was sad to lose James Randi (1928 – 2020) who had been the hero of so many sceptics worldwide, and to learn of the passing of Frank Odds (1945-2020) who was a regular, thoughtful commentator here.

Reviewing the topics we tackled, I could mention dozens. But let me pick out just a few themes that I feel might be important.

HOMEOPATHY

Homeopathy continued to have a rough time; the German medical profession has finally realised that homeopathy is treatment with placebos and the German Green Party no longer backs homeopathy. In India, the Supreme Court ruled: Homeopathy must not be sold as a cure of Covid-19, and in the US improved labeling on homeopathic products were introduced. To make matters worse I issued A CHALLENGE FOR ALL HOMEOPATHS OF THE WORLD.

NOVEL SCAMs

On this blog, I like to write about new so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) that I come accross. Blood letting is not exactly new, but Oh look! Bloodletting is back! Many other ‘innovations’ were equally noteworthy. Here is merely a very short selection of modalities that were new to me:

COVID-19

Unquestionably the BIG subject (not just) in SCAM was – is and will be for a while – the pandemic. It prompted quacks of any type to crawl out of the woodwork misleading the public about their offerings. On 24 January, I wrote for the first time about it: Coronavirus epidemic: Why don’t they ask the homeopaths for help? Thereafter, every charlatan seemed to jump on the COVID bandwaggon, even Trump: Trump seems to think that UV might be the answer to the corona-pandemic – could he mean “ultraviolet blood irradiation”?  It became difficult to decide who was making a greater fool of themselves, Trump or the homeopaths (Is this the crown of the Corona-idiocy? Nosodes In Prevention And Management Of COVID -19). Few SCAM entrepreneurs (Eight new products aimed at mitigating COVID-19. But do they really work?) were able to resist the opportunity. Snakeoil salesmen were out in force and view COVID-19 as an ‘opportunity’. It is impossible to calculate what impact all this COVID-quackery had, but I fear that many people lost their lives at least in part because of it.

VACCINATION

The unavoidable consequence of the pandemic was that the anti-vaxx brigade sensed that their moment had arrived. Ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield: “Better to die as a free man than live as a slave” (and get vaccinated against Covid-19). Again the ‘charlatan in chief’ made his influence felt through the ‘Trump-Effect’ on vaccination attitudes. Unsurprisingly, the UK ‘Society of Homeopath’ turned out to be an anti-vaxx hub that endangers public health. And where there is anti-vaxx, chiropractors are seldom far: Ever wondered why so many chiropractors are profoundly anti-vax?. All this could be just amusing, but sadly it has the potential to cost lives through Vaccine hesitancy due to so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).

ETHICS

I happen to believe that ethics in SCAM are an important, yet much neglected topic. It is easy to understand why this should be so: adhering to the rules of medical ethics would all but put an end to SCAM. This applies to chiropractic (The lack of chiropractic ethics: “valid consent was not obtained in a single case”), to homeopaths (Ethical homeopathy) and to most other SCAM professions. If I had a wish for the next year(s), it would be that funding agencies focus on research into the many ethical problems posed by the current popularity of SCAM.

CONCLUSION

If I had another wish, it would be that critical thinking becomes a key subject in schools, universities and adult education. Why do so many people make irrational choices? One answer to this question is, because we fail to give this subject the importance it demands. The lack of critical thinking is the reason why we elect leaders who are compulsory lyers, make wrong choices about healthcare, and continue to destroy the planet as though there is no tomorrow. It is high time that we, as a society, realise how fundamentally important critical thinking truly is.

OUTLOOK

Yes, 2020 was difficult: Brexit, COVID-19, anti-vaxx, etc. But it was not all bad (certainly not for me personally), and there is good reason for hope: the globally malign influence of Trump is about to disappear, and we now have several effective vaccines. Common sense, decency and science might triumph after all.

HEALTHY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

I often hear that my ambitions to inform the public and inspire critical thinking are hopeless: there are simply too many quacks trumpeting nonsense, and their collective influence is surely bigger than mine. This can be depressing, of course. And because I often feel that I am fighting an unwinnable battle, stories like this are so importand and up-lifting.

Denby Royal was a ‘holistic nutritionist’, then she became a critic of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Here is the story about her transformation:

… I had gone to holistic nutrition school. I was running my own nutrition consulting business. And suddenly I didn’t believe in any of it anymore. How did this flip flop come to pass?

… As a holistic nutritionist, I was an active participant in what I now consider alternative medicine tomfoolery, specifically pushing supplements on a clientele of the “worried well” who often mistook wellness enthusiasts like me for medical experts. I want to be clear that I wasn’t knowingly deceiving anyone—I really did believe in the solutions I was offering my clients… To holistic nutrition enthusiasts and people who believe in a certain kind of alt wellness, these “natural” and “holistic” products seem more trustworthy than what mainstream medicine offers. The truth is, they often lack sufficient, peer-reviewed, reliable scientific evidence of their supposed effectiveness.

Did I have rock-solid evidence that these products would do what their labels promised they would do? Not really. Sure, I read studies here and there that found specific health benefits for some of the products. But I rarely mentioned the fine print (if I knew it at all)—that the sample sizes of many of these studies often were so small that the results couldn’t be generalized to a larger population, that the studies’ authors sometimes noted that more research was needed to support any findings on the effects they found, or that systematic reviews later found that many studies were poorly constructed or at risk for bias, making their findings even less compelling than they seemed initially. And in some cases, study authors themselves note that their findings are merely jumping off points, and that more long-term studies are needed in order to draw more solid conclusions…

Was I relying on strong, valid evidence? Nah, not really. But at the time, I thought what I had was better than strong evidence: Faith in a lifestyle and a dogmatic belief that all things traditional and mainstream were unhealthy or harmful, and therefore, that all things unconventional and alternative were curative and would bring about “wellness.”

In an effort to expand my product knowledge I researched a lot of the different supplements available. I was using all the best bias-confirming websites where other homeopathic medicine enthusiasts evangelized their favorite remedies, their enthusiasm and insistence, and anecdotal evidence standing in for what typically shows us that a product is safe and effective—clinical trials and FDA approval.

When their arguments and reasoning started to sink in, I realized that my faith in the healing powers of supplements may have been overzealous at best, unfounded at worst. My world crumbled like a piece of raw gluten-free paleo cheesecake. It started to sink in: Where there was a morsel of convincing medical information blended with enough compelling nonsense and communicated with enough conviction, I believed it, hook, line, and sinker.

When I started to notice the holes in the fabric of holistic nutrition, the fabric looked, well, pretty threadbare. I subsequently disconnected from social media and distanced myself from the entire culture. I took a good look at how I was personally and publicly communicating my relationships with food and wellness. After spending my twenties experimenting with all kinds of specialty diets, I was left feeling exhausted, anxious, underweight, overweight, and fed-up.

And so that last domino fell when I took away the thing that was propping it up for me: social media. Instagram is a playground for wellness influencers, including, at the time, me. My Instagram account was the best way to advertise my nutrition consulting business, so maintaining a certain persona there felt completely crucial to my success, and eventually, my identity. It was a world full of beautifully curated accounts of thin yogis gathering wild herbs in nature or making raw desserts with ingredients that cost more than my entire monthly food budget. I started to feel like the alternative wellness community I was part of—myself included—was an echo chamber, where we stockpiled likes and positive comments to build a wall that would keep out ideas that challenged our status quo. In fact, the more reassurance I received from my online community, the harder I believed in our gospel.

As I was disentangling my beliefs from everything I was learning by looking at the actual evidence, I realized that my education to become a holistic nutritionist hadn’t prepared me to understand health and wellness as completely and comprehensively as I’d once thought. Sure, I’d spent a some time studying the pathology of disease, and a little longer learning about how each bodily system works to get your human suit from point A to point B, but I am only slightly closer to being a medical professional than I am to becoming a professional cricket player. First of all, in total, my entire formal education as a holistic nutritionist was 10 months long. Second of all, that education was intended to complement—not replace—traditional medical treatment. But as soon as I finished the program, I could immediately start taking on clients. And lots of potential clients out there are just like the way I used to be—wishing they looked or felt different and in search of the panacea, willing (if not eager) to defer to an expert.

There may have been many people willing to look to me as an expert, but here’s the thing: in my school, there were no residency or clinical hours required to prepare us for the real world or to take on clients—unlike dietitians here in Canada, who must obtain a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional and Food Sciences, qualify to complete a rigorous post-degree internship program and register with a provincial dietetics organization, or get a master’s degree. We received a certificate, and that was that. It was a credential that wholeheartedly fell short of resembling anything close to making me an authority on the subject of health as it relates to food and diet. But most people in the general public can’t be expected to understand the ins and outs of how experts are credentialed and licensed—many of us assume that someone calling themselves something that we associate with authority is, in fact, an authority we can trust.

The brief education that I received to become a holistic nutritionist did provide me with valuable stepping stones and a general understanding of how the body works. My program discouraged students from saying “treat,” “heal,” “prevent,” or “cure.” Generally speaking holistic nutrition programs don’t provide the training and medical education that registered dietitians receive, which enables them to give sound, ethical medical nutrition advice, nor are they required by law, the way dietitian programs are, to provide it. In fact, in 2015 graduates of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition were barred from identifying as Registered Holistic Nutritionists, and since then must use the title “Holistic Nutritional Consultant.”

… With what I do have from my classroom education, I can analyze a lifestyle that needs some fine-tuning and provide guidance on how to structure a solid meal plan. That’s about it. After years of self-diagnosis and hashtagging all my fad-diet escapades (for this, I greatly apologize to all those I have alienated with my profuse self-righteousness), I can at least say I have a deep appreciation for those who are actually on the front lines in the fight against unproven medical remedies and the potential damage it may do to those who use it to the exclusion of traditional medicine.

The influence of these remedies is not harmless, and I have seen firsthand in many different examples and situations how it can lure people away from real, evidence-based help in their times of need. I am fortunate enough that within my practice I had enough foresight to turn away individuals who required more guidance than I was capable of giving. But along the way I made many embarrassing and conjectural recommendations. Like I said, I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone. I firmly held the belief that alternative medicine, no matter the cost, was an investment in a healthful future. My own medicine cabinet, an arsenal full of supplements, tincture, and powders, was a personal testament to how deeply I was devoted to holistic nutrition.

This essay is a firm farewell from a world I disconnected from long ago. The person that over years I let myself become through naiveté, not doing my own research, and a misguided desire to be different. So here I am now, officially having left the church of woo, bidding the world of alternative health adieu.

_________________________________

Reading Denby’s account, I was reminded of many themes we have previously discussed on this blog. One issue that perhaps needs more focus is this notion:

I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone.”

I have not yet met a SCAM practitioner who says:

“I am in the business of  deceiving my patients.”

The reasons for this are simple:

  1. if they knowingly deceive, they would not tell us,
  2. and if they don’t know that they are deciving their patients, they cannot possibly admit to it.

The way Denby repeatedly assures us that she was far from knowingly deceiving anyone sounds charmingly naive and is, in my experience, very typical for SCAM practitioners. It depicts them as honorable people. Yet, in actual fact, it is neither charming nor honorable. It merely demonstrates the fact that they were perhaps not ruthlessly dishonest but all the more dangerous.

Let me explain this with a deliberately extreme example:

  • A man with a chronic condition – say type 2 diabetes – consults a SCAM practitioner who is knowingly deceiving him claiming that her SCAM effectively treats his condition. The patient follows the advice but, since he is not totally convinced (deception is rarely perfect), consults his doctor who puts him straight. This patient will therefore survive.
  • The same chap consults a SCAM practitioner who is deeply convinced of the effectiveness of her SCAM and thus not knowingly deceiving her patient when she claims that it is effective for his diabetes. Her conviction is so strong that the patient blindly believes her. Thus he stops his conventional medication and hopes for the best. This patient could easily die.

In a nutshell:

‘Honest’ conviction might render a quack more socially acceptable but also more dangerous to her patients.

 

There are of course 2 types of osteopaths: the US osteopaths who are very close to real doctors, and the osteopaths from all other countries who are practitioners of so-called alternative medicine. This post, as all my posts on this subject, is about the latter category.

I was alerted to a paper entitled ‘Osteopathy under scrutiny’. It goes without saying that I thought it relevant; after all, scrutinising so-called altermative medicine (SCAM), such as osteopathy is one of the aims of this blog. The article itself is in German, but it has an English abstract:

Osteopathic medicine is a medical specialty that enjoys a high level of recognition and increasing popularity among patients. High-quality education and training are essential to ensure good and safe patient treatment. At a superficial glance, osteopathy could be misunderstood as a myth; accurately considered, osteopathic medicine is grounded in medical and scientific knowledge and solid theoretical and practical training. Scientific advances increasingly confirm the empirical experience of osteopathy. Although more studies on its efficacy could be conducted, there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable application of osteopathy. Current scientific studies show how a manually executed osteopathic intervention can induce tissue and even cellular reactions. Because the body actively responds to environmental stimuli, osteopathic treatment is considered an active therapy. Osteopathic treatment is individually applied and patients are seen as an integrated entity. Because of its typical systemic view and scientific interpretation, osteopathic medicine is excellently suited for interdisciplinary cooperation. Further work on external evidence of osteopathy is being conducted, but there is enough knowledge from the other pillars of evidence-based medicine (EBM) to support the application of osteopathic treatment. Implementing careful, manual osteopathic examination and treatment has the potential to cut healthcare costs. To ensure quality, osteopathic societies should be intimately involved and integrated in the regulation of the education, training, and practice of osteopathic medicine.

This does not sound as though the authors know what scutiny is. In fact, the abstract reads like a white-wash of quackery. Why might this be so? To answer this question, we need to look no further than to the ‘conflicts of interest’ where the authors state (my translation): K. Dräger and R. Heller state that, in addition to their activities as further education officers/lecturers for osteopathy (Deutsche Ärztegesellschaft für Osteopathie e. V. (DÄGO) and the German Society for Osteopathic Medicine e. V. (DGOM)) there are no conflicts of interest.

But, to tell you the truth, the article itself is worse, much worse that the abstract. Allow me to show you a few quotes (all my [sometimes free] translations).

  • Osteopathic medicine is a therapeutic method based on the scientific findings from medical research.
  • [The osteopath makes] diagnostic and therapeutic movements with the hands for evaluating limitations of movement. Thereby, a blocked joint as well as a reduced hydrodynamic or vessel perfusion can be identified.
  • The indications of osteopathy are comparable to those of general medicine. Osteopathy can be employed from the birth of a baby up to the palliative care of a dying patient.
  • Biostatisticians have recognised the weaknesses of RCTs and meta-analyses, as they merely compare mean values of therapeutic effects, and experts advocate a further evidence level in which statictical correlation is abandonnened in favour of individual causality and definition of cause.
  • In ostopathy, the weight of our clinical experience is more important that external evidence.
  • Research of osteopathic medicine … the classic cause/effect evaluation cannot apply (in support of this statement, the authors cite a ‘letter to the editor‘ from 1904; I looked it up and found that it does in no way substantiate this claim)
  • Findings from anatomy, embryology, physiology, biochemistry and biomechanics which, as natural sciences, have an inherent evidence, strengthen in many ways the plausibility of osteopathy.
  • Even if the statistical proof of the effectiveness of neurocranial techniques has so far been delivered only in part, basic research demonstrates that the effects of traction or compression of bogily tissue causes cellular reactions and regulatory processes.

What to make of such statements? And what to think of the fact that nowhere in the entire paper even a hint of ‘scrutiny’ can be detected? I don’t know about you, but for me this paper reflects very badly on both the authors and on osteopathy as a whole. If you ask me, it is an odd mixture of cherry-picking the evidence, misunderstanding science, wishful thinking and pure, unadulterated bullshit.

You urgently need to book into a course of critical thinking, guys!

The notion of an alternative cancer cure is, as I have pointed out ad nauseam, a contradiction in terms (I am sure this sentence will prompt protests; so please, do send me links to reliable studies that prove it to be incorrect). It suggests that oncologists are a somewhat sadistically deranged group of professionals who would reject a promising therapy simply because it originates not from within the mainstream of medicine. Yet, some proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) claim that, even though there might be not a single SCAM that cures cancer, the use of a tailor-made mixture of several SCAMs could be beneficial, particularly if employed in addition to conventional cancer treatments. In fact, ‘integrated oncologists’ often claim that employing a package of diverse SCAMs will prolong the live of cancer patients.

But are they correct?

In this post, I will investigate by discussing the few studies that have tested this hypothesis.

In 2003, a Norwegian study examined the association between SCAM-use and cancer survival. Survival data were obtained with a follow-up of 8 years for 515 cancer patients. A total of 112 patients had used SCAM. In total, 350 patients died during the follow-up period. Death rates were higher in SCAM-users (79%) than in those who did not use SCAM (65%). The hazard ratio of death for SCAM-use compared with no use was 1.30. The authors of this paper concluded that the use of SCAM seems to predict a shorter survival from cancer.[1]

In 2013, Korean researchers evaluated whether SCAM-use influenced the survival and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) of terminal cancer patients. They prospectively studied a cohort of 481 cancer patients. During a follow-up of 164 person-years, 466 patients died. Compared with non-users, SCAM-users did not survive longer. The use of mind-body interventions or prayer was even associated with significantly worse survival. SCAM users reported significantly worse cognitive functioning and more fatigue than nonusers. In sub-group analyses, users of alternative medical treatments, prayer, vitamin supplements, mushrooms, or rice and cereal reported significantly worse HRQOL. The authors conclude that SCAM did not provide any definite survival benefit, CAM users reported clinically significant worse HRQOLs.[2]

A 2017 study from Malaysia evaluated whether the use of SCAM among newly diagnosed breast cancer patients was associated with delays in presentation, diagnosis or treatment of breast cancer. A total of 340 newly diagnosed patients were included in this study. The prevalence of SCAM use was 46.5%. The use of SCAM was associated with delays in presentation, diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. The authors concluded that the use of SCAM was significantly associated with delay in presentation and resolution of diagnosis.[3]

A 2017 US study was aimed at determining whether SCAM use impacts on the prognosis of breast cancer patients. A total of 707 patients with stage I-IIIA breast cancer completed a 30-month post-diagnosis interview including questions on SCAM use. During the observation period, 70 breast cancer-specific deaths and 149 total deaths were reported, and 60.2 % of participants reported SCAM use post-diagnosis. No associations were observed between SCAM use and breast cancer-specific or total mortality. The authors concluded that SCAM use was not associated with breast cancer-specific mortality or total mortality.[4]

Another 2018 study from the US investigated SCAM use and its impact on survival. The researchers included 281 patients with nonmetastatic breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer who chose SCAM, administered as sole anticancer treatment. The results show that SCAM use was independently associated with greater risk of death compared with conventional cancer therapy (CCT). The authors concluded that SCAM utilization for curable cancer without any CCT is associated with greater risk of death.[5]

The same group of researchers compared overall survival of patients with cancer receiving CCT with or without SCAM. They used the National Cancer Database on 1 901 815 patients from 1500 Commission on Cancer-accredited centres across the US who were diagnosed with non-metastatic breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer between January, 2004, and December, 2013. Patients were matched on age, clinical group stage, comorbidity, insurance type, race/ethnicity, year of diagnosis, and cancer type. The entire cohort comprised 1 901 815 patients with cancer, 258 patients in the SCAM group and 1 901 557 patients in the control group. The results of this study showed that patients who received SCAM were more likely to refuse additional CCT, and had a higher risk of death. The results suggest that mortality risk associated with SCAM was mediated by the refusal of CCT.[6]

Collectively, these studies do not demonstrate that SCAM use leads to a better prognosis of cancer patients. On the contrary, several investigations have suggested the opposite effect. There are several possibilities to explain why SCAM use shortens the life of cancer patients:

  • Some of the therapies in question might have a direct adverse effect on cancer progression, for instance, by being toxic or by interacting with conventional cancer drugs.
  • Patients who choose to use SCAM might be more ill that those who do not employ it. The Malaysian study3 quoted above suggests that this is a possibility. In several studies, however, this factor has been taken into account and is therefore an unlikely explanation.
  • Patients who opt for SCAM might take conventional cancer treatments less seriously or even shun them completely. The last two of the above-cited studies seem to suggest that this is the most likely explanation.

Whatever the explanation, the fact is that SCAM, in whatever shape or form, does not improve the natural history of cancer… That is unless you can show me convincing evidence to the contrary.

REFERENCES

[1] Risberg T, Vickers A, Bremnes RM, Wist EA, Kaasa S, Cassileth BR. Does use of alternative medicine predict survival from cancer? Eur J Cancer. 2003 Feb;39(3):372-7. doi: 10.1016/s0959-8049(02)00701-3. PMID: 12565991.

[2] Yun YH, Lee MK, Park SM, Kim YA, Lee WJ, Lee KS, Choi JS, Jung KH, Do YR, Kim SY, Heo DS, Kim HT, Park SR. Effect of complementary and alternative medicine on the survival and health-related quality of life among terminally ill cancer patients: a prospective cohort study. Ann Oncol. 2013 Feb;24(2):489-494. doi: 10.1093/annonc/mds469. Epub 2012 Oct 30. PMID: 23110809.

[3] Mohd Mujar NM, Dahlui M, Emran NA, Abdul Hadi I, Wai YY, Arulanantham S, Hooi CC, Mohd Taib NA. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use and delays in presentation and diagnosis of breast cancer patients in public hospitals in Malaysia. PLoS One. 2017 Apr 27;12(4):e0176394. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0176394. PMID: 28448541; PMCID: PMC5407802.

[4] Neuhouser ML, Smith AW, George SM, Gibson JT, Baumgartner KB, Baumgartner R, Duggan C, Bernstein L, McTiernan A, Ballard R. Use of complementary and alternative medicine and breast cancer survival in the Health, Eating, Activity, and Lifestyle Study. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2016 Dec;160(3):539-546. doi: 10.1007/s10549-016-4010-x. Epub 2016 Oct 21. PMID: 27766453; PMCID: PMC5558457.

[5] Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Use of Alternative Medicine for Cancer and Its Impact on Survival. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2018 Jan 1;110(1). doi: 10.1093/jnci/djx145. PMID: 28922780.

[6] Johnson SB, Park HS, Gross CP, Yu JB. Complementary Medicine, Refusal of Conventional Cancer Therapy, and Survival Among Patients With Curable Cancers. JAMA Oncol. 2018 Oct 1;4(10):1375-1381. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2018.2487. PMID: 30027204; PMCID: PMC6233773.

Thirty years ago, I had just been appointed chair of PHYSICAL MEDICINE AND REHABILITATION at the University of Vienna and was about to move – as the first clinical department – into the brand new AKH (General Hospital) of Vienna thus gradually enlarging the team I had taken over from about 20 to 120 co-workers. During this period, I found little time to do original research; however, I did manage to finally write up and publish a study, we had conducted several years before while I was still in Munich. As it is (almost) on the subject of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), and as it relates to the prevention of a viral infection, I think it might be of interest to give it another outing.

Here is its abstract:

The high morbidity of common colds means that their economic importance is considerable, with colds causing more loss of productivity than any other infection. As no effective prophylaxis is available, this trial was to test the hypothesis that sauna bathing can reduce the incidence of common colds. Twenty-five volunteers were submitted to sauna bathing, with 25 controls abstaining from this or comparable procedures. In both groups the frequency, duration and severity of common colds were recorded for six months. There were significantly fewer episodes of common cold in the sauna group. This was found particularly during the last three months of the study period when the incidence was roughly halved compared to controls. The mean duration and average severity of common colds did not differ significantly between the groups. It is concluded that regular sauna bathing probably reduces the incidence of common colds, but further studies are needed to prove this.

In the discussion section of the paper, we stated the following:

Preventive methods with comparable efficacy have not been described in the literature (2, 12). Vitamin C is of doubtful value (7, 15, 16); vaccination is not feasible since far too many virus types exist (2, 17); virucidal kerchiefs are effective (8, 18) but not available commercially and protect only the environment of a common cold sufferer rather than the sufferer him-/herself.

I believe most of this is still true today (but I might be wrong, as I did not keep up with this particular line of research). Re-reading the paper, I find that our trial was far from optimal:

  • we had to conduct it with zero funding,
  • it was small,
  • it was not randomised,
  • it lacked objective endpoints.

Anyway, sauna bathing is most agreeable, and I can recommend it just for this reason. However, I would doubt that public saunas are a good idea during the present health crisis.

Please, stay safe!

We are living in difficult times, and few things are more difficult than spending the holidays in confinement alone or (possibly worse) with close family. If you do, you need all the help you can get. Here are a few homeopathic remedies (all available from Her Majesty’s homeopathic pharmacy) which, according to the ‘like cures like’ (LCL) axiom of homeopathy, might come in handy:

So, do take good care of yourselves, stay healthy, don’t over-dose the brandy butter, port, or anything else, and

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

 

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled this week that homeopathic, ayurvedic and unani practitioners must not prescribe their respective so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) as a cure for Covid-19.

Specifically, the judges noted that, according to the guidelines issued by the Ayush ministry in March, homeopaths are permitted only to prescribe certain homeopathic medicines as “…preventive, prophylactic, symptom management of Covid-19-like illnesses and add-on interventions to the conventional care”, but not as a cure.

“The high court, however, is right in its observation that no medical practitioner can claim that it can cure Covid-19. There is no such claim in other therapy including allopathy. The high court is right in observing that no claim for cure can be made in homeopathy. Homeopathy is contemplated to be used in preventing and mitigating Covid-19 as is reflected by the advisory and guidelines issued by the ministry of Ayush…,” Justices Ashok Bhushan, R. Subhash Reddy and M.R. Shah stated.

The Supreme Court passed the ruling while disposing of an appeal filed by the Kerala-based Dr AKB Sadbhavana Mission School of Homeo Pharmacy that was aggrieved by Kerala High Court’s direction on August 21 for action against homeopaths who claim cure in homeopathy for Covid-19 patients. However, the Supreme Court judgment established that the Ayush ministry guidelines clearly refer to certain homeopathy medicines as preventive, prophalytic and add-on interventions to the conventional therapy. “The above guidelines refer to homeopathy medicines as medicines for prophylaxis, amelioration and mitigation. The guidelines, however, specifically provide that ‘the prescription has to be given only by institutionally qualified practitioners’,” the bench said.

According to the court, homeopathic practitioners are bound by rules from prescribing medicines as cure for Covid-19. “When statutory regulations themselves prohibit advertisement, there is no occasion for homeopathic medical practitioners to advertise that they are competent to cure Covid-19 disease. When the scientists of the entire world are engaged in research to find out proper medicine/vaccine for Covid-19, there is no occasion for making any observation as contained in the paragraph with regard to homeopathic medical practitioners,the judges stated.

_________________________________

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in India exceeds 10 million, and that of COVID-related death is almost 150 000. If you ask me, promoters of homeopathic remedies should not be allowed to advertise or sell their placebos pretending they are effective for any purpose in connection with COVID-19 (or any other serious disease for that matter) – not as a curative therapy, not for prevention, and not as a symptomatic treatment either.

On this blog we have seen just about every variation of misdemeanors by practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Today, I will propose a scale and rank order of these lamentable behaviours. As we regularly discuss chiropractic and homeopathy here, I decided to use these two professions as examples (but I could, of course, have chosen almost any other SCAM).

  1. Treating conditions which are not indicated: SCAM practitioners of all types are often asked by their patients to treat conditions which their particular SCAM cannot not affect. Instead of honestly saying so, they frequently apply their SCAM, wait for the natural history of the condition to do its bit, and subsequently claim that their SCAM was effective.
  2. Over-charging: asking too much money for services or goods is common (not just) in SCAM. It raises the question, what is the right price? There is, of course, no easy answer to it. Over-charging is therefore mostly a judgement call and not something absolute.
  3. Misleading a patient: there are numerous ways in which patients can be misled by their SCAM practitioners. A chiropractor who uses the Dr title, without explaining that it is not a medical title, is misleading his/her patients. A homeopath who implies that the remedy he/she is selling is a proven treatment is also misleading his/her patients.
  4. Being economical with the truth: the line between lying (see below) and being economical with the truth is often blurred. In my view, a chiropractor who does not volunteer the information that acute back pain, in most cases, resolves within a few days regardless of whether he/she mapipulates the patient’s spine or not, is economical with the truth. Similarly, a homeopath who does not explain up front that the remedy he/she prescribes does not contain a single active molecule is economical with the truth.
  5. Employing unreasonably long series of therapy: A chiropractor or homeopath, who treats a patient for months without any improvement in the patient’s condition, should suggest to call it a day. Patients should be given a treatment plan at the first consultation which includes the information when it would be reasonable to stop the SCAM.
  6. Failing to refer: A chiropractor or homeopath, who treats a patient for months without any improvement in the patient’s condition should refer the patient to another, better suited healthcare provider. Failing to do so is a serious disservice to the patient.
  7. Unethical behaviour: there are numerous ways SCAM practitioners regularly violate healthcare ethics. The most obvious one, as discussed often before on this blog, is to cut corners around informed consent. A chiropractor might, for instance, not tell his/her patient before sarting the treatment that spinal manipulation is not supported by sound evidence for efficacy or safety. A homeopathy might not explain that homeopathy is generally considered to be implausible and not evidence-based.
  8. Neglect: medical neglect occurs when patients are harmed or placed at significant risk of harm by gaps in their medical care. If a chiropractor or a homeopath, for instance, claim to be able to effectively treat asthma and fail to insist that all prescribed asthma medications must nevertheless be continued – as both often do – they are guilty of neglect, in my view. Medical neglect can be a reason for starting legal proceedings.
  9. Lying: knowingly not telling the truth can also be a serious legal issue. An example would be a chiropractor who, after beeing asked by a patient whether neck manipulation can cause harm, answers that it is an entirely safe procedure which has never injured anyone. Similarly, if a homeopaths informs his/her patient that the remedy he/she is prescribing has been extensively tested and found to be effective for the patient’s condition, he must be lying. If these practitioners believe what they tell the patient to be true, they might not technically be lying, but they would be neglecting their ethical duty to be adequately informed and they would therefore present an even greater danger to thier patients.
  10. Abuse: means to use something for the wrong purpose in a way that is harmful or morally wrong. A chiropractor who tells the mother of a healty child that they need maintenance care in order to prevent them falling ill in the future is abusing her and the child, in my view. Equally, I think that a homeopath, who homeopathically treats a disease that would otherwise be curable with conventional treatments, abuses his patient.
  11. Fraud: fraud is a legal term referring to dishonest acts that intentionally use deception to illegally deprive another person or entity of money, property, or legal rights. It relies on the use of intentional misrepresentation of fact to accomplish the taking. Arguably, most of the examples listed above are fraud by this definition.
  12. Sexual misconduct: the term refers to any behaviour which is sexual in nature and which is unwelcome and engaged in without consent. It ranges from unwanted groping to rape. There is, for instance, evidence that sexual misconduct is not a rarety in the realm of chiropractic. I have personally served once as an expert witness against a SCAM practitioner is a court case at the Exeter Crown Court.

The 12 categories listed above are not nearly as clearly defined as one would wish, and there is plenty of overlap. I am not claiming that my suggested ‘scale of misdemeanors by SCAM practitioners‘ or the proposed rank order are as yet optimal or even adequate. I am, however, hoping that readers will help me with their suggestions to improve them. Perhaps your input might then generate a scale of practical use for the future.

Who does not like a nice fragrance?

Who would object to aromatherapy?

Nobody, I suppose.

But, if its called THERAPY, we surely must ask whether it is therapeutic. And is aromatherapy therapeutic? Let’s see:

This randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial tested whether patients with post-dural puncture headache (PDPH) caused by spinal anesthesia would benefit from aromatherapy. A total od 50 patients received 15-minute inhalations of either lavender oil or liquid paraffin as placebo. The severity of headache was scored before (baseline) and after the intervention – immediately, 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes after – using a visual analog scale. In addition, the dosage and frequency of the pain killers as well as adverse effects of the intervention were recorded.

Both groups showed a reduction in headache scores post intervention. However, the headache scores between the groups was significantly different immediately after the intervention in favor of lavender oil (difference: 1.60 ± 0.63, P = .015). Furthermore, it was observed that the mean changes of the headache scores compared to the baseline were significant at each time interval in favor of the placebo group (P < .05), except immediately after the intervention. No significant difference was observed in Diclofenac intake between groups (P = .440), and no adverse effects were noted.

The authors concluded that aromatherapy with lavender oil was observed to reduce the severity of PDPH only immediately after the intervention, while only minimal effects were observed at successive time intervals. However, it is noted that the study was likely underpowered and further studies are recommended to better understand the effects of lavender oil on PDPH and compare its effects to other herbal products or pharmacological agents commonly used for managing headaches.

I find it laudable that some researchers conduct clinical trials even of so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) which many of us might view as trivial. I find it more laudable that they try to do this rigorously by adding a placebo control group to the study. And I would find it even more laudable, if they did this adequately.

Considering parafin oil to be a placebo in a study of lavender oil inhalation can hardly be called adequate. Placebos are used in clinical trials mostly to account for the expectation of patients. This means that, whenever possible, patients need to be blinded to the group aloocation and the placebo must be indistinguishable from the verum. In the present trial, the patients could obviously tell the difference between the smell of lavender and the absence of any smell in the control group. Thus, their expectation could easily suffice to bring about the findings observed in the study. This means that the trial does not neccessarily demonstrate the effects of armoatherapy, but might (and most probably does) merely show the power of expectation.

How can one design such a trial more rigorously? you will ask.

There are several options. For instance, for the control group, one could use an artificial fragrance not made from natural lavender. Alternatively, one could include only patients who are unfamiliar with the smell of lavender and use a similaryly pleasant fragrance from a different plant as the control intervention.

As it stands, the study – even though aimed at testing the hypothesis that aromatherpy with lavender has specific effects on pain – tells us next to nothing.

… except, of course that it is always worth thinking very carefully about the adequate way to conduct a clinical trial.

Adverse effects of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are, in my view, the most important and the most under-researched subject in the realm of SCAM. When I started my job at Exeter in 1993 declaring that I intended to make it a focus of my research, the SCAM scene was first puzzled and subsequently annoyed. SCAM proponents argued that the important risks in medicine are not in SCAM but in conventional medicine. I countered:

  1. that I would like to see some evidence to support this statement;
  2. that, as long as SCAM proponents would not produce sound evidence, the statement amounted to a mere assumption which needed urgent testing;
  3. that, when considering the safety of SCAM, we need to consider both the direct risks (for instance, adverse effects of a homeopathic or herbal remedy) and the indirect risks (for instance, the risks of consulting a homeopath or herbalist and adhering to their advice);
  4. that, in any case, the absolute risks were not as important as the risk/benefit balance for each SCAM;
  5. that we needed to research the risks of SCAMs much better in order to consider their risk/benefit profiles.

Since then, I have had hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of discussions, disputes and quarrels about this, repeatedly also in the comments section of this blog. Even though the issues are often complex, most of the ensuing circular argument can be condensed into a short dialogue between a fictional QUACK and a fictional SCIENTIST:

  • QUACK: There are no adverse effects associated with my SCAM; after all, it’s been around for a very long time and we would by now know about any problems.
  • SCIENTIST: But how can you be so sure without a reliable monitoring of adverse effects?
  • QUACK: There is no need for one, because my SCAM safe.
  • SCIENTIST: This what you think.
  • QUACK: Alright, then show me some peer-reviewed articles about adverse effects of SCAM.
  • SCIENTIST: How about this pile of papers reporting adverse effects of your SCAM?
  • QUACK: That’s just a collection of anecdotes! Anecdotes are not evidence! Show me the systematic research.
  • SCIENTIST: Here is a pile of systematic reviews on the subject. Happy?
  • QUACK: No, these are systematic reviews of case reports. Case reports are just anecdotes.
  • SCIENTIST: [slightly impatient] That’s because there is no monitoring of adverse effects in your field.
  • QUACK: There is no need, because it’s safe, and you have no evidence to show otherwise.
  • SCIENTIST: The burden of proof is not on my but on your shoulders.
  • QUACK: I have given you the proof – after hundreds of years of using my SCAM, there is no evidence of adverse effects.
  • SCIENTIST: [very impatient] Go yonder and multiply.
  • QUACK: You see, you have no evidence to prove that my SCAM is not safe, instead you just claim that it’s unsafe and even insult me.
  • SCIENTIST: I give up.

Instead of going through such discussions again and again, in future, I will just provide commentators on this blog with a link to this post. That should save both time and nerves.

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