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

alternative medicine

A few days ago, I reported that the German homeopathy manufacturer Hevert has taken legal action against German critics of homeopathy. This caused a storm of protests on twitter, in the press and even on TV. Hevert has remained silent in all this, but now a spokesperson and part owner of the firm, Mr Mathias Hevert, has given an interview to ‘Pharma Relations’ in an attempt to explain and justify Hevert’s position.

The interview does not tell us much, except for one particular passage:

Frau Grams hat sich meines Wissens nach gar nicht konkret auf die Produkte der Firma Hevert bezogen. Warum fühlten Sie sich dennoch aufgerufen, sozusagen stellvertretend für die Branche juristische Schritte einzuleiten?

Da homöopathische Arzneimittel neben pflanzlichen und schulmedizinischen Präparaten einen wichtigen Teil des breiten Hevert-Sortiments darstellen, fühlen wir uns bereits seit der Firmengründung 1956 eng mit der durch Pastor Emanuel Felke begründeten Komplexmittel-Homöopathie verbunden. Seit Monaten beobachten wir, wie die Homöopathie von Meinungsbildnern in den Sozialen Medien, der Presse und dem Fernsehen undifferenziert und ohne wissenschaftliche Grundlage denunziert wird. In Großbritannien wurden bereits einflussreiche Lobbygruppen aktiv, um die Homöopathie als Ganzes und ohne differenzierte Betrachtung der Datenlage zu verunglimpfen. Mit ihren Bemühungen schafften sie es sogar, die Politik zu gesetzlichen Einschränkungen des Feldes zu drängen. Um ähnliches in Deutschland – dem Mutterland der Homöopathie – zu verhindern, geht Hevert entschlossen gegen ungerechtfertigte und nicht fundierte Diskreditierungen der Homöopathie durch Lobbygruppen und andere Meinungsbildner vor.

Here is my translation of the bit that concerns me:

Q: Frau Grams has, as far as I know, not even concretely referred to the products of Hevert. Why do you still feel compelled to start legal procedures, so to speak for the sector?

A: … We observe since months how homeopathy is being denounced in an undifferentiated manner and without a scientific basis by opinion leaders in social media, the press, an on TV. In England, influential lobby groups have been active to denigrate homeopathy as a whole and without differentiated consideration of the data. Through their efforts, they have even managed to force politicians to implement legal restrictions in this area…

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I must admit, I find this response quite extraordinary!

I am not aware of anyone or any group in England denigrating homeopathy without differentiated consideration of the data. All we did was to point out what the best available evidence tells us, exercise our critical thinking abilities, and report facts. And I do strongly object anyone claiming otherwise. In fact, I ask myself whether the above remarks by a representative of a manufacturer of homeopathics are not libellous and thus actionable.

What do you think?

PS

But perhaps I have misunderstood something; in this case, could Mr Hevert please name the UK critics he had in mind when he made these comments?

This press-release caught my attention:

Following the publication in Australia earlier this year of a video showing a chiropractor treating a baby, the Health Minster for the state of Victoria called for the prohibition of chiropractic spinal manipulation for children under the age of 12 years. As a result, an independent panel has been appointed by Safer Care Victoria to examine the evidence and provide recommendations for the chiropractic care of children.

The role of the panel is to (a) examine and assess the available evidence, including information from consumers, providers, and other stakeholders, for the use of spinal manipulation by chiropractors on children less than 12 years of age and (b) provide recommendations regarding this practice to the Victorian Minister for Health.
Members of the public and key stakeholders, including the WFC’s member for Australia, the Australia Chiropractors Association (AusCA), were invited to submit observations. The AusCA’s submission can be read here

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This submission turns out to be lengthy and full of irrelevant platitudes, repetitions and nonsense. In fact, it is hard to find in it any definitive statements at all. Here are two sections (both in bold print) which I found noteworthy:

1. There is no need to restrict parental or patient choice for chiropractic care for children under 12 years of age as there is no evidence of harm. There is however, expressed outcome of benefit by parents70 who actively choose chiropractic care for their children … 

No evidence of harm? Really! This is an outright lie. Firstly, one has to stress that there is no monitoring system and that therefore we simply do not learn about adverse effects. Secondly, there is no reason to assume that the adverse effects that have been reported in adults are not also relevant for children. Thirdly, adverse effects in children have been reported; see for instance here. Fourthly, we need to be aware of the fact that any ineffective therapy causes harm by preventing effective therapies from being applied. And fifthly, we need to remember that some chiropractors harm children by advising their parents against vaccination.

2. Three recent systematic reviews have focused on the effectiveness of manual therapy for paediatric conditions. For example, Lanaro et al. assessed osteopathic manipulative treatment for use on preterm infants. This systematic review looked at five clinical trials and found a reduction of length of stay and costs in a large population of preterm infants with no adverse events (96).

Carnes et al.’s 2018 systematic review focused on unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants following any type of manual therapy. Of the seven clinical trials included, five involved chiropractic manipulative therapy; however, meta-analyses of outcomes were not possible due to the heterogeneity of the clinical trials. The review also analysed an additional 12 observational studies: seven case series, three cohort studies, one service evaluation survey, and one qualitative study. Overall, the systematic review concluded that small benefits were found. Additionally, the reporting of adverse events was low. Interestingly, when a relative risk analysis was done, those who had manual therapy were found to have an 88% reduced risk of having an adverse event compared to those who did not have manual therapy (97).

A third systematic review by Parnell Prevost et al. in 2019 evaluated the effectiveness of any paediatric condition following manual therapy of any type and summarizes the findings of studies of children 18 years of age or younger, as well as all adverse event information. While mostly inconclusive data were found due to lack of high-quality studies, of the 32 clinical trials and 18 observational studies included, favourable outcomes were found for all age groups, including improvements in suboptimal breastfeeding and musculoskeletal conditions. Adverse events were mentioned in only 24 of the included studies with no serious adverse events reported in them (98).

(96) Lanaro D, Ruffini N, Manzotti A, Lista G. Osteopathic manipulative treatment showed reduction of length of stay and costs in preterm infants: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2017; 96(12):e6408 10.1097/MD.0000000000006408.

(97) Carnes D, Plunkett A, Ellwood J, Miles C. Manual therapy for unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants: a systematic review and meta-analyses. BMJ Open 2018;8:e019040. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019040.

(98) Parnell Prevost et al. 2019.

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And here are my comments:

(96) Lanaro et al is about osteopathy, not chiropractic (4 of the 5 primary trials were by the same research group).

(97) The review by Carnes et al has been discussed previously on this blog. This is what I wrote about it at the time:

The authors concluded that some small benefits were found, but whether these are meaningful to parents remains unclear as does the mechanisms of action. Manual therapy appears relatively safe.

For several reasons, I find this review, although technically sound, quite odd.

Why review uncontrolled data when RCTs are available?

How can a qualitative study be rated as high quality for assessing the effectiveness of a therapy?

How can the authors categorically conclude that there were benefits when there were only 4 RCTs of high quality?

Why do they not explain the implications of none of the RCTs being placebo-controlled?

How can anyone pool the results of all types of manual therapies which, as most of us know, are highly diverse?

How can the authors conclude about the safety of manual therapies when most trials failed to report on this issue?

Why do they not point out that this is unethical?

My greatest general concern about this review is the overt lack of critical input. A systematic review is not a means of promoting an intervention but of critically assessing its value. This void of critical thinking is palpable throughout the paper. In the discussion section, for instance, the authors state that “previous systematic reviews from 2012 and 2014 concluded there was favourable but inconclusive and weak evidence for manual therapy for infantile colic. They mention two reviews to back up this claim. They conveniently forget my own review of 2009 (the first on this subject). Why? Perhaps because it did not fit their preconceived ideas? Here is my abstract:

Some chiropractors claim that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for infant colic. This systematic review was aimed at evaluating the evidence for this claim. Four databases were searched and three randomised clinical trials met all the inclusion criteria. The totality of this evidence fails to demonstrate the effectiveness of this treatment. It is concluded that the above claim is not based on convincing data from rigorous clinical trials.

Towards the end of their paper, the authors state that “this was a comprehensive and rigorously conducted review…” I beg to differ; it turned out to be uncritical and biased, in my view. And at the very end of the article, we learn a possible reason for this phenomenon: “CM had financial support from the National Council for Osteopathic Research from crowd-funded donations.”

(98) Parnell et al was easy to find despite the incomplete reference in the submission. This paper has also been discussed previously. Here is my post on it:

This systematic review is an attempt [at] … evaluating the use of manual therapy for clinical conditions in the paediatric population, assessing the methodological quality of the studies found, and synthesizing findings based on health condition.

Of the 3563 articles identified through various literature searches, 165 full articles were screened, and 50 studies (32 RCTs and 18 observational studies) met the inclusion criteria. Only 18 studies were judged to be of high quality. Conditions evaluated were:

      • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
      • autism,
      • asthma,
      • cerebral palsy,
      • clubfoot,
      • constipation,
      • cranial asymmetry,
      • cuboid syndrome,
      • headache,
      • infantile colic,
      • low back pain,
      • obstructive apnoea,
      • otitis media,
      • paediatric dysfunctional voiding,
      • paediatric nocturnal enuresis,
      • postural asymmetry,
      • preterm infants,
      • pulled elbow,
      • suboptimal infant breastfeeding,
      • scoliosis,
      • suboptimal infant breastfeeding,
      • temporomandibular dysfunction,
      • torticollis,
      • upper cervical dysfunction.

Musculoskeletal conditions, including low back pain and headache, were evaluated in seven studies. Only 20 studies reported adverse events.

The authors concluded that fifty studies investigated the clinical effects of manual therapies for a wide variety of pediatric conditions. Moderate-positive overall assessment was found for 3 conditions: low back pain, pulled elbow, and premature infants. Inconclusive unfavorable outcomes were found for 2 conditions: scoliosis (OMT) and torticollis (MT). All other condition’s overall assessments were either inconclusive favorable or unclear. Adverse events were uncommonly reported. More robust clinical trials in this area of healthcare are needed.

There are many things that I find remarkable about this review:

      • The list of indications for which studies have been published confirms the notion that manual therapists – especially chiropractors – regard their approach as a panacea.
      • A systematic review evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy that includes observational studies without a control group is, in my view, highly suspect.
      • Many of the RCTs included in the review are meaningless; for instance, if a trial compares the effectiveness of two different manual therapies none of which has been shown to work, it cannot generate a meaningful result.
      • Again, we find that the majority of trialists fail to report adverse effects. This is unethical to a degree that I lose faith in such studies altogether.
      • Only three conditions are, according to the authors, based on evidence. This is hardly enough to sustain an entire speciality of paediatric chiropractors.

Allow me to have a closer look at these three conditions.

      1. Low back pain: the verdict ‘moderate positive’ is based on two RCTs and two observational studies. The latter are irrelevant for evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy. One of the two RCTs should have been excluded because the age of the patients exceeded the age range named by the authors as an inclusion criterion. This leaves us with one single ‘medium quality’ RCT that included a mere 35 patients. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
      2. Pulled elbow: here the verdict is based on one RCT that compared two different approaches of unknown value. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
      3. Preterm: Here we have 4 RCTs; one was a mere pilot study of craniosacral therapy following the infamous A+B vs B design. The other three RCTs were all from the same Italian research group; their findings have never been independently replicated. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.

So, what can be concluded from this?

I would say that there is no good evidence for chiropractic, osteopathic or other manual treatments for children suffering from any condition.

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The ACA’s submission ends with the following conclusion:

The Australian Chiropractors Association (ACA) intent is to improve the general health of all Australians and the ACA supports the following attributes to achieve this:

      • The highest standards of ethics and conduct in all areas of research, education and practise
      • Chiropractors as the leaders in high quality spinal health and wellbeing
      • A commitment to evidence-based practice – the integration of best available research evidence, clinical expertise and patient values
      • The profound significance and value of patient-centred chiropractic care in healthcare in Australia.
      • Inclusiveness and collaborative relationships within and outside the chiropractic profession…

After reading through the entire, tedious document, I arrived at the conclusion that

THIS SUBMISSION CAN ONLY BE A CALL FOR THE PROHIBITION OF CHIROPRACTIC SPINAL MANIPULATION FOR CHILDREN.

I am sure this press-release of today will be of interest:

Good Thinking, a charity which aims to promote science and challenge pseudoscience, is bringing the action after the PSA acknowledged that multiple members of the Society of Homeopaths continue to offer CEASE therapy – a purported treatment for autism which is targeted particularly at children and which relies on the false notion that autism is caused by vaccination, and can be cured with homeopathic treatments, high-dosage Vitamin C, and dietary restriction.

The PSA has acknowledged that CEASE therapy is potentially harmful and conflicts with the advice of the NHS in several respects, including with regard to the childhood vaccinations for potentially life-threatening conditions. Nevertheless, the PSA decided on April 1st to approve the Society of Homeopaths’ accreditation for a further year.

Michael Marshall, Project Director of Good Thinking, said: “By being part of the PSA’s Accredited Voluntary Register scheme, the Society of Homeopaths and its members – including those who practice CEASE therapy – can point to the PSA’s logo on their websites and marketing materials as a sign that they are competent, trustworthy and safe. But that badge, and the credibility and legitimacy it confers, only carries any meaning if the PSA takes seriously their duty to protect the public from harmful practices.

“For the PSA to acknowledge that members of the Society of Homeopaths are offering a treatment that the PSA themselves recognise as harmful, and which is targeted at a particularly vulnerable group, and to then reaccredit them all the same makes a mockery of the PSA’s whole accreditation scheme. For PSA accreditation to mean anything at all, the public needs to be confident that when the PSA identify potentially harmful therapies, they take the necessary steps to protect the public, rather than accepting it and, effectively, endorsing it”.

The Society of Homeopaths has been part of the PSA’s Accredited Voluntary Register scheme since 2014. The PSA’s decision to accredit the Society of Homeopaths and its subsequent decisions to re-accredit have been the subject of criticism from both autism rights campaigners and those who support evidence-based medicine.

Marshall said: “The PSA encourage members of the public to choose healthcare practitioners which belong to one of its accredited registers, and even have a tool on their site to find accredited practitioners. That advice is fundamentally undermined by the fact that a patient could, via the PSA’s list of accredited practitioners, find themselves consulting with a homeopath who discourages vaccination and believes they can cure children of autism.”

Good Thinking’s action has drawn support from autism campaigners, such as Emma Dalmayne: “We as autistic people, are bombarded with the discriminatory rhetoric that we are in need of a cure. CEASE is not a cure for our neurological difference, and it is proven to be extremely harmful. The PSA should not endorse the Society of Homeopaths while their members offer this harmful therapy. The Society of

Homeopaths are at present allowing their members to mislead the public, which in turn puts vulnerable autistic children in harm’s way.”

If Good Thinking’s Judicial Review is successful, the PSA will likely be required to revisit their decision to reaccredit the Society of Homeopaths, this time paying proper regard to the need to protect the public and in particular autistic children who are the main targets for CEASE therapy.

As a small charity, Good Thinking have appealed for support in funding their Judicial Review, and are urging supporters to contribute to their crowdfunding campaign, at crowdjustice.com/case/gts-cease-psa/.

Additional Quotes:

· Simon Singh, Science Writer and Chair of Good Thinking: “Only this week we saw Prince Charles become a patron of the Faculty of Homeopathy. We have become accustomed to Prince Charles endorsing dangerous quackery, but we expect more of the PSA. The credibility of the PSA is at stake when it allows the Society of Homeopaths to retain accredited status despite their members offering this clearly harmful therapy.”

· Laura Thomason, Project Manager, Good Thinking: “Since 2017 we have raised concerns with the PSA about Society of Homeopaths members practicing CEASE therapy, and how we felt the actions they took to protect the public were wholly inadequate. We were therefore shocked and dismayed to see the PSA reaccredit the Society of Homeopaths, and believe their decision to do so, in the absence of any real sign from the Society that they are taking the protection of autistic children seriously, to be unlawful.”

· Professor Edzard Ernst: “According to the ‘like cures like’ principle of homeopathy, Dr Tinus Smits, the Dutch homeopath who invented CEASE, claimed that autism must be cured by applying homeopathic doses of the substances which allegedly caused the condition. CEASE therapists thus ‘detoxify’ all assumed causative factors – vaccines, regular medication, environmental toxic exposures, effects of illness, etc. – with homeopathically prepared substances that were administered prior to the onset of autism. The assumptions of CEASE therapy fly in the face of science. There is also no clinical evidence that CEASE therapy is effective in curing autism or alleviating its symptoms. By misleading desperate parents that CEASE therapy works, homeopaths can do untold harm.”

A team from Israel conducted a pragmatic trial to evaluate the impact of So-called Alternative Medicine (SCAM) treatments on postoperative symptoms. Patients ≥ 18 years referred to SCAM treatments by surgical medical staff were allocated to standard of care with SCAM treatment (SCAM group) or without SCAM. Referral criteria were patient preference and practitioner availability. SCAM treatments included Acupuncture, Reflexology, or Guided Imagery. The primary outcome variable was the change from baseline in symptom severity, measured by Visual Analogue Scale (VAS).

A total of 1127 patients were enrolled, 916 undergoing 1214 SCAM treatments and 211 controls. Socio-demographic characteristics were similar in both groups. Patients in the SCAM group had more severe baseline symptoms. Symptom reduction was greater in the SCAM group compared with controls. No significant adverse events were reported with any of the CAM therapies.

The authors concluded that SCAM treatments provide additional relief to Standard Of Care (SOC) for perioperative symptoms. Larger randomized control trial studies with longer follow-ups are needed to confirm these benefits.

Imagine a situation where postoperative patients are being asked “do you want merely our standard care or do you prefer having a lot of extra care, fuss and attention? Few would opt for the former – perhaps just 211 out of a total of 1127, as in the trial above. Now imagine being one of those patients receiving a lot of extra care and attention; would you not feel better, and would your symptoms not improve faster?

I am sure you have long guessed where I am heading. The infamous A+B versus B design has been discussed often enough on this blog. Researchers using it can be certain that they will generate a positive result for their beloved SCAM – even if the SCAM itself is utterly ineffective. The extra care and attention plus the raised expectation will do the trick. If the researchers want to make extra sure that their bogus treatments come out of this study smelling of roses, they can – like our Israeli investigators – omit to randomise patients to the two groups and let them chose according to their preference.

To cut a long story short: this study had zero chance to yield a negative result.

  • As such it was not a test but a promotion of SCAM.
  • As such it was not science but pseudo science.
  • As such it was not ethical but unethical.

WHEN WILL WE FINALLY STOP PUBLISHING SUCH MISLEADING NONSENSE?

I have reported about the French activities against homeopathy before (see here and here). Yesterday, this article brought considerable more clarity into the situation. Here is my (not entirely literal) translation and below the French original:

Unsurprisingly, the French health regulator (HAS) has voted on Wednesday with a very large majority (only one vote against) for the discontinuation of the reimbursement of homeopathic products. This decision, which is not denied by the health ministry, will be officially announced this Friday morning by the president of the authority, Prof Dominique Le Guludec, during a press conference. Then it will be up to the health minister, Agnès Buzyn, to decide or not on the discontinuation of reimbursement.

I will follow the advice of the health authority‘ the health minister declared only recently. This advice is the direct consequence of a first meeting of the commission which took place in Mid May and gave an opinion that already went into that direction. The laboratories concerned had the right to be heard and to present their view. Obviously this was not convincing.

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Sans surprise, la Commission de la transparence de la Haute autorité de santé a voté ce mercredi à la très grande majorité (une seule voix contre) le déremboursement des produits homéopathiques. Cette décision, que ne dément pas le ministère de la Santé, sera annoncée officiellement vendredi matin par la présidente de la Haute Autorité de santé, la professeur Dominique Le Guludec, au cours d’une conférence de presse. A charge ensuite à la ministre de la Santé, Agnès Buzyn, de décider ou non ce déremboursement.

«Je me tiendrai à l’avis de la Haute Autorité de santé», a encore récemment déclarée la ministre. Cet avis est la conséquence directe d’une première réunion, qui s’est tenue à la mi mai, de la dite Commission, qui avait alors rendu un avis transitoire, allant clairement dans ce sens. Comme le stipule le processus, les laboratoires concernées avaient le droit d’être entendus et de se défendre. Manifestement, ces derniers n’ont pas convaincus.

Tian Jiu (TJ) therapy is a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that has been widely utilized in the management of allergic rhinitis (AR). TJ is also known as “drug moxibustion” or “vesiculating moxibustion.” Herbal patches are applied on the selected acupoints or the diseased body part. In TCM, this treatment is said to regulate the functions of meridians and zang-fu organs, warm the channels, disperse coldness, invigorate qi movement, harmonize nutrient absorption and defence mechanisms, and resolve stagnation in the body and stasis of the blood.

But does it work? This single-blinded, three-arm, randomized controlled study evaluated the efficacy of TJ therapy in AR. A total of 138 AR patients were enrolled. The TJ group and placebo group both received 4-weeks of treatment with either TJ or placebo patches for 2 hours. The patches were applied to Dazhui (GV 14), bilateral Feishu (UB 13), and bilateral Shenshu (UB 23) points. Patients received one session per week and then underwent a 4-week follow-up. The waitlist group received no treatment during the corresponding treatment period, but would be given compensatory TJ treatment in the next 4 weeks.

The primary outcome was the change of the Total Nasal Symptom Score (TNSS) after treatment. The secondary outcomes included the changes of Rhinoconjunctivitis Quality of Life Questionnaire (RQLQ) and rescue medication score (RMS).

After the treatment period, the total TNSS in TJ group was significantly reduced compared with baseline, but showed no statistical difference compared with placebo. Among the four domains of TNSS, the change of nasal obstruction exhibited statistical difference compared with placebo group. The total RQLQ score in TJ group was significantly reduced compared with both placebo and waitlist groups. The needs of rescue medications were not different between the two groups.

There were no serious adverse events. The common adverse events included flush, pruritus, blister, and pigmentation, occurring in 17, 23, 3, and 36 person-times among TJ group, and 3, 7, 1, and 4 person-times among placebo group, respectively. These adverse events were generally tolerated and disappeared quickly after removing the patches.

The authors (from the Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Clinical Study Centre, School of Chinese Medicine, Hong Kong Baptist University) concluded that this randomized, single-blinded, controlled trial served primary evidence of the efficacy and safety of TJ therapy on AR in Hong Kong. This pilot study provided a fundamental TJ protocol for future research. Through adjusting treatment timing, frequency, retention time, and even body response settings, it has the potential to develop into an optimal therapeutic method for future application.

The authors of this poorly written paper seem to ignore their own findings by concluding as they do. The fact is that the primary endpoint of this trial failed to show a significant difference between TJ and placebo. Moreover, TJ does have considerable adverse effects. Therefore, this study  fails to demonstrate both the effectiveness and the safety of TJ as a treatment of AR.

PS

I often hesitate whether or not to discuss the plethora such frightfully incompetent research. The reason I sometimes do it is to alert the public to the fact that so much utter rubbish is published by incompetent researchers in trashy (but Medline-listed) journals, passed by incompetent ethics committees, supported by naïve funding agencies, accepted by reviewers and editors who evidently do not do their job properly. Do all these people have forgotten that they have a responsibility towards the public?

It is time to stop this nonsense!

It gives a bad name to science, misleads the public and inhibits progress.

I recently received this unexpected and surprising email:

Dear Friend,

I wanted to point out an article that published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst that gets to the root of why we are not solving the nation’s current epidemics of chronic pain, obesity, opioids, suicide, and cardiovascular disease.

My co-authors included Dr. Eric Schoomaker, the former surgeon general of the Army; Dr. Tracy Gaudet, who leads cultural transformation at the Veterans Health Administration; and Dr. James Marzolf, the chief health and data analyst in Dr. Gaudet’s office.

In the article Finding the Cause of the Crises: Opioids, Pain, Suicide, Obesity, and Other “Epidemics”, we show how our nation’s response to our current epidemics are tackling the wrong problems.

For example, take the opioid epidemic. The response has been to restrict opioids and focus on other drugs. This narrow approach is compounding the problem. The root cause is that we don’t manage chronic pain appropriately. We need a major roll out of non-pharmacological approaches for pain.

Instead of treating pain with a pill, we need to pay attention to the whole person in mind, body, and spirit. When we do this, we may find that non-drug approaches to treating the person are more appropriate, and treat not only the pain, but the suffering that often accompanies it.

The article describes how systems like the Military and Veterans Health Administration are doing this with transformative approaches that embrace whole person, integrative health.

The good news is that the answers are out there. The entire nation can do this, and we can start now.

Be well.

Dr. Wayne Jonas

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In case you don’t know who my ‘friend’ Wayne is (I did mention him before here and here, for instance), here is a concise summary of his background. As you doubtlessly do know, the NEJM is a (perhaps even the most) respected medical journal. I therefore tried to find the article there and was amazed not to find it. Then I realised that Wayne said it was published not in the NEJM but in the ‘New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst’, a very different proposition.

The New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst brings health care executives, clinical leaders, and clinicians together to share innovative ideas and practical applications for enhancing the value of health care delivery. From a network of top thought leaders, experts, and advisors, our digital publication, quarterly events, and qualified Insights Council provide real-life examples and actionable solutions to help organizations address urgent challenges affecting health care.

But what about the paper that Wayne so warmly recommends? It turns out to be little more than a promotional stunt for integrative medicine. Here is an excerpt from it:

It is often a surprise to people that two of the largest health care systems in the country are trying to radically redesign what they do to provide more whole-person and integrative care. These two systems are run by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and collectively care for over 20 million people. The nation can learn from their efforts.

The need for reform emerged after the turn of this century when leaders in the DoD and VHA began to hold informal meetings under the title “From Healthcare to Health.” Over the course of those meetings, the participants recognized the failure of their health care systems to get at the underlying causes of chronic disease. In 2009, they secured the support of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to change overall military doctrine and guidance to a radically holistic approach called “Total Force Fitness,” which subsequently led to health and community innovations. An example of these redesign innovations was the Defense and Veterans’ Pain Management Task Force and Report and the resulting strategy that preceded the National Academy of Medicine’s report on pain in America.

Other innovations included the Healthy Base Initiative and the Performance Triad, the latter of which focuses on the importance of asking all patients about their sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. All services — Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Special Forces — continue to shift to whole-person models that seek to implement behavioral and complementary approaches. For example, >6000 providers have been trained in and routinely use Battlefield Acupuncture for pain.

The transformation currently underway in the VHA, which goes under the name “Whole Health,” is also an offshoot of that leadership dialogue from 20 years ago. In the Whole Health approach, the emphasis is to empower and equip people to take charge of their health and well-being. In this approach, trained peers help veterans explore their sense of mission and purpose, and well-being programs focus on skill-building and support for self-care. These elements, in addition to person-centered, holistic clinical care, create the Whole Health delivery system. VHA facilities are shifting from a system designed around points of clinical care (in which the primary focus is on disease management) to one that is based in a partnership across time (in which the primary focus is on whole health). Clinical encounters are essential but not sufficient. This health system is designed to focus not only on treatment, but also on self-empowerment, self-healing, and self-care.

This radical redesign is built on decades of VHA work enhancing its integrative approaches with innovations such as Patient-Aligned Care Teams, Primary Care Mental Health Integration, peer-to-peer support, group access to mental health services, and the increasing use of complementary medicine approaches. These changes laid the groundwork for the kind of radical redesign now underway in the VHA and that is needed in all national health care delivery systems.

In 2011, the VHA established an Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation to further redefine health care delivery and to oversee this unique approach. Whole Health has begun rapid deployment across the entire VHA system, starting with 18 VHA medical centers in 2018 and with a planned expansion to all VHA medical centers by the end of 2022. System-wide implementation will require an estimated $556 million over 5 years.

When fully implemented, operating costs for this shift are projected to represent 1% of the VHA annual budget. This implementation will involve hiring almost 6,400 new staff, the majority for positions that did not previously exist in the VHA, including health coaches and peer health partners, nutritionists, acupuncturists, and yoga instructors. Whole Health is building access through group visits, peer-to-peer support, and the development of Personal Health Plans for every veteran — something everyone in the country could use. In addition, new payment codes have been created, allowing providers to capture and cover their time and efforts using relative value units (RVUs) and to track productivity.

Will Whole Health help to cure what ails health care? Current models suggest that it will. With improvement in health outcomes, there will be a reduction in the need for existing clinical and biomedical services. These models predict increased access and more proactive population health management. With the addition of these new Whole Health services, we project a 24.5% increase in access when fully deployed — without the addition of a single hospital bed or medical specialist. In addition, Whole Health exceeds cost neutrality and is conservatively estimated to return $2.19 for every dollar invested over 6 years.

These returns reflect net cost avoidance and are derived from reductions in the need and demand for existing clinical health services — exactly what the nation needs in order to reduce chronic disease crises and contain costs. The per capita savings or cost avoidance is modest, averaging $535 per veteran annually over the 6-year period. Cumulatively, however, this totals over $6.2 billion in cost avoidance. Given that the Whole Health approach will improve the health of veterans, many of whom are dealing with complex issues such as chronic pain, mental health conditions, and opioid use at a cost of about $1 per day per veteran, it is a financially sound, cost-effective change from the current health care paradigm.

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So, does this change my mind about integrative medicine?

I’m afraid not! And Wayne fails to provide the slightest evidence that his concepts amount to more than wishful thinking (note how he first mentions predictions of cost savings and, in the next paragraph, pretends they are a reality). I simply do not believe that adding a few unproven therapies to our routine healthcare and wrapping the mixture into politically correct platitudes will improve anything. This cannot work from a theoretical standpoint and, crucially, there is no empirical evidence that it does improve anything else but the income stream of charlatans.

If healthcare needs reform, then let’s reform it! Adding cow pie to apple pie is not a solution, it merely spoils what we have already. I am saying this now since 17 years when I published my first comment on integrative medicine. It was entitled Integrative medicine: not a carte blanche for untested nonsense. I do still think that it sums up the issue succinctly.

I have become used to lamentably poor research in the realm of SCAM, particularly homeopathy. Thus, there is little that can amaze me these days; at least this is what I had thought. But this paper is an exception. The new trial is entitled ‘ETHICAL CLINICAL TRIAL OF LESSER KNOWN HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES IN INFERTILITY IN FEMALES’, and it is truly outstanding. Here is the abstract:

Background & Objective:  Homoeopathy with time honoured results, has a great number of cured cases of infertility, but without much evidence. So, it is imperative to show scientifically the scope of homoeopathy in treating infertility cases. Materials and Methodology: 7 lesser known medicines (Alteris farinosa, Janosia Ashoka, Viburnum opulus, Euphonium, Ustilago, Bacillus sycocuss, Bacillus morgan) were prescribed to the sample size (n=23), at the project site O.P.D/I.P.D. of Homoeopathy university, Saipura, Jaipur and Dr Madan Pratap Khunteta Homoeopathic Medical College, Hospital & Research Centre, Station Road, Jaipur & its extension O.P.D.’s. for study within 12 months. Result-In the present study 7 (30.43%) patients were prescribed Janosia Ashoka amongst whom 2(28.57%) showed marked improvement, while 5(71.43%) remained in the state of status quo. Conclusion- Study has shown encouraging and effective treatment in infertility in females.

It does not tell us much; therefore, let me copy several crucial passages from the paper itself:

Objectives of the study-

  • To study the efficacy of homoeopathic medicines in the treatment of infertility in females.
  • To enhance the knowledge of materia medica in cases of infertility in females.

Material and Methodology-

The study was conducted at O.P.D./I.P.D.of Homoeopathy University, Saipura, Sanganer and Dr M.P.K. Homoeopathic Medical College &Research Centre, Station Road, Jaipur from 2010 to 2013 for a total period of 3 Years. A sample size of n=23 and 7 lesser known remedies were selected for the studies.

Result-

Inferences- Based on clinical symptoms and pathological investigations. It was inferred that out of 23 patients taken for study, 2 (8.69%) patients showed marked improvement, while 21 (91.31%) patients remained in the state of status quo.

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No, I am not kidding you. There is no further relevant information about the trial methodology nor about the results. Therefore, I feel unable to even criticise this study; it is even too awful for a critique.

As I said: outstanding!

And all this could be quite funny – except, of course, some nutter will undoubtedly use this paper for claiming that there is evidence for homeopathy to efficiently treat female infertility.

You have to be a homeopath to call this an ethical trial!

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.

END OF QUOTE

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.

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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 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-31971-9, 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.

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Does that mean the suspect paper has been declared fraudulent?

I think so.

In any case: another victory of reason over unreason!

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