Almost 10 years ago, I posted this:

When I decided to become a doctor I, like most medical students, did so mainly to help suffering individuals. When I became a researcher, I felt more removed from this original ideal. Yet I told myself that, by conducting research, I might eventually contribute to a better health care of tomorrow. Helping suffering patients was still firmly on the agenda. But then I realised that my articles in peer-reviewed medical journals somehow missed an important target: in alternative medicine, one ought to speak not just to health care professionals but also to consumers and patients; after all, it is they who often make the therapeutic decisions in this area.

Once I had realised this, I started addressing the general public by writing for The Guardian and other newspapers, giving public lectures and publishing books for a lay audience, like TRICK OR TREATMENT…The more I did this sort of thing, the more I noticed how important this activity was. And when a friend offered to help me set up a blog, I did not hesitate for long.

So, the reason for my enthusiasm for this blog turns out to be the same as the one that enticed me to go into medicine in the first place. I do believe that it is helpful for consumers to know the truth about alternative medicine. Considering the thousands of sources of daily misinformation in this area, there is an urgent need for well-informed, critical information. By providing it, I am sure I can assist people to make better therapeutic decisions. In a way, I am back where I started all those years ago: hoping to help suffering patients in the most direct way my expertise allows.

Helping vulnerable patients often means warning them from dangerous charlatans, and this is precisely what I frequently try to do with this blog. But how successful are my endeavors?

More often than not, I have no idea and can only hope for the best. Sometimes I do get some feedback that is encouraging and motivates me to carry on. Rarely, however, do I witness immediate, tangible success. And this is why the recent story is so remarkable:

  • On 6 June, an Australian acquaintance from the FRIENDS OF SCIENCE IN MEDICINE sent me some material about a planned lecture in the UK by someone promoting dangerous quackery.
  • I looked into it and published a blog post about it a few hours later.
  • A reader then suggested in the comments section of this post alerting the UK press to it.
  • Another reader contacted THE TIMES, and I wrote to several other journalists.
  • THE TIMES turned out to be interested in the story.
  • They did some research and interviewed Michael Marshall from the GOOD THINKING SOCIETY (and myself).
  • Today, THE TIMES published an article about the planned event.
  • Finally, a kind person made the article available to those who don’t want to pay for it.

The whole thing amounts to superb teamwork, in my view. It shows how like-minded people who do not even all know each other can manage to achieve a respectable result with little more than goodwill and dedication.

A respectable result?

Of course, the optimal result would be to stop Barbara O’Neill’s UK lectures. Let’s hope this is what eventually will happen – and please let me know if you know more.

32 Responses to Protecting vulnerable patients from charlatans: a story of superb teamwork

  • Doesn’t this demonstrate that the national press does have an appetite for such stories, based, of course, on the assumption that their readers do too.

    Ben Goldacre used to write a regular health column in the Guardian – perhaps the Times would be interested in publishing your work on a regular basis.

  • Informing people about your ideas about alternative forms of medicine is fine. But when you start advocating for these other forms of medicine to be eliminated it crosses the line. People choosing these other forms of medicine are not necessarily “vulnerable”. Many are very well informed and dont want the Conventional medicine which kills and maims lots of people, yet it gets a pass.

    • believe me, Stan, cancer patients are vulnerable!
      and whether you feel I cross a line or not is truly and utterly irrelevant.

      • I have never heard your willingness to suppress others’ right to choose their own desired form of healthcare limited to just cancer patients. You dont want anyone allowed to choose anything but what you think is right. Is this the German in you showing? Maybe you should start considering that other people might have valid points of view. Every society on the planet developed its own forms of medicine long before the economic juggernaut of conventional medicine crushed them without investigating whether they had any validity. You are just part of the mopping up process, making sure that no little crumbs of these systems remain.

        • The O’Neill case is not about patients’ choice; it is about a charlatan promoting her dangerous messages and about stopping misinformation that endangers public health.

    • stan, The magic carpets you are selling doesn’t fly. I think people looking to purchase them need to know that. I also think you should not be allowed to sell them, in order to protect the vulnerable that may fall prey to your sales tactics.

      • Totallly a case of the pot calling the kettle. The only ones using strong sales tactics are the big pharma goons who are allowed direct to consumer advertising so that patients will twist their doctor’s arms to prescribe the latest most expensive nostrum. About 70% of the MSM advertising comes from big pharma. Every one of the big networks has major Pfizer advertising, for one. The alternative medical “sales tactics” are a gnat on the arm of big pharma. Where do you see these “sales tactics” that you think really have some impact?

        • Stan

          The piece was published in the UK. Where pharmaceutical advertising is not permitted.

          So that’s your flaming straw man pissed on.

        • Stan, Good to know that you are an advocate for jumping of the cliff with a magic carpet, hoping that it would fly, because airplanes have problems sometimes.

    • @stan

      I agree with you Stan, and I have pointed this out previously here at this very forum…. to deaf ears.

      Most of the patients seeking out alternative therapies, are those that have experienced failed conventional medicine (also known at this forum as CONmed). I know because I’m one of them, and I know many others.

      • I am so glad the two brightest buttons in the drawer agree!

      • And as we have repeatedly replied to you, RG, the fact that aircraft occasionally crash does not mean that magic carpets are of any use.

      • Mr Joromat,

        It seems to me that if somebody starts of with unrealistic expectations of what is possible with conventional medicine then they might well feel let down by it. However, to expect alternative therapies to work any better, when there is usually no plausible reason why they should, or evidence that they do, is also unrealistic.

      • You agree with Stan and Stan agrees with you. Why am I not surprised that friends of quackery always feel the need to cuddle and validate themselves?

    • @stan

      But when you start advocating for these other forms of medicine to be eliminated it crosses the line.

      So fraud and deception should not be eliminated wherever possible? Because that is what alternative ‘medicine’ is – notwithstanding the fact that many quacks first and foremost deceive themselves.

      • I think the events of the past few years have shown us that those who won’t do the right thing are a danger to others and this is certainly something that the state should take a hand in.
        I would not advocate criminalising these people so as not to create martyrs but at the very least promoting dangerous quack remedies should be stopped, people who treat animals with homeopathy should never be able to have animals again, and a failure to vaccinate children should be an automatic safeguarding for neglect.

        • people who treat animals with homeopathy should never be able to have animals again, and a failure to vaccinate children should be an automatic safeguarding for neglect.

          Not that I am against it, but that sounds like criminalization to me.

  • I can’t find it now (hopefully someone else will know it) but I have read there is evidence that it is the audience who are influenced by a debate between a sensible person and an antivaxxer, never the antivaxxer. So even though we all know that when an antivaxxer demands a debate they don’t want one and just want to use all the tricks we are accustomed to, it still has a function because the debate influences those observing (by seeing the fallacies, lies, errors, etc) more than the ones having the debate.
    I think that is the way this blog would influence as well. You get a solid wall of typical resistance (like the SCAM cancer remedies kill – you’re a Nazi dictator retort above) which actually does influence the audience.
    You may not see it but I think that’s because the main effect of the blog would be on people who would never comment but would go away thinking about SCAM, and that’s what you want isn’t it?
    Of course it would be good if it was illegal, but heigh ho.

  • @Lenny (and also Dr. Julian)

    Sirs, the lines drawn between airline safety vs magic carpet rides are quite clear, the lines between CONmed and CAM … not so much.

    Allow me to illustrate.
    Here in the link below you can view statistical information complied by a German statistics company (Statista –
    I took the time to add together all the statistics from all the condition categories to compile the results. I took the liberty to omit Bone Fractures and Gastronomical Infections, as I’ve always subscribed to the use of acute care and antibiotics when necessary. If I had not omitted those categories, it still would not have effected the results overwhelmingly.

    So after adding together the scores, it looks like this;
    very effective – somewhat effective – somewhat ineffective – completely ineffective
    85 284 185 138

    This tells us that in the USA, that patients are NOT overwhelmingly convinced that conventional medicine is more effective than CAM. If you add the very effective scores together with the somewhat effective scores, you actually get a higher efficacy rating with CAM than vs conventional medicine. When we compare very effective scores to the completely ineffective scoring, conventional medicine clearly comes out ahead, but the percentage of people that experienced high efficacy from CAM therapies can not be ignored.

    I imagine that in the UK, your millage will vary, perhaps significantly. However, is it really as clear as comparing planes to magic carpets …. no. So please stop using that example.

    I can already hear a response that tells me that this means of evaluation in not scientific. I DON’T CARE !
    In my lifetime, my experience wins out over a liar with an agenda (motive).

    • so, you think that opinion can be equated with evidence?

      • @EE

        You call it opinion. I call it real life experience, which I value more than “scientific evidence”.

        • I know – but I am not interested in what you value more.
          For me, the question is what is, according to generally accepted criteria, sound evidence and what is not.

        • @James

          I call it real life experience, which I value more than “scientific evidence”.

          Doctors relied on real life experience for thousands of years. As a result, their “treatments” were often worse than simply doing nothing.

          Scientific evidence has been instrumental in improving almost every aspect of human life in general and medicine in particular. You are of course free to reject the accomplishments of science and the evidence that supports these accomplishments – but I notice that you implicitly accept almost all of science, only rejecting the bits about which you seem to have adopted a dissenting personal opinion. Which I find a bit strange.
          Why do you completely trust e.g. computer technology and cars and airplanes – all of which rely heavily on proven scientific principles – yet reject medical science that is based on scientific evidence that is equally strong?

        • You call it opinion. I call it real life experience, which I value more than “scientific evidence”.

          My maternal grandfather smoked 40 a day, drank heavily, had a fried breakfast every day and swore by his fish and chip suppers twice a week. He was in good health and died at the age of 85, ten years above the average life expectancy in 1990. If we value real-life experience shouldn’t you be following his example, or his real-life experience somehow less valid than yours?

    • RG

      You do know what we call complementary and alternative medicine which has been demonstrated to be effective?


      You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts. The magic carpet analogy stands.

    • my experience wins out over a liar with an agenda (motive).

      You mean quacks? Because they are the liars who, usually without medical education to speak of, try to make people believe that they’re some sort of doctor, motivated by both the easy money (they are allowed to rip people off about their health with impunity) and the respect that real doctors get.

      And what’s more: real doctors at least admit when they turned out to be wrong about the way they practise medicine, eventually abandoning treatments that don’t work or are plain harmful.
      Quacks, on the other hand, will never admit that they’re wrong, and will keep selling their gullible customers the same old magical nonsense, no matter how often it has been proven wrong.

    • @James Joromat

      No wonder why the magic carpet sales are going thru the roof in USA!!

  • Just saw this on Twitter:
    just told me that convicted #Australian #Cancer #Quack #BarbaraONeill talks have been cancelled because of our concerns👇
    Manna house is still being investigated by Police, CQC.
    Well done everyone that spoke out

    • Certainly a result!

      On one of her web pages, Mrs O’Neill claims to have gained a Diploma in Naturopathy.

      Does anyone know what institution awarded this Diploma?

      The Australian Health Care Commission ruling stated that she doesn’t have any health qualifications.

      Some Naturopathy courses may have some degree of government Accreditation and therefore some legal if not medically ethical, legitimacy. But in the light of the Australian ruling, it looks like whoever awarded Mrs O’Neill a ‘Diploma’, wasn’t any kind of reputable, recognised institution…..

      (Shades of Dr. Goldacre obtaining the same ‘medical qualification’ as “Dr” Gillian McKeith, for his deceased cat……)

    • I don’t know about O’Nell’s diploma, but the Wikipedia page on her says that her husband is the founder of the Informed Medical Options Party, an anti-vaccine (and anti-fluoridation and anti-5G) party that ran candidates in the recent Australian Federal Election.

      You’ll all be saddened to hear that they won only 0.18% of the national first preference vote in the House of Representatives, and 0.32% in the Senate.

      Their policies:

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