alternative medicine

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My friend and colleague Willem Betz has died on 8 June 2019. He was a physician and professor emeritus at the Belgian university Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Willem was a leading sceptic and a founding member of the Belgian sceptic organization SKEPP.

After having worked 20 years as a general practitioner, he made a career change and became a teacher of general practice and a researcher. As a clinician, he received training in several alternative therapies and practiced them of a short while. Soon, he started questioning the validity of these methods and thus became a dedicated sceptic. He served SKEPP as vice-president and as president and became a fellow of the Committee for Scientific Inquiry.

His last paper was published less than a year ago. Here is its abstract:

Conventional treatment of multiple sclerosis (MS) is often disappointing. As a result, some of these patients seek salvation in traditional and complementary medicine (T&CM). The aim of this study is to describe how many patients with MS use T&CM and what their motives and expectations are in doing so. Methods. Ninety-nine patients with diagnosed MS, attending the service of ambulatory revalidation of the National Clinic for Multiple Sclerosis in Melsbroek (Belgium) were included in February 2004 in this retrospective study. All patients had MS resulting in motoric or psychosocial symptoms. The disability was not quantified for this study. Participants were interviewed by means of a structured questionnaire on their current treatment of MS including T&CM. Results. In total 44% of the participants had experiences with T&CM. The most frequently used T&CM were homeopathy and acupuncture. Participants using conventional treatment were more satisfied with the support (p=0.006) and the treatment outcome (0.018) than T&CM users. The use of T&CM was not related to gender, education, living conditions, causal treatment such as disease modifying-therapy (DMT), grade of disability or subtype of the disease. Conclusion. Patients diagnosed with MS seek hope in T&CM such as homeopathy or acupuncture. The results of this study suggest that MS patients need more professional support in their personal search for alternative therapies. Key point. 50% of patients diagnosed with multiple sclerosis search relief in traditional and complementary medicine such as homeopathy or acupuncture. These patients often feel compelled to try every opportunity to heal, often stimulated or urged on by friends or relatives. Multiple sclerosis patients are more satisfied with their conventional treatment than with the traditional and complementary medicine.

Through his personality, enthusiasm, analytical mind, humour and dedication, Willem has inspired an entire generation of sceptics. We will miss you Willem.

You might remember my post from last October:

On Twitter and elsewhere, homeopaths have been celebrating: FINALLY A PROOF OF HOMEOPATHY HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN A TOP SCIENCE JOURNAL!!!

Here is just one example:

#homeopathy under threat because of lack of peer reviewed studies in respectable journals? Think again. Study published in the most prestigious journal Nature shows efficacy of rhus tox in pain control in rats.

But what exactly does this study show (btw, it was not published in ‘Nature’)?

The authors of the paper in question evaluated antinociceptive efficacy of Rhus Tox in the neuropathic pain and delineated its underlying mechanism. Initially, in-vitro assay using LPS-mediated ROS-induced U-87 glioblastoma cells was performed to study the effect of Rhus Tox on reactive oxygen species (ROS), anti-oxidant status and cytokine profile. Rhus Tox decreased oxidative stress and cytokine release with restoration of anti-oxidant systems. Chronic treatment with Rhus Tox ultra dilutions for 14 days ameliorated neuropathic pain revealed as inhibition of cold, warm and mechanical allodynia along with improved motor nerve conduction velocity (MNCV) in constricted nerve. Rhus Tox decreased the oxidative and nitrosative stress by reducing malondialdehyde (MDA) and nitric oxide (NO) content, respectively along with up regulated glutathione (GSH), superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase activity in sciatic nerve of rats. Notably, Rhus Tox treatment caused significant reductions in the levels of tumor necrosis factor (TNF-α), interleukin-6 (IL-6) and interleukin-1β (IL-1β) as compared with CCI-control group. Protective effect of Rhus Tox against CCI-induced sciatic nerve injury in histopathology study was exhibited through maintenance of normal nerve architecture and inhibition of inflammatory changes. Overall, neuroprotective effect of Rhus Tox in CCI-induced neuropathic pain suggests the involvement of anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory mechanisms.


I am utterly under-whelmed by in-vitro experiments (which are prone to artefacts) and animal studies (especially those with a sample size of 8!) of homeopathy. I think they have very little relevance to the question whether homeopathy works.

But there is more, much more!

It has been pointed out that there are several oddities in this paper which are highly suspicious of scientific misconduct or fraud. It has been noted that the study used duplicated data figures that claimed to show different experimental results, inconsistently reported data and results for various treatment dilutions in the text and figures, contained suspiciously identical data points throughout a series of figures that were reported to represent different experimental results, and hinged on subjective, non-blinded data from a pain experiment involving just eight rats.

Lastly, others pointed out that even if the data is somehow accurate, the experiment is unconvincing. The fast timing differences of paw withdraw is subjective. It’s also prone to bias because the researchers were not blinded to the rats’ treatments (meaning they could have known which animals were given the control drug or the homeopathic dilution). Moreover, eight animals in each group is not a large enough number from which to draw firm conclusions, they argue.

As one consequence of these suspicions, the journal has recently added the following footnote to the publication:

10/1/2018 Editors’ Note: Readers are alerted that the conclusions of this paper are subject to criticisms that are being considered by the editors. Appropriate editorial action will be taken once this matter is resolved.


Well, it took a while, but now there is some news about this case:

‘Science Reports’, just published a retraction note:

Retraction of: Scientific Reports, published online 10 September 2018

Following publication, the journal received criticisms regarding the rationale of this study and the plausibility of its central conclusions. Expert advice was obtained, and the following issues were determined to undermine confidence in the reliability of the study.

The in vitro model does not support the main conclusion of the paper that Rhus Tox reduces pain. The qualitative and quantitative composition of the Rhus Tox extract is unknown. Figures 1G and 1H are duplicates; and figures 1I and 1J are duplicates. The majority of experimental points reported in figure 3 panel A are duplicated in figure 3 panel B. The collection, description, analysis and presentation of the behavioural data in Figure 3 is inadequate and cannot be relied upon.

As a result the editors are retracting the Article. The authors do not agree with the retraction.


Does that mean the suspect paper has been declared fraudulent?

I think so.

In any case: another victory of reason over unreason!

Green tea is said to have numerous health benefits. Recently, a special green tea, matcha tea, is gaining popularity and is claimed to be more powerful than simple green tea. Matcha tea consumption is said to lead to higher intake of green tea phytochemicals compared to regular green tea.

But what is matcha tea? This article explains:

The word matcha literally means “powdered tea”. Drinking a cup or two of the tea made from this powder could help you tackle your day feeling clear, motivated and energized, rather than foggy, stressed out, and succumbing to chaos.

Matcha tea leaves are thrown a lot of shade (literally). They’re grown in the dark. The shade growing process increases matcha’s nutrients, especially chlorophyll, a green plant pigment that allows plants to absorb energy from sunlight. Chlorophyll is rich in antioxidants, and gives matcha it’s electrifying green colour. Shade growing also increases the amount of L-theanine, which is the amino acid known for promoting mental clarity, focus, and a sense of calm. It’s called nature’s “Xanax” for a reason.

The high amino acid content is also what gives matcha it’s signature umami taste. Umami is the “fifth” taste that describes the savory flavor of foods like miso, parmesan cheese, chicken broth, spinach, and soy sauce. You know you’ve got a premium matcha when you taste balanced umami flavors, hints of creaminess, and the slightest taste of fresh cut grass. You shouldn’t need to add any sweetener to enjoy sipping it. When choosing a high quality matcha powder, it’s important to remember: a strong umami flavour = higher in amino acids = the more L-theanine you’ll receive.

Once matcha leaves are harvested, they get steamed, dried, and ground up into a fine powder that you can mix with hot or cold water. The key difference here is that you’re actually consuming the nutrients from the entire leaf— which is most concentrated in antioxidants, amino acids, and umami flavour. This is unlike traditional brewed tea, where you’re only drinking the dissolvable portions of the leaf that have been steeped in water.

The article also names 5 effects of matcha tea:

1. Promotes Relaxation, Mood, and Mental Focus

2. Supports Healthy Cognitive Function

3. Supports Detoxification

4. Fights Physical Signs of Aging

5. Promotes a Healthy Heart

None of the sources provided do actually confirm that matcha tea conveys any of these benefits in humans. My favourite reference provided by the author is the one that is supposed to show that matcha tea is a detox remedy for humans. The article provided is entitled Low-dose dietary chlorophyll inhibits multi-organ carcinogenesis in the rainbow trout. Who said that SCAM-peddlers have no sense of humour?

Joking aside, is there any evidence at all to show that matcha tea has any health effects in humans? I found two clinical trials that tested this hypothesis.

Trial No1:

Intake of the catechin epigallocatechin gallate and caffeine has been shown to enhance exercise-induced fat oxidation. Matcha green tea powder contains catechins and caffeine and is consumed as a drink. We examined the effect of Matcha green tea drinks on metabolic, physiological, and perceived intensity responses during brisk walking. A total of 13 females (age: 27 ± 8 years, body mass: 65 ± 7 kg, height: 166 ± 6 cm) volunteered to participate in the study. Resting metabolic equivalent (1-MET) was measured using Douglas bags (1-MET: 3.4 ± 0.3 ml·kg-1·min-1). Participants completed an incremental walking protocol to establish the relationship between walking speed and oxygen uptake and individualize the walking speed at 5- or 6-MET. A randomized, crossover design was used with participants tested between Days 9 and 11 of the menstrual cycle (follicular phase). Participants consumed three drinks (each drink made with 1 g of Matcha premium grade; OMGTea Ltd., Brighton, UK) the day before and one drink 2 hr before the 30-min walk at 5- (n = 10) or 6-MET (walking speed: 5.8 ± 0.4 km/hr) with responses measured at 8-10, 18-20, and 28-30 min. Matcha had no effect on physiological and perceived intensity responses. Matcha resulted in lower respiratory exchange ratio (control: 0.84 ± 0.04; Matcha: 0.82 ± 0.04; p < .01) and enhanced fat oxidation during a 30-min brisk walk (control: 0.31 ± 0.10; Matcha: 0.35 ± 0.11 g/min; p < .01). Matcha green tea drinking can enhance exercise-induced fat oxidation in females. However, when regular brisk walking with 30-min bouts is being undertaken as part of a weight loss program, the metabolic effects of Matcha should not be overstated.

Trial No 2:

Matcha tea is gaining popularity throughout the world in recent years and is frequently referred to as a mood-and-brain food. Previous research has demonstrated that three constituents present in matcha tea, l-theanine, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), and caffeine, affect mood and cognitive performance. However, to date there are no studies assessing the effect of matcha tea itself. The present study investigates these effects by means of a human intervention study administering matcha tea and a matcha containing product. Using a randomized, placebo-controlled, single-blind study, 23 consumers participated in four test sessions. In each session, participants consumed one of the four test products: matcha tea, matcha tea bar (each containing 4g matcha tea powder), placebo tea, or placebo bar. The assessment was performed at baseline and 60min post-treatment. The participants performed a set of cognitive tests assessing attention, information processing, working memory, and episodic memory. The mood state was measured by means of a Profile of Mood States (POMS). After consuming the matcha products compared to placebo versions, there were mainly significant improvements in tasks measuring basic attention abilities and psychomotor speed in response to stimuli over a defined period of time. In contrast to expectations, the effect was barely present in the other cognitive tasks. The POMS results revealed no significant changes in mood. The influence of the food matrix was demonstrated by the fact that on most cognitive performance measures the drink format outperformed the bar format, particularly in tasks measuring speed of spatial working memory and delayed picture recognition. This study suggests that matcha tea consumed in a realistic dose can induce slight effects on speed of attention and episodic secondary memory to a low degree. Further studies are required to elucidate the influences of the food matrix.

Not impressed?

Me neither!

However, I was impressed when I looked up the costs of matcha tea: £17.95 for 30 g of powder does not exactly seem to be a bargain. So, matcha tea does after all help some people, namely all those engaged in flogging it to the gullible SCAM fraternity.


So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is a seriously dangerous option for cancer patients who aim at curing their cancer with it. One cannot warn patients often and strongly enough, I believe. But when it comes to supportive cancer treatment (care that does not aim at changing the natural history of the disease), SCAM might have a place. I said ‘might’ because its exact role is far from clear.

The aim of this study was to investigate the effects of a complex, nurse-led, supportive care intervention using SCAM on patients’ quality of life (QoL) and associated patient-reported outcomes. In this prospective, pragmatic, bicentric, randomized controlled trial, women with breast or gynaecologic cancers undergoing a new regimen of chemotherapy (CHT) were randomly assigned to routine supportive care plus intervention (intervention group, IG) or routine care alone (control group, CG). The intervention consisted of SCAM applications and counseling for symptom management, as well as SCAM information material. The primary endpoint was global QoL measured with the EORTC-QLQ-C30 before and after SCAM.

In total, 126 patients were randomly assigned into the IG and 125 patients into the CG. The patients’ medical and socio-demographic characteristics were homogenous at baseline and at follow-up. No group effects on QoL were found upon completion of CHT, but there was a significant group difference in favour of the IG, 6 months later. IG patients did also experience significant better emotional functioning and less fatigue.

The authors concluded that the tested supportive intervention did not improve patients’ QoL outcomes directly after CHT (T3), but was associated with significant QoL improvements when considering the change from baseline to the time point T4, which could be assessed 6 months after patients’ completion of CHT. This delayed effect may have resulted due to a strengthening of patients’ self-management competencies.

A prospective, pragmatic, bicentric, randomized controlled trial! Doesn’t this sound rigorous? In fact, this term merely hides a trial that was destined to generate a positive result. As it followed the infamous A+B versus B design, it hardly had a chance to not come out positive.

The only thing I find amazing is that the short-term results failed to be statistically significant. Far too many SCAM researchers, it seems to me, view science as a tool for promoting their dubious ideas.

The use of SCAM with the aim of improving QoL might be helpful. But this assumption cannot be accepted on the basis of opinion; we need good science to find out which forms of SCAM are worth employing. Sadly, studies like the above are not in this category.

If you ask me, it is high time that this misleading nonsensical and unethical pseudo-research stops!

Spinal manipulation is an umbrella term for numerous manoeuvres chiropractors, osteopaths, physiotherapists and other clinicians apply to their patients’ vertebral columns.  Spinal manipulations are said to be effective for a wide range of conditions. But how do they work? What is their mode of action? A new article tries to address these questions. here is its abstract:

Spinal manipulation has been an effective intervention for the management of various musculoskeletal disorders. However, the mechanisms underlying the pain modulatory effects of spinal manipulation remain elusive. Although both biomechanical and neurophysiological phenomena have been thought to play a role in the observed clinical effects of spinal manipulation, a growing number of recent studies have indicated peripheral, spinal and supraspinal mechanisms of manipulation and suggested that the improved clinical outcomes are largely of neurophysiological origin. In this article, we reviewed the relevance of various neurophysiological theories with respect to the findings of mechanistic studies that demonstrated neural responses following spinal manipulation. This article also discussed whether these neural responses are associated with the possible neurophysiological mechanisms of spinal manipulation. The body of literature reviewed herein suggested some clear neurophysiological changes following spinal manipulation, which include neural plastic changes, alteration in motor neuron excitability, increase in cortical drive and many more. However, the clinical relevance of these changes in relation to the mechanisms that underlie the effectiveness of spinal manipulation is still unclear. In addition, there were some major methodological flaws in many of the reviewed studies. Future mechanistic studies should have an appropriate study design and methodology and should plan for a long-term follow-up in order to determine the clinical significance of the neural responses evoked following spinal manipulation.

I have to admit, this made me laugh. Any article that starts with the claim spinal manipulation is an effective intervention and speaks about its observed clinical effects without critically assessing the evidence for it must be ridiculous. The truth is that, so far, it is unclear whether spinal manipulations cause any therapeutic effects at all. To take them as a given, therefore discloses a bias that can only be a hindrance to any objective evaluation.

Yet, perhaps unwittingly, the paper raises an important question: do we need to search for a mode of action of treatments that are unproven? It is a question, of course, that is relevant to all or at least much of SCAM.

Do we need to research the mode of action of acupuncture?

Do we need to research the mode of action of energy healing?

Do we need to research the mode of action of reflexology?

Do we need to research the mode of action of homeopathy?

Do we need to research the mode of action of Bach flower remedies?

Do we need to research the mode of action of cupping?

Do we need to research the mode of action of qigong?

In the absence of compelling evidence that a mode of action (other than the placebo response) exists, I would say: no, we don’t. Such research might turn out to be wasteful and carries the risk of attributing credibility to treatments that do not deserve it.

What do you think?


Many cancer patients use so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed whether this does more good than harm. This study sheds new light on the question. Specifically, it aims to explore the benefits of TCM therapy in the long-term survival of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma in China.

In total, 3483 patients with HCC admitted to the Beijing Ditan Hospital of Capital Medical University were enrolled. The researchers used 1:1 frequency matching by sex, age, diagnosis time, Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging, and type of treatments to compare the TCM users (n = 526) and non-TCM users (n = 526). A Cox multivariate regression model was employed to evaluate the effects of TCM therapy on the HR value and Kaplan-Meier survival curve for mortality risk in HCC patients. A log-rank test was performed to analyse the effect of TCM therapy on the survival time of HCC patients.

The Cox multivariate analysis indicated that TCM therapy was an independent protective factor for 5-year survival in patients with HCC. The Kaplan-Meier curve also showed that after PS matching, TCM users had a higher overall survival rate and a higher progression-free survival rate than non-TCM users. TCM users, regardless of the classification of etiology, tumor stage, liver function level, or type of treatment, all benefited significantly from TCM therapy. The most commonly used Chinese patent medications used were Fufang Banmao Capsule, Huaier Granule, and Jinlong Capsule.

The authors concluded that using traditional Chinese medications as adjuvant therapy can probably prolong median survival time and improve the overall survival among patients with HCC. Further scientific studies and clinical trials are needed to examine the efficiency and safety.

I was unable to access the full article and therefore am unable to provide a detailed critique of it. From reading the abstract, I should point out, however, that this was not an RCT. To minimise bias, the researchers used a matching technique to generate two comparable groups. Such methods can be successful in matching for the named parameters, but they cannot match for the plethora of variables that might be relevant but were not measured. Therefore, the survival difference between the two groups might be due not to the therapies they received, but to the fact that the groups were not comparable in terms of factors that impact on survival.

Another important point about this paper is the obvious fact that it originates from China. We know from several independent investigations that such studies almost never report negative findings. We also know that TCM is a hugely important export item for China. Adding two and two together should therefore make us sceptical. I for one take the present findings with more than a pinch of salt.

Indian doctors have just published the case of a 38-year old man with cirrhosis of the liver due to compensated non-alcoholic fatty-liver-disease. He presented with acute worsening of his chronic liver disease. The acute event was not discernible even after extensive work up. Eventually, a transjugular liver biopsy revealed features suggestive of severe alcoholic hepatitis.

The patient and the family denied occult alcohol use when questioned over multiple times. According to the authors, the culprit ‘alcohol’ was found to be the homoeopathy medicines: the patient had been consuming a homeopathic remedy over a month for treatment of Gilbert’s syndrome. The researchers retrieved and tested the homoeopathy drug for alcohol content and found it contained 18% of ethanol. This, they felt, confirmed their diagnosis of alcoholic liver disease caused by the regular consumption of a homeopathic remedy.

Why did the patient help from a homeopath? Gilbert’s syndrome doesn’t usually require any treatment at all. Two weeks into his new treatment, the patient claimed he was feeling drowsy and slurring his speech, as if intoxicated. The liquid homeopathic formulation was therefore reduced at this stage. A further two weeks passed when his eyes yellowed, his urine darkened, and his legs began to swell. A liver tests confirmed a spike in his bilirubin 10 times above normal, with liver enzymes also elevated. All signs were thus pointing to an acute form of hepatitis commonly associated with alcohol binges. With the patient adamant he hadn’t touched alcohol, the doctors looked for other causes of hepatitis. None were found. When the patient admitted using homeopathy, his doctors thought to have found an explanation for the problem.

Despite starting the patient on a range of treatments and referring him to a liver transplant centre for further management, the damage to the patient’s liver proved to be irreversible. One month and 12 days later, the patient developed multiple organ failure and passed away. The authors of this case report point out “at risk patients and the general population need to be educated regarding the fact that complementary and alternative medications are not without side-effects.”

I do agree with their comment, but I very much doubt that their diagnosis of homeopathy-induced liver disease was correct. If the alcohol in the homeopathic remedy truly had been the cause, the patient would have needed to consume well in excess of one litre of it per day. The authors do not tell us about the volume of consumption, but I doubt that a patient would be able to afford such an orgy in homeopathy.

Highly diluted homeopathic remedies contain nothing, it is often said. This is not entirely true. In the case of solid preparations (globuli), they do contain sugar, and in the case of liquid remedies, they contain alcohol. Yet, as a source of either ingredient, they are neither practical nor economical. I fear therefore that the medical team of the diseased man are mistaken when accusing homeopathy of being the cause of their patient’s death.

Kampo, the traditional Japanese herbal medicine, developed out of traditional Chinese herbal medicine after it was introduced into Japan in the 7th century. In the early 20th century, Kampo was further influenced by modern Western medicine and science. The Kampo system is a pragmatic and simplified version of Chinese herbal medicine. Kampo medicines are standardised and not normally individualised as in Chinese herbal medicine. They are based on the symptoms of the patient, interpreted in the tradition of Kampo. Kampo diagnostic criteria consider hypofunction and hyperfunction, heat and cold, superficies and interior, and yin and yang.

Today, Kampō is fully integrated into the Japanese national health care system, and numerous Kampo preparations are registered in Japan and reimbursable from public funds. In Japan, Kampo is thus not a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), but outside this country it clearly is.

Standardised Kampo formulas contain mixtures of herbal ingredients. They are manufactured under proper quality control. The most commonly used plants include liquorice, ginger and Chinese peony root. Most Japanese doctors routinely prescribe Kampo medicines, and most patients combine Kampo with Western medicine. Since 2002, the teaching of Kampo has been included in Japanese curricula of medical and pharmacy education. The efficacy of Kampo medicines is often less solidly documented than one would hope or expect. There is a remarkable shortage of high-quality clinical trials.

As Kampo medicines contain pharmacologically active ingredients, they can also cause adverse effects and might interact with synthetic drugs. Yet, the risks of Kampo are currently woefully under-investigated. And this is why an analysis of adverse events associated with Kampo formulations that was just published is particularly important.

The researchers obtained reports of adverse events associated with ethical Kampo formulations from the domestic adverse-event data from July 30, 2003, to March 31, 2018. Adverse events were then categorized, and the relationships between categories of adverse events and crude drugs were analysed.

There were 4,232 reported adverse events associated with Kampo. They related to liver injury, 1,193; lung injury, 1,177; pseudoaldosteronism, 889; mesenteric phlebosclerosis, 223; drug eruption, 185; and others, 565. Among events related to both liver injury and lung injury, approximately 70% were suspected to be induced by Kampo formulations containing Scutellariae Radix.

The pseudoaldosteronism-related events, which are induced by Glycyrrhizae Radix, included several events related to muscle injury, heart failure, and arrhythmia. Events related to mesenteric phlebosclerosis, believed to be induced by long-term use of Kampo formulas containing Gardeniae Fructus, increased remarkably during the study period. Among the events related to drug eruption, approximately 35% were suspected to be induced by Kampo formulations containing Ephedrae Herba.

The authors concluded that Kampo medicines may cause various adverse events. The present results provide valuable information regarding adverse events associated with Kampo medicines from the viewpoint of patient safety.

While this paper presents invaluable data, its authors offer little by way of critical discussion. There is hardly any good evidence to show that any of the Kampo formulas are effective. Thus a discussion needs to be had about the question whether they generate more good than harm. The authors are completely silent on this important issue, and I suspect the reason might be that Kampo is a bit of a ‘holy cow’ in Japan that must not be questioned.

The numbers of adverse events are impressively high, but we do not know how they compare to adverse events in other areas of healthcare. For instance, it would be valuable to have comparative data indicating how many adverse events occurred with Kampo compared to synthetic drugs per 1 000 patients using them.

Thus we are left with the conclusion that, once proper post-marketing methods are employed to monitor SCAM, we are likely to realise that adverse events do occur more frequently than SCAM enthusiasts might have predicted. In my view, it is high time that we have effective adverse event monitoring in all areas of SCAM.

A new paper reminds us that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has been increasing in the United States and around the world, particularly at medical institutions known for providing rigorous evidence-based care. The use of SCAM may cause harm to patients through interactions with prescribed medications or by patients choosing to forego evidence-based care. SCAM may also put financial strain on patients as most SCAM expenditures are paid out-of-pocket.

Despite these drawbacks, patients continue to use SCAM due to a range of reasons, e.g. media promotion of SCAM therapies, dissatisfaction with conventional healthcare, a desire for more holistic care. Given the increasing demand for SCAM, many medical institutions now offer SCAM services. Several leaders of SCAM centres based at a highly respected academic medical institution have publicly expressed anti-vaccination views, and non-evidence-based philosophies run deep within SCAM.

Although there are financial incentives for institutions to provide SCAM, it is important to recognize that this legitimizes SCAM and may cause harm to patients. The poor regulation of SCAM allows for the continued distribution of products and services that have not been rigorously tested for safety and efficacy.

As I have tried to point out many times, the potential for harm caused by the increasing integration of SCAM can thus be summarised as follows:

  1. direct harm due to adverse effects such as toxicity of an herbal remedy, stroke after chiropractic manipulation, pneumothorax after acupuncture;
  2. direct harm through the use of bogus diagnostic techniques;
  3. direct harm by using materials from endangered species;
  4. indirect harm through incompetent advice such as recommendation not to immunize or discontinue prescribed medications;
  5. neglect due to using SCAM instead of an effective therapy for a serious condition;
  6. harm due to medicalising trivial states of reduced well-being;
  7. financial harm due to the costs of SCAM;
  8. harm through making a mockery of evidence-based medicine;
  9. harm caused by undermining rational thinking in the society at large;
  10. harm caused by inhibiting medical progress and research.

In case you see other ways in which SCAM can cause harm, please let me know by posting a comment.

‘Acute-on-chronic liver failure’ (ACLF) is an acute deterioration of liver function in patients with pre-existing liver disease. It is usually associated with a precipitating event and results in the failure of one or more organs and high short term mortality.

An international team of researchers published a analysis examining data regarding drugs producing ACLF. They evaluated clinical features, laboratory characteristics, outcome, and predictors of mortality in patients with drug-induced ACLF. They identified drugs as precipitants of ACLF among prospective cohort of patients with ACLF from the Asian Pacific Association of Study of Liver (APASL) ACLF Research Consortium (AARC) database. Drugs were considered precipitants after exclusion of known causes together with a temporal association between exposure and decompensation. Outcome was defined as death from decompensation.

Of the 3,132 patients with ACLF, drugs were implicated as a cause in 10.5% of all cases and other non-drug causes in 89.5%. Within the first group, so-called alternative medications (SCAMs) were the commonest cause (71.7%), followed by combination anti-tuberculosis therapy drugs (27.3%). Alcoholic liver disease (28.6%), cryptogenic liver disease (25.5%), and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) (16.7%) were common causes of underlying liver diseases. Patients with drug-induced ACLF had jaundice (100%), ascites (88%), encephalopathy (46.5%), high Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) (30.2), and Child-Turcotte-Pugh score (12.1). The overall 90-day mortality was higher in drug-induced (46.5%) than in non-drug-induced ACLF (38.8%).

The authors concluded that drugs are important identifiable causes of ACLF in Asia-Pacific countries, predominantly from complementary and alternative medications, followed by anti-tuberculosis drugs. Encephalopathy, bilirubin, blood urea, lactate, and international normalized ratio (INR) predict mortality in drug-induced ACLF.

The fact that some SCAMs can damage the liver has long been known. Here, for example, is 2003 our review of herbal medicine and liver problems:

Systematic literature searches were performed on Medline, Embase, The Cochrane Library, Amed and Ciscom. To identify additional data, searches were conducted by hand in relevant medical journals and in our own files. The screening and selection of articles and the extraction of data were performed independently by the two authors. There were no restrictions regarding the language of publication. In order to be included articles were required to report data on hepatotoxic events associated with the therapeutic use of herbal medicinal products.

Single medicinal herbs and combination preparations are associated with hepatotoxic events. Clinically, the spectrum ranges from transient elevations of liver enzyme levels to fulminant liver failure and death. In most instances hepatotoxic herbal constituents are believed to be the cause, while others may be due to herb-drug interactions, contamination and/or adulteration.

A number of herbal medicinal products are associated with serious hepatotoxic events. Incidence figures are largely unknown, and in most cases a causal attribution is not established. The challenge for the future is to systematically research this area, educate all parties involved, and minimize patient risk.

Despite these warnings, progress is almost non-existent. If anything the problem seems to increase in proportion with the rise in the use of SCAM. Hence, one cannot but agree with the conclusion of a more recent overview: The actual incidence and prevalence of herb-induced liver injury in developing nations remain largely unknown due to both poor pharmacovigilance programs and non-application of emerging technologies. Improving education and public awareness of the potential risks of herbals and herbal products is desirable to ensure that suspected adverse effects are formally reported. There is need for stricter regulations and pre-clinical studies necessary for efficacy and safety.

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