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

charlatan

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Dr Jennifer Jacobs is a homeopaths from the US. She is a family physician and a clinical assistant professor in epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine. She received her MD degree from Wayne State University and a Masters in Public Health from the University of Washington.

Jennifer is foremost famous for the homeopathic childhood diarhoea studies, but does that justify her joining THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME with its 15 current members who managed the impossible feast of never publishing a negative conclusion about their pet SCAM:

A Medline search generated 25 papers of hers on homeopathy. Here are the key findings of the … that report original data on the effectiveness of homeopathy (clinical trials or reviews):

  1. If and when conventional medicine runs out of options for treating epidemic diseases, homeopathy could be seen as an attractive alternative, but only if there is viable experimental evidence of its success.
  2. The homeopathic syrup appeared to be effective in reducing the severity of cold symptoms in the first day after beginning treatment.
  3. the medicines prescribed in individualised homeopathy may have small, specific, treatment effects.
  4. Homeopathic ear drops may be effective in reducing the use of antibiotics in children with AOM managed with a delayed antibiotic approach.
  5. This study suggests that homeopathic ear drops were moderately effective in treating otalgia in children with AOM and may be most effective in the early period after a diagnosis of AOM. Pediatricians and other primary health care providers should consider homeopathic ear drops a useful adjunct to standard therapy.
  6. The homeopathic combination therapy tested in this study did not significantly reduce the duration or severity of acute diarrhea in Honduran children. Further study is needed to develop affordable and effective methods of using homeopathy to reduce the global burden of childhood diarrhea.
  7. This pilot study provides no evidence to support a therapeutic effect of individually selected homeopathic remedies in children with ADHD. A therapeutic effect of the homeopathic encounter is suggested and warrants further evaluation.
  8. Small sample size precludes definitive answers, but results from this preliminary trial suggest that homeopathy may be of value in the treatment of menopausal symptoms and improving quality of life, especially in those women not on tamoxifen.
  9. The results from these studies confirm that individualized homeopathic treatment decreases the duration of acute childhood diarrhea and suggest that larger sample sizes be used in future homeopathic research to ensure adequate statistical power. Homeopathy should be considered for use as an adjunct to oral rehydration for this illness.
  10. These results suggest that a positive treatment effect of homeopathy when compared with placebo in acute otitis media cannot be excluded and that a larger study is justified.
  11. These results are consistent with the finding from the previous study that individualized homeopathic treatment decreases the duration of diarrhea and number of stools in children with acute childhood diarrhea.
  12. The statistically significant decrease in the duration of diarrhea in the treatment group suggests that homeopathic treatment might be useful in acute childhood diarrhea. Further study of this treatment deserves consideration.

Next to Claudia Witt, Jennifer might be the researcher who has published the most clinical trials of homeopathy with positive conclusions (don’t be jealous Michael Frass, you might be in third place!). Attentive readers have probably noticed, she also published a negative trial with a negative conclusion (No 6) and a negative trial with a not so negative conclusion (No 7). The negative study almost cost her the place in the HALL OF FAME. But let’s be generous, and let’s consider the TRUSTWORTHINESS INDEX which, in her case, is still well and safely in the untrustworthy region. Therefore, I hope we all agree: Jenifer does deserve a place in THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME.

WELCOME JENNIFER!

The UK Professional Standards Authority has just made this announcement:

The Professional Standards Authority has suspended the accreditation of the Society of Homeopaths (SoH) following its failure to meet Conditions set by the Authority during 2020. The suspension is effective from today.

Under the Accredited Registers programme, organisations can apply for accreditation of registers they hold of unregulated healthcare practitioners and must meet Standards set by the Authority. The SoH was first accredited in 2014. In February 2020 accreditation was renewed, subject to a Condition that included making its position statements clear that registrants must not practise CEASE, practise or advertise adjunctive therapies, or provide advice on vaccination.

Accreditation of registers is renewed annually, however where there are serious concerns, we conduct an in-year review. We undertook an in-year review of the SoH during the summer of 2020, after concerns were raised in relation to the appointment of a key official. As set out in the outcome of our in-year review three further Conditions were issued, the first two of which were due in October 2020. In December 2020, a Panel met to consider whether these had been met.

We found the Conditions were not met and that the SoH did not fully meet a number of our Standards. In view of the recurrent nature of the concerns, and that several Conditions had already been imposed on the SoH since February 2020, we decided to suspend accreditation.

The suspension will be reviewed after 12 months. To be lifted the SoH will need to demonstrate that it prioritises public protection over professional interests in its handling of complaints and governance processes. If the SoH can demonstrate that this is achieved through fulfilment of the Conditions and Standards earlier than 12 months then we will consider lifting the suspension sooner.

END OF QUOTE

For background information, the following posts might be helpful:

The UK Society of Homeopaths, a hub of anti-vaccination activists? (edzardernst.com)

The decision by the PSA to grant reaccreditation to the Society of Homeopaths is being challenged (edzardernst.com)

The Society of Homeopaths have a Code of Ethics, but seem to ignore it. I wonder why! (edzardernst.com)

Seven things you might want to know about ‘CEASE’ therapy (as practised by homeopaths and naturopaths) (edzardernst.com)

The UK ‘Society of Homeopath’ is an anti-vaxx hub that endangers public health (in my humble opinion) (edzardernst.com)

I was alerted to an article in which some US doctors, including the famous Andrew Weil, promote the idea that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has a lot to offer for people recovering from Covid-19 infections. There would be a lot to argue about their recommendations, but today I will not go into this (I find it just too predictable how SCAM proponents try to promote SCAM on the basis of flimsy evidence; perhaps I am suffering from ‘BS for Covid fatigue’?). What did, however, strike me in their paper was a definition of INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE (IM) that I had not yet come across:

Integrative medicine is defined as healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.

Ever since the term IM became fashionable, there have been dozens of definitions of the term (almost as though IM proponents were not quite sure themselves what they were promoting). And ever since I first heard about IM, I felt it was a thinly disguised attempt to smuggle unproven treatments into the routine of evidence-based medicine (EBM). In 2002, I published my 1st comment on the subject. In it, I warned that IM must not become an excuse for using every conceivable untested treatment under the banner of holism. Nineteen years on, this is exactly what has happened, and one definition of IM after the next is soaked in platitudes, falsehoods and misunderstandings.

So, let’s see how reasonable this new definition is. I will try to do this by briefly discussing each element of the two sentences.

  1. IM is healing-oriented medicine: this is a transparently daft platitude. Does anyone know a medicine that is not oriented towards healing? Healing is the process of becoming well again, especially after a cut or other injury, or of making someone well again. Healing is what medicine has always been and always be aimed at. In other words, it is not something that differentiates IM from other forms of healthcare.
  2. IM takes account of the whole person: This is the little holistic trick that IM proponents like to adopt. It implies that normal medicine or EBM is not holistic. This implication is wrong. Any good medicine is holistic, and if a sector of healthcare fails to account for the whole person, we need to reform it. (Here are the conclusions of an editorial I published in 2007 entitled ‘Holistic heath care?‘: good health care is likely to be holistic but holistic health care, as it is marketed at present, is not necessarily good. The term ‘holistic’ may even be a ‘red herring’ which misleads patients. What matters most is whether or not any given approach optimally benefits the patient. This goal is best achieved with effective and safe interventions administered humanely — regardless of what label we put on them.) Creating a branch of medicine that, like IM, pretends to have a monopoly on holism can only hinder this process.
  3. IM includes all aspects of lifestyle: really, all of them? This is nonsense! Good physicians take into account the RELEVANT lifestyles of their patients. If, for instance, my patient with intermittent claudication is a postman, his condition would affect him differently from a patient who is a secretary. But all lifestyles? No! I fear this ‘over the top’ statement merely indicates that those who have conceived it have difficulties differentiating the important from the trivial.
  4. IM emphasizes the therapeutic relationship: that’s nice! But so do all other physicians (except perhaps pathologists). As medical students, we were taught how to do it, some physicians wrote books about it (remember Balint?), and many of us ran courses on the subject. Some conventional clinicians might even feel insulted by the implication that they do not emphasize the therapeutic relationship. Again, the IM brigade take an essential element of good healthcare as their monopoly. It almost seems to be a nasty habit of theirs to highjack a core element of healthcare and declare it as their invention.
  5. IM is informed by evidence: that is brilliant, finally there emerges a real difference between IM and EBM! While proper medicine is BASED on evidence, IM is merely INFORMED by it. The difference is fundamental, because it allows IM clinicians to use any un- or disproven SCAM. The evidence for homeopathy fails to show that it is effective? Never mind, IM is not evidence-based, it is evidence-informed. IM physiciance know homeopathy is a placebo therapy (if not they would be ill-informed which would make them unethical), but they nevertheless use homeopathy (try to find an IM clinic that does not offer homeopathy!), because IM is not EBM. IM is evidence-informed!
  6. IM makes use of all appropriate therapies: and the last point takes the biscuit. Are the IM fanatics honestly suggesting that conventional doctors use inappropriate therapies? Does anyone know a branch of health care where clinicians systematically employ therapies that are not appropriate? Appropriate means suitable or right for a particular situation or occasion. Are IM practitioners the only ones who use therapies that are suitable for a particular situation? This last point really does count on anyone falling for IM not to have the slightest ability to think analytically.

This short analysis confirms yet again that IM is little more than a smokescreen behind which IM advocates try to smuggle nonsense into routine healthcare. The fact that, during the last two decades, the definition constantly changed, while no half decent definition emerged suggests that they themselves don’t quite know what it is. They like moving the goal post but seem unsure in which direction. And their latest attempt to define IM indicates to me that IM advocates might not be the brightest buttons in the drawer.

So sorry, I have been neglecting THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME of late. I was reminded of its existence when writing my post about Adrian White the other day. Reading the kind comments I received on it, I not only decided to make Adrian an honorary member (for his latter part of his career as an acupuncture researcher, but also to reactivate the idea of the HALL OF FAME in more general terms. And in the course of doing just this, I noticed that I somehow forgot to admit Prof Michael Frass, an omission which I regret and herewith rectify. A warm welcome to both!

In case you are unaware what THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME is, let me explain: it is a group of researchers who manage to go through (part of) their professional life researching their particular SCAM without ever publishing a negative conclusion about it, or who have other outstanding merits in misleading the public about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). As of today, we thus have the following experts in the HALL:

Adrian White (acupuncturist, UK)

Michael Frass (homeopath, Austria)

Jens Behnke (research officer, Germany)

John Weeks (editor of JCAM, US)

Deepak Chopra (entrepreneur, Us)

Cheryl Hawk (US chiropractor)

David Peters (osteopathy, homeopathy, UK)

Nicola Robinson (TCM, UK)

Peter Fisher (homeopathy, UK)

Simon Mills (herbal medicine, UK)

Gustav Dobos (various, Germany)

Claudia Witt (homeopathy, Germany and Switzerland)

George Lewith (acupuncture, UK)

John Licciardone (osteopathy, US)

I must say, this is an assembly of international SCAM experts to be proud of – even if I say so myself!

The new member I am proposing to admit today is Dr Jenice Pellow. She is a lecturer in the Department of Complementary Medicine at the University of Johannisburg and already once featured on this blog. But now it seems time to admit this relatively little-known researcher into my HALL OF FAME. Dr Pellow has 11 Medline-listed papers on so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Allow me to show you some key findings from their abstracts:

  1. Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) offers parents various treatment options for this condition [ADHD], including dietary modifications, nutritional supplementation, herbal medicine, and homeopathy. CAM appears to be most effective when prescribed holistically and according to each individual’s characteristic symptoms.
  2. The homeopathic medicine reduced the sensitivity reaction of cat allergic adults to cat allergen, according to the SPT. Future studies are warranted to further investigate the effect of Cat saliva and Histaminum and their role as a potential therapeutic option for this condition.
  3. Findings suggest that daily use of the homeopathic complex does have an effect over a 4-wk period on physiological and cognitive arousal at bedtime as well as on sleep onset latency in PI sufferers. Further research on the use of this complex for PI is warranted before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.
  4. The homeopathic complex used in this study exhibited significant anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving qualities in children with acute viral tonsillitis. No patients reported any adverse effects. These preliminary findings are promising; however, the sample size was small and therefore a definitive conclusion cannot be reached. A larger, more inclusive research study should be undertaken to verify the findings of this study.
  5. results suggest the homeopathic complex, together with physiotherapy, can significantly improve symptoms associated with CLBP due to OA.
  6. This small study showed the potential benefits of individualized homeopathic treatment of binge eating in males, decreasing both the frequency and severity of binging episodes. 
  7. There have been numerous trials and pharmacological studies of specific herbal preparations related to the treatment of low sexual desire.
  8. Most of the evaluated medicinal plants showed evidence of efficacy in relieving menstrual pain in at least one RCT.
  9. Results indicated that most participants made use of both complementary and conventional medicines for their infant’s colic; the most commonly used complementary medicine products were homeopathic remedies, probiotics and herbal medicines.
  10. Promising evidence for the following single supplements were found [for allergic rhinitis]: apple polyphenols, tomato extract, spirulina, chlorophyll c2, honey, conjugated linoleic acid, MSM, isoquercitrin, vitamins C, D and E, as well as probiotics. Combination formulas may also be beneficial, particularly specific probiotic complexes, a mixture of vitamin D3, quercetin and Perilla frutescens, as well as the combination of vitamin D3 and L. reuteri. 
  11. Despite a reported lack of knowledge regarding complementary medicine and limited personal use, participants had an overall positive attitude towards complementary medicine. 

I admit that 11 papers in 7 years is not an overwhelming output for a University lecturer. However, please do consider the fact that all of them – particularly the ones on homeopathy which is be the particular focus of Jenice (after all, she is a homeopath) – chime a happy tune for SCAM. I therefore think that Jenice should be admitted to THE ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME and hope you agree.

Welcome to  ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME, Jenice!

As though the UK does not have plenty of organisations promoting so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)! Obviously not – because a new one is about to emerge.

In mid-January, THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE AND INTEGRATED HEALTH (COMIH) will launch the Integrated Medicine Alliance bringing together the leaders of many complementary health organisations to provide patients, clinicians and policy makers with information on the various complementary modalities, which will be needed in a post COVID-19 world, where:

  1. patient choice is better respected,
  2. requirements for evidence of efficacy are more proportionate to the seriousness of the disease and the safety of the intervention,
  3. and where benefit versus risk are better balanced.

We already saw this in 2020 with the College advocating from the very beginning of the year that people should think about taking Vitamin D, while the National Institute for Clinical Excellence continued to say the evidence was insufficient, but the Secretary of State has now supported it being given to the vulnerable on the basis of the balance between cost, benefit and safety.

Elsewhere we learn more about the Integrated Medicine Alliance (IMA):

The IMA is a group of organisations and individuals that have been brought together for the purpose of encouraging and optimising the best use of complementary therapies alongside conventional healthcare for the benefit of all.

The idea for this group was conceived by Dr Michael Dixon in discussion with colleagues associated with the College of Medicine, and the initial meeting to convene the group was held in February 2019.

The group transitioned through a number of titles before settling on the ‘Integrated Medicine Alliance’ and began work on developing a patient leaflet and a series of information sheets on the key complementary therapies.

It was agreed that in the first instance the IMA should exist under the wing of the College of Medicine, but that in the future it may develop into a formal organisation in its own right, but inevitably maintaining a close relationship with the College of Medicine.

The IMA also offers ‘INFORMATION SHEETS’ on the following modalities:

I find those leaflets revealing. They tell us, for example that the Reiki practitioner channels universal energy through their hands to help rebalance each of the body’s energy centres, known as chakras. About homeopathy, we learn that a large corpus of evidence has accumulated which stands the most robust tests of modern science. And about naturopathy, we learn that it includes ozone therapy but is perfectly safe.

Just for the fun of it – and free of charge – let me try to place a few corrections here:

  • Reiki healers use their hands to perform what is little more than a party trick.
  • The universal energy they claim to direct does not exist.
  • The body does not have energy centres.
  • Chakras are a figment of imagination.
  • The corpus of evidence on homeopathy is by no means large.
  • The evidence is flimsy.
  • The most robust tests of modern science fail to show that homeopathy is effective beyond placebo.
  • Naturopathy is a hotchpotch of treatments most of which are neither natural nor perfectly safe.

One does wonder who writes such drivel for the COMIH, and one shudders to think what else the IMA might be up to.

2020 was certainly a difficult year (please note, I am trying a British understatement here). From the point of view of running this blog, it was sad to lose James Randi (1928 – 2020) who had been the hero of so many sceptics worldwide, and to learn of the passing of Frank Odds (1945-2020) who was a regular, thoughtful commentator here.

Reviewing the topics we tackled, I could mention dozens. But let me pick out just a few themes that I feel might be important.

HOMEOPATHY

Homeopathy continued to have a rough time; the German medical profession has finally realised that homeopathy is treatment with placebos and the German Green Party no longer backs homeopathy. In India, the Supreme Court ruled: Homeopathy must not be sold as a cure of Covid-19, and in the US improved labeling on homeopathic products were introduced. To make matters worse I issued A CHALLENGE FOR ALL HOMEOPATHS OF THE WORLD.

NOVEL SCAMs

On this blog, I like to write about new so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) that I come accross. Blood letting is not exactly new, but Oh look! Bloodletting is back! Many other ‘innovations’ were equally noteworthy. Here is merely a very short selection of modalities that were new to me:

COVID-19

Unquestionably the BIG subject (not just) in SCAM was – is and will be for a while – the pandemic. It prompted quacks of any type to crawl out of the woodwork misleading the public about their offerings. On 24 January, I wrote for the first time about it: Coronavirus epidemic: Why don’t they ask the homeopaths for help? Thereafter, every charlatan seemed to jump on the COVID bandwaggon, even Trump: Trump seems to think that UV might be the answer to the corona-pandemic – could he mean “ultraviolet blood irradiation”?  It became difficult to decide who was making a greater fool of themselves, Trump or the homeopaths (Is this the crown of the Corona-idiocy? Nosodes In Prevention And Management Of COVID -19). Few SCAM entrepreneurs (Eight new products aimed at mitigating COVID-19. But do they really work?) were able to resist the opportunity. Snakeoil salesmen were out in force and view COVID-19 as an ‘opportunity’. It is impossible to calculate what impact all this COVID-quackery had, but I fear that many people lost their lives at least in part because of it.

VACCINATION

The unavoidable consequence of the pandemic was that the anti-vaxx brigade sensed that their moment had arrived. Ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield: “Better to die as a free man than live as a slave” (and get vaccinated against Covid-19). Again the ‘charlatan in chief’ made his influence felt through the ‘Trump-Effect’ on vaccination attitudes. Unsurprisingly, the UK ‘Society of Homeopath’ turned out to be an anti-vaxx hub that endangers public health. And where there is anti-vaxx, chiropractors are seldom far: Ever wondered why so many chiropractors are profoundly anti-vax?. All this could be just amusing, but sadly it has the potential to cost lives through Vaccine hesitancy due to so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).

ETHICS

I happen to believe that ethics in SCAM are an important, yet much neglected topic. It is easy to understand why this should be so: adhering to the rules of medical ethics would all but put an end to SCAM. This applies to chiropractic (The lack of chiropractic ethics: “valid consent was not obtained in a single case”), to homeopaths (Ethical homeopathy) and to most other SCAM professions. If I had a wish for the next year(s), it would be that funding agencies focus on research into the many ethical problems posed by the current popularity of SCAM.

CONCLUSION

If I had another wish, it would be that critical thinking becomes a key subject in schools, universities and adult education. Why do so many people make irrational choices? One answer to this question is, because we fail to give this subject the importance it demands. The lack of critical thinking is the reason why we elect leaders who are compulsory lyers, make wrong choices about healthcare, and continue to destroy the planet as though there is no tomorrow. It is high time that we, as a society, realise how fundamentally important critical thinking truly is.

OUTLOOK

Yes, 2020 was difficult: Brexit, COVID-19, anti-vaxx, etc. But it was not all bad (certainly not for me personally), and there is good reason for hope: the globally malign influence of Trump is about to disappear, and we now have several effective vaccines. Common sense, decency and science might triumph after all.

HEALTHY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!

I often hear that my ambitions to inform the public and inspire critical thinking are hopeless: there are simply too many quacks trumpeting nonsense, and their collective influence is surely bigger than mine. This can be depressing, of course. And because I often feel that I am fighting an unwinnable battle, stories like this are so importand and up-lifting.

Denby Royal was a ‘holistic nutritionist’, then she became a critic of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Here is the story about her transformation:

… I had gone to holistic nutrition school. I was running my own nutrition consulting business. And suddenly I didn’t believe in any of it anymore. How did this flip flop come to pass?

… As a holistic nutritionist, I was an active participant in what I now consider alternative medicine tomfoolery, specifically pushing supplements on a clientele of the “worried well” who often mistook wellness enthusiasts like me for medical experts. I want to be clear that I wasn’t knowingly deceiving anyone—I really did believe in the solutions I was offering my clients… To holistic nutrition enthusiasts and people who believe in a certain kind of alt wellness, these “natural” and “holistic” products seem more trustworthy than what mainstream medicine offers. The truth is, they often lack sufficient, peer-reviewed, reliable scientific evidence of their supposed effectiveness.

Did I have rock-solid evidence that these products would do what their labels promised they would do? Not really. Sure, I read studies here and there that found specific health benefits for some of the products. But I rarely mentioned the fine print (if I knew it at all)—that the sample sizes of many of these studies often were so small that the results couldn’t be generalized to a larger population, that the studies’ authors sometimes noted that more research was needed to support any findings on the effects they found, or that systematic reviews later found that many studies were poorly constructed or at risk for bias, making their findings even less compelling than they seemed initially. And in some cases, study authors themselves note that their findings are merely jumping off points, and that more long-term studies are needed in order to draw more solid conclusions…

Was I relying on strong, valid evidence? Nah, not really. But at the time, I thought what I had was better than strong evidence: Faith in a lifestyle and a dogmatic belief that all things traditional and mainstream were unhealthy or harmful, and therefore, that all things unconventional and alternative were curative and would bring about “wellness.”

In an effort to expand my product knowledge I researched a lot of the different supplements available. I was using all the best bias-confirming websites where other homeopathic medicine enthusiasts evangelized their favorite remedies, their enthusiasm and insistence, and anecdotal evidence standing in for what typically shows us that a product is safe and effective—clinical trials and FDA approval.

When their arguments and reasoning started to sink in, I realized that my faith in the healing powers of supplements may have been overzealous at best, unfounded at worst. My world crumbled like a piece of raw gluten-free paleo cheesecake. It started to sink in: Where there was a morsel of convincing medical information blended with enough compelling nonsense and communicated with enough conviction, I believed it, hook, line, and sinker.

When I started to notice the holes in the fabric of holistic nutrition, the fabric looked, well, pretty threadbare. I subsequently disconnected from social media and distanced myself from the entire culture. I took a good look at how I was personally and publicly communicating my relationships with food and wellness. After spending my twenties experimenting with all kinds of specialty diets, I was left feeling exhausted, anxious, underweight, overweight, and fed-up.

And so that last domino fell when I took away the thing that was propping it up for me: social media. Instagram is a playground for wellness influencers, including, at the time, me. My Instagram account was the best way to advertise my nutrition consulting business, so maintaining a certain persona there felt completely crucial to my success, and eventually, my identity. It was a world full of beautifully curated accounts of thin yogis gathering wild herbs in nature or making raw desserts with ingredients that cost more than my entire monthly food budget. I started to feel like the alternative wellness community I was part of—myself included—was an echo chamber, where we stockpiled likes and positive comments to build a wall that would keep out ideas that challenged our status quo. In fact, the more reassurance I received from my online community, the harder I believed in our gospel.

As I was disentangling my beliefs from everything I was learning by looking at the actual evidence, I realized that my education to become a holistic nutritionist hadn’t prepared me to understand health and wellness as completely and comprehensively as I’d once thought. Sure, I’d spent a some time studying the pathology of disease, and a little longer learning about how each bodily system works to get your human suit from point A to point B, but I am only slightly closer to being a medical professional than I am to becoming a professional cricket player. First of all, in total, my entire formal education as a holistic nutritionist was 10 months long. Second of all, that education was intended to complement—not replace—traditional medical treatment. But as soon as I finished the program, I could immediately start taking on clients. And lots of potential clients out there are just like the way I used to be—wishing they looked or felt different and in search of the panacea, willing (if not eager) to defer to an expert.

There may have been many people willing to look to me as an expert, but here’s the thing: in my school, there were no residency or clinical hours required to prepare us for the real world or to take on clients—unlike dietitians here in Canada, who must obtain a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional and Food Sciences, qualify to complete a rigorous post-degree internship program and register with a provincial dietetics organization, or get a master’s degree. We received a certificate, and that was that. It was a credential that wholeheartedly fell short of resembling anything close to making me an authority on the subject of health as it relates to food and diet. But most people in the general public can’t be expected to understand the ins and outs of how experts are credentialed and licensed—many of us assume that someone calling themselves something that we associate with authority is, in fact, an authority we can trust.

The brief education that I received to become a holistic nutritionist did provide me with valuable stepping stones and a general understanding of how the body works. My program discouraged students from saying “treat,” “heal,” “prevent,” or “cure.” Generally speaking holistic nutrition programs don’t provide the training and medical education that registered dietitians receive, which enables them to give sound, ethical medical nutrition advice, nor are they required by law, the way dietitian programs are, to provide it. In fact, in 2015 graduates of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition were barred from identifying as Registered Holistic Nutritionists, and since then must use the title “Holistic Nutritional Consultant.”

… With what I do have from my classroom education, I can analyze a lifestyle that needs some fine-tuning and provide guidance on how to structure a solid meal plan. That’s about it. After years of self-diagnosis and hashtagging all my fad-diet escapades (for this, I greatly apologize to all those I have alienated with my profuse self-righteousness), I can at least say I have a deep appreciation for those who are actually on the front lines in the fight against unproven medical remedies and the potential damage it may do to those who use it to the exclusion of traditional medicine.

The influence of these remedies is not harmless, and I have seen firsthand in many different examples and situations how it can lure people away from real, evidence-based help in their times of need. I am fortunate enough that within my practice I had enough foresight to turn away individuals who required more guidance than I was capable of giving. But along the way I made many embarrassing and conjectural recommendations. Like I said, I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone. I firmly held the belief that alternative medicine, no matter the cost, was an investment in a healthful future. My own medicine cabinet, an arsenal full of supplements, tincture, and powders, was a personal testament to how deeply I was devoted to holistic nutrition.

This essay is a firm farewell from a world I disconnected from long ago. The person that over years I let myself become through naiveté, not doing my own research, and a misguided desire to be different. So here I am now, officially having left the church of woo, bidding the world of alternative health adieu.

_________________________________

Reading Denby’s account, I was reminded of many themes we have previously discussed on this blog. One issue that perhaps needs more focus is this notion:

I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone.”

I have not yet met a SCAM practitioner who says:

“I am in the business of  deceiving my patients.”

The reasons for this are simple:

  1. if they knowingly deceive, they would not tell us,
  2. and if they don’t know that they are deciving their patients, they cannot possibly admit to it.

The way Denby repeatedly assures us that she was far from knowingly deceiving anyone sounds charmingly naive and is, in my experience, very typical for SCAM practitioners. It depicts them as honorable people. Yet, in actual fact, it is neither charming nor honorable. It merely demonstrates the fact that they were perhaps not ruthlessly dishonest but all the more dangerous.

Let me explain this with a deliberately extreme example:

  • A man with a chronic condition – say type 2 diabetes – consults a SCAM practitioner who is knowingly deceiving him claiming that her SCAM effectively treats his condition. The patient follows the advice but, since he is not totally convinced (deception is rarely perfect), consults his doctor who puts him straight. This patient will therefore survive.
  • The same chap consults a SCAM practitioner who is deeply convinced of the effectiveness of her SCAM and thus not knowingly deceiving her patient when she claims that it is effective for his diabetes. Her conviction is so strong that the patient blindly believes her. Thus he stops his conventional medication and hopes for the best. This patient could easily die.

In a nutshell:

‘Honest’ conviction might render a quack more socially acceptable but also more dangerous to her patients.

 

There are of course 2 types of osteopaths: the US osteopaths who are very close to real doctors, and the osteopaths from all other countries who are practitioners of so-called alternative medicine. This post, as all my posts on this subject, is about the latter category.

I was alerted to a paper entitled ‘Osteopathy under scrutiny’. It goes without saying that I thought it relevant; after all, scrutinising so-called altermative medicine (SCAM), such as osteopathy is one of the aims of this blog. The article itself is in German, but it has an English abstract:

Osteopathic medicine is a medical specialty that enjoys a high level of recognition and increasing popularity among patients. High-quality education and training are essential to ensure good and safe patient treatment. At a superficial glance, osteopathy could be misunderstood as a myth; accurately considered, osteopathic medicine is grounded in medical and scientific knowledge and solid theoretical and practical training. Scientific advances increasingly confirm the empirical experience of osteopathy. Although more studies on its efficacy could be conducted, there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable application of osteopathy. Current scientific studies show how a manually executed osteopathic intervention can induce tissue and even cellular reactions. Because the body actively responds to environmental stimuli, osteopathic treatment is considered an active therapy. Osteopathic treatment is individually applied and patients are seen as an integrated entity. Because of its typical systemic view and scientific interpretation, osteopathic medicine is excellently suited for interdisciplinary cooperation. Further work on external evidence of osteopathy is being conducted, but there is enough knowledge from the other pillars of evidence-based medicine (EBM) to support the application of osteopathic treatment. Implementing careful, manual osteopathic examination and treatment has the potential to cut healthcare costs. To ensure quality, osteopathic societies should be intimately involved and integrated in the regulation of the education, training, and practice of osteopathic medicine.

This does not sound as though the authors know what scutiny is. In fact, the abstract reads like a white-wash of quackery. Why might this be so? To answer this question, we need to look no further than to the ‘conflicts of interest’ where the authors state (my translation): K. Dräger and R. Heller state that, in addition to their activities as further education officers/lecturers for osteopathy (Deutsche Ärztegesellschaft für Osteopathie e. V. (DÄGO) and the German Society for Osteopathic Medicine e. V. (DGOM)) there are no conflicts of interest.

But, to tell you the truth, the article itself is worse, much worse that the abstract. Allow me to show you a few quotes (all my [sometimes free] translations).

  • Osteopathic medicine is a therapeutic method based on the scientific findings from medical research.
  • [The osteopath makes] diagnostic and therapeutic movements with the hands for evaluating limitations of movement. Thereby, a blocked joint as well as a reduced hydrodynamic or vessel perfusion can be identified.
  • The indications of osteopathy are comparable to those of general medicine. Osteopathy can be employed from the birth of a baby up to the palliative care of a dying patient.
  • Biostatisticians have recognised the weaknesses of RCTs and meta-analyses, as they merely compare mean values of therapeutic effects, and experts advocate a further evidence level in which statictical correlation is abandonnened in favour of individual causality and definition of cause.
  • In ostopathy, the weight of our clinical experience is more important that external evidence.
  • Research of osteopathic medicine … the classic cause/effect evaluation cannot apply (in support of this statement, the authors cite a ‘letter to the editor‘ from 1904; I looked it up and found that it does in no way substantiate this claim)
  • Findings from anatomy, embryology, physiology, biochemistry and biomechanics which, as natural sciences, have an inherent evidence, strengthen in many ways the plausibility of osteopathy.
  • Even if the statistical proof of the effectiveness of neurocranial techniques has so far been delivered only in part, basic research demonstrates that the effects of traction or compression of bogily tissue causes cellular reactions and regulatory processes.

What to make of such statements? And what to think of the fact that nowhere in the entire paper even a hint of ‘scrutiny’ can be detected? I don’t know about you, but for me this paper reflects very badly on both the authors and on osteopathy as a whole. If you ask me, it is an odd mixture of cherry-picking the evidence, misunderstanding science, wishful thinking and pure, unadulterated bullshit.

You urgently need to book into a course of critical thinking, guys!

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled this week that homeopathic, ayurvedic and unani practitioners must not prescribe their respective so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) as a cure for Covid-19.

Specifically, the judges noted that, according to the guidelines issued by the Ayush ministry in March, homeopaths are permitted only to prescribe certain homeopathic medicines as “…preventive, prophylactic, symptom management of Covid-19-like illnesses and add-on interventions to the conventional care”, but not as a cure.

“The high court, however, is right in its observation that no medical practitioner can claim that it can cure Covid-19. There is no such claim in other therapy including allopathy. The high court is right in observing that no claim for cure can be made in homeopathy. Homeopathy is contemplated to be used in preventing and mitigating Covid-19 as is reflected by the advisory and guidelines issued by the ministry of Ayush…,” Justices Ashok Bhushan, R. Subhash Reddy and M.R. Shah stated.

The Supreme Court passed the ruling while disposing of an appeal filed by the Kerala-based Dr AKB Sadbhavana Mission School of Homeo Pharmacy that was aggrieved by Kerala High Court’s direction on August 21 for action against homeopaths who claim cure in homeopathy for Covid-19 patients. However, the Supreme Court judgment established that the Ayush ministry guidelines clearly refer to certain homeopathy medicines as preventive, prophalytic and add-on interventions to the conventional therapy. “The above guidelines refer to homeopathy medicines as medicines for prophylaxis, amelioration and mitigation. The guidelines, however, specifically provide that ‘the prescription has to be given only by institutionally qualified practitioners’,” the bench said.

According to the court, homeopathic practitioners are bound by rules from prescribing medicines as cure for Covid-19. “When statutory regulations themselves prohibit advertisement, there is no occasion for homeopathic medical practitioners to advertise that they are competent to cure Covid-19 disease. When the scientists of the entire world are engaged in research to find out proper medicine/vaccine for Covid-19, there is no occasion for making any observation as contained in the paragraph with regard to homeopathic medical practitioners,the judges stated.

_________________________________

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in India exceeds 10 million, and that of COVID-related death is almost 150 000. If you ask me, promoters of homeopathic remedies should not be allowed to advertise or sell their placebos pretending they are effective for any purpose in connection with COVID-19 (or any other serious disease for that matter) – not as a curative therapy, not for prevention, and not as a symptomatic treatment either.

On this blog we have seen just about every variation of misdemeanors by practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Today, I will propose a scale and rank order of these lamentable behaviours. As we regularly discuss chiropractic and homeopathy here, I decided to use these two professions as examples (but I could, of course, have chosen almost any other SCAM).

  1. Treating conditions which are not indicated: SCAM practitioners of all types are often asked by their patients to treat conditions which their particular SCAM cannot not affect. Instead of honestly saying so, they frequently apply their SCAM, wait for the natural history of the condition to do its bit, and subsequently claim that their SCAM was effective.
  2. Over-charging: asking too much money for services or goods is common (not just) in SCAM. It raises the question, what is the right price? There is, of course, no easy answer to it. Over-charging is therefore mostly a judgement call and not something absolute.
  3. Misleading a patient: there are numerous ways in which patients can be misled by their SCAM practitioners. A chiropractor who uses the Dr title, without explaining that it is not a medical title, is misleading his/her patients. A homeopath who implies that the remedy he/she is selling is a proven treatment is also misleading his/her patients.
  4. Being economical with the truth: the line between lying (see below) and being economical with the truth is often blurred. In my view, a chiropractor who does not volunteer the information that acute back pain, in most cases, resolves within a few days regardless of whether he/she mapipulates the patient’s spine or not, is economical with the truth. Similarly, a homeopath who does not explain up front that the remedy he/she prescribes does not contain a single active molecule is economical with the truth.
  5. Employing unreasonably long series of therapy: A chiropractor or homeopath, who treats a patient for months without any improvement in the patient’s condition, should suggest to call it a day. Patients should be given a treatment plan at the first consultation which includes the information when it would be reasonable to stop the SCAM.
  6. Failing to refer: A chiropractor or homeopath, who treats a patient for months without any improvement in the patient’s condition should refer the patient to another, better suited healthcare provider. Failing to do so is a serious disservice to the patient.
  7. Unethical behaviour: there are numerous ways SCAM practitioners regularly violate healthcare ethics. The most obvious one, as discussed often before on this blog, is to cut corners around informed consent. A chiropractor might, for instance, not tell his/her patient before sarting the treatment that spinal manipulation is not supported by sound evidence for efficacy or safety. A homeopathy might not explain that homeopathy is generally considered to be implausible and not evidence-based.
  8. Neglect: medical neglect occurs when patients are harmed or placed at significant risk of harm by gaps in their medical care. If a chiropractor or a homeopath, for instance, claim to be able to effectively treat asthma and fail to insist that all prescribed asthma medications must nevertheless be continued – as both often do – they are guilty of neglect, in my view. Medical neglect can be a reason for starting legal proceedings.
  9. Lying: knowingly not telling the truth can also be a serious legal issue. An example would be a chiropractor who, after beeing asked by a patient whether neck manipulation can cause harm, answers that it is an entirely safe procedure which has never injured anyone. Similarly, if a homeopaths informs his/her patient that the remedy he/she is prescribing has been extensively tested and found to be effective for the patient’s condition, he must be lying. If these practitioners believe what they tell the patient to be true, they might not technically be lying, but they would be neglecting their ethical duty to be adequately informed and they would therefore present an even greater danger to thier patients.
  10. Abuse: means to use something for the wrong purpose in a way that is harmful or morally wrong. A chiropractor who tells the mother of a healty child that they need maintenance care in order to prevent them falling ill in the future is abusing her and the child, in my view. Equally, I think that a homeopath, who homeopathically treats a disease that would otherwise be curable with conventional treatments, abuses his patient.
  11. Fraud: fraud is a legal term referring to dishonest acts that intentionally use deception to illegally deprive another person or entity of money, property, or legal rights. It relies on the use of intentional misrepresentation of fact to accomplish the taking. Arguably, most of the examples listed above are fraud by this definition.
  12. Sexual misconduct: the term refers to any behaviour which is sexual in nature and which is unwelcome and engaged in without consent. It ranges from unwanted groping to rape. There is, for instance, evidence that sexual misconduct is not a rarety in the realm of chiropractic. I have personally served once as an expert witness against a SCAM practitioner is a court case at the Exeter Crown Court.

The 12 categories listed above are not nearly as clearly defined as one would wish, and there is plenty of overlap. I am not claiming that my suggested ‘scale of misdemeanors by SCAM practitioners‘ or the proposed rank order are as yet optimal or even adequate. I am, however, hoping that readers will help me with their suggestions to improve them. Perhaps your input might then generate a scale of practical use for the future.

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