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

As promised, here is my translation of the article published yesterday in ‘Le Figaro’ arguing in favour of integrating so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) into the French healthcare system [the numbers in square brackets were inserted by me and refer to my comments listed at the bottom].

So-called unconventional healthcare practices (osteopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture, homeopathy and hypnosis, according to the Ministry of Health) are a cause for concern for the health authorities and Miviludes, which in June 2023 set up a committee to support the supervision of unconventional healthcare practices, with the task of informing consumers, patients and professionals about their benefits and risks, both in the community and in hospitals. At the time, various reports, surveys and press articles highlighted the risks associated with NHPs, without pointing to their potential benefits [1] in many indications, provided they are properly supervised. There was panic about the “booming” use of these practices, the “explosion” of aberrations, and the “boost effect” of the pandemic [2].

But what are the real figures? Apart from osteopathy, we lack reliable data in France to confirm a sharp increase in the use of these practices [3]. In Switzerland, where it has been decided to integrate them into university hospitals and to regulate the status of practitioners who are not health professionals, the use of NHPs has increased very slightly [4]. With regard to health-related sectarian aberrations, referrals to Miviludes have been stable since 2017 (around 1,000 per year), but it should be pointed out that they are a poor indicator of the “risk” associated with NHPs (unlike reports). The obvious contrast between the figures and the press reports raises questions [5]. Are we witnessing a drift in communication about the risks of ‘alternative’ therapies? [6] Is this distortion of reality [7] necessary in order to justify altering the informed information and freedom of therapeutic choice of patients, which are ethical and democratic imperatives [8]?

It is the inappropriate use of certain NHPs that constitutes a risk, more than the NHPs themselves! [9] Patients who hope to cure their cancer with acupuncture alone and refuse anti-cancer treatments are clearly using it in a dangerous alternative way [10]. However, acupuncture used to relieve nausea caused by chemotherapy, as a complement to the latter, is recommended by the French Association for Supportive Care [11]. The press is full of the dangers of alternative uses, but they are rare: less than 5% of patients treated for cancer according to a European study [12]. This is still too many. Supervision would reduce this risk even further [13].

Talking about risky use is therefore more relevant than listing “illusory therapies”, vaguely defined as “not scientifically validated” and which are by their very nature “risky” [14]. What’s more, it suggests that conventional treatments are always validated and risk-free [15]. But this is not true! In France, iatrogenic drug use is estimated to cause over 200,000 hospital admissions and 10,000 deaths a year [16]. Yes, some self-medication with phytotherapy or aromatherapy does carry risks… just like any self-medication with conventional medicines [17]. Yes, acupuncture can cause deep organ damage, but these accidents occur in fewer than 5 out of every 100,000 patients [18]. Yes, cervical manipulations by osteopaths can cause serious or even fatal injuries, but these exceptional situations are caused by practitioners who do not comply with the decree governing their practice.[19] Yes, patients can be swindled by charlatans, but there are also therapeutic and financial abuses in conventional medicine, such as those reported in dental and ophthalmology centres. [20]

Are patients really that naive? No. 56% are aware that “natural” remedies can have harmful side-effects, and 70% know that there is a risk of sectarian aberrations or of patients being taken in by a sect [21]. In view of the strong demand from patients, we believe that guaranteeing safe access to certain NHPs is an integral part of their supervision, based on regulation of the training and status of practitioners who are not health professionals, transparent communication, appropriate research, the development of hospital services and outpatient networks of so-called “integrative” medicine combining conventional practices and NHPs, structured care pathways with qualified professionals, precise indications and a safe context for treatment.[22] This pragmatic approach to reducing risky drug use [17] has demonstrated its effectiveness in addictionology [23]. It should inspire decision-makers in the use of NHPs”.

  1. Reports about things going wrong usually do not include benefits. For instance, for a report about rail strikes it would be silly to include a paragraph on the benefits of rail transport. Moreover, it is possible that the benefits were not well documented or even non-existent.
  2. No, there was no panic but some well-deserved criticism and concern.
  3. Would it not be the task of practitioners to provide reliable data of their growth or decline?
  4. The situation in Switzerland is often depicted by enthusiasts as speaking in favour of SCAM; however, the reality is very different.
  5. Even if reports were exaggerated, the fact is that the SCAM community does as good as nothing to prevent abuse.
  6. For decades, these therapies were depicted as gentle and harmless (medicines douces!). As they can cause harm, it is high time that there is a shift in reporting and consumers are informed responsibly.
  7. What seems a ‘distortion of reality’ to enthusiasts might merely be a shift to responsible reporting akin to that in conventional medicine where emerging risks are taken seriously.
  8. Are you saying that informing consumers about risks is not an ethical imperative? I’d argue it is an imperative that outweighs all others.
  9. What if both the inappropriate and the appropriate use involve risks?
  10.  Sadly, there are practitioners who advocate this type of usage.
  11. The recommendation might be outdated; current evidence is far less certain that this treatment might be effective (“the certainty of evidence was generally low or very low“)
  12. The dangers depend on a range of factors, not least the nature of the therapy; in case of spinal manipulation, for instance, about 50% of all patients suffer adverse effects which can be severe, even fatal.
  13. Do you have any evidence showing that supervision would reduce this risk, or is this statement based on wishful thinking?
  14. As my previous comments demonstrate, this statement is erroneous.
  15. No, it does not.
  16. Even if this figure is correct, we need to look at the risk/benefit balance. How many lives were saved by conventional medicine?
  17. Again: please look at the risk/benefit balance.
  18. How can you be confident about these figures in the absence of any post-marketing surveillance system? The answer is, you cannot!
  19. No, they occur even with well-trained practitioners who comply with all the rules and regulations that exist – spoiler: there hardly are any rules and regulations!
  20. Correct! But this is a fallacious argument that has nothing to do with SCAM. Please read up about the ‘tu quoque’ and the strawman’ fallacies.
  21. If true, that is good news. Yet, it is impossible to deny that thousands of websites try to convince the consumer that SCAM is gentle and safe.
  22. Strong demand is not a substitute for reliable evidence. In any case, you stated above that demand is not increasing, didn’t you?
  23. Effectiveness in addictionology? Do you have any evidence for this or is that statement also based on wishful thinking?

My conclusion after analysing this article in detail is that it is poorly argued, based on misunderstandings, errors, and wishful thinking. It cannot possibly convince rational thinkers that SCAM should be integrated into conventional healthcare.

PS

The list of signatories can be found in the original paper.

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