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

critical thinking

Discussions about the dietary supplements are often far too general to be truly useful, in my view. For a meaningful debate, we need to define what supplement we are talking about and make clear what condition it is used for. A recent paper meets these criteria well and is therefore worth a mention.

The review was aimed at addressing the controversy regarding the optimal intake, and the role of calcium supplements in the treatment and prevention of osteoporosis. The authors demonstrate that most studies on the subject show little evidence of a relationship between calcium intake and bone density, or the rate of bone loss. Re-analysis of data from the placebo group from the Auckland Calcium Study demonstrates no relationship between dietary calcium intake and rate of bone loss over 5 years in healthy older women with intakes varying from <400 to >1500 mg per day .

The authors argue that supplements are therefore not needed within this range of intakes to compensate for a demonstrable dietary deficiency, but might be acting as weak anti-resorptive agents via effects on parathyroid hormone and calcitonin. Consistent with this, supplements do acutely reduce bone resorption and produce small short-term effects on bone density, without evidence of a cumulative density benefit. As a result, anti-fracture efficacy remains unproven, with no evidence to support hip fracture prevention (other than in a cohort with severe vitamin D deficiency) and total fracture numbers are reduced by 0-10%, depending on which meta-analysis is considered. Five recent large studies have failed to demonstrate fracture prevention in their primary analyses.

These facts, the authors argue, must be balanced against the possible harm. The risks of regularly taking calcium supplements include an increase in gastrointestinal side effects (including a doubling of hospital admissions for these problems), a 17% increase in renal calculi and a 20-40% increase in risk of myocardial infarction. Each of these adverse events alone neutralizes any possible benefit in fracture prevention.

The authors draw the following detailed conclusions: “Concern regarding the safety of calcium supplements has led to recommendations that dietary calcium should be the primary source, and supplements reserved only for those who are unable to achieve an adequate dietary intake. The current recommendations for intakes of 1000–1200 mg day−1 are not firmly based on evidence. The longitudinal bone densitometry studies reviewed here, together with the new data included in this review relating to total body calcium, suggest that intakes in women consuming only half these quantities are satisfactory and thus, they do not require additional supplementation. The continuing preoccupation with calcium nutrition has its origin in a period when calcium balance was the only technique available to assess dietary or other therapeutic effects on bone health. We now have persuasive evidence from direct measurements of changes in bone density that calcium balance does not reflect bone balance. Bone balance is determined by the relative activities of bone formation and bone resorption, both of which are cellular processes. The mineralization of newly formed bone utilizes calcium as a substrate, but there is no suggestion that provision of excess substrate has any positive effect on either bone formation or subsequent mineralization.

Based on the evidence reviewed here, it seems sensible to maintain calcium intakes in the region of 500–1000 mg day−1 in older individuals at risk of osteoporosis, but there seems to be little need for calcium supplements except in individuals with major malabsorption problems or substantial abnormalities of calcium metabolism. Because of their formulation, costs and probable safety issues, calcium supplements should be regarded as pharmaceutical agents rather than as part of a standard diet. As such, they do not meet the standard cost–benefit criteria for pharmaceutical use and are not cost-effective. If an individual’s fracture risk is sufficient to require pharmaceutical intervention, then safer and more effective measures are available which have been subjected to rigorous clinical trials and careful cost–benefit analyses. Calcium supplements have very little role to play in the prevention or treatment of osteoporosis.”

Clear and useful words indeed! I wish there were more articles like this in the never-ending discussion about the complex subject of dietary supplements.

A new RCT of Reiki healing has been published by US authors from the following institutions: Union Institute & University, Psychology Program, Brattleboro, VT, Coyote Institute, Augusta and Bangor, ME, Eastern Maine Medical Center and Acadia Hospital, Bangor, ME, University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, Biddeford, ME, Coyote Institute, Orono, ME. The purpose of this study was to determine if 30 minutes of healing touch could reduce burnout in community mental health clinicians.

The authors utilized a crossover design to explore the efficacy of Reiki versus sham Reiki, a pseudo treatment performed by volunteers who had no experience with Reiki and pretended to be healers vis-à-vis the patients. This sham control intervention was designed to mimic true Reiki.

Subjects were randomized to whether they started with Reiki or sham. The Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey (MBI-HSS) and the Measure Your Medical Outcome Profile Version 2 (MYMOP-2) were used as outcome measures. Multilevel modeling was used to represent the relations among variables.

The results showed that real Reiki was significantly better than sham Reiki in reducing burnout among community mental health clinicians. Reiki was significant in reducing depersonalization, but only among single people. Reiki reduced the primary symptom on the MYMOP also only among single people.

The authors concluded that the effects of Reiki were differentiated from sham Reiki. Reiki could be helpful in community mental health settings for the mental health of the practitioners.

My team has published on Reiki (see here and here, for instance), and on this blog I have repeatedly been expressed my doubts that Reiki is more than an elaborate placebo (see here and here, for instance). Do these new results mean that I need to eat my words and henceforth praise the wonders of Reiki? No, I don’t think so!

Having conducted studies on ‘energy healing’ myself, I know only too well of the many pitfalls and possibilities of generating false-positive findings with such research. This new study has many flaws, but we need not look far to find the reason for the surprising and implausible finding. Here is my explanation why this study suggests one placebo to be superior to another placebo.

The researchers had to recruit 16 Reiki healers and several non-Reiki volunteers to perform the interventions on the small group of patients. It goes without saying that the Reiki healers were highly motivated to demonstrate the value of their therapy. This means they (unintentionally?) used verbal and non-verbal communication to maximise the placebo effect of their treatment. The sham healers, of course, lacked such motivation. In my view, this seemingly trivial difference alone is capable of producing the false-positive result above.

There are, of course, ways of minimising the danger of such confounding. In our own study of ‘energy healing’ with sham healers as controls, for instance, we instructed both the healers and the sham healers to abstain from all communication with their patients, we filmed each session to make sure, and we asked each patient to guess which treatment they had received. None of these safeguards were incorporated in the present study – I wonder why!

In the realm of alternative medicine, we encounter many therapeutic claims that beggar belief. This is true for most modalities but perhaps for none more than chiropractic. Many chiropractors still adhere to Palmer’s gospel of the ‘inate’, ‘subluxation’ etc. and thus they believe that their ‘adjustments’ are a cure all. Readers of this blog will know all that, of course, but even they might be surprised by the notion that a chiropractic adjustment improves the voice of a choir singer.

This, however, is precisely the ‘hypothesis’ that was recently submitted to an RCT. To be precise, the study investigated the effect of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) on the singing voice of male individuals.

Twenty-nine subjects were selected among male members of a local choir. Participants were randomly assigned to two groups: (A) a single session of chiropractic SMT and (B) a single session of non-therapeutic transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). Recordings of the singing voice of each participant were taken immediately before and after the procedures. After a 14-day wash-out period, procedures were switched between groups: participants who underwent SMT on the first occasion were now subjected to TENS and vice versa. Recordings were assessed via perceptual audio and acoustic evaluations. The same recording segment of each participant was selected. Perceptual audio evaluation was performed by a specialist panel (SP). Recordings of each participant were randomly presented thus making the SP blind to intervention type and recording session (before/after intervention). Recordings compiled in a randomized order were also subjected to acoustic evaluation.

No differences in the quality of the singing on perceptual audio evaluation were observed between TENS and SMT.

The authors concluded that no differences in the quality of the singing voice of asymptomatic male singers were observed on perceptual audio evaluation or acoustic evaluation after a single spinal manipulative intervention of the thoracic and cervical spine.

Laughable? Yes!

There is nevertheless an important point to be made here, I feel: some claims are just too silly to waste resources on. Or, to put it in more scientific terms, hypotheses require much more than a vague notion or hunch.

To set up, conduct and eventually publish an RCT as above requires expertise, commitment, time and money. All of this is entirely wasted, if the prior probability of a relevant result approaches zero. In the realm of alternative medicine, this is depressingly often the case. In the final analysis, this suggests that all too often research in this area achieves nothing other than giving science a bad name.

NATURAL NEWS announced the death of Nicholas Gonzalez with the following words:

It is with great sadness that we report the death of health freedom advocate and individualized nutrition specialist Dr. Nick Gonzalez, who on the eve of July 21 died from an alleged heart attack. Dr. Gonzalez’ contributions to anticancer nutrition protocols and an array of other nutritional therapies have been invaluable, and we would like to honor this pioneering natural healer by recognizing his benevolent legacy…

In contrast to the conventional cancer treatment model, Dr. Gonzalez’s approach was always about helping individuals heal through individualized care. Along with fellow colleague Dr. Linda Isaacs, Dr. Gonzalez helped build a repository of dietary protocols to help patients overcome their specific conditions through advanced nutritional therapies. His methodology centered around detoxification, supplementation with healing foods and nutrients, and specialized enzyme therapy…

Dr. Gonzalez was always a strong adherent to sound science, and he was never in it for the money. His humble, cogent approach to helping people heal naturally without drugs or surgery is a legacy worth remembering and passing on, and we’re thankful to have gotten to know this honorable man during his time on this earth…

This sounds as though Gonzalez was some kind of medical genius and scientific pioneer. Most cancer experts would disagree very sharply with this. Here is what Louise Lubetkin wrote on this blog about him, and I very much encourage you to read her whole post.

Those who recognize and appreciate a fine example of pseudoscientific baloney when they see one know that there is no richer seam, no more inexhaustible source, than the bustling, huckster-infested street carnival that is alternative medicine. There one can find intellectual swindlers in abundance, all offering outrageously implausible claims with the utmost earnestness and sincerity. But the supreme prize, the Fabergé egg found buried among the bric-a-brac, surely belongs to that most convincing of illusionists, the physician reborn as an ardent advocate of alternative medicine…

So what are we to make of Gonzalez? Is he a cynical fraud or does he genuinely believe that coffee enemas, skin brushing and massive doses of supplements are capable of holding back the tsunami of cancer?

At the end of the day it hardly matters: either way, he’s a dangerous man.

Personally, I believe much more in the text of Louise Lubetkin. How about you?

The press officers of journals like to send out press-releases of articles which are deemed to be particularly good and important. Sadly, it is not often that articles on alternative medicine fulfil these criteria. I was therefore excited to receive this press-release which seemed encouraging, to say the least:

Medical evidence supports the potential for acupuncture to be significantly more effective in the treatment of dermatologic conditions such as dermatitis, pruritus, and urticaria than alternative treatment options, “placebo acupuncture,” or no treatment, according to a review of the medical literature published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a peer-reviewed publication from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers

The abstract was equally promising:

Objectives: Acupuncture is a form of Traditional Chinese Medicine that has been used to treat a broad range of medical conditions, including dermatologic disorders. This systematic review aims to synthesize the evidence on the use of acupuncture as a primary treatment modality for dermatologic conditions.

Methods: A systematic search of MEDLINE, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Central Register was performed. Studies were limited to clinical trials, controlled studies, case reports, comparative studies, and systematic reviews published in the English language. Studies involving moxibustion, electroacupuncture, or blood-letting were excluded.

Results: Twenty-four studies met inclusion criteria. Among these, 16 were randomized controlled trials, 6 were prospective observational studies, and 2 were case reports. Acupuncture was used to treat atopic dermatitis, urticaria, pruritus, acne, chloasma, neurodermatitis, dermatitis herpetiformis, hyperhidrosis, human papillomavirus wart, breast inflammation, and facial elasticity. In 17 of 24 studies, acupuncture showed statistically significant improvements in outcome measurements compared with placebo acupuncture, alternative treatment options, and no intervention.

Conclusions: Acupuncture improves outcome measures in the treatment of dermatitis, chloasma, pruritus, urticaria, hyperhidrosis, and facial elasticity. Future studies should ideally be double-blinded and standardize the control intervention.

One has to read the actual full text article to understand that the evidence presented here is dodgy to the extreme. In fact, one has to go into the tedious details of the methods section to find the reasons why:  All searches were limited to clinical trials, controlled studies, case reports, comparative studies, and systematic reviews published in the English language.

There are many more weaknesses of this review, but the inclusion of uncontrolled studies and even anecdotes is, in my view, a virtual death sentence to its credibility. It means that no general conclusions about the effectiveness of acupuncture, such as the authors have decided to make, are possible.

Such overt exaggerations are sadly no rarities in the realm of alternative medicine.  I think, this begs a number of serious questions:

  1. Does this cross the line between flawed research and scientific misconduct?
  2. Why did the reviewers not pick up these flaws?
  3. Why did the editor pass this article for publication?
  4. How can the publisher tolerate such dubious behaviour?
  5. Should this journal (which I have commented on before here and which is one with the highest impact factor of all the alt med journals) be de-listed from Medline?

I don’t think that we will get answers from the people responsible for this disgrace, but I would like to learn my readers’ opinions.

This post is dedicated to all homeopathic character assassins.

Some ardent homeopathy fans have reminded me that, some 25  years ago, I published (OH, WHAT A SCANDAL!!!) a positive trial of homeopathy; I even found a website that proudly announces this fact. Homeopaths seem jubilant about this discovery (not because they now need to revise their allegations that I never did any trials; or the other, equally popular claim, that I have always been squarely against their trade but) because the implication is that even I have to concede that homeopathic remedies are better than placebo. In their view, this seems to beg the following important and embarrassing questions:

  • Why did I change my mind?
  • Am I not contradicting myself?
  • Who has bribed me?
  • Am I in the pocket of Big Pharma?
  • Does this ‘skeleton in my closet’ discredit me for all times?

I remember the trial in question quite well. We conducted it during my time in Vienna, and I am proud of several innovative ideas that went into it. Here is the abstract in full:

The aim of this study was to test the effectiveness of a combined homeopathic medication in primary varicosity. A well-defined population of 61 patients was randomized into active medication (Poikiven®) or placebo. Both were given for 24 d. At the start of the trial, after 12 d medication and at the end of the study, objective and subjective parameters were recorded: venous filling time, leg volume, calf circumference, haemorheological measurements and patients’ symptoms such as cramps, itching, leg heaviness, pain during standing and the need to elevate the legs. The results show that venous filling time is changed by 44% towards normal in the actively-treated group. The average leg volume fell significantly more in this group, but calf circumferences did not change significantly and blood rheology was not altered in any relevant way. None of the patients reported side-effects. Subjective complaints were relieved significantly more by Poikiven than by placebo. These results suggest that the oral treatment of primary varicosity using Poikiven is feasible.

So, there we have it: a homeopathic remedy (as tested by me) is clearly better than placebo normalising important objective parameters as well as subjective symptoms of varicose veins. Is that not a contradiction of what I keep saying today, namely that homeopathy is a placebo therapy?

YES AND NO! (But much more NO than YES)

Yes, because that was clearly our result, and I never tried to deny it.

No, because our verum was far from being a homeopathic, highly diluted remedy. It contained Aesculus D1 12,5 ml, Arnica D1 2,5 ml, Carduus marianus D1 5 ml, Hamamelis D1 10 ml, Lachesis D6 5 ml, Lycopodium D4 5 ml, Melilotus officinalis D1 10 ml. Take just the first of these ingredients, Aesculus or horse chestnut. This is a herbal medicine that has been well documented (even via a Cochrane review) to be effective for the symptoms of varicose veins, and it contains Aesculus in the D1 potency. This means that it is diluted merely by a factor of 1:10. So, for all intents and purposes, our verum was herbal by nature, and there is no surprise at all that we found it to be effective.

[Here is a little ‘aside’: Aesculus is a proven treatment for varicose veins. Homeopathy must always rely on the ‘like cures like’ principle. Therefore, if Aesculus had been used in the homeopathic way, would it not, according to homeopathic dogma, had to worsen the symptoms of our patients rather than alleviating them?]

All of this would be trivial to the extreme, if it did not touch upon an important and confusing point which is often used as an ‘escape route’ by homeopaths when they find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some trials of homeopathy are positive because they use medications which are homeopathic only by name. This regularly creates considerable confusion. In the recent BMJ debate I tried to address this issue head on by stating at the outset: ” Nobody questions, of course, that some substances used in homeopathy, such as arsenic or strychnine, can be pharmacologically active, but homeopathic medicines are typically far too dilute to have any effect.”

And that’s the point: homeopathic remedies beyond a C12 potency contain nothing, less dilute ones contain little to very little, and D1 potencies are hardy diluted at all and thus contain substantial amounts of active ingredients. Such low potencies are rarely used by homeopaths and should be called PSEUDO-HOMEOPATHIC, in my view. Homeopaths tend to use this confusing complexity to wriggle out of difficult arguments, and often they rely on systematic reviews of homeopathic trials which can generate somewhat confusing overall findings because of such PSEUDO-HOMEOPATHIC remedies.

To make it perfectly clear: the typical homeopathic remedy is far too dilute to have any effect. When scientists or the public at large speak of homeopathic remedies, we don’t mean extracts of Aesculus or potent poisons like Arsenic D1 (has anyone heard of someone claiming to have killed rats with homeopathy?); we refer to the vast majority of remedies which are highly dilute and contain no or very few active molecules – even when we do not explain this somewhat complicated and rather tedious circumstance each and every time. I therefore declare once and for all that, unless I indicate otherwise, I do NOT mean potencies below C6 when I speak of a ‘homeopathic remedy’ (sorry homeopathy fans, perhaps I should have done this when I started this blog).

What if our Vienna study all those years ago had tested not the pseudo-homeopathic ‘Poikiven’ but a highly dilute, real homeopathic remedy and had still come up with a positive finding? Would that make me inconsistent, dishonest, untrustworthy or corrupt? Certainly not!

I have always urged people to not go by the results of single trials. There are numerous reasons why a single study can produce a misleading result. We should therefore, wherever possible, rely on systematic reviews that critically evaluate the totality of the evidence (I would always mistrust even my own trial data, if it contradicted the totality of the reliable evidence) – and such analyses clearly fail to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.

And even, if none of this had happened, and I had just changed my mind about homeopathy because

  • the evidence changed,
  • I had become wiser,
  • I had learnt how to think like a scientist,
  • I had managed to see behind the smokescreen many homeopaths put up to hide the truth?

Would that discredit me? I don’t think so! As someone once said, being able to change one’s mind is a sign of intelligence.

I am sure that the weird world of homeopathic character assassination will soon find something else to discredit me – but for now…

I REST MY CASE.

Chiropractors are back pain specialists, they say. They do not pretend to treat non-spinal conditions, they claim.

If such notions were true, why are so many of them still misleading the public? Why do many chiropractors pretend to be primary care physicians who can take care of most illnesses regardless of any connection with the spine? Why do they continue to happily promote bogus treatments? Why do chiropractors, for instance, claim they can treat gastrointestinal diseases?

This recent narrative review of the literature, for example, was aimed at summarising studies describing the management of disorders of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract using ‘chiropractic therapy’ broadly defined here as spinal manipulation therapy, mobilizations, soft tissue therapy, modalities and stretches.

Twenty-one articles were found through searching the published literature to meet the authors’ inclusion criteria. The retrieved articles included case reports to clinical trials to review articles. The majority of articles chronicling patient experiences under chiropractic care reported that they experienced mild to moderate improvements in GI symptoms. No adverse effects were reported.

From this, the authors concluded that chiropractic care can be considered as an adjunctive therapy for patients with various GI conditions providing there are no co-morbidities.

I think, we would need to look for a long time to find an article with conclusions that are more ridiculous, false and unethical than these.

The old adage applies: rubbish in, rubbish out. If we include unreliable reports such as anecdotes, our finding will be unreliable as well. If we do not make this mistake and conduct a proper systematic review, we will arrive at very different conclusions. My own systematic review, for instance, of controlled clinical trials drew the following conclusion: There is no supportive evidence that chiropractic is an effective treatment for gastrointestinal disorders.

That probably says it all. I only want to add a short question: SHOULD THIS LATEST CHIROPRACTIC ATTEMPT TO MISLEAD THE PUBLIC BE CONSIDERED ‘SCIENTIFIC MISCONDUCT’ OR ‘FRAUD’?

The BMJ is my favourite medical journal by far; I think it is full of good science as well as entertaining to read, and I look forward to finding it in my letter box every Friday. It is thus hard for me to criticise the BMJ, and this is not made easier by the fact that I am the author of one of the two pieces in question. However, the current ‘HEAD TO HEAD’ entitled ‘SHOULD DOCTORS RECOMMEND HOMEOPATHY’ does, in my view, not mark the finest hour of this journal. Let me explain why.

The first question that arises is whether homeopathy is a good subject for such a debate. As several commentators have pointed out, it is not – the debate has long been closed; to serious scientists and many doctors, homeopathy tends to be a subject that is nothing more than an odd, obsolete triviality that does not even deserve a mention in the BMJ or any other serious publication. In a way, this notion has almost been proven wrong by the high level of interest the subject quickly generated. So, I will not dwell on this point any longer.

The second issue that arises just from nothing more than merely reading the title of the debate is that the question posed is imprecise. ‘Homeopathy’ is too broad a term for a focussed discussion; it includes amongst other phenomena empathetic encounters, remedies with material doses of highly active ingredients (e.g. Arsenic D1) and remedies that contain absolutely nothing at all (any ‘potency’ beyond C12). In my piece, I tried to make it clear that I speak mostly about ultra-molecular dilutions. This is less obvious in Peter Fisher’s article, and there is doubtlessly a lot of confusion in the debate as well as the comments that follow.

The two articles had to be written without either author knowing the text of the other. Consequently the issues raised by one author were not necessarily addressed by the other. This is somewhat frustrating, as it fails to clarify issues that could easily have been dealt with. In a previous post, I have already explained that the peer-review process of the two articles was seriously flawed. It failed to correct the many misleading statements in Fisher’s piece, as Alan Henness has pointed out in his response both in the BMJ and on this blog. In fact, reading Fisher’s article, I fail to find a single passage that is not factually wrong or highly misleading (the accompanying podcast is even worse, in my view). To me it is obvious that the debate about homeopathy cannot advance, if one side continues to behave in this fashion.

Homeopaths are very adept at recruiting ‘grass roots’ for public relation activities. We know this from various previous experiences. It was therefore predictable that this would swiftly get organised also in this instance. I happen to know from more than one source that there was a highly active campaign by homeopaths trying to persuade their supporters to post responses on the BMJ site and to vote on the BMJ straw poll (scientists, by contrast, know that such polls are silly gadgets and tend to view homeopathy as a triviality that is not worth the effort). In this way, they try to generate the impression that the majority of the public stands firmly behind homeopathy and want doctors to recommend it. It does not need too much to realise that popularity is not a measure of efficacy. Homeopaths, however, tend to relish logical fallacies and therefore will rejoice at such nonsense and celebrate it as their very own victory.

So, was this ‘HEAD TO HEAD’ a mistake? Should I have refused to participate? With hindsight, perhaps. My main reason for accepting was that, had I declined the offer, someone else would have written the piece (there are plenty of excellent scientists who could do an excellent job at this). As sure as hell, that person would subsequently gotten attacked for not ever having researched and/or practiced homeopathy (in the podcast, Fisher even tried to undermine my authority by pointing out that 1) I have not worked as a clinician for decades and 2) I have no NHS contract). I think I may be one of the few critics of homeopathy who cannot possibly be accused of not knowing enough about homeopathy to discuss the subject.

My hope is that, because the BMJ is such an excellent journal, the two articles will survive the current hoo-hah and some people will read them carefully, look up and study the references, analyse all this critically and weigh the arguments responsibly. Then they must be able to discern the fiction from the facts. And in this case, perhaps it was worth it after all.

The ‘Homeopathy Action Trust’ (HAT) is a charity that claims to encourage and support public understanding of homeopathy. They believe that homeopathy is invaluable to many people and plays an important role in maintaining their health and wellbeing. The HAT advocates that patients have a right to choose homeopathic treatments and access to it on the NHS or privately. Many of HAT’s projects are about promoting to use of homeopathy in Africa, for instance, where they advocate homeopathy as a treatment for all sorts of serious diseases.

Recently HAT embarked on another project: a campaign against the current Wiki-page on homeopathy which HAT believes to be biased against homeopathy. Thus they issued a ‘position statement’ on their website. Here is a short paragraph from that statement which I find worthy of a comment (the numbers were inserted by me and refer to my comments below; otherwise the text in bold is by HAT):

We acknowledge that the scientific evidence in support of Homeopathy remains inconclusive (1), but it is by no means definitively negative (2) and there is in fact an active and growing field of research worldwide (3). We acknowledge that the mechanism of action of homeopathic remedies is unknown (4) – as it is for some conventional medicines – but this does not preclude their usage in clinical situations (5). We welcome honest and open-minded debate (6) about Homeopathy and fully support the call for high quality (7), appropriately designed research studies (8) into the effectiveness of homeopathy as it is practised by both medical and professional homeopaths (9).

  1. The evidence is not ‘inconclusive’ but the most reliable evidence fails to convincingly show efficacy (see here, for instance).
  2. In healthcare, we do not focus on the question whether the evidence for anything is ‘definitely negative’, but we base our decisions on the question whether or not the evidence is positive. In other words, we use those treatments that are backed up with positive evidence and not those where this is in serious doubt.
  3. The research activity in homeopathy has been in decline for some time; this can easily be verified by searching Medline.
  4. No, we know that there cannot be a mechanism of action that is in line with the laws of nature.
  5. If such therapies are used in conventional healthcare, it is because they are (contrary to homeopathy) supported by sufficiently strong clinical evidence.
  6. So far, this ‘position statement’ is neither honest nor open-minded, in my view.
  7. More research seems unnecessary, perhaps even unethical, and most research in this area is not of high quality.
  8. ‘Appropriately designed’ sounds frightfully suspicious to me, because homeopaths tend to see any trial that fails to confirm their bizarre notions as ‘not appropriately designed’.
  9. ‘Professional homeopath’ is a term designed to mislead the public; lay homeopaths would be more to the point, I think.

Placebo effects are important and often misunderstood. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in the realm of alternative medicine. Here they are often used to justify bogus treatments with the argument ‘I DON’T CARE HOW IT WORKS AS LONG AS IT DOES HELP PATIENTS, EVEN IF THIS SHOULD BE VIA A PLACEBO EFFECT’.

A recent article published in the prestigious NEJM sheds some light on these issues – all the more so, as one of its authors has a background as an advocate of alternative medicine. Here are a few passages from this paper which I think are particularly relevant:

… placebo effects are improvements in patients’ symptoms that are attributable to their participation in the therapeutic encounter, with its rituals, symbols, and interactions. These effects are distinct from those of discrete therapies and are precipitated by the contextual or environmental cues that surround medical interventions, both those that are fake and lacking in inherent therapeutic power and those with demonstrated efficacy…

So what have we learned about placebo effects to date, and what does our current understanding say about medicine?

First, though placebos may provide relief, they rarely cure. Although research has revealed objective neurobiologic pathways and correlates of placebo responses, the evidence to date suggests that the therapeutic benefits associated with placebo effects do not alter the pathophysiology of diseases beyond their symptomatic manifestations; they primarily address subjective and self-appraised symptoms…

Second, placebo effects are not just about dummy pills: the effects of symbols and clinician interactions can dramatically enhance the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals…

Third, the psychosocial factors that promote therapeutic placebo effects also have the potential to cause adverse consequences, known as nocebo effects. Not infrequently, patients perceive side effects of medications that are actually caused by anticipation of negative effects or heightened attentiveness to normal background discomforts of daily life in the context of a new therapeutic regimen…

… research on placebo effects can help explain mechanistically how clinicians can be therapeutic agents in the ways they relate to their patients in connection with, and separate from, providing effective treatment interventions. Of course, placebo effects are modest as compared with the impressive results achieved by lifesaving surgery and powerful, well-targeted medications. Yet we believe such effects are at the core of what makes medicine a healing profession.

So what about the claim that it is fine to use homeopathy, for instance, because it might help via a placebo effect? There are several reasons why this is not a good idea some of which are hinted at in the above article:

  1. placebo effects are not usually powerful,
  2. they are not normally long-lasting,
  3. they are not reliable,
  4. they are merely symptomatic,
  5. they are not always risk-free,
  6. they usually require deceiving patients, and that is not ethical,
  7. pretending that a bogus treatment is alright can undermine rationality in general,
  8. happily using bogus treatments because they generate placebo effects is a disincentive to find effective treatments,
  9. we do not need a placebo to generate placebo effects because any empathetic therapeutic encounter will do that too.

My conclusion is deliberately flippant and provocative: PLACEBO EFFECTS ARE TOO IMPORTANT TO LEAVE THEM TO QUACKS AND CHARLATANS.

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