Yesterday, we discussed a paper concluding (amongst other things) that there are insufficient high‐quality RCTs to judge the efficacy of acupuncture for cancer‐related pain. Today, we are looking at one that overtly contradicts this verdict.
This systematic review (published in JAMA Oncology) evaluated the existing randomized clinical trials (RCTs) for evidence of the association of acupuncture and acupressure with reduction in cancer pain. Randomized clinical trials that compared acupuncture and acupressure with a sham control, analgesic therapy, or usual care for managing cancer pain were included. The primary outcome was pain intensity measured by the Brief Pain Inventory, Numerical Rating Scale, Visual Analog Scale, or Verbal Rating Scale.
A total of 17 RCTs (with 1111 patients) were included, and data from 14 RCTs (with 920 patients) were used in the meta-analysis. Seven sham-controlled RCTs (35%) were notable for their high quality, being judged to have a low risk of bias for all of their domains, and showed that real (compared with sham) acupuncture was associated with reduced pain intensity. A favourable association was also seen when acupuncture and acupressure were combined with analgesic therapy in 6 RCTs for reducing pain intensity and in 2 RCTs for reducing opioid dose. The evidence grade was moderate because of the substantial heterogeneity among studies.
The authors concluded that this systematic review and meta-analysis found that acupuncture and/or acupressure was significantly associated with reduced cancer pain and decreased use of analgesics, although the evidence level was moderate. This finding suggests that more rigorous trials are needed to identify the association of acupuncture and acupressure with specific types of cancer pain and to integrate such evidence into clinical care to reduce opioid use.
So, which of the two conclusions should we trust?
Personally, I find the JAMA paper unimpressive to the point of being suspect. Here are some of my reasons:
- About half of the primary studies are Chinese; and we have seen repeatedly that they are unreliable and report only positive results.
- Many of the trials are published in Chinese and can thus not be checked by non-Chinese readers (nor, presumably, by the experts who acted as peer-reviewers for JAMA Oncology).
- I have my doubts about the rigor of the peer-review of some of the journals that published the primary studies included in the review.
- One paper included in the review is even a mere doctoral thesis which usually is not peer-reviewed in the usual sense.
- The authors state that they included only clinical trials that compared acupuncture and acupressure with a sham control, analgesic therapy, or usual care. However, this is evidently not true; many of the studies had the infamous A+B versus B design comparing acupuncture plus a conventional therapy against the conventional therapy. As we have discussed ad nauseam on this blog, such trials cannot produce a negative finding even if ‘A’ is a placebo.
- Contrary to what the authors claim, the quality of most of the included studies was extremely poor, as far as I can see.
- One included paper which I cannot access is entitled ‘Clinical observation on 30 cases of moderate and severe cancer pain of bone metastasis treated by auricular acupressure‘. Are the review authors seriously claiming that this is an RCT?
The more I study the details of the JAMA Oncology paper, the more I feel it might be worth a complaint to the editor with a view of initiating a thorough investigation and a possible retraction.
According to WebMed, the shark cartilage (tough elastic tissue that provides support, much as bone does) used for medicine comes primarily from sharks caught in the Pacific Ocean. Several types of extracts are made from shark cartilage including squalamine lactate, AE-941, and U-995.
Shark cartilage is most famously used for cancer. Shark cartilage is also used for osteoarthritis, plaque psoriasis, age-related vision loss, wound healing, damage to the retina of the eye due to diabetes, and inflammation of the intestine (enteritis).
A more realistic picture is pained by this abstract:
The promotion of crude shark cartilage extracts as a cure for cancer has contributed to at least two significant negative outcomes: a dramatic decline in shark populations and a diversion of patients from effective cancer treatments. An alleged lack of cancer in sharks constitutes a key justification for its use. Herein, both malignant and benign neoplasms of sharks and their relatives are described, including previously unreported cases from the Registry of Tumors in Lower Animals, and two sharks with two cancers each. Additional justifications for using shark cartilage are illogical extensions of the finding of antiangiogenic and anti-invasive substances in cartilage. Scientific evidence to date supports neither the efficacy of crude cartilage extracts nor the ability of effective components to reach and eradicate cancer cells. The fact that people think shark cartilage consumption can cure cancer illustrates the serious potential impacts of pseudoscience. Although components of shark cartilage may work as a cancer retardant, crude extracts are ineffective. Efficiencies of technology (e.g., fish harvesting), the power of mass media to reach the lay public, and the susceptibility of the public to pseudoscience amplifies the negative impacts of shark cartilage use. To facilitate the use of reason as the basis of public and private decision-making, the evidence-based mechanisms of evaluation used daily by the scientific community should be added to the training of media and governmental professionals. Increased use of logical, collaborative discussion will be necessary to ensure a sustainable future for man and the biosphere.
To be clear: there is no good evidence that the supplements commercially available currently are effective for any condition.
Now, there is more news on this topic:
The objective of this study was to analyse labelling practices and compliance with regulatory standards for shark cartilage supplements sold in the United States. The product labels of 29 commercial shark cartilage supplements were assessed for compliance with U.S. regulations. Claims, including nutrient content, prohibited disease, and nutritional support statements, were examined for compliance and substantiation.
Overall, 48% of the samples had at least one instance of non-compliance with labelling regulations. The most common labelling violations observed were:
- missing a domestic address/phone number,
- non-compliant nutrient content claim,
- missing/incomplete disclaimer,
- missing statement of identity,
- prohibited disease claims,
- incomplete “Supplement Facts” label.
The use of prohibited disease claims and nutritional support statements without the required disclaimer is concerning from a public health standpoint because consumers may delay seeking professional treatment for a disease.
The authors concluded that the results of this study indicate a need for improved labelling compliance among shark cartilage supplements.
In summary, it seems that shark cartilage supplements are bad for all concerned:
- Patients who rely on them might hasten their death.
- Sharks are becoming an endangered species.
- Consumers are being mislead and misinformed.
There is just one party smiling: the supplement manufacturers who make a healthy profit destroying the health of gullible consumers and patients.
I just came across the most amazing cancer cure: it’s called VIDATOX 30C, and it is a true wonder.
Well, on second thought, I might take that this back.
Is it really true?
Or is it perhaps a most despicable health fraud?
The Vidatox website makes the following claims for VIDATOX:
- it is based on 5 proteins from scorpion venom;
- it is a 30C potency, which means that it is diluted by a factor of 1:1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
- it selectively acts on diseased cells without harming healthy ones;
- it is angiogenic;
- it stimulates the immune system;
- it attacks growing tumours;
- it is anti-metastatic;
- it blocks tumour angiogenesis;
- it has anti-inflammatory effects;
- it has prolonged analgesic effects;
- it enhances the effects of chemo- and radiation therapies;
- it reduces the side-effects of chemo- and radiation therapies;
- it is not addictive;
- it is a therapeutic alternative for human cancers;
- it is in general use in oncology;
- it has a powerful detoxification effect;
- it has no side-effects;
- it improves the well-being of patients;
- its efficiency in tumour treatment is proven;
- the medication ‘passed all the clinical trials’;
- it increases survival;
- it is a ‘certified product’;
- it should be kept away from electromagnetic fields.
With all these claims and all ths splendid science mentioned on the website, one would expect to find plenty of papers on Vidatox. A Medline search resulted in 1 (one!) paper on the subject. Here is the abstract:
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is the term used to describe many kinds of products, practices, and systems that are not part of conventional medicine. Cancer patients usually do everything they can to combat the disease, manage its symptoms, and cope with the side effects of treatment. Unfortunately, patients who use CAM underestimate the risk of interaction with cancer therapy or worse they omit conventional therapy thus reducing the possibility of cancer remission. Herein we analyzed the effects of Vidatox 30 CH (venom extracted from the Junceus Rhopalurus scorpion) on hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. We found out that Vidatox increases HCC proliferation and invasion whereas it does not seem to interact with sorafenib, the orally active multikinase inhibitor approved for the treatment of advanced hepatocellular carcinoma. Our results suggest that the concentration of Vidatox used in the present study has not anti-neoplastic effects and care must be taken in hiring Vidatox in patients with HCC.
The authors of this paper also make the following comment:
According to Gonzalez, Vidatox was tested on more than 10,000 cancer patients with “positive results” ranging from an “improved quality of life” to a “slowing of tumor growth” (http://vidatoxromania.ro/en/what-is-vidatox/) (http://www.bt.com.bn/science-technology/2010/10/29/cuba-release-new-cancer-drug). There are no data from controlled clinical studies neither for Escozul nor for Vidatox 30-CH in refereed journals. The available information derived from interviews with patients involved or provided within the sites of alternative therapies. Essentially, scientific evidences about the biological activity of Vidatox in cancer cells are missing.
So, is Vidatox homeopathy’s answer to cancer or is it simply a disgusting fraud?
What do you think?
Leah Bracknell, started raising funds ~3 years ago for alternative cures of her stage 4 lung cancer. Bracknell who, after her acting career, had become a yoga teacher said at the time that, in the UK, she was given “a fairly brutal and bleak diagnosis, but one I am determined to challenge”. Her partner, Jez Hughes, who helped with the fund-raising said the money would be used for “immunotherapy and integrative medicine, which are seeing previously ‘incurable’ cancers going into complete remission”.
The team thus raised over £50 000 and went to Germany, a country that is well-known for its liberal stance on quackery. In Britain, there are just a few physicians who are devoted to this or that alternative medicine. In Germany, there are thousands of them. In addition, Germany has a healthcare profession called the ‘Heilpraktiker’, a poorly-regulated left-over from the Third Reich. A Heilpraktiker has not studied medicine, yet is legally permitted to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and treat many serious diseases, including cancer, with unproven therapies.
It was reported that Leah Bracknell went to the ‘Hallwang Private Oncology Clinic’, an institution which claims that “Healing-oriented and individualised medicine considers all aspects of lifestyle and not only relies on conventional treatments and recent cutting-edge developments in medicine, but also takes into account our experience in natural remedies and is open for alternative treatment options in order to work in synergy with conventional treatment strategies. We always try to be as natural as possible and as conventional as needed to achieve the best results. Integrative Health Concepts are successfully used in many diseases including malignant diseases, neurological disorders as well as in prevention and rehabilitation.” The SCAMs used there include homeopathy, micronutrients, natural supplements, whole body hyperthermia and ozone therapy.
The evidence does not support these or other alternative cancer ‘cures’. In fact, the very notion of an alternative cancer cure is nonsensical: if an alternative cancer therapy showed even the slightest shimmer of promise, it would get investigated and, if shown to work, become part of routine oncology. The suggestion that there are treatments out there that are effective, yet shunned by oncologists because they originate from nature or from some exotic tradition is insulting and utterly barmy.
Yet cancer patients can easily fall for such claims. They are understandably desperate and listen to anyone promissing a cure. Therefore, they all too easily believe in weird conspiracy theories of ‘Big Parma’, the evil ‘establishment’ etc. who allegedly suppress the news of an effective therapy, as it might threaten their profits. If they do fall for such lies, they not only lose pots of money but also their lives.
Last Wednesday, it was reported that Leah Bracknell had died of cancer.
Professor Anthony Pelosi just published an intriguing paper. Here is the abstract:
During the 1980s and 1990s, Hans J Eysenck conducted a programme of research into the causes, prevention and treatment of fatal diseases in collaboration with one of his protégés, Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. This led to what must be the most astonishing series of findings ever published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature with effect sizes that have never otherwise been encounterered in biomedical research. This article outlines just some of these reported findings and signposts readers to extremely serious scientific and ethical criticisms that were published almost three decades ago. Confidential internal documents that have become available as a result of litigation against tobacco companies provide additional insights into this work. It is suggested that this research programme has led to one of the worst scientific scandals of all time. A call is made for a long overdue formal inquiry.
The Guardian reported further details on this story sating that the work of one of the most famous and influential British psychologists of all time, Hans Eysenck, is under a cloud following an investigation by King’s College London, which has found 26 of his published papers “unsafe”.
It is argued that there is now suficient evidence to regard psychosocial variables, in
particular personality and stress, as important risk factors for cancer and coronary heart
disease (CHD), equal in importance to smoking, heredity, cholesterol level, blood pressure,
and other physical variables. Furthermore, it is now clear that both types of factors act
synergistically; that is, each by itself is relatively benign, but their effects multiply to produce
high levels of disease…
The claim (which Eysenck published many times over, for instance here) was picked up and promoted by many believers in SCAM. This might have been helped by Eysenck’s bizarre openness to all things paranormal. Today his belief of a link between personality/stress and cancer is deeply engrained in SCAM.
King’s College says the results and conclusions of the papers “were not considered scientifically rigorous” by its committee of inquiry. Prof Sir Robert Lechler, the provost at King’s, has contacted the editors of the 11 journals where the papers appeared, recommending they should be retracted.
Prof Anthony Pelosi, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital, Glasgow, whose own investigation prompted the inquiry by King’s, said their work “led to what must be the most astonishing series of findings ever published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, with effect sizes that have never otherwise been encountered in biomedical research”.
Among more than 3,000 people in the studies, Eysenck and his colleague claimed people with a “cancer-prone” personality were 121 times more likely to die of the disease than those without. Cancer-prone personalities were described as generally passive in the face of stress from outside.
Eysenck and Grossarth-Maticek apparently even had a cure for cancer. In one study, they gave 600 “cancer-prone” individuals a leaflet on how to be more “autonomous” and take control of their destiny. It contained such advice as: “Your aim should always be to produce conditions which make it possible for you to lead a happy and contented life.” It appeared to deliver miracles. Over 13 years, the 600 people randomly assigned to bibliotherapy, as it was called, had all-cause mortality of 32%, compared with 82% of 600 people not fortunate enough to receive a leaflet.
“I honestly believe, having read it so carefully and tried to find alternative interpretations, that this is fraudulent work,” said Pelosi, who is concerned Eysenck’s ideas still have a following. “His acolytes always bragged he was the most cited psychologist of all time… In the social sciences citation index, he was number three. Number two was Freud. Number one was Karl Marx. He was hugely prolific, widely cited and very influential… Many fringe medical practitioners hold the same conviction.”
Many paediatric oncology patients report use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), and naturopathic ‘doctors’ (NDs) often provide supportive paediatric oncology care. However, little information exists to formally describe this clinical practice. This survey was aimed at filling the gap. It was conducted with members of the ‘Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians’ (OncANP.org) to describe recommendations across 4 therapeutic domains:
- natural health products (NHPs),
- physical medicine,
- mental/emotional support.
The researchers received 99 responses from practitioners with a wide variance of clinical experience and aptitude to treat children with cancer. 52.5% of respondents stated that they did, in fact, not treat such children. The three primary reasons for this decision were:
- lack of public demand (45.1%),
- institutional or clinic restrictions (21.6%),
- personal reasons/comfort (19.6%).
The 10 most frequently considered NHPs by those NDs who did treat childhood cancer patients were:
- fish-derived omega-3 fatty acid (83.3%),
- vitamin D (83.3%),
- probiotics (82.1%),
- melatonin (73.8%),
- vitamin C (72.6%),
- homeopathic Arnica (69.0%),
- turmeric/curcumin (67.9%),
- glutamine (66.7%),
- Astragalus membranaceus (64.3%),
- Coriolus versicolor/PSK (polysaccharide K) extracts (61.9%).
The top 5 nutritional recommendations were:
- anti-inflammatory diets (77.9%),
- dairy restriction (66.2%),
- Mediterranean diet (66.2%),
- gluten restriction (61.8%),
- and ketogenic diet (57.4%).
The top 5 physical interventions were
- exercise (94.1%),
- acupuncture (77.9%),
- acupressure (72.1%),
- craniosacral therapy (69.1%),
- and yoga (69.1%).
The top 5 mental/emotional interventions were:
- meditation (79.4%),
- art therapy (77.9%),
- mindfulness-based stress reduction (70.6%),
- music therapy (70.6%),
- and visualization therapy (67.6%).
The Canadian authors concluded that the results of our clinical practice survey highlight naturopathic interventions across four domains with a strong rationale for further inquiry in the care of children with cancer.
Personally, I don’t see a ‘strong rationale’ for anything here. I was, however, struck by the fact that about half of the naturopaths (they are NOT doctors!) dare to treat children with cancer. Equally, I was impressed by the list of treatments they use for this purpose; most are pure quackery! Finally, I was struck by the reasons given by those naturopaths who laudably abstained from treating cancer: they did not take this decision because of the lack of evidence that naturopaths and the treatments they like to employ fail to do more good than harm.
Altogether, this survey confirmed my view that naturopaths should not be allowed near children, especially those suffering from cancer.
I wish people would think a bit before naming things! What is ‘natural health’? Is it the opposite of ‘unnatural health’ or of ‘natural illness’? But who am I to question the terminology of the NHS? I am not even a native English speaker!
Therefore, let me rather look at what this oddly-named school does. Here is how the ‘NHS Natural Health School‘ explain their work:
The NHS Natural Health School has been developed to meet the standards of practice, and experience that are essential for complementary therapists wishing to treat patients within an NHS healthcare setting. The school offers a wide range of approved and accredited courses, taught by highly qualified and clinically skilled lecturers who are experienced in working clinically within NHS Healthcare settings and providing complementary therapy treatments for patients with a range of complex needs including cancer diagnosis. By welcoming you into the multi-disciplinary care team, we not only prepare you as a confident, competent practitioner ready to meet the needs of a demanding industry, but we are able to support the provision of specialist care for a wide range of patients and clients who otherwise would miss out on beneficial treatments.
Courses include supervised clinical placements across hospital and community healthcare settings. All proceeds raised from the courses are reinvested into the Harrogate Hospital and Community Charity’s SROMC Complementary Therapy Fund to ensure the financial sustainability of the HDFT NHS Trust Complementary Therapy Service. For more information on the courses and education available please click the courses link above.
Naturally, I am intrigued and have a look at their courses. They include shiatsu, holistic massage and reflexology. Having published several papers on the latter, it is of particular interest to me. Reflexologists have maps of the sole of the foot where all the body’s organs are depicted. Numerous such maps have been published and, embarrassingly, they do not all agree with each other as to the location of the organs on the sole of the feet. By massaging specific zones which are assumed to be connected to specific organs, reflexologists believe to positively influence the function of these organs. Here is what the NHS Natural Health School advertise about their reflexology course:
A combination of theory and practical modules designed to equip the learner with the skills required to provide Reflexology treatments for a wide range of clients. On successful completion of the course you will be able to register with the relevant regulatory and professional associations and gain full insurance to practice.
Course content includes;
- Explore the history and origins of Reflexology
- Explore the use of various mediums used in treatment including waxes, balms, powders and oils
- Explore the philosophy of holism and its role within western bio medicine
- Reading the feet/hands and mapping the reflex points
- Relevant anatomy, physiology and pathology
- Managing a wide range of conditions
- Legal implications
- Cautions and contraindications
- Assessment and client care
- Practical reflexology skills and routines
- Treatment planning
Assessment: You will produce evidence of 30 reflexology treatments. An additional assessment of your competence will determine your readiness to undertake 72 in-depth case studies and complete a practical assessment.
Course Duration: Attendance is required at 8 Reflexology technical days over 12 months, during which time you will demonstrate a minimum of 100 practical hours.
Special Notes: The core modules; Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology, Business Practice and Principles and Practice of Complementary Therapy are normally completed concurrently as part of the diploma.
Learners who already have a Level 3 diploma in a complementary therapy may be exempt from the core modules.
A first aid certificate is required prior to completion of the diploma.
Fascinating! Personally I am most intrigued about the module on anatomy, physiology and pathology, because all of the three squarely contradict what reflexologists believe. But I wonder even more why there is no mention of the evidence. Have they forgotten to mention it? Unlikely; their other courses on SCAMs such as aromatherapy, holistic massage or shiatsu have similar omissions. Or does the ‘NHS Natural Health School’ not think that evidence matters to ‘competent practitioners’ of the NHS? Or perhaps this is where ‘natural health’ is different from unnatural health?
No, silly me! The reason clearly lies elsewhere: the evidence fails to show that reflexology generates more good than harm. So, the clever people from the ‘NHS Natural Health School’ decided to hide it discretely. Shrewd move! Albeit slightly embarrassing as well as just a little unethical, particularly for the NHS Harrogate, I’d say.
Just in case some readers do wonder nonetheless what the evidence does tell us about reflexology, here is the summary table from my recent book:
I cannot help but being reminded of something I stated many times before: EVEN THE MOST PROPER TEACHING OF NONSENSE CAN ONLY RESULT IN NONSENSE.
It is hard to deny that many practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) advise their patients to avoid ‘dangerous chemicals’. By this they usually mean prescription drugs. If you doubt how strong this sentiment often is, you have not followed the recent posts and the comments that regularly followed. Frequently, SCAM practitioners will suggest to their patients to not take this or that drug and predict that patients would then see for themselves how much better they feel (usually, they also administer their SCAM at this point).
Lo and behold, many patients do indeed feel better after discontinuing their ‘chemical’ medicines. Of course, this experience is subsequently interpreted as a proof that the drugs were dangerous: “I told you so, you are much better off not taking synthetic medicines; best to use the natural treatments I am offering.”
But is this always interpretation correct?
I seriously doubt it.
Let’s look at a common scenario: a middle-aged man on several medications for reducing his cardiovascular risk (no, it’s not me). He has been diagnosed to have multiple cardiovascular risk factors. Initially, his GP told him to change his life-style, nutrition and physical activity – to which he was only moderately compliant. Despite the patient feeling perfectly healthy, his blood pressure and lipids remained elevated. His doctor now strongly recommends drug treatment and our chap soon finds himself on statins, beta-blockers plus ACE-inhibitors.
Our previously healthy man has thus been turned into a patient with all sorts of symptoms. His persistent cough prompts his GP to change the ACE-inhibitor to a Ca-channel blocker. Now the patients cough is gone, but he notices ankle oedema and does not feel in top form. His GP said that this is nothing to worry about and asks him to grin and bear it. But the fact is that a previously healthy man has been turned into a patient with reduced quality of life (QoL).
This fact takes our man to a homeopath in the hope to restore his QoL (you see, it certainly isn’t me). The homeopath proceeds as outlined above: he explains that drugs are dangerous chemicals and should therefore best be dropped. The homeopath also prescribes homeopathics and is confident that they will control the blood pressure adequately. Our man complies. After just a few days, he feels miles better, his QoL is back, and even his sex-life improves. The homeopath is triumphant: “I told you so, homeopathy works and those drugs were really nasty stuff.”
When I was a junior doctor working in a homeopathic hospital, my boss explained to me that much of the often considerable success of our treatments was to get rid of most, if not all prescription drugs that our patients were taking (the full story can be found here). At the time, and for many years to come, this made a profound impression on me and my clinical practice. As a scientist, however, I have to critically evaluate this strategy and ask: is it the correct one?
The answer is YES and NO.
YES, many (bad) doctors over-prescribe. And there is not a shadow of a doubt that unnecessary drugs must be scrapped. But what is unnecessary? Is it every drug that makes a patient less well than he was before?
NO, treatments that are needed should not be scrapped, even if this would make the patient feel better. Where possible, they might be altered such that side-effects disappear or become minimal. Patients’ QoL is important, but it is not the only factor of importance. I am sure this must sound ridiculous to lay people who, at this stage of the discussion, would often quote the ethical imperative of FIRST DO NO HARM.
So, let me use an extreme example to explain this a bit better. Imagine a cancer patient on chemo. She is quite ill with it and QoL is a thing of the past. Her homeopath tells her to scrap the chemo and promises she will almost instantly feel fine again. With some side-effect-free homeopathy see will beat the cancer just as well (please, don’t tell me they don’t do that, because they do!). She follows the advice, feels much improved for several months. Alas, her condition then deteriorates, and a year later she is dead.
I know, this is an extreme example; therefore, let’s return to our cardiovascular patient from above. He too followed the advice of his homeopath and is happy like a lark for several years … until, 5 years after discontinuing the ‘nasty chemicals’, he drops dead with a massive myocardial infarction at the age of 62.
I hope I made my message clear: those SCAM providers who advise discontinuing prescribed drugs are often impressively successful in improving QoL and their patients love them for it. But many of these practitioners haven’t got a clue about real medicine, and are merely playing dirty tricks on their patients. The advise to stop a prescribed drug can be a very wise move. But frequently, it improves the quality, while reducing the quantity of life!
The lesson is simple: find a rational doctor who knows the difference between over-prescribing and evidence-based medicine. And make sure you start running when a SCAM provider tries to meddle with necessary prescribed drugs.
Guest post by Toby Katz
Who am I?
I’m a final-year graduate medic (also hold an Economics degree) studying at St George’s University. I founded the Integrative Medicine Society at the university, with the aim of hosting talks on evidence-based CAM. My interest in evidence-based CAM arose as many of my family members have benefitted from different CAM interventions (mostly due to chronic MSk pain), where conventional interventions (physiotherapy and chronic pain teams) have failed to resolve their issues.
When it comes to the CAM debate, I see myself as a centrist. I am both a CAM apologist and sceptic and in recent years I have looked to educate myself around this subject. I have read Ernst’s Desktop Guide to CAM and Moral Maze books, spoken to Professor Colquhoun and most recently I undertook the Foundation Course in CAM run by the College of Medicine. My review of the course follows.
Overall, there’s a lot to learn from both sides of the debate and the debate continues due to systematic issues in the UK. Ad hominem attacks don’t help anyone, but conversation can. I hope I can converse with many of you in the future.
The Foundation Course
Two days of fast-paced talks on Integrative/Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The topics included: Resilience, nutritional therapy, medical acupuncture, MSk methods for non-osteopaths, homeopathy, herbs and spices, imagery and relaxation, cancer, hypnotherapy and social prescribing.
The speakers included: Professor David Peters, Dr Catherine Zollman (Medical Director for Penny Brohn), Heather Richards (Nutritional Therapist), Dr Elizabeth Thompson (GP and homeopath), Trevor Hoskisson (Hypnotherapist), Dr Mike Cummings (BMAS), Simon Mills (Medical Herbalist) – at least two of these are already in the infamous Alt Med Hall of Fame!
My initial feelings upon hearing the talks were that most of these individuals are inherently good people, who want the best outcomes for their patients. Their aim is to operate in the areas of medicine where conventional medicine doesn’t hold the answers – chronic pain, idiopathic headache, IBS etc. But there were also people who were advocating the use of unproven alternative therapies.
These were some of my thoughts I jotted down during the two days:
Professor Peters – Constantly speaking in generalisations. Uses historic references, romantic and philosophical language to entice listeners but generally has little point to what he says. Suffers from tangential thinking. Loses track of his own point. Very Freudian-like thinking (everyone has gone through childhood trauma according to him).
Dr Catherine Zollman – Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The doctor I resonate most closely with out of everyone speaking. Promoting the holistic management of a cancer diagnosis; integrating (not undermining) conventional medicine with complementary ways of dealing with the stress surrounding the diagnosis and much more. Works for a non-for-profit organisation. She has many years of oncology experience and strives to create a patient-centred approach to management.
Dr Mike Cummings – promoting medical acupuncture mainly for myofascial pain syndrome. I volunteered to receive acupuncture in my shoulder (have had post-op muscular pain since April). He dry-needled one of my trigger points and it helped, for a few days – this is better than anything a physio has done for me so far. I don’t know why dry-needling isn’t taught at medical school to help with myofascial pain syndrome.
Dr Elizabeth Thompson – Very respectable but I do feel the homeopathy ship has well and truly sailed. Provided ‘evidence’ on how ‘succussion’ changes the make-up of water molecules. Though Dr Thompson is medically trained, there are many non-medical homeopaths who promote things such as homeoprophylaxis and anti-vaccine views and I’m more worried about these such homeopaths. I do respect Dr Thompson and believe her when she says she has helped many patients. Whether this is due to placebo or the get-better-anyway effect I don’t know.
What they were promoting
On reflection, it’s clear that there was a real mix in promoting evidence-based therapies and eyebrow-raising alternatives – this is often difficult for those with an untrained eye to spot the difference. There was a general air of distrust with modern science and EBM floating around the room at all times. Sure, there are things wrong with it, but I think it’s done us pretty well over the last few decades!
I irritated a few speakers when I asked about the evidence behind their claims!
What to take away
There were many GPs present, who stated they’re often in a difficult position in the current system of healthcare we have in the UK. Around half of all consultations are MSk based, many of which are associated with chronic, muscular pain. The WHO analgesic pathway does little for these patients (unless you want to knock them for six with oxycodone) and physiotherapists struggle to make a real difference in a 30-minute appointment. The truth is, we are not providing GPs with the right toolkit to cope with these “difficult” patients.
– Get a copy of Ernst et al.’s Desktop Guide for CAM
– Release more formal guidelines using this book as a base for any positive evidence
– Engage in conversation with those from both sides. We have a lot to learn from one another
– SCRAP the forms of CAM that have no plausibility
Food for thought
– If a patient’s pain improves after a session of acupuncture and not from physiotherapy, does it fit with a utilitarian ethical model to deny this person access to acupuncture if EBM shows acupuncture has rates similar to placebo?
– Chronic myofascial pain syndrome. Can we manage it better in primary care? Why not teach dry needling to healthcare professionals? (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4107879/ – Desai et al suggest it works)
– What is the alternative for no CAM for many patients who suffer? If patient’s choice is reduced, does that not reduce their autonomy?
If anyone wishes to contact me, you can at email@example.com
The fact that homeopathy is under siege in France, has been discussed before. Now even the international media have picked up the story. Here are some excerpts from an interesting article in Bloomberg:
… The looming brawl gets to the heart of conflicting visions of the state’s involvement in the country’s health system at a time of eroding quality and services. Jobs are also at stake: France is home to Boiron SA, the leader in a global homeopathy market estimated at more than $30 billion.
Boiron’s pills and tinctures have long coexisted with conventional care in France, prescribed by regular doctors and dispensed in almost every pharmacy. Ending public support for the remedies would discredit homeopathy and “send a shock wave” through the industry worldwide, says Boiron’s chief executive officer, Valerie Poinsot. “We’ve been caught in this storm for the past year,” Poinsot says. “Why the hostility, when we contribute to caring for patients?”
Facing a possible backlash, Boiron, based in Lyon, teamed with rivals Weleda AG of Switzerland and closely held family group Lehning to fund a campaign called MyHomeoMyChoice. The push has garnered just over 1 million signatures in an online petition and placed bright-colored posters framed with the recognizable little white pills at pharmacies across the country. “Homeopathy has treated generations of French patients,” says one slogan. “Why deprive future generations?”
For now, French people can walk into any pharmacy and buy a tube of Arnica granules — recommended for shocks and bruises — or roughly a thousand other similar remedies for 1.6 euros ($1.80) with a prescription, because the state health system shoulders about 30% of its cost. In some cases, private insurers cover the remainder and patients pay nothing. That may all soon change. A science agency is wrapping up a study of the relative benefits of alternative medicine that will inform the government’s position: Keep the funding, trim it or scrap it altogether.
If the government cuts funding, Boiron would instantly feel the pain. Poinsot estimates that sales of reimbursed treatments could plummet by 50% in France, where the company brings in almost half its revenue. The company’s stock price has lost about 13% since May 15, when a French newspaper wrote that the panel reviewing homeopathy funding would probably rule against it…
In France, the controversy first erupted last year when the influential Le Figaro newspaper published a letter from a doctor’s collective called FakeMed lambasting alternative medicines. The authors called for ending support of “irrational and dangerous” therapies with “no scientific foundation.” The ensuing debate prompted Health Minister Agnes Buzyn to place funding under review and ask the country’s High Authority for Health to rule on homeopathy’s scientific merits…
David Beausire, a doctor in palliative care at the hospital in Mont de Marsan, in southwest France, is among those who signed the FakeMed letter. Beausire, who sees many terminally ill patients, said he regularly gets people who consult too late because they first explored alternative medicine paths that include homeopathy. “I am not an extremist,” he says. But homeopathy’s reimbursement by the state health system gives it legitimacy when “there’s no proof that it works.”…
Stung by accusations of quackery, Antoine Demonceaux, a doctor and homeopath in Reims, founded a group called SafeMed last November to relay the message that homeopathy has a role to play alongside standard care. He points to the growing number of cancer centers offering consultations to relieve treatment-related symptoms, such as nausea, with homeopathic medicine. Demonceaux says neither he nor his colleagues would ever use homeopathy as a substitute for treatments intended to, say, shrink tumors. “A general practitioner or a specialist who’d claim to be a homeopath and to cure cancer with homeopathy? Just sack him,” he says. “Let’s get real. We are doctors.”
On the whole, this is a good report which – as far as I can see – describes the situation quite well and provides interesting details. What, however, with this articles and many like it is this: journalists (and others) are too often too lethargic or naïve to check the veracity of the claims that are being made during these disputes. For instance, it would not have been all that difficult to discover that:
- Hahnemann called clinicians who used homeopathy alongside conventional treatments ‘traitors‘! He categorically forbade it and denied that such an approach merits the name ‘HOMEOPATHY’. In other words, let’s get real and let’s not pull wool over the eyes of the public (and let’s be honest, it is not possible to practice homeopathy within the boundaries of medical ethics).
- Many homeopaths do advocate homeopathy as a sole treatment for cancer and other serious conditions (see for instance here, here and here).
The obvious risk of such lack of critical thinking is that homeopathy might be kept refundable on the basis of big, fat lies. And clearly, that would not be in the interest of anyone (with the exception of family Boiron, of course).