About one in three individuals have elevated blood pressure. This is bad news because hypertension is one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular events like strokes and heart attacks. Luckily, there are many highly effective approaches for treating elevated blood pressure (diet, life-style, medication, etc.), and the drug management of hypertension has improved over the last few decades.
But unfortunately all anti-hypertensive drugs have side-effects and some patients look towards so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) to normalise their blood pressure. Therefore, we have to ask: are SCAMs effective treatments for hypertension? Because of the prevalence of hypertension, this is a question of great importance for public health.
In 2005, I addressed the issue by publishing a review entitled ‘Complementary/alternative medicine for hypertension: a mini-review‘. Here is its abstract:
Many hypertensive patients try complementary/alternative medicine for blood pressure control. Based on extensive electronic literature searches, the evidence from clinical trials is summarised. Numerous herbal remedies, non-herbal remedies and other approaches have been tested and some seem to have antihypertensive effects. The effect size is usually modest, and independent replications are frequently missing. The most encouraging data pertain to garlic, autogenic training, biofeedback and yoga. More research is required before firm recommendations can be offered.
Since the publication of this paper, more systematic reviews have become available. In order to get an overview of this evidence, I conducted a few simple Medline searches for systematic reviews (SRs) of SCAM published between 2005 and today. I included only SRs that were focussed on just one specific therapy as a treatment of just one specific condition, namely hypertension (omitting SRs with titles such as ‘Alternative treatments for cardiovascular conditions’). Reviews on prevention were also excluded. Here is what I found (the conclusions of each SR is quoted verbatim):
- A 2020 SR of auricular acupressure including 18 RCTs: The results demonstrated a favorable effect of auricular acupressure to reduce blood pressure and improve sleep in patients with hypertension and insomnia. Further studies to better understand the acupoints and intervention times of auricular acupressure are warranted.
- A 2020 SR of Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) including 30 studies: CHM combined with conventional Western medicine may be effective in lowering blood pressure and improving vascular endothelial function in patients with hypertension.
- A 2020 SR of Tai chi including 28 RCTs: Tai Chi could be recommended as an adjuvant treatment for hypertension, especially for patients less than 50 years old.
- A 2020 SR of Tai chi including 13 trials: Tai chi is an effective physical exercise in treating essential hypertension compared with control interventions.
- A 2020 SR of Tai chi including 31 controlled clinical trials: Tai Ji Quan is a viable antihypertensive lifestyle therapy that produces clinically meaningful BP reductions (i.e., 10.4 mmHg and 4.0 mmHg of SBP and DBP reductions, respectively) among individuals with hypertension.
- A 2020 SR of pycnogenol including 7 trials: the present meta-analysis does not suggest any significant effect of pycnogenol on BP.
- A 2019 SR of Policosanol including 19 studies: Policosanol could lower SBP and DBP significantly; future long term studies are required to confirm these findings in the general population.
- A 2019 SR of dietary phosphorus including 14 studies: We found no consistent association between total dietary phosphorus intake and BP in adults in the published literature nor any randomized trials designed to examine this association.
- A 2019 SR of ginger including 6 RCTs: ginger supplementation has favorable effects on BP.
- A 2019 SR of corn silk tea (CST) including 5 RCTs: limited evidence showed that CST plus antihypertensive drugs might be more effective in lowering blood pressure compared with antihypertensive drugs alone.
- A 2019 SR of blood letting including 7 RCTs: no definite conclusions regarding the efficacy and safety of BLT as complementary and alternative approach for treatment of hypertension could be drew due to the generally poor methodological design, significant heterogeneity, and insufficient clinical data.
- A 2019 SR of Xiao Yao San (XYS) including 17 trials: XYS adjuvant to antihypertensive drugs maybe beneficial for hypertensive patients in lowering BP, improving depression, regulating blood lipids, and inhibiting inflammation.
- A 2019 SR of Chinese herbal medicines including 9 RCTs: Chinese herbal medicine as complementary therapy maybe beneficial for postmenopausal hypertension.
- A 2019 Cochrane review of guided imagery including 2 trials: There is insufficient evidence to inform practice about the use of guided imagery for hypertension in pregnancy.
- A 2019 Cochrane review of acupuncture including 22 RCTs: At present, there is no evidence for the sustained BP lowering effect of acupuncture that is required for the management of chronically elevated BP.
- A 2019 SR of wet cupping including 7 RCTs: no firm conclusions can be drawn and no clinical recommendations made.
- A 2019 SR of transcendental meditation (TM) including 9 studies: TM was associated with within-group (but not between-groups) improvements in BP.
- A 2019 SR of yoga including 49 trials: yoga is a viable antihypertensive lifestyle therapy that produces the greatest BP benefits when breathing techniques and meditation/mental relaxation are included.
- A 2018 SR of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) including 5 studies: The MBSR program is a promising behavioral complementary therapy to help people with hypertension lower their blood pressure
- A 2018 SR of beetroot juice (BRJ) including 11 studies: BRJ supplementation should be promoted as a key component of a healthy lifestyle to control blood pressure in healthy and hypertensive individuals.
- A 2018 SR of taurine including 7 studies: ingestion of taurine at the stated doses and supplementation periods can reduce blood pressure to a clinically relevant magnitude, without any adverse side effects.
- A 2018 SR of acupuncture including 30 RCTs: there is inadequate high quality evidence that acupuncture therapy is useful in treating hypertension.
- A 2018 SR of co-enzyme Q10 including 17 RCTs: CoQ10 supplementation may result in reduction in SBP levels, but did not affect DBP levels among patients with metabolic diseases.
- A 2018 SR of a traditional Chinese formula Longdanxiegan decoction (LDXGD) including 9 trials: Due to poor methodological quality of the included trials, as well as potential reporting bias, our review found no conclusive evidence for the effectiveness of LDXGD in treating hypertension.
- A 2018 SR of viscous fibre including 22 RCTs: Viscous soluble fiber has an overall lowering effect on SBP and DBP.
- A 2017 SR of yoga breathing exercise (pranayama) including 13 studies: The pranayama’s effect on BP were not robust against selection bias due to the low quality of studies. But, the lowering BP effect of pranayama is encouraging.
- A 2017 SR of dietary nitrate supplementation including 13 trials: Positive effects of medium-term dietary nitrate supplementation on BP were only observed in clinical settings, which were not corroborated by more accurate methods such as 24-h ambulatory and daily home monitorings.
- A 2017 SR of Vitamin D supplementation including 8 RCTs: vitamin D is not an antihypertensive agent although it has a moderate SBP lowering effect.
- A 2017 SR of pomegranate including 8 RCTs: The limited evidence from clinical trials to date fails to convincingly show a beneficial effect of pomegranate on blood pressure
- A 2017 SR of ‘forest bathing’ including 20 trials: This systematic review shows a significant effect of Shinrin-yoku on reduction of blood pressure.
- A 2017 SR of Niuhuang Jiangya Preparation (NHJYP) including 12 RCTs: Our review indicated that NHJYP has some beneficial effects in EH patients with liver-yang hyperactivity and abundant phlegm-heat syndrome.
- A 2017 SR of Chinese medicines (CM) including 24 studies: CM might be a promising approach for the elderly with isolated systolic hypertension, while the evidence for CM employed alone was insufficient.
- A 2017 SR of beetroot juice including 22 RCTs: Our results demonstrate the blood pressure-lowering effects of beetroot juice and highlight its potential NO3-independent effects.
- A 2017 SR of blueberry including 6 RCTs: the results from this meta-analysis do not favor any clinical efficacy of blueberry supplementation in improving BP
- A 2016 Cochrane review of co-enzyme Q10 including 3 RCTs: This review provides moderate-quality evidence that coenzyme Q10 does not have a clinically significant effect on blood pressure.
- A 2016 SR of Nigella sativa including 11 RCTs: short-term treatment with N. sativa powder can significantly reduce SBP and DBP levels.
- A 2016 SR of vitamin D3 supplementation including 30 RCTs: Supplementation may be beneficial at daily doses >800 IU/day for <6 months in subjects ≥50 years old.
- A 2016 SR of anthocyanin supplementation including 6 studies: results from this meta-analysis do not favor any clinical efficacy of supplementation with anthocyanins in improving blood pressure.
- A 2016 SR of flaxseed including 15 trials: This meta-analysis of RCTs showed significant reductions in both SBP and DBP following supplementation with various flaxseed products.
- A 2016 SR of massage therapy including 9 RCTs: This systematic review found a medium effect of massage on SBP and a small effect on DBP in patients with hypertension or prehypertension.
- A 2015 SR of massage therapy including 24 studies: There is some encouraging evidence of massage for essential hypertension.
- A 2015 SR of transcendental meditation (TM) including 12 studies: an approximate reduction of systolic and diastolic BP of -4.26 mm Hg (95% CI=-6.06, -2.23) and -2.33 mm Hg (95% CI=-3.70, -0.97), respectively, in TM groups compared with control groups.
- A 2015 SR of Zhen Wu Decoction (ZWD) including 7 trials: This systematic review revealed no definite conclusion about the application of ZWD for hypertension due to the poor methodological quality, high risk of bias, and inadequate reporting on clinical data.
- A 2015 SR of acupuncture including 23 RCTs: Our review provided evidence of acupuncture as an adjunctive therapy to medication for treating hypertension, while the evidence for acupuncture alone lowing BP is insufficient.
- A 2015 SR of xuefu zhuyu decoction (XZD) including 15 studies: This meta-analysis provides evidence that XZD is beneficial for hypertension.
- A 2015 SR of Shenqi pill including 4 RCTs: This systematic review firstly provided no definite evidence for the efficacy and safety of Shenqi pill for hypertension based on the insufficient data.
- A 2015 SR of Jian Ling Decoction (JLD) including 10 trials: Owing to insufficient clinical data, it is difficult to draw a definite conclusion regarding the effectiveness and safety of JLD for essential hypertension.
- A 2015 SR of Chinese herbal medicines (CHM) including 5 trials: No definite conclusions about the effectiveness and safety of CHM for resistant hypertension could be drawn.
- A 2015 SR of Chinese medicines (CM) including 27 RCTs: When combined with Western medines, CM as a complementary treatment approach has certain effects for the control of hypertension and protection of target organs.
- A 2015 SR of berberine including 17 RCTs: This study indicates that berberine has comparable therapeutic effect on type 2 DM, hyperlipidemia and hypertension with no serious side effect.
- A 2015 SR of garlic including 9 double-blind trials: Although evidence from this review suggests that garlic preparations may lower BP in hypertensive individuals, the evidence is not strong.
- A 2015 SR of chlorogenic acids (CGAs) including 5 studies: CGA intake causes statistically significant reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressures.
- A 2014 SR of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation including 70 RCTs: provision of EPA+DHA reduces systolic blood pressure, while provision of ≥2 grams reduces diastolic blood pressure.
- A 2014 SR of green tea including 20 RCTs: Green tea intake results in significant reductions in systolic blood pressure
- A 2014 SR of probiotics including 9 studies: consuming probiotics may improve BP by a modest degree, with a potentially greater effect when baseline BP is elevated, multiple species of probiotics are consumed, the duration of intervention is ≥8 weeks, or daily consumption dose is ≥10(11) colony-forming units.
- A 2014 SR of yoga including 17 trials: The evidence for the effectiveness of yoga as a treatment of hypertension is encouraging but inconclusive.
- A 2014 SR of yoga including 7 RCTs: very low-quality evidence was found for effects of yoga on systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
- A 2014 SR of yoga including 120 studies: yoga is an effective adjunct therapy for HPT and worthy of inclusion in clinical guidelines.
- A 2014 SR of moxibustion: a beneficial effect of using moxibustion interventions on KI 1 to lower blood pressure compared to antihypertensive drugs.
- A 2014 SR of acupuncture including 4 sham-controlled RCTs: acupuncture significantly lowers blood pressure in patients taking antihypertensive medications.
- A 2014 SR of Tuina including 7 RCTs: The findings from our review suggest that Tuina might be a beneficial adjuvant for patients with EH
- A 2014 SR of ‘kidney tonifying’ (KT) Chinese herbal mixture including 6 studies: Compared with antihypertensive drugs alone, KT formula combined with antihypertensive drugs may provide more benefits for patients with SH.
- A 2014 SR of Tongxinluo capsule including 25 studies : There is some but weak evidence about the effectiveness of TXL in treating patients with hypertension.
- A 2014 SR of moxibustion including 5 RCTs: no confirm conclusion about the effectiveness and safety of moxibustion as adjunctive treatment for essential hypertension could be made
- A 2013 SR of Qi Ju Di Huang Wan (QJDHW) including 10 RCTs: QJDHW combined with antihypertensive drugs might be an effective treatment for lowering blood pressure and improving symptoms in patients with essential hypertension.
- A 2013 SR of yoga including 17 studies: Yoga can be preliminarily recommended as an effective intervention for reducing blood pressure.
- A 2013 SR of Tianma Gouteng Yin (TGY) including 22 RCTs: No confirmed conclusion about the effectiveness and safety of TGY as adjunctive treatment for essential hypertension … could be made.
- A 2013 SR of Zhen Gan Xi Feng Decoction (ZGXFD) including 6 RCTs: ZGXFD appears to be effective in improving blood pressure and hypertension-related symptoms for EH
- A 2013 SR of Tianmagouteng decoction including 9 RCTs: Tianmagouteng decoction can decrease both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
- A 2013 SR of fish oil including 17 RCTs: The small but statistically significant effects of fish-oil supplements in hypertensive participants in this review have important implications for population health and lowering the risk of stroke and ischaemic heart disease.
- A 2013 SR of acupuncture including 35 RCTs: While there are some evidences that suggest potential effectiveness of acupuncture for hypertension, the results were limited by the methodological flaws of the studies.
- A 2013 SR of yoga including 6 studies: There is some encouraging evidence of yoga for lowering SBP and DBP.
- A 2012 SR of spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) including 10 studies: There is currently a lack of low bias evidence to support the use of SMT as a therapy for the treatment of
- A 2012 SR of vitamin C including 29 trials: In short-term trials, vitamin C supplementation reduced SBP and DBP.
- A 2012 SR of magnesium supplementation including 22 trials: magnesium supplementation appears to achieve a small but clinically significant reduction in BP, an effect worthy of future prospective large randomised trials using solid methodology.
- A 2012 SR of Banxia Baizhu Tianma Decoction (BBTD) including 16 RCTs: There is encouraging evidence of BBTD for lowering SBP, but evidence remains weak.
- A 2012 SR of Liu Wei Di Huang Wan (LWDHW) including 6 RCTs: LWDHW combined with antihypertensive drugs appears to be effective in improving blood pressure and symptoms in patients with essential hypertension.
- A 2012 SR of aromatherapy including 5 studies: The existing trial evidence does not show convincingly that aromatherapy is effective for hypertension.
- A 2012 empty Cochrane review: As no trials could be identified, no conclusions can be made about the role of TGYF in the treatment of primary hypertension.
- A 2012 SR of yoga including 10 studies: Not only does yoga reduce high BP but it has also been demonstrated to effectively reduce blood glucose level, cholesterol level, and body weight, major problems affecting the American society.
- A 2011 SR of L-arginine including 11 RCTs: This meta-analysis provides further evidence that oral L-arginine supplementation significantly lowers both systolic and diastolic BP.
- A 2011 SR of soy isoflavones including 14 RCTs: Soy isoflavone extracts significantly decreased SBP but not DBP in adult humans, and no dose-response relationship was observed.
- A 2010 SR of moxibustion including 4 RCTs: There is insufficient evidence to suggest that moxibustion is an effective treatment for hypertension.
- A 2010 SR of acupunctures including 20 studies: Because of the paucity of rigorous trials and the mixed results, these findings result in limited conclusions. More rigorously designed and powered studies are needed.
- A 2010 SR of cupping including 3 trials: the evidence is not significantly convincing to suggest cupping is effective for treating hypertension.
- A 2010 empty Cochrane review: There is insufficient evidence to support the benefit of Roselle for either controlling or lowering blood pressure in patients with hypertension.
- A 2009 SR of acupuncture including 11 RCTs: the notion that acupuncture may lower high BP is inconclusive.
- A 2008 SR of transcendental meditation including 9 studies: The regular practice of Transcendental Meditation may have the potential to reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure by approximately 4.7 and 3.2 mm Hg, respectively.
- A 2008 SR of relaxation therapies including 25 trials: the evidence in favour of a causal association between relaxation and blood pressure reduction is weak.
- A 2007 SR of qigong including 12 RCTs: There is some encouraging evidence of qigong for lowering SBP, but the conclusiveness of these findings is limited.
- A 2007 SR of co-enzyme Q10 including 12 trials: coenzyme Q10 has the potential in hypertensive patients to lower systolic blood pressure by up to 17 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by up to 10 mm Hg without significant side effects.
- A 2007 SR of stress reduction programs including 106 studies: Available evidence indicates that among stress reduction approaches, the Transcendental Meditation program is associated with significant reductions in BP.
- A 2006 Cochrance review of magnesium supplementation including 12 RCTs: the evidence in favour of a causal association between magnesium supplementation and blood pressure reduction is weak and is probably due to bias.
- A 2006 Cochrane review of calcium supplementation including 13 RCTs: evidence in favour of causal association between calcium supplementation and blood pressure reduction is weak and is probably due to bias.
ALMOST 100 NEW SRs!
To be honest, if I had known the volume of the material, I would probably not have tackled this task. Since the publication of my mini-review in 2005, there has been an explosion of similar papers:
- 1 in 2005
- 2 in 2006
- 3 in 2007
- 2 in 2008
- 1 in 2009
- 4 in 2010
- 2 in 2011
- 8 in 2012
- 8 in 2013
- 12 in 2014
- 12 in 2015
- 6 in 2016
- 9 in 2017
- 7 in 2018
- 12 in 2019
As this is based on very simple Medline searches, the list is certainly not complete. Despite this fact, several conclusions seem to emerge:
- There is no shortage of SCAMs that have been tested for hypertension.
- Most seem to have positive effects; in many cases, they seem too good to be true.
- Many of the SRs are of poor methodological quality, based on poor quality primary studies, published in less than reputable journals. Some SRs, for instance, include studies without a control group which is likely to lead to false-positive overall conclusions about the effectiveness of the SCAM in question.
- In recent years, there are more and more SRs by Chinese authors focussed on Chinese herbal mixtures that are unknown and unobtainable outside China. These SRs are invariably based on studies published in Chinese language in journals that are inaccessible. This means it is almost impossible for the reader, reviewer or editor to check their accuracy. The reliability of the conclusions of these SRs must therefore be doubted.
- Most of the primary studies included in the SRs lack long-term data. Thus the usefulness of the SCAM in question is questionable.
- With several of the SCAMs, the dose of the treatment and treatment schedule is less than clear. For instance, one might ask how frequently a patient should have acupuncture to control her hypertension.
- Some of the SCAMs assessed in these SRs seem of doubtful practicality. For instance, it might not be feasible nor economical for patients to receive regular acupuncture to manage their blood pressure.
- Several contradictions emerge from some of the SRs of the same modality. This is particularly confusing because SRs are supposed to be the most reliable type of evidence. In most instances, however, the explanation can easily be found by looking at the quality of the SRs. If SRs are based on uncontrolled studies, or if they fail to critically evaluate the reliability of the included primary trials, they are likely to arrive at conclusions that are too positive. Examples for such confusion are the multiple SRs of co-enzyme Q10 or the three yoga SRs of 2014.
- Because of this confusion, SCAM advocates are able to select false-positive SRs to support their opinion that SCAM is effective.
- Despite a substantial amount of positive evidence, none of the SCAMs have become part of the routine in the management of hypertension. A 2013 statement by the American Heart Association entitled Beyond medications and diet: alternative approaches to lowering blood pressure: a scientific statement from the american heart association concluded that it is reasonable for all individuals with blood pressure levels >120/80 mm Hg to consider trials of alternative approaches as adjuvant methods to help lower blood pressure when clinically appropriate. A suggested management algorithm is provided, along with recommendations for prioritizing the use of the individual approaches in clinical practice based on their level of evidence for blood pressure lowering, risk-to-benefit ratio, potential ancillary health benefits, and practicality in a real-world setting.
What lessons might this brief overview of SRs teach us? I think the following points are worth considering:
- Systematic reviews are the best type of evidence we have for estimating the effectiveness of treatments. But it is essential that they include a strong element of CRITICAL evaluation of the primary studies. Without it, a SR is incomplete and potentially counter-productive.
- The primary studies of SCAM are far too often of poor quality. This means that researchers should thrive to improve the rigour of their investigations.
- Both poor-quality primary studies and uncritically conducted SRs are prone to yielding findings that are too good to be true.
- Editors and reviewers have a responsibility to prevent the publication of trials and SRs that are of poor quality and thus likely to mislead us.
- Those SCAMs that have shown promising effects on hypertension (for instance Tai chi) should now be submitted to further independent scrutiny to find out whether their efficacy and usefulness can be confirmed, for instance, by 24-h ambulatory and daily home blood pressure monitoring and studies testing their acceptability in real life settings. Subsequently, we ought to determine whether the SCAM in question can be reasonably integrated in routine blood pressure management.
- The adjunctive use of a SCAM that has been proven to be effective and practical seems a reasonable approach. Yet, it requires proper scientific scrutiny.
- There is a paucity of cost-effectiveness studies and investigations of the risks of SCAM which needs to be addressed before any SCAM is considered for routine care.
The Lightning Process (LP) is a commercial programme developed by Phil Parker based on ideas from osteopathy, life coaching and neuro-linguistic programming. It has been endorsed by celebrities like Martine McCutcheon and Esther Rantzen, who credits it for her daughter’s recovery from ME. Parker claims that LP works by teaching people to use their brain to “stimulate health-promoting neural pathways”. One young patient once described it as follows: “Whenever you get a negative thought, emotional symptom, you are supposed to turn on one side and with your arm movements in a kind if stop motion, just say STOP very firmly and that is supposed to cut off the adrenaline response.”
Allegedly, the LP teaches individuals to recognize when they are stimulating or triggering unhelpful physiological responses and to avoid these, using a set of standardized questions, new language patterns and physical movements with the aim of improving a more appropriate response to situations. The LP involves three group sessions on consecutive days where participants are taught theories and skills, which are then practised through simple steps, posture and coaching.
A few days ago, someone asked my help writing to me: Norwegian newspaper is attacking patients for objecting to a clinical trial of the lightning process which is horrible quackery. LP is being backed by some people in Norwegian health authorities. Could you bring attention to how disgraceful this is please? I promised to look into it. Hence this post.
My searches located just one single trial. It seems to be the only controlled clinical study available. Here it is:
Design: Pragmatic randomised controlled open trial. Participants were randomly assigned to SMC or SMC+LP. Randomisation was minimised by age and gender.
Setting: Specialist paediatric CFS/ME service.
Patients: 12-18 year olds with mild/moderate CFS/ME.
Main outcome measures: The primary outcome was the the 36-Item Short-Form Health Survey Physical Function Subscale (SF-36-PFS) at 6 months. Secondary outcomes included pain, anxiety, depression, school attendance and cost-effectiveness from a health service perspective at 3, 6 and 12 months.
Results: We recruited 100 participants, of whom 51 were randomised to SMC+LP. Data from 81 participants were analysed at 6 months. Physical function (SF-36-PFS) was better in those allocated SMC+LP (adjusted difference in means 12.5(95% CI 4.5 to 20.5), p=0.003) and this improved further at 12 months (15.1 (5.8 to 24.4), p=0.002). At 6 months, fatigue and anxiety were reduced, and at 12 months, fatigue, anxiety, depression and school attendance had improved in the SMC+LP arm. Results were similar following multiple imputation. SMC+LP was probably more cost-effective in the multiple imputation dataset (difference in means in net monetary benefit at 12 months £1474(95% CI £111 to £2836), p=0.034) but not for complete cases.
Conclusion: The LP is effective and is probably cost-effective when provided in addition to SMC for mild/moderately affected adolescents with CFS/ME.
The trial was designed as an ‘A+B versus B’ study which practically always generates a positive outcome. It did not control for placebo effects and is, in my humble view, worthless and arguably unethical. It certainly does not warrant the conclusion that LB is effective or cost-effective.
I do not doubt that the LP-children improved, but I see no reason to believe that this had anything to do with LP. It could have been (and most likely was) caused by the intense attention that these kids received over three days. Giving them a daily ice-cream and some kindness might (and probably would) have produced even better outcomes.
So, what do we call a therapy for which numerous, far-reaching claims are being made, which is based on implausible assumptions, which is unproven, and for which people have to pay dearly?
The last time I looked, it was called quackery.
[If you do not like black humour or sarcasm, please do NOT read this post!!!]
Donald Trump just announced that, at Easter, he wants to see churches packed, his way of saying the lock-down is over because it is damaging the economy. Many others have put forward similar arguments and have pointed out that caring for the vulnerable, sick, old, etc. creates an economic burden that might eventually kill more people than it saves (see for instance ‘Economic crash could cost more lives than coronavirus, study warns‘).
Many people have also argued that homeopathy is unjustly vilified because it is truly a wholesome and safe medicine that should be used routinely. The notion here is that, alright, the evidence is not brilliant, but 200 years of experience and millions of fans cannot be ignored.
I have been wondering whether these two lines of thinking could not be profitably combined. Here is my suggestion based on the following two axioms.
- The economy is important for all our well-being.
- Homeopaths have a point in that the value of experience must not be ignored.
What follows is surprisingly simple: in view of the over-riding importance of the economy, let’s prioritise it over health. As it would look bad to deny those poor corona victims all forms of healthcare, let’s treat them homeopathically. This would make lots of people happy:
- those who think the economy must take precedent,
- those who fear the huge costs of saving corona patients (homeopathy is very cheap),
- those who argued for decades that we never gave homeopathy a fighting chance to show its worth.
There is a downside, of course. There would be a most lamentable mortality rate. But, to paraphrase Dominic Cummings, if a few oldies have to snuff it, so be it!
Once we get used to this innovative approach – I suggest we call it integrative medicine – we might even consider adopting it for other critical situations. When we realise, for instance, that the pension pots are empty, we could officially declare that homeopathy is the ideal medicine for anybody over 60.
What do you think?
Homeopathy has had a long and profitable ride in France; nowhere else in Europe is it more popular, nowhere in Europe are the profit margins higher, and nowhere have I seen pharmacists pushing so hard to earn a few extra Euros on useless homeopathic remedies.
But, since a few months, sceptics have started to raise their voices and object to homeopathic reimbursement (currently at the rate of 30%) and to homeopathy in general.
- A group of doctors protested against homeopathy by publishing an open letter in ‘Le Figaro’.
- The French Academies of Medicine and Pharmacy published a report confirming the lack of evidence for homeopathy.
- The medical school in Lille suspended its degree in homeopathy.
The French health secretary, the oncologist Dr Agnès Buzyn, reacted wisely, in my view. She initially stated that the effect of homeopathy is ‘probably a placebo effect‘. Subsequently, she asked the regulator, La Haute Autorite de Sante (HAS), to look into the matter and prepare a full analysis of the evidence. This report has now been published.
An article in ‘FRANCE INFO’ reports that HAS found no good evidence in support of the ~ 1 200 homeopathic remedies currently on the French market. The document is currently being considered by Dr Buzyn who will announce her decision about reimbursement in June. It is considered to be highly likely that she will stop reimbursement.
If so, consumers will soon have to pay in full for homeopathic preparations out of their own pocket. In addition, they would have to pay the VAT, and it is foreseeable that this change would signal the end of the French consumers’ love affair with homeopathy. This development is bound to seriously hurt Boiron, the world’s largest producer of homeopathics. The firm has already announced that they suspended its trading on the stock market and is now arguing that the move would endanger its sizable workforce.
The question I now ask myself is whether Boiron is powerful enough to do something about all this. Personally, I have been impressed by the rational approach of Dr Buzyn. She will no doubt see through Boiron’s bogus argument of saving a form of obsolete quackery in the name of employment. Therefore, I expect that the days of homeopathy’s reimbursement in France are counted.
(For those who can read French, I add the original ‘ FRANCE INFO’ article below.)
Avis définitif en juin
Cet avis avait été réclamé par la ministre de la Santé il y a plusieurs mois face à la montée de la polémique entre médecins pro et anti-homéopathie. 124 médecins avaient relancé le débat l’an dernier en qualifiant les homéopathes de “charlatans”.
Désormais, lors d’une phase contradictoire, les laboratoires vont pouvoir répondre à la HAS, qui rendra son avis définitif en juin. La ministre de la Santé, Agnès Buzyn, avait par le passé annoncé qu’elle se rangerait à cet avis.
1 000 emplois menacés, selon Boiron
Les pro-homéopathie eux, s’insurgent. Selon eux, les granules ne coûtent que 130 millions d’euros par an à la Sécurité sociale, contre 20 milliards pour les médicaments classiques. Et il existe d’après eux, au minimum, un effet placebo. Pour les laboratoires Boiron, leader mondial du secteur, si l’homéopathie n’est plus remboursée, ce sont 1 000 emplois qui sont directement menacés.
Par ailleurs, dans un communiqué commun, trois laboratoires (Boiron, Lehning et Weleda) s’émeuvent de découvrir à travers un média la teneur d’un avis d’une agence indépendante qui devait être tenu confidentiel. Les laboratoires Boiron précisent à franceinfo qu’ils n’ont pas encore reçu le projet d’avis de la Haute autorité de santé. Boiron, entreprise française cotée, annonce “suspendre” son cours de bourse.
Whenever there are discussions about homeopathy (currently, they have reached fever-pitch both in France and in Germany), one subject is bound to emerge sooner or later: its cost. Some seemingly well-informed person will exclaim that USING MORE HOMEOPATHY WILL SAVE US ALL A LOT OF MONEY.
Of course, homeopathic remedies tend to cost, on average, less than conventional treatments. But that is beside the point. A car without an engine is also cheaper than one with an engine. Comparing the costs of items that are not comparable is nonsense.
What we need are proper analyses of cost-effectiveness. And these studies clearly fail to prove that homeopathy is a money-saver.
Even researchers who are well-known for their pro-homeopathy stance have published a systematic review of economic evaluations of homeopathy. They included 14 published assessments, and the more rigorous of these investigations did not show that homeopathy is cost-effective. The authors concluded that “although the identified evidence of the costs and potential benefits of homeopathy seemed promising, studies were highly heterogeneous and had several methodological weaknesses. It is therefore not possible to draw firm conclusions based on existing economic evaluations of homeopathy“.
Probably the most meaningful study in this area is an investigation by another pro-homeopathy research team. Here is its abstract:
This study aimed to provide a long-term cost comparison of patients using additional homeopathic treatment (homeopathy group) with patients using usual care (control group) over an observation period of 33 months.
Health claims data from a large statutory health insurance company were analysed from both the societal perspective (primary outcome) and from the statutory health insurance perspective (secondary outcome). To compare costs between patient groups, homeopathy and control patients were matched in a 1:1 ratio using propensity scores. Predictor variables for the propensity scores included health care costs and both medical and demographic variables. Health care costs were analysed using an analysis of covariance, adjusted for baseline costs, between groups both across diagnoses and for specific diagnoses over a period of 33 months. Specific diagnoses included depression, migraine, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and headache.
Data from 21,939 patients in the homeopathy group (67.4% females) and 21,861 patients in the control group (67.2% females) were analysed. Health care costs over the 33 months were 12,414 EUR [95% CI 12,022-12,805] in the homeopathy group and 10,428 EUR [95% CI 10,036-10,820] in the control group (p<0.0001). The largest cost differences were attributed to productivity losses (homeopathy: EUR 6,289 [6,118-6,460]; control: EUR 5,498 [5,326-5,670], p<0.0001) and outpatient costs (homeopathy: EUR 1,794 [1,770-1,818]; control: EUR 1,438 [1,414-1,462], p<0.0001). Although the costs of the two groups converged over time, cost differences remained over the full 33 months. For all diagnoses, homeopathy patients generated higher costs than control patients.
The analysis showed that even when following-up over 33 months, there were still cost differences between groups, with higher costs in the homeopathy group.
A recent analysis confirms this situation. It concluded that patients who use homeopathy are more expensive to their health insurances than patients who do not use it. The German ‘Medical Tribune’ thus summarised the evidence correctly when stating that ‘Globuli are m0re expensive than conventional therapies’. This quote mirrors perfectly the situation in Switzerland which as been summarised as follows: ‘Globuli only cause unnecessary healthcare costs‘.
But homeopaths (perhaps understandably) seem reluctant to agree. They tend to come out with ever new arguments to defend the indefensible. They claim, for instance, that prescribing a homeopathic remedy to a patient would avoid giving her a conventional treatment that is not only more expensive but also has side-effects which would cause further expense to the system.
To some, this sounds perhaps reasonable (particularly, I fear, to some politicians), but it should not be reasonable argument for responsible healthcare professionals.
Because it could apply only to the practice of bad and unethical medicine: if a patient is ill and needs a medical treatment, she does certainly not need something that is ineffective, like homeopathy. If she is not ill and merely wants a placebo, she needs assurance, compassion, empathy, understanding and most certainly not an expensive and potentially harmful conventional therapy.
To employ the above analogy, if someone needs transport, she does not need a car without an engine!
So, whichever way we twist or turn it, the issue turns out to be quite simple:
WHITHOUT EFFECTIVENESS, THERE CAN BE NO COST-EFFECTIVENESS!
The PGIH (currently chaired by the Tory MP David Tredinnick) was founded in 1992 (in the mid 1990, they once invited me to give a lecture which I did with pleasure). Its overriding aim is to bring about improvements in patient care. The PGIH have conducted a consultation that involved 113 SCAM-organisations and other stakeholders. The new PGIH-report is based on their feedback and makes 14 recommendations. They are all worth studying but, to keep this post concise, I have selected the three that fascinated me most:
Evidence Base and Research
NICE guidelines are too narrow and do not ﬁt well with models of care such as complementary, traditional and natural therapies, and should incorporate qualitative evidence and patient outcomes measures as well as RCT evidence. Complementary, traditional and natural healthcare associations should take steps to educate and advise their members on the use of Measure Yourself Medical Outcome Proﬁles (MYMOP), and patient outcome measures should be collated by an independent central resource to identify for what conditions patients are seeking treatment, and with what outcomes.
Every cancer patient and their families should be offered complementary therapies as part of their treatment package to support them in their cancer journey. Cancer centres and hospices providing access to complementary therapies should be encouraged to make wider use of Measure Yourself Concerns and Wellbeing (MYCaW) to evaluate the beneﬁts gained by patients using complementary therapies in cancer support care. Co-ordinated research needs to be carried out, both clinical trials and qualitative studies, on a range of complementary, traditional and natural therapies used in cancer care support.
The government should run NHS pilot projects which look at non-conventional ways of treating patients with long-term and chronic conditions affected by Effectiveness Gaps, such as stress, arthritis, asthma and musculoskeletal problems, and audit these results against conventional treatment options for these conditions to determine whether cost savings and better patient outcomes could be achieved.
END OF QUOTE
Here are a few brief comments on those three recommendations.
Evidence base and research
NICE guidelines are based on rigorous assessments of efficacy, safety and costs. Such evaluations are possible for all interventions, including SCAM. Qualitative data are useless for this purpose. Outcome measures like the MYMOP are measures that can and are used in clinical trials. To use them outside clinical trials would not provide any relevant information about the specific effects of SCAM because this cannot account for confounding factors like the natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean, etc. The entire paragraph disclosed a remarkable level of naivety and ignorance about research on behalf of the PGIH.
There is already a significant amount of research on SCAM for cancer (see for instance here). It shows that no SCAM is effective in curing any form of cancer, and that only very few SCAMs can effectively improve the quality of life of cancer patients. Considering these facts, the wholesale recommendation of offering SCAM to cancer patients can only be characterised as dangerous quackery.
Such a pilot project has already been conducted at the behest of Price Charles (see here). Its results show that flimsy research will generate flimsy findings. If anything, a rigorous trial would be needed to test whether more SCAM on the NHS saves or costs money. The data currently available suggests that the latter is the case (see also here, here, here, here, etc.).
Altogether, one gets the impression that the PGIH need to brush up on their science and knowledge (if they invite me, I’d be delighted to give them another lecture). As it stands, it seems unlikely that their approach will, in fact, bring about improvements in patient care.
In 1995, Dabbs and Lauretti reviewed the risks of cervical manipulation and compared them to those of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). They concluded that the best evidence indicates that cervical manipulation for neck pain is much safer than the use of NSAIDs, by as much as a factor of several hundred times. This article must be amongst the most-quoted paper by chiropractors, and its conclusion has become somewhat of a chiropractic mantra which is being repeated ad nauseam. For instance, the American Chiropractic Association states that the risks associated with some of the most common treatments for musculoskeletal pain—over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and prescription painkillers—are significantly greater than those of chiropractic manipulation.
As far as I can see, no further comparative safety-analyses between cervical manipulation and NSAIDs have become available since this 1995 article. It would therefore be time, I think, to conduct new comparative safety and risk/benefit analyses aimed at updating our knowledge in this important area.
Meanwhile, I will attempt a quick assessment of the much-quoted paper by Dabbs and Lauretti with a view of checking how reliable its conclusions truly are.
The most obvious criticism of this article has already been mentioned: it is now 23 years old, and today we know much more about the risks and benefits of these two therapeutic approaches. This point alone should make responsible healthcare professionals think twice before promoting its conclusions.
Equally important is the fact that we still have no surveillance system to monitor the adverse events of spinal manipulation. Consequently, our data on this issue are woefully incomplete, and we have to rely mostly on case reports. Yet, most adverse events remain unpublished and under-reporting is therefore huge. We have shown that, in our UK survey, it amounted to exactly 100%.
To make matters worse, case reports were excluded from the analysis of Dabbs and Lauretti. In fact, they included only articles providing numerical estimates of risk (even reports that reported no adverse effects at all), the opinion of exerts, and a 1993 statistic from a malpractice insurer. None of these sources would lead to reliable incidence figures; they are thus no adequate basis for a comparative analysis.
In contrast, NSAIDs have long been subject to proper post-marketing surveillance systems generating realistic incidence figures of adverse effects which Dabbs and Lauretti were able to use. It is, however, important to note that the figures they did employ were not from patients using NSAIDs for neck pain. Instead they were from patients using NSAIDs for arthritis. Equally important is the fact that they refer to long-term use of NSAIDs, while cervical manipulation is rarely applied long-term. Therefore, the comparison of risks of these two approaches seems not valid.
Moreover, when comparing the risks between cervical manipulation and NSAIDs, Dabbs and Lauretti seemed to have used incidence per manipulation, while for NSAIDs the incidence figures were bases on events per patient using these drugs (the paper is not well-constructed and does not have a methods section; thus, it is often unclear what exactly the authors did investigate and how). Similarly, it remains unclear whether the NSAID-risk refers only to patients who had used the prescribed dose, or whether over-dosing (a phenomenon that surely is not uncommon with patients suffering from chronic arthritis pain) was included in the incidence figures.
It is worth mentioning that the article by Dabbs and Lauretti refers to neck pain only. Many chiropractors have in the past broadened its conclusions to mean that spinal manipulations or chiropractic care are safer than drugs. This is clearly not permissible without sound data to support such claims. As far as I can see, such data do not exist (if anyone knows of such evidence, I would be most thankful to let me see it).
To obtain a fair picture of the risks in a real life situation, one should perhaps also mention that chiropractors often fail to warn patients of the possibility of adverse effects. With NSAIDs, by contrast, patients have, at the very minimum, the drug information leaflets that do warn them of potential harm in full detail.
Finally, one could argue that the effectiveness and costs of the two therapies need careful consideration. The costs for most NSAIDs per day are certainly much lower than those for repeated sessions of manipulations. As to the effectiveness of the treatments, it is clear that NSAIDs do effectively alleviate pain, while the evidence seems far from being conclusively positive in the case of cervical manipulation.
In conclusion, the much-cited paper by Dabbs and Lauretti is out-dated, poor quality, and heavily biased. It provides no sound basis for an evidence-based judgement on the relative risks of cervical manipulation and NSAIDs. The notion that cervical manipulations are safer than NSAIDs is therefore not based on reliable data. Thus, it is misleading and irresponsible to repeat this claim.
An article alerted me to a new report on alternative medicine in the NHS. The report itself is so monumentally important that I cannot find it anywhere (if someone finds a link, please let us know). Behind it is our homeopathy-loving friend David Tredinnick MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group. I am sure you remember him; he is ‘perhaps the worst example of scientific illiteracy in government’. And what has David been up to now?
His new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated Healthcare is urging the NHS to embrace more medicine to ease the mounting burden on service provision. It claims that more patients suffer from two or more long-term health conditions than ever before, and that their number will amount to 18 million by 2025.
And the solution?
Isn’t it obvious?
David Tredinnick MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, insists that the current approach being taken by the government is unsustainable for the long-term future of the country. “Despite positive signs that ministers are proving open to change, words must translate into reality. For some time our treasured NHS has faced threats to its financial sustainability and to common trust in the system. Multimorbidity is more apparent now in the UK than at any time in our recent history. As a trend it threatens to swamp a struggling NHS, but the good news is that many self-limiting conditions can be treated at home with the most minimal of expert intervention. Other European governments facing similar challenges have considered the benefits of exploring complementary, traditional and natural medicines. If we are to hand on our most invaluable institution to future generations, so should we.”
Hold on, this sounds familiar!
Wasn’t there something like it before?
Yes, of course, the ‘Smallwood Report‘, commissioned over a decade ago by Prince Charles. It also proclaimed that the NHS could save plenty of money, if it employed more bogus therapies. But it was so full of errors and wrong conclusions that its impact on the NHS was close to zero. At the time, I concluded that the ‘Smallwood report’ is one of the strangest examples of an attempt to review CAM that I have ever seen. One gets the impression that its conclusions were written before the authors had searched for evidence that might match them. Both Mr Smallwood and the ‘Freshminds’ team told me that they understand neither health care nor CAM. Mr Smallwood stressed that this is positive as it prevents him from being ‘accused of bias’. My response was that ‘severely flawed research methodology almost inevitably leads to bias’.
And which other European countries might the Tory Brexiter David refer to?
Sadly, I have not seen Tredinnick’s new oeuvre and do not know its precise content. What I do know, however, that the evidence, for alternative medicine’s cost effectiveness has not improved; if anything, it has become more negative. From that, one can safely conclude that Tredinnick’s notions of NHS-savings through more use of alternative medicine are erroneous. Therefore, I suspect the new report will swiftly and deservedly go the same way as its predecessor, the ‘Smallwood Report’: straight into the bins of Westminster.
The pro arguments essentially are the well-rehearsed points acupuncture-fans like to advance:
- Some guidelines do recommend acupuncture.
- Sham acupuncture is not a valid comparator.
- The largest meta-analysis shows a small effect.
- Acupuncture is not implausible.
- It improves quality of life.
Cummings concludes as follows: In summary, the pragmatic view sees acupuncture as a relatively safe and moderately effective intervention for a wide range of common chronic pain conditions. It has a plausible set of neurophysiological mechanisms supported by basic science.12 For those patients who choose it and who respond well, it considerably improves health related quality of life, and it has much lower long term risk for them than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It may be especially useful for chronic musculoskeletal pain and osteoarthritis in elderly patients, who are at particularly high risk from adverse drug reactions.
Our arguments are also not new; essentially, we stress that:
- The effects of acupuncture are too small to be clinically relevant.
- They are probably not even caused by acupuncture, but the result of residual bias.
- Pragmatic trials are of little value in defining efficacy.
- Acupuncture is not free of risks.
- Regular acupuncture treatments are expensive.
- There is no generally accepted, plausible mechanism.
We concluded that after decades of research and hundreds of acupuncture pain trials, including thousands of patients, we still have no clear mechanism of action, insufficient evidence for clinically worthwhile benefit, and possible harms. Therefore, doctors should not recommend acupuncture for pain.
Neither Asbjorn nor I have any conflicts of interests to declare.
Dr Cummings, by contrast, states that he is the salaried medical director of the British Medical Acupuncture Society, which is a membership organisation and charity established to stimulate and promote the use and scientific understanding of acupuncture as part of the practice of medicine for the public benefit. He is an associate editor for Acupuncture in Medicine, published by BMJ. He has a modest private income from lecturing outside the UK, royalties from textbooks, and a partnership teaching veterinary surgeons in Western veterinary acupuncture. He has participated in a NICE guideline development group as an expert adviser discussing acupuncture. He has used Western medical acupuncture in clinical practice following a chance observation as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force in 1989.
My question to you is this: WHICH OF THE TWO POSITION IS THE MORE REASONABLE ONE?
Please, do let us know by posting a comment here, or directly at the BMJ article (better), or both (best).
Chiropractors (and other alternative practitioners) tend to treat their patients for unnecessarily long periods of time. This, of course, costs money, and even if the treatment in question ever was indicated (which, according to the best evidence, is more than doubtful), this phenomenon would significantly inflate healthcare expenditure.
This sounds perfectly logical to me, but is there any evidence for it? Yes, there is!
The WSJ recently reported that over 80% of the money that Medicare paid to US chiropractors in 2013 went for medically unnecessary procedures. The federal insurance program for senior citizens spent roughly $359 million on unnecessary chiropractic care that year, a review by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) found.
The OIG report was based on a random sample of Medicare spending for 105 chiropractic services in 2013. It included bills submitted to CMS through June 2014. Medicare audit contractors reviewed medical records for patients to determine whether treatment was medically necessary. The OIG called on the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to tighten oversight of the payments, noting its analysis was one of several in recent years to find questionable Medicare spending on chiropractic care. “Unless CMS implements strong controls, it is likely to continue to make improper payments to chiropractors,” the OIG said.
Medicare should determine whether there should be a cut-off in visits, the OIG said. Medicare does not pay for “supportive” care, or maintenance therapy. Patients who received more than a dozen treatments are more likely to get medically unnecessary care, the OIG found, and all chiropractic care after the first 30 treatment sessions was unnecessary, the review found. However, a spokesperson for US chiropractors disagreed: “Every patient is different,” he said. “Some patients may require two visits; some may require more.”
I have repeatedly written about the fact that chiropractic is not nearly as cost-effective as chiropractors want us to believe (see for instance here and here). It seems that this evidence is being systematically ignored by them; in fact, the evidence gets in the way of their aim – which often is not to help patients but to maximise their cash-flow.