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

critical thinking

In 2004, my team published a review analysing the diversity of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) research published in one single year (2002) across 7 European countries (Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium) and the US. In total 652 abstracts of articles were assessed. Germany and the UK were the only two European countries to publish in excess of 100 articles in that year (Germany: 137, UK: 183). The majority of articles were non-systematic reviews and comments, analytical studies and surveys. The UK carried out more surveys than any of the other countries and also published the largest number of systematic reviews. Germany, the UK and the US covered the widest range of interests across various SCAM modalities and investigated the safety of CAM. We concluded that important national differences exist in terms of the nature of SCAM research. This raises important questions regarding the reasons for such differences.

One striking difference was the fact that, compared to the UK, Germany had published far less research on SCAM that failed to report a positive result (4% versus 14%). Ever since, I have wondered why. Perhaps it has something to do with the biggest sponsor of SCAM research in Germany: THE CARSTENS STIFTUNG?

The Carstens Foundation (CF) was created by the former German President, Prof. Dr. Karl Carstens and his wife, Dr. Veronica Carstens. Karl Carstens (1914-1992) was the 5th President of federal Germany, from 1979 to 1984. Veronica Carstens (1923-2012) was a doctor of Internal Medicine with an interest in natural medicine and homeopathy in particular. She is quoted by the CF stating: „Der Arzt und die Ärztin der Zukunft sollen zwei Sprachen sprechen, die der Schulmedizin und die der Naturheilkunde und Homöopathie. Sie sollen im Einzelfall entscheiden können, welche Methode die besten Heilungschancen für den Patienten bietet.“ (Future doctors should speak two languages, that of ‘school medicine’ [Hahnemann’s derogatory term for conventional medicine] and that of naturopathy and homeopathy. They should be able to decide on a case by case basis which method offers the best chances of a cure for the patient.***)

Together, the two Carstens created the CF with the goal of sponsoring SCAM in Germany. More than 35 million € have so far been spent on more than 100 projects, fellowships, dissertations, an own publishing house, and a patient societyNatur und Medizin” (currently ~23 000 members) with the task of promoting SCAM. Projects the CF proudly list as their ‘milestones’ include: 

  • an outpatient clinic of natural medicine for cancer
  • a project ‘Natural medicine and homeopathy for children and adolescents’.

The primary focus of the CF clearly is homeopathy, and it is in this area where their anti-science bias gets most obvious. I do invite everyone who reads German to have a look at their website and be amazed at the plethora of misleading claims.

Their expert for all things homeopathic is Dr Jens Behnke (‘Referent für Homöopathieforschung bei der Karl und Veronica Carstens-Stiftung: Evidenzbasierte Medizin, CAM, klinische Forschung, Grundlagenforschung’). He is not a medical doctor but has a doctorate from the ‘Kulturwissenschaftlichen Fakultät der Europa-Universität Viadrina’ entitled ‘Wissenschaft und Weltanschauung. Eine epistemologische Analyse des Paradigmenstreits in der Homöopathieforschung’ (Science and world view. An epistemological analysis of the paradigm-quarrel in homeopathy research). His supervisor was Prof Harald Walach who has long been close to the CF.

Behnke claims to be an expert in EBM, clinical research and basic research but, intriguingly, he has not a single Medline-listed publication to his name. So, we only have his dissertation to assess his expertise.

The very 1st sentence of his dissertation is noteworthy, in my view: Die Homöopathie ist eine Therapiemethode, die seit mehr als 200 Jahren praktiziert wird und eine beträchtliche Zahl an Heilungserfolgen vorzuweisen hat (Homeopathy is a therapeutic method, that is being used since more than 200 years and which is supported by a remarkable number of therapeutic successes). In essence, the dissertation dismisses the scientific approach for evaluating homeopathy as well as the current best evidence that shows homeopathy to be ineffective.

Behnke dismisses my own research on homeopathy without even considering it. He first claims to have found an error in one of my systematic reviews and then states: Die Fragwürdigkeit der oben angeführten Methoden rechtfertigt das Übergehen sämtlicher Publikationen dieses Autors im Rahmen dieser Arbeit. Wenn einem Wissenschaftler die aufgezeigte absichtliche Falschdarstellung aufgrund von Voreingenommenheit nachgewiesen werden kann, sind seine Ergebnisse, wenn überhaupt, nur nach vorheriger systematischer Überprüfung sämtlicher Originalpublikationen und Daten, auf die sie sich beziehen, verwertbar. Essentially, he claims that, because he has found one error, the rest cannot be trusted and therefore he is entitled to reject the lot.

In the same dissertation, we read the following: Ernst konstatiert in allen … Arbeiten zur Homöopathie ausnahmslos, dass es keinerlei belastbare Hinweise auf eine Wirksamkeit homöopathischer Arzneimittel über Placeboeffekte hinaus gebe (Ernst states in all publications on homeopathy without exception that no solid suggestions exist at all for an effectiveness of homeopathic remedies). However, it is demonstrably wrong that all of my papers arrive at a negative judgement of homeopathy’s effectiveness; here are three that spring into my mind:

So, applying Behnke’s own logic outlined above, one should argue that, because I have found one error in his research, the rest of what Behnke will (perhaps one day be able to) publish cannot be trusted and therefore I am entitled to reject the lot.

That would, of course, be tantamount to adopting the stupidity of one’s own opponents. So, I will certainly not do that; instead, I will wait patiently for the sound science that Dr Behnke (and indeed the CF) might eventually produce.

 

***phraseology that is strikingly similar to that of Rudolf Hess on the same subject.

Robert Verkerk, Executive & scientific director, Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), seems to adore me (maybe that’s why I kept this post for Valentine’s Day?). In 2006, he published this article about me (it is lengthy, and I therefore shortened a bit, but feel free to study it in its full beauty):

START OF QUOTE

PROFESSOR EDZARD ERNST, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, gets lots of exposure for his often overtly negative views on complementary medicine. He’s become the media’s favourite resource for a view on this controversial subject…

The interesting thing about Prof Ernst is that he seems to have come a long way from his humble beginnings as a recipient of the therapies that he now seems so critical of. Profiled by Geoff Watts in the British Medical Journal, the Prof tells us: ‘Our family doctor in the little village outside Munich where I grew up was a homoeopath. My mother swore by it. As a kid I was treated homoeopathically. So this kind of medicine just came naturally. Even during my studies I pursued other things like massage therapy and acupuncture. As a young doctor I had an appointment in a homeopathic hospital, and I was very impressed with its success rate. My boss told me that much of this success came from discontinuing main stream medication. This made a big impression on me.’ (BMJ Career Focus 2003; 327:166; doi:10.1136/bmj.327.7425.s166)…

After his early support for homeopathy, Professor Ernst has now become, de facto, one of its main opponents. Robin McKie, science editor for The Observer (December 18, 2005) reported Ernst as saying, ‘Homeopathic remedies don’t work. Study after study has shown it is simply the purest form of placebo. You may as well take a glass of water than a homeopathic medicine.’ Ernst, having done the proverbial 180 degree turn, has decided to stand firmly shoulder to shoulder with a number of other leading assailants of non-pharmaceutical therapies, such as Professors Michael Baum and Jonathan Waxman. On 22 May 2006, Baum and twelve other mainly retired surgeons, including Ernst himself, bandied together and co-signed an open letter, published in The Times, which condemned the NHS decision to include increasing numbers of complementary therapies…

As high profile as the Ernsts, Baums and Waxmans of this world might be—their views are not unanimous across the orthodox medical profession. Some of these contrary views were expressed just last Sunday in The Sunday Times (Lost in the cancer maze, 10 December 2006)…

The real loser in open battles between warring factions in healthcare could be the consumer. Imagine how schizophrenic you could become after reading any one of the many newspapers that contains both pro-natural therapy articles and stinging attacks like that found in this week’s Daily Mail. But then again, we may misjudge the consumer who is well known for his or her ability to vote with the feet—regardless. The consumer, just like Robert Sandall, and the millions around the world who continue to indulge in complementary therapies, will ultimately make choices that work for them. ‘Survival of the fittest’ could provide an explanation for why hostile attacks from the orthodox medical community, the media and over-zealous regulators have not dented the steady increase in the popularity of alternative medicine.

Although we live in a technocratic age where we’ve handed so much decision making to the specialists, perhaps this is one area where the might of the individual will reign. Maybe the disillusionment many feel for pharmaceutically-biased healthcare is beginning to kick in. Perhaps the dictates from the white coats will be overruled by the ever-powerful survival instinct and our need to stay in touch with nature, from which we’ve evolved.

END OF QUOTE

Elsewhere, Robert Verkerk even called me the ‘master trickster of evidence-based medicine’ and stated that Prof Ernst and his colleagues appear to be evaluating the ‘wrong’ variable. As Ernst himself admitted, his team are focused on exploring only one of the variables, the ‘specific therapeutic effect’ (Figs 1 and 2). It is apparent, however, that the outcome that is of much greater consequence to healthcare is the combined effect of all variables, referred to by Ernst as the ‘total effect’ (Fig 1). Ernst does not appear to acknowledge that the sum of these effects might differ greatly between experimental and non-experimental situations.

Adding insult to injury, Ernst’s next major apparent faux pas involves his interpretation, or misinterpretation, of results. These fundamental problems exist within a very significant body of Prof Ernst’s work, particularly that which has been most widely publicised because it is so antagonistic towards healing cultures that have in many cases existed and evolved over thousands of years.

By example, a recent ‘systematic review’ of individualised herbal medicine undertaken by Ernst and colleagues started with 1345 peer-reviewed studies. However, all but three (0.2%) of the studies (RCTs) were rejected. These three RCTs in turn each involved very specific types of herbal treatment, targeting patients with IBS, knee osteoarthritis and cancer, the latter also undergoing chemotherapy, respectively. The conclusions of the study, which fuelled negative media worldwide, disconcertingly extended well beyond the remit of the study or its results. An extract follows: “Individualised herbal medicine, as practised in European medical herbalism, Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, has a very sparse evidence base and there is no convincing evidence that it is effective in any [our emphasis] indication. Because of the high potential for adverse events and negative herb-herb and herb-drug interactions, this lack of evidence for effectiveness means that its use cannot be recommended (Postgrad Med J 2007; 83: 633-637).

Robert Verkerk has recently come to my attention again – as the main author of a lengthy report published in December 2018. Its ‘Executive Summary’ makes the following points relevant in the context of this blog (the numbers in his text were added by me and refer to my comments below):

  • This position paper proposes a universal framework, based on ecological and sustainability principles, aimed at allowing qualified health professionals (1), regardless of their respective modalities (disciplines), to work collaboratively and with full participation of the public in efforts to maintain or regenerate health and wellbeing. Accordingly, rather than offering ‘fixes’ for the NHS, the paper offers an approach that may significantly reduce the NHS’s current and growing disease burden that is set to reach crisis point given current levels of demand and funding.
  • A major factor driving the relentlessly rising costs of the NHS is its over-reliance on pharmaceuticals (2) to treat a variety of preventable, chronic disorders. These (3) are the result — not of infection or trauma — but rather of our 21st century lifestyles, to which the human body is not well adapted. The failure of pharmaceutically-based approaches to slow down, let alone reverse, the dual burden of obesity and type 2 diabetes means wider roll-out of effective multi-factorial approaches are desperately needed (4).
  • The NHS was created at a time when infectious diseases were the biggest killers (5). This is no longer the case, which is why the NHS must become part of a wider system that facilitates health regeneration or maintenance. The paper describes the major mechanisms underlying these chronic metabolic diseases, which are claiming an increasingly large portion of NHS funding. It identifies 12 domains of human health, many of which are routinely thrown out of balance by our contemporary lifestyles. The most effective way of treating lifestyle disorders is with appropriate lifestyle changes that are tailored to individuals, their needs and their circumstances. Such approaches, if appropriately supported and guided, tend to be far more economical and more sustainable as a means of maintaining or restoring people’s health (6).
  • A sustainable health system, as proposed in this position paper, is one in which the individual becomes much more responsible for maintaining his or her own health and where more effort is invested earlier in an individual’s life prior to the downstream manifestation of chronic, degenerative and preventable diseases (7). Substantially more education, support and guidance than is typically available in the NHS today will need to be provided by health professionals (1), informed as necessary by a range of markers and diagnostic techniques (8). Healthy dietary and lifestyle choices and behaviours (9) are most effective when imparted early, prior to symptoms of chronic diseases becoming evident and before additional diseases or disorders (comorbidities) have become deeply embedded.
  • The timing of the position paper’s release coincides not only with a time when the NHS is in crisis, but also when the UK is deep in negotiations over its extraction from the European Union (EU). The paper includes the identification of EU laws that are incompatible with sustainable health systems, that the UK would do well to reject when the time comes to re-consider the British statute books following the implementation of the Great Repeal Bill (10).
  • This paper represents the first comprehensive attempt to apply sustainability principles to the management of human health in the context of our current understanding of human biology and ecology, tailored specifically to the UK’s unique situation. It embodies approaches that work with, rather than against, nature (11). Sustainability principles have already been applied successfully to other sectors such as energy, construction and agriculture.
  • It is now imperative that the diverse range of interests and specialisms (12) involved in the management of human health come together. We owe it to future generations to work together urgently, earnestly and cooperatively to develop and thoroughly evaluate new ways of managing and creating health in our society. This blueprint represents a collaborative effort to give this process much needed momentum.

My very short comments:

  1. I fear that this is meant to include SCAM-practitioners who are neither qualified nor skilled to tackle such tasks.
  2. Dietary supplements (heavily promoted by the ANH) either have pharmacological effects, in which case they too must be seen as pharmaceuticals, or they are useless, in which case we should not promote them.
  3. I think ‘some of these’ would be more correct.
  4. Multifactorial yes, but we must make sure that useless SCAMs are not being pushed in through the back-door. Quackery must not be allowed to become a ‘factor’.
  5. Only, if we discount cancer and arteriosclerosis, I think.
  6. SCAM-practitioners have repeatedly demonstrated to be a risk to public health.
  7. All we know about disease prevention originates from conventional medicine and nothing from SCAM.
  8. Informed by…??? I would prefer ‘based on evidence’ (evidence being one term that the report does not seem to be fond of).
  9. All healthy dietary and lifestyle choices and behaviours that are backed by good evidence originate from and are part of conventional medicine, not SCAM.
  10. Do I detect the nasty whiff a pro-Brexit attitude her? I wonder what the ANH hopes for in a post-Brexit UK.
  11. The old chestnut of conventional medicine = unnatural and SCAM = natural is being warmed up here, it seems to me. Fallacy galore!
  12. The ANH would probably like to include a few SCAM-practitioners here.

Call me suspicious, but to me this ANH-initiative seems like a clever smoke-screen behind which they hope to sell their useless dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies to the unsuspecting British public. Am I mistaken?

Highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos! This is what the best evidence clearly shows. Ergo they cannot be shown in a rigorous study to have effects that differ from placebo.  But now there is a study that seems to contradict this widely accepted conclusion.

Can someone please help me to understand what is going on?

In this double-blind, placebo-controlled RCT, 60 patients suffering from insomnia were treated either individualised homeopathy (IH) or placebo for 3 months. Patient-administered sleep diary and Insomnia Severity Index (ISI) were used the primary and secondary outcomes respectively, measured at baseline, and after 3 months.

Five patients dropped out (verum:2,control:3).Intention to treat sample (n=60) was analysed. Trial arms were comparable at baseline. In the verum group, except sleep diary item 3 (P= 0.371), rest of the outcomes improved significantly (all P < 0.01). In the control group, there were significant improvements in diary item 6 and ISI score (P < 0.01) and just significant improvement in item 5 (P= 0.018). Group differences were significant for items 4, 5 and 6(P < 0.01) and just significant (P= 0.014) for ISI score with moderate to large effect sizes; but non-significant (P > 0.01) for rest of the outcomes.

The authors concluded that in this double-blind, randomized, prospective, placebo-controlled, two parallel arms clinical trial conducted on 60 patients suffering from insomnia, there was statistically significant difference measured in sleep efficiency, total sleep time, time in bed, and ISI score in favour of homeopathy over placebo with moderate to large effect sizes. Group differences were non-significant for rest of the outcomes(i.e. latency to fall asleep, minutes awake in middle of night and minutes awake too early). Individualized homeopathy seemed to produce significantly better effect than placebo. Independent replications and adequately powered trials with enhanced methodological rigor are warranted.

I have studied this article in some detail; its methodology is nicely and fully described in the original paper. To my amazement, I cannot find a flaw that is worth mentioning. Sure, the sample was small, the treatment time short, the outcome measure subjective, the paper comes from a dubious journal, the authors have a clear conflict of interest, even though they deny it – but none of these limitations has the potential to conclusively explain the positive result.

In view of what I stated above and considering what the clinical evidence so far tells us, this is most puzzling.

A 2010 systematic review authored by proponents of homeopathy  included 4 RCTs comparing homeopathic medicines to placebo. All involved small patient numbers and were of low methodological quality. None demonstrated a statistically significant difference in outcomes between groups.

My own 2011 not Medline-listed review (Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 16(3) September 2011 195–199) included several additional studies. Here is its abstract:

The aim of this review was the critical evaluation of evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy for insomnia and sleep-related disorders. A search of MEDLINE, AMED, CINAHL, EMBASE and Cochrane Central Register was conducted to find RCTs using any form of homeopathy for the treatment of insomnia or sleep-related disorders. Data were extracted according to pre-defined criteria; risk of bias was assessed using Cochrane criteria. Six randomised, placebo-controlled trials met the inclusion criteria. Two studies used individualised homeopathy, and four used standardised homeopathic treatment. All studies had significant flaws; small sample size was the most prevalent limitation. The results of one study suggested that homeopathic remedies were superior to placebo; however, five trials found no significant differences between homeopathy and placebo for any of the main outcomes. Evidence from RCTs does not show homeopathy to be an effective treatment for insomnia and sleep-related disorders.

It follows that the new trial contradicts previously published evidence. In addition, it clearly lacks plausibility, as the remedies used were highly diluted and therefore should be pure placebos. So, what could be the explanation of the new, positive result?

As far as I can see, there are the following possibilities:

  • fraud,
  • coincidence,
  • some undetected/undisclosed bias,
  • homeopathy works after all.

I would be most grateful, if someone could help solving this puzzle for me (if needed, I can send you the full text of the new article for assessment).

An article referring to comments Prof David Colquhoun and I recently made in THE TIMES about acupuncture for children caught my attention. In it, Rebecca Avern, an acupuncturist specialising in paediatrics and heading the clinical programme at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine, makes a several statements which deserve a comment. Here is her article in full, followed by my short comments.

START OF QUOTE

Just before Christmas an article appeared in the Times with the headline ‘Professors raise alarm over rise of acupuncture for children’. There has been little or nothing in the mainstream press relating to paediatric acupuncture. So, in a sense, and in the spirit of ‘all press is good press’, this felt like progress. The article quoted myself and Julian Scott, and mentioned several childhood conditions for which children seek treatment. It also mentioned some of the reasons that parents choose acupuncture for their children.

However, it included some negative quotes from our old friends Ernst and Colquhoun. The first was Ernst stating that he was ‘not aware of any sound evidence showing that acupuncture is effective for any childhood conditions’. Colquhoun went further to state that there simply is not ‘the slightest bit of evidence to suggest that acupuncture helps anything in children’. Whilst they may not be aware of it, good evidence does exist, albeit for a limited number of conditions. For example, a 2016 meta-analysis and systematic review of the use of acupuncture for post-operative nausea and vomiting (PONV) concluded that children who received acupuncture had a significantly lower risk of PONV than those in the control group or those who received conventional drug therapy.[i]

Ernst went on to mention the hypothetical risk of puncturing a child’s internal organs but he failed to provide evidence of any actual harm. A 2011 systematic review analysing decades of acupuncture in children aged 0 to 17 years prompted investigators to conclude that acupuncture can be characterised as ‘safe’ for children.[ii]

Ernst also mentioned what he perceived is a far greater risk. He expressed concern that children would miss out on ‘effective’ treatment because they are having acupuncture. In my experience running a paediatric acupuncture clinic in Oxford, this is not the case. Children almost invariably come already having received a diagnosis from either their GP or a paediatric specialist. They are seeking treatment, such as in the case of bedwetting or chronic fatigue syndrome, because orthodox medicine is unable to effectively treat or even manage their condition. Alternatively, their condition is being managed by medication which may be causing side effects.

When it comes to their children, even those parents who may have reservations about orthodox medicine, tend to ensure their child has received all the appropriate exploratory tests. I have yet to meet a parent who will not ensure that their child, who has a serious condition, has the necessary medication, which in some cases may save their lives, such as salbutamol (usually marketed as Ventolin) for asthma or an EpiPen for anaphylactic reactions. If a child comes to the clinic where this turns out not to be the case, thankfully all BAcC members have training in a level of conventional medical sciences which enables them to spot ‘red flags’. This means that they will inform the parent that their child needs orthodox treatment either instead of or alongside acupuncture.

The article ended with a final comment from Colquhoun who believes that ‘sticking pins in babies is a rather unpleasant form of health fraud’. It is hard not to take exception to the phrase ‘sticking pins in’, whereas what we actually do is gently and precisely insert fine, sterile acupuncture needles. The needles used to treat babies and children are usually approximately 0.16mm in breadth. The average number of needles used per treatment is between two and six, and the needles are not retained. A ‘treatment’ may include not only needling, but also diet and lifestyle advice, massage, moxa, and parental education. Most babies and children find an acupuncture treatment perfectly acceptable, as the video below illustrates.

The views of Colquhoun and Ernst also beg the question of how acupuncture compares in terms of safety and proven efficacy with orthodox medical treatments given to children. Many medications given to children are so called ‘off-label’ because it is challenging to get ethical approval for randomised controlled trials in children. This means that children are prescribed medicines that are not authorised in terms of age, weight, indications, or routes of administration. A 2015 study noted that prescribers and caregivers ‘must be aware of the risk of potential serious ADRs (adverse drug reactions)’ when prescribing off-label medicines to children.[iii]

There are several reasons for the rise in paediatric acupuncture to which the article referred. Most of the time, children get better when they have acupuncture. Secondly, parents see that the treatment is gentle and well tolerated by their children. Unburdened by chronic illness, a child can enjoy a carefree childhood, and they can regain a sense of themselves as healthy. A weight is lifted off the entire family when a child returns to health. It is my belief that parents, and children, vote with their feet and that, despite people such as Ernst and Colquhoun wishing it were otherwise, more and more children will receive the benefits of acupuncture.

[i] Shin HC et al, The effect of acupuncture on post-operative nausea and vomiting after pediatric tonsillectomy: A meta-analysis and systematic review. Accessed January 2019 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26864736

[ii] Franklin R, Few Serious Adverse Events in Pediatric Needle Acupuncture. Accessed January 2019from: https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/753934?src=trendmd_pilot

[iii] Aagaard L (2015) Off-Label and Unlicensed Prescribing of Medicines in Paediatric Populations: Occurrence and Safety Aspects. Basic and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology. Accessed January 2019 from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/bcpt.12445

END OF QUOTE

  1. GOOD EVIDENCE: The systematic review cited by Mrs Avern was based mostly on poor-quality trials. It even included cohort studies without a control group. To name it as an example of good evidence, merely discloses an ignorance about what good evidence means.
  2. SAFETY: The article Mrs Avern referred to is a systematic review of reports on adverse events (AEs) of acupuncture in children. A total of 279 AEs were found.  Of these, 25 were serious (12 cases of thumb deformity, 5 infections, and 1 case each of cardiac rupture, pneumothorax, nerve impairment, subarachnoid haemorrhage, intestinal obstruction, haemoptysis, reversible coma, and overnight hospitalization), 1 was moderate (infection), and 253 were mild. The mild AEs included pain, bruising, bleeding, and worsening of symptoms. Considering that there is no reporting system of such AEs, this list of AEs is, I think, concerning and justifies my concerns over the safety of acupuncture in children. The risks are certainly not ‘hypothetical’, as Mrs Avern claimed, and to call it thus seems to be in conflict with the highest standard of professional care (see below). Because the acupuncture community has still not established an effective AE-surveillance system, nobody can tell whether such events are frequent or rare. We all hope they are infrequent, but hope is a poor substitute for evidence.
  3. COMPARISON TO OTHER TREATMENTS: Mrs Avern seems to think that acupuncture has a better risk/benefit profile than conventional medicine. Having failed to show that acupuncture is effective and having demonstrated that it causes severe adverse effects, this assumption seems nothing but wishful thinking on her part.
  4. EXPERIENCE: Mrs Avern finishes her article by telling us that ‘children get better when they have acupuncture’. She seems to be oblivious to the fact that sick children usually get better no matter what. Perhaps the kids she treats would have improved even faster without her needles?

In conclusion, I do not doubt the good intentions of Mrs Avern for one minute; I just wished she were able to develop a minimum of critical thinking capacity. More importantly, I am concerned about the BRITISH ACUPUNCTURE COUNCIL, the organisation that published Mrs Avern’s article. On their website, they state: The British Acupuncture Council is committed to ensuring all patients receive the highest standard of professional care during their acupuncture treatment. Our Code of Professional Conduct governs ethical and professional behaviour, while the Code of Safe Practice sets benchmark standards for best practice in acupuncture. All BAcC members are bound by these codes. Who are they trying to fool?, I ask myself.

If so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) ever were to enter the Guinness Book of Records, it would most certainly be because it generates more surveys than any other area of medical inquiry. I have long been rather sceptical about this survey-mania. Therefore, I greet any major new survey with some trepidation.

The aim of this new survey was to obtain up-to-date general population figures for practitioner-led SCAM use in England, and to discover people’s views and experiences regarding access. The researchers commissioned a face-to-face questionnaire survey of a nationally representative adult quota sample (aged ≥15 years). Ten questions were included within Ipsos MORI’s weekly population-based survey. The questions explored 12-month practitioner-led SCAM use, reasons for non-use, views on NHS-provided SCAM, and willingness to pay.

Of 4862 adults surveyed, 766 (16%) had seen a SCAM practitioner. People most commonly visited SCAM practitioners for manual therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic) and acupuncture, as well as yoga, pilates, reflexology, and mindfulness or meditation. Women, people with higher socioeconomic status (SES) and those in south England were more likely to access SCAM. Musculoskeletal conditions (mainly back pain) accounted for 68% of use, and mental health 12%. Most was through self-referral (70%) and self-financing. GPs (17%) or NHS professionals (4%) referred and/or recommended SCAM to users. These SCAM users were more often unemployed, with lower income and social grade, and receiving NHS-funded SCAM. Responders were willing to pay varying amounts for SCAM; 22% would not pay anything. Almost two in five responders felt NHS funding and GP referral and/or endorsement would increase their SCAM use.

The authors concluded that SCAM is commonly used in England, particularly for musculoskeletal and mental health problems, and by affluent groups paying privately. However, less well-off people are also being GP-referred for NHS-funded treatments. For SCAM with evidence of effectiveness (and cost-effectiveness), those of lower SES may be unable to access potentially useful interventions, and access via GPs may be able to address this inequality. Researchers, patients, and commissioners should collaborate to research the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of SCAM, and consider its availability on the NHS.

I feel that a few critical thoughts are in order:

  1. The authors call their survey an ‘up-date’. The survey ran between 25 September and 18 October 2015. That is more than three years ago. I would not exactly call this an up-date!
  2. Authors (several of whom are known SCAM-enthusiasts) also state that practitioner-led SCAM use was about 5% higher than previous national (UK and England) surveys. This may relate to the authors’ wider SCAM definition, which included 11 more therapies than Hunt et al (a survey from my team), or increased SCAM use since 2005. Despite this uncertainty, the authors write this: Figures from 2005 reported that 12% of the English population used practitioner-led CAM. This 2015 survey has found that 16% of the general population had used practitioner-led CAM in the previous 12 months. Thus, they imply that SCAM-use has been increasing.
  3. The main justification for running yet another survey presumably was to determine whether SCAM-use has increased, decreased or remained the same (virtually everything else found in the new survey had been shown many times before). To not answer this main question conclusively by asking the same questions as a previous survey is just daft, in my view. We have used the same survey methods at two points one decade apart and found little evidence for an increase, on the contrary: overall, GPs were less likely to endorse CAMs than previously shown (38% versus 19%).
  4. The main reason why I have long been critical about such surveys is the manner in which their data get interpreted. The present paper is no exception in this respect. Invariably the data show that SCAM is used by those who can afford it. This points to INEQUALITY that needs to be addressed by allowing much more SCAM on the public purse. In other words, such surveys are little more that very expensive and somewhat under-hand promotion of quackery.
  5. Yes, I know, the present authors are more clever than that; they want the funds limited to SCAM with evidence of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. So, why do they not list those SCAMs together with the evidence for effectiveness and cost-effectiveness? This would enable us to check the validity of the claim that more public money should fund SCAM. I think I know why: such SCAMs do not exist or, at lest, they are extremely rare.

But otherwise the new survey was excellent.

 

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.

Cancer Care

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.

Cost Savings

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.

Cancer care

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.

Cost savings

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.

Oscillococcinum is by now well-known to readers of this blog, I am sure (see for instance here, here and here). It seems an important topic, not least because the infamous duck-placebo is the world’s best-selling homeopathic remedy. Just how popular it is was recently shown in a survey by the formidable ‘Office for Science and Society’ of the McGill University in Canada.

The researchers surveyed the five biggest pharmacy chains in Quebec: Jean-Coutu, Familiprix, Uniprix, Proxim, and Pharmaprix. For each chain, a sample of 30 pharmacies was chosen by a random number generator.

The calls started with the following script: “I would like to know if you carry a certain homeopathic remedy. It’s called Oscillococcinum, it’s a homeopathic remedy against the flu made by Boiron.” If they did not have it, the investigator asked if this was something they normally carried. He spoke to either a floor clerk or a member of the pharmacy staff behind the counter, depending on who knew the answer.

Out of the 150 pharmacies on the island of Montreal that were called for this investigation, 66% of them reported carrying Oscillococcinum (30% did not, while 4% could not be reached, often because the listed pharmacy had closed). Some chains were more likely to sell the product, with Jean-Coutu and Pharmaprix being the most likely (80% of their stores had it) and Proxim being the least likely (50% of their stores carried it).

The McGill researcher stated that the fact that two-thirds of Montreal-based pharmacies will sell us a pseudo-treatment for the flu that targets adults, children and infants alike is hard to square with the Quebec Order of Pharmacists’ mission statement. They describe said mission as “ensuring the protection of the public”, but how is the public protected when pharmacies are selling them placebo pills? The harm is partly financial: 30 doses of these worthless globules retail for CAD 36. It is also in the false sense of security parents will gain and the delay in proper treatment if needed. And, ultimately, it is in the legitimization of a pseudoscience the founding principle of which is that the more you add water to something (like alcohol), the more powerful it becomes.

I can only full-heartedly agree. One might even add a few more things, for instance that there are other dangers as well:

  1. If pharmacists put commercial gain before medical ethics, we might find it hard to trust this profession.
  2. If people take Oscillococcinum and their condition subsequently disappears (because of the self-limiting nature of the disease), they might believe that homeopathy is effective and consequently use it for much more serious conditions – with grave consequences, I hasten to add.
  3. If consumers thus start trusting homeopaths, they might also fall for some of their abominable health advice, e. g. that about not vaccinating their children.
  4. If a sufficiently large percentage of people believe in the magic of shaken water, our rationality will be undermined and we will encounter phenomena like Brexit or fascists as presidents (sorry, I has to get that off my chest).

Chronic back pain is often a difficult condition to treat. Which option is best suited?

A review by the US ‘Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’ (AHRQ) focused on non-invasive nonpharmacological treatments for chronic pain. The following therapies were considered:

  • exercise,
  • mind-body practices,
  • psychological therapies,
  • multidisciplinary rehabilitation,
  • mindfulness practices,
  • manual therapies,
  • physical modalities,
  • acupuncture.

Here, I want to share with you the essence of the assessment of spinal manipulation:

  • Spinal manipulation was associated with slightly greater effects than sham manipulation, usual care, an attention control, or a placebo intervention in short-term function (3 trials, pooled SMD -0.34, 95% CI -0.63 to -0.05, I2=61%) and intermediate-term function (3 trials, pooled SMD -0.40, 95% CI -0.69 to -0.11, I2=76%) (strength of evidence was low)
  • There was no evidence of differences between spinal manipulation versus sham manipulation, usual care, an attention control or a placebo intervention in short-term pain (3 trials, pooled difference -0.20 on a 0 to 10 scale, 95% CI -0.66 to 0.26, I2=58%), but manipulation was associated with slightly greater effects than controls on intermediate-term pain (3 trials, pooled difference -0.64, 95% CI -0.92 to -0.36, I2=0%) (strength of evidence was low for short term, moderate for intermediate term).

This seems to confirm what I have been saying for a long time: the benefit of spinal manipulation for chronic back pain is close to zero. This means that the hallmark therapy of chiropractors for the one condition they treat more often than any other is next to useless.

But which other treatments should patients suffering from this frequent and often agonising problem employ? Perhaps the most interesting point of the AHRQ review is that none of the assessed nonpharmacological treatments are supported by much better evidence for efficacy than spinal manipulation. The only two therapies that seem to be even worse are traction and ultrasound (both are often used by chiropractors). It follows, I think, that for chronic low back pain, we simply do not have a truly effective nonpharmacological therapy and consulting a chiropractor for it does make little sense.

What else can we conclude from these depressing data? I believe, the most rational, ethical and progressive conclusion is to go for those treatments that are associated with the least risks and the lowest costs. This would make exercise the prime contender. But it would definitely exclude spinal manipulation, I am afraid.

And this beautifully concurs with the advice I recently derived from the recent Lancet papers: walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of your preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.

 

The objective of this ‘real world’ study was to evaluate the effectiveness of integrative medicine (IM) on patients with coronary artery disease (CAD) and investigate the prognostic factors of CAD in a real-world setting.

A total of 1,087 hospitalized patients with CAD from 4 hospitals in Beijing, China were consecutively selected between August 2011 and February 2012. The patients were assigned to two groups:

  1. Chinese medicine (CM) plus conventional treatment, i.e., IM therapy (IM group). IM therapy meant that the patients accepted the conventional treatment of Western medicine and the treatment of Chinese herbal medicine including herbal-based injection and Chinese patent medicine as well as decoction for at least 7 days in the hospital or 3 months out of the hospital.
  2. Conventional treatment alone (CT group).

The endpoint was a major cardiac event [MCE; including cardiac death, myocardial infarction (MI), and the need for revascularization].

A total of 1,040 patients finished the 2-year follow-up. Of them, 49.4% received IM therapy. During the 2-year follow-up, the total incidence of MCE was 11.3%. Most of the events involved revascularization (9.3%). Cardiac death/MI occurred in 3.0% of cases. For revascularization, logistic stepwise regression analysis revealed that age ⩾ 65 years [odds ratio (OR), 2.224], MI (OR, 2.561), diabetes mellitus (OR, 1.650), multi-vessel lesions (OR, 2.554), baseline high sensitivity C-reactive protein level ⩾ 3 mg/L (OR, 1.678), and moderate or severe anxiety/depression (OR, 1.849) were negative predictors (P<0.05); while anti-platelet agents (OR, 0.422), β-blockers (OR, 0.626), statins (OR, 0.318), and IM therapy (OR, 0.583) were protective predictors (P<0.05). For cardiac death/MI, age ⩾ 65 years (OR, 6.389) and heart failure (OR, 7.969) were negative predictors (P<0.05), while statin use (OR, 0.323) was a protective predictor (P<0.05) and IM therapy showed a beneficial tendency (OR, 0.587), although the difference was not statistically significant (P=0.218).

The authors concluded that in a real-world setting, for patients with CAD, IM therapy was associated with a decreased incidence of revascularization and showed a potential benefit in reducing the incidence of cardiac death or MI.

What the authors call ‘real world setting’ seems to be a synonym of ‘lousy science’, I fear. I am not aware of good evidence to show that herbal injections and concoctions are effective treatments for CAD, and this study can unfortunately not change this. In the methods section of the paper, we read that the treatment decisions were made by the responsible physicians without restriction. That means the two groups were far from comparable. In their discussion section, the authors state; we found that IM therapy was efficacious in clinical practice. I think that this statement is incorrect. All they have shown is that two groups of patients with similar diagnoses can differ in numerous ways, including clinical outcomes.

The lessons here are simple:

  1. In clinical trials, lack of randomisation (the only method to create reliably comparable groups) often leads to false results.
  2. Flawed research is currently being used by many proponents of  SCAM (so-called alternative medicine) to mislead us about the value of SCAM.
  3. The integration of dubious treatments into routine care does not lead to better outcomes.
  4. Integrative medicine, as currently advocated by SCAM-proponents, is a nonsense.

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have a higher risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Despite good evidence for effectiveness, acupuncture is often advocated for RA, and it has not been reported to prevent CHD in patients with RA.

The authors of this analysis aimed to assess the risk of developing CHD in acupuncture-users and non-users of patients with RA. They identified 29,741 patients with newly diagnosed RA from January 1997 to December 2010 from the Registry of Catastrophic Illness Patients Database from the Taiwanese National Health Insurance Research Database. Among them, 10,199 patients received acupuncture (acupuncture users), and 19,542 patients did not receive acupuncture (no-acupuncture users). After performing 1:1 propensity score matching by sex, age, baseline comorbidity, conventional treatment, initial diagnostic year, and index year, there were 9932 patients in both the acupuncture and no-acupuncture cohorts. The main outcome was the diagnosis of CHD in patients with RA in the acupuncture and no-acupuncture cohorts.

Acupuncture users had a lower incidence of CHD than non-users (adjusted HR = 0.60, 95% CI = 0.55-0.65). The estimated cumulative incidence of CHD was significantly lower in the acupuncture cohort (log-rank test, p < .001). Subgroup analysis showed that patients receiving manual acupuncture of traditional Chinese medicine style, electroacupuncture, or combination of both all had a lower incidence of CHD than patients never receiving acupuncture treatment. The beneficial effect of acupuncture on preventing CHD was independent of age, sex, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and statins use.

The authors concluded that this is the first large-scale study to reveal that acupuncture might have beneficial effect on reducing the risk of CHD in patients with RA. This study may provide useful information for clinical utilization and future studies.

Pigs might fly, but – call me a sceptic – I somehow doubt it almost as much as I doubt that acupuncture might have beneficial effect on reducing the risk of CHD.

Why?

Because of two reasons mainly:

  1. For the life of me, I cannot see a mechanism by which acupuncture achieves this extraordinary feast (the authors allege an anti-inflammatory effect of acupuncture which I find wholly unconvincing).
  2. There is a much simpler explanation for the observed outcomes.

The propensity score used here did, of course, only match the groups for a hand-full of factors. Yet there are many more that could play a part which the authors could not consider because they did not have the data to do so. The one that foremost comes to my mind is a generally healthier life-style of the patients using acupuncture. I think it stands to reason that people who bother to have and pay for an additional treatment are higher motivated to adhere to a life-style (e. g. smoking-cessation, exercise, nutrition, stress) that reduces the CHD-risk. And the influence of this factor could be very significant indeed. As the devil’s advocate, I could therefore even postulate that acupuncture itself had a slightly detrimental effect which, however, was over-ridden by the massive effect of the healthier life-style.

And the lesson to learn from all this?

Before we conclude about ‘beneficial effects’ of acupuncture or any other therapy, we need RCTs that effectively eliminate these rather obvious confounders.

 

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