I had come across them so often that I had almost stopped noticing them: the ‘little extras‘ that make ineffective so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) seem effective. Then, recently, during an interview about detox diets, the interviewer responded to my explanation of the ineffectiveness of these treatments by saying: “but these diets include stopping the consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, and other harmful stuff; therefore they must be good.” This seemingly convincing argument reminded me of a phenomenon – I call it here the ‘little extra‘ – that applies to so many (if not most) SCAMs.
Let me schematically summarise it as follows:
- A practitioner applies an ineffective SCAM to a patient.
- Because it is ineffective, it has little effect other than a small placebo response.
- The ineffective SCAM comes with a ‘little extra‘ which is unrelated to the SCAM.
- The ‘little extra‘ is effective.
- The end result is that the ineffective SCAM appears to be effective.
The above example makes it quite clear: the detox diet is utter nonsense but, as it goes hand in hand with effective lifestyle changes, it appears to be effective. A classic case. But SCAM offers no end of similar examples:
- Acupuncture is useless but it involves touch, time, attention, and empathy all of which are effective in making a patient feel better.
- Chiropractic is useless but it involves touch, time, attention, and empathy all of which are effective in making a patient feel better.
- Homeopathy is useless but it involves a long, empathic consultation and attention which are effective in making a patient feel better.
- Osteopathy is useless but it involves touch, time, attention, and empathy all of which are effective in making a patient feel better.
- Reflexology is useless but it involves touch, time, attention, and empathy all of which are effective in making a patient feel better.
Do I need to continue?
The ‘little extras‘ are often forgotten or subsumed under the heading ‘placebo’. Yet, they are not part of the placebo effect. Strictly speaking, they are concomitant treatments comparable to a pain patient using SCAM and also taking a few paracetamols. In the end, she forgets about the painkillers and thinks that her SCAM worked wonders.
Even ardent SCAM proponents have long realized this phenomenon. Here, for example, is a paper entitled ‘Acupuncture as a complex intervention: a holistic model’ by ex-colleagues of mine at Exeter looking at it but coming up with a very different perspective:
Objectives: Our understanding of acupuncture and Chinese medicine is limited by a lack of inquiry into the dynamics of the process. We used a longitudinal research design to investigate how the experience, and the effects, of a course of acupuncture evolved over time.
Design and outcome measures: This was a longitudinal qualitative study, using a constant comparative method, informed by grounded theory. Each person was interviewed three times over 6 months. Semistructured interviews explored people’s experiences of illness and treatment. Across-case and within-case analysis resulted in themes and individual vignettes.
Subjects and settings: Eight (8) professional acupuncturists in seven different settings informed their patients about the study. We interviewed a consecutive sample of 23 people with chronic illness, who were having acupuncture for the first time.
Results: People described their experience of acupuncture in terms of the acupuncturist’s diagnostic and needling skills; the therapeutic relationship; and a new understanding of the body and self as a whole being. All three of these components were imbued with holistic ideology. Treatment effects were perceived as changes in symptoms, changes in energy, and changes in personal and social identity. The vignettes showed the complexity and the individuality of the experience of acupuncture treatment. The process and outcome components were distinct but not divisible, because they were linked by complex connections. The paper depicts these results as a diagrammatic model that illustrates the components and their interconnections and the cyclical reinforcement, both positive and negative, that can occur over time.
Conclusions: The holistic model of acupuncture treatment, in which “the whole being greater than the sum of the parts,” has implications for service provision and for research trial design. Research trials that evaluate the needling technique, isolated from other aspects of process, will interfere with treatment outcomes. The model requires testing in different service and research settings.
I think the perspective of viewing SCAMs as complex interventions is needlessly confusing and deeply unhelpful. The truth is that there is no treatment that is not complex. Take a surgical treatment, for instance, it involves dozens of ‘little extras‘ that are known to be effective. Should we, therefore, try to use this fact for justifying useless surgical interventions? Or take a simple prescription of medication from a doctor. It involves time, empathy, attention, explanations, etc. all of which will affect the patient’s symptoms. Should we thus use this to justify a useless drug? Certainly not!
And for the same reason, it is nonsense to use the ‘little extras‘ that come with all the numerous ineffective SCAMs as a smokescreen that makes them look effective.
An experienced Swedish rural family doctor had an elderly lady patient who came regularly for checkups. His young assistant asked why he did a thorough examination every time, even if nothing was wrong with her.
The doctor replied: “She is lonely and suffering from skin hunger. I give her what she needs to stay happy, attention and a little skin to skin contact.”
Someone on a homeopathic regimen to lose weight: “and we had to cut all carbs and fats.” Exactly my point in my Skeptic article. When researcher cut out all “extraneous influences” in their research to measure the real effect, the treatment effect size attenuates:
Dr. Ernst: “Osteopathy is useless but it involves touch, time, attention, and empathy all of which are effective in making a patient feel better.”
Perhaps Dr. Ernst should mention that osteopathy in the United States is now all but indistinguishable from mainstream medicine.
I did, about a dozen times in previous posts.
In addition to Edzard’s reply:
At the time of writing, 95.75% of the total world population does not reside in the United States.
My family doctor prescribed me over the counter Ibuprofen for my pulled muscle, said will help pain while it heals. My chiropractor said he would heal with 2 time a week sessions, for 8 weeks, never discussed price because insurance will pay for it.
Guess which one cost more? If transparency is involved. .
Ironic since inflammation in acute MSK conditions is part of the healing process.
Homeopaths give a long interview at the start of treatment, which might make the patient feel better at the start of treatment. But the results of the cure are documented to last long after the patient has seen the practitioner and long after they are finished taking the remedy, for conditions that are even considered incurable by conventional medicine. Like in my case, long lasting cures (30+ years) of malaria, dysentery twice, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc.
Placebo effect is known to be short term, while taking the placebo, and only for conditions that have a large psychological component, like pain. It is not known for curing chronic conditions long term.
what I am talking about here is NOT a placebo effect!!!