Yesterday, L’EXPRESS published an interview with me. It was introduced with these words (my translation):
Professor emeritus at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, Edzard Ernst is certainly the best connoisseur of unconventional healing practices. For 25 years, he has been sifting through the scientific evaluation of these so-called “alternative” medicines. With a single goal: to provide an objective view, based on solid evidence, of the reality of the benefits and risks of these therapies. While this former homeopathic doctor initially thought he was bringing them a certain legitimacy, he has become one of their most enlightened critics. It is notable as a result of his work that the British health system, the NHS, gave up covering homeopathy. Since then, he has never ceased to alert us to the abuses and lies associated with these practices. For L’Express, he looks back at the challenges of regulating this vast sector and deciphers the main concepts put forward by “wellness” professionals – holism, detox, prevention, strengthening the immune system, etc.
The interview itself is quite extraordinary, in my view. While UK, US, and German journalists usually are at pains to tone down my often outspoken answers, the French journalists (there were two doing the interview with me) did nothing of the sort. This starts with the title of the piece: “Homeopathy is implausible but energy healing takes the biscuit”.
The overall result is one of the most outspoken interviews of my entire career. Let me offer you a few examples (again my translation):
Why are you so critical of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow who promote these wellness methods?
Sadly, we have gone from evidence-based medicine to celebrity-based medicine. A celebrity without any medical background becomes infatuated with a certain method. They popularize this form of treatment, very often making money from it. The best example of this is Prince Charles, sorry Charles III, who spent forty years of his life promoting very strange things under the guise of defending alternative medicine. He even tried to market a “detox” tincture, based on artichoke and dandelion, which was quickly withdrawn from the market.
How to regulate this sector of wellness and alternative medicines? Today, anyone can present himself as a naturopath or yoga teacher…
Each country has its own regulation, or rather its own lack of regulation. In Germany, for instance, we have the “Heilpraktikter”. Anyone can get this paramedical status, you just have to pass an exam showing that you are not a danger to the public. You can retake this exam as often as you want. Even the dumbest will eventually pass. But these practitioners have an incredible amount of freedom, they even may give infusions and injections. So there is a two-tier health care system, with university-trained doctors and these practitioners.
In France, you have non-medical practitioners who are fighting for recognition. Osteopaths are a good example. They are not officially recognized as a health profession. Many schools have popped up to train them, promising a good income to their students, but today there are too many osteopaths compared to the demand of the patients (knowing that nobody really needs an osteopath to begin with…). Naturopaths are in the same situation.
In Great Britain, osteopaths and chiropractors are regulated by statute. There is even a Royal College dedicated to chiropractic. It’s a bit like having a Royal College for hairdressers! It’s stupid, but we have that. We also have professionals like naturopaths, acupuncturists, or herbalists who have an intermediate status. So it’s a very complex area, depending on the state. It is high time to have more uniform regulations in Europe.
But what would adequate regulation look like?
From my point of view, if you really regulate a profession like homeopaths, it means that these professionals may only practice according to the best scientific evidence available. Which, in practice, means that a homeopath cannot practice homeopathy. This is why these practitioners have a schizophrenic attitude toward regulation. On the one hand, they would like to be recognized to gain credibility. But on the other hand, they know very well that a real regulation would mean that they would have to close shop…
What about the side effects of these practices?
If you ask an alternative practitioner about the risks involved, he or she will take exception. The problem is that there is no system in alternative medicine to monitor side effects and risks. However, there have been cases where chiropractors or acupuncturists have killed people. These cases end up in court, but not in the medical literature. The acupuncturists have no problem saying that a hundred deaths due to acupuncture – a figure that can be found in the scientific literature – is negligible compared to the millions of treatments performed every day in this discipline. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many cases that are not published and therefore not included in the data, because there is no real surveillance system for these disciplines.
Do you see a connection between the wellness sector and conspiracy theories? In the US, we saw that Qanon was thriving in the yoga sector, for example…
Several studies have confirmed these links: people who adhere to conspiracy theories also tend to turn to alternative medicine. If you think about it, alternative medicine is itself a conspiracy theory. It is the idea that conventional medicine, in the name of pharmaceutical interests, in particular, wants to suppress certain treatments, which can therefore only exist in an alternative world. But in reality, the pharmaceutical industry is only too eager to take advantage of this craze for alternative products and well-being. Similarly, universities, hospitals, and other health organizations are all too willing to open their doors to these disciplines, despite the lack of evidence of their effectiveness.