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

diagnostic method

In the US, the scope of practice of health care professionals is a matter for each state to decide. Only the one of doctors is regulated nationwide. Other health care professions’ scope of practice can vary considerably within the US. This means that a chiropractor in one state of the US might be allowed to do more (or less) than in the next state. But what exactly are US chiropractors legally allowed to do?

A recent paper was aimed at answering this very question. Its authors assessed the current status of chiropractic practice laws in the US.

A cross-sectional survey of licensure officials from the Federation of Chiropractic Licensing Boards e-mail list was conducted in 2011 requesting information about chiropractic practice laws and 97 diagnostic, evaluation, and management procedures. To evaluate content validity, the survey was distributed in draft form at the fall 2010 Federation of Chiropractic Licensing Boards regional meeting to regulatory board members and feedback was requested. Comments were reviewed and incorporated into the final survey.

Partial or complete responses were received from 96% (n = 51) of the jurisdictions. The states with the highest number of services that could be performed were Missouri (n = 92), New Mexico (n = 91), Kansas (n = 89), Utah (n = 89), Oklahoma (n = 88), Illinois (n = 87), and Alabama (n = 86). The states with the highest number of services that cannot be performed are New Hampshire (n = 49), Hawaii (n = 47), Michigan (n = 42), New Jersey (n = 39), Mississippi (n = 39), and Texas (n = 30).

The authors conclude that the scope of chiropractic practice in the United States has a high degree of variability. Scope of practice is dynamic, and gray areas are subject to interpretation by ever-changing board members. Although statutes may not address specific procedures, upon challenge, there may be a possibility of sanctions depending on interpretation.

For me, the most surprising aspect of this article was to realise how many ‘non-chiropractic’ activities chiropractors are legally permitted in some US states. Here are some of the items that amazed me most:

  • birth certificates
  • death certificates
  • premarital certificates
  • recto-vaginal exam
  • venepuncture
  • i.v. injections
  • prostatic exam
  • genital exam
  • homeopathy
  • ear irrigation
  • colonic irrigation
  • oral and i.v. chelation therapy
  • obstetrics
  • hypnotherapy
  • acupuncture
  • hyperbaric chamber

I have to admit that I did not even know what a PREMARITAL CERTIFICATE’ is; so I looked it up. The first one I found on the internet was entitled “PURITY  COVENANT” and committed the couple “to abstain from fornication and remain sincere to the Lord Jesus Christ and to each other”

I have to further admit that many other of the items on this list leave me equally speechless. For example, how can chiropractors with their training focussed on the musculoskeletal system responsibly complete a death certificate? Why are they allowed in some states to examine the genitalia of their patients?

I suspect the perceived need of chiropractors to do all these things must be closely related to their long-standing ambition to become primary care physicians. Just to be clear: a primary care physician is a physician who provides both the first contact for a person with an undiagnosed health concern as well as continuing care of varied medical conditions, not limited by cause, organ system, or diagnosis.  I have always been more than just a bit perplexed how chiropractors, who state that they are musculoskeletal specialists, might even consider being competent primary care providers.

But regardless of common sense, they do! The US ‘Council of Chiropractic Education’ accreditation process, for instance, requires schools to educate and train students to become a “competent doctor of chiropractic who will provide quality patient care and serve as a primary care physician” and the chiro-literature is awash with statements such as this one: “The primary care chiropractic physician is a viable and important part of the primary health care delivery system, with many chiropractic physicians currently prepared to participate effectively and competently in primary care.” Moreover, the phenomenon is by no means limited to the US: “chiropractors in the UK view their role as one of a primary contact healthcare practitioner and that this view is held irrespective of the country in which they were educated or the length of time in practice.”

As far as I am concerned, chiropractors might view their role as whatever they want. The fact is that, even if they add many more items to the list of their ‘services’, they are very far from being competent primary care physicians. Being able to provide the first contact as well as continuous care of medical conditions, not limited by cause, organ system, or diagnosis is not a matter of wishful thinking.

When we consult a health care provider because we feel unwell, the first step invariably is to arrive at a diagnosis. Sometimes this is fairly obvious but often it is not. Typically the health care provider will do a few tests to aid the process. This may involve doing some physical examinations, or taking a blood sample, or ordering some high tech investigation, like a scan, for instance.

All these tests have to fulfil certain criteria to be valid. The most basic of these is that repeated tests should produce roughly the same result. If not, the test is not reproducible, i.e. it is not better than pure guess-work.

Alternative practitioners often use diagnostic tests that are unknown in conventional medicine. But this fact does not mean that these test do not need to be as valid as any other test used in medicine. If the alternative tests are not reproducible, the diagnosis of the alternative practitioner is likely to be pure invention. And if the diagnosis is just a figment of imagination, the treatment aimed at curing it will be nonsense as well.

So, how reliable are those tests used by alternative practitioners? Amazingly, this fundamental question has attracted very little research. I have repeatedly investigated this area and found that, generally speaking, alternative diagnostic techniques are bogus. And because there is so little research, every new trial of alternative diagnostic methods is important.

A brand-new study assessed the inter-rater reliability of Ayurvedic pulse (nadi), tongue (jivha), and body constitution (prakriti) assessments. Fifteen registered Ayurvedic practitioners with 3-15 years of experience independently examined 20 healthy subjects. Subjects completed self-assessment questionnaires and software analyses for prakriti assessment. Weighted kappa statistics for all 105 pairs of practitioners were computed for the pulse, tongue, and prakriti data sets.

These pairwise kappas ranged from poor to slight, slight to fair, and fair to moderate for pulse, tongue, and prakriti assessments respectively. The average pairwise kappas for pulse, tongue, and prakriti were 0.07, 0.17, and 0.28, respectively. For each data set and pair of practitioners, the null hypothesis of random rating was rejected for just 12 pairs of practitioners for prakriti, one pair of practitioner for pulse examination, and no pairs of practitioner for tongue assessment.

The authors of this investigation conclude that  the results demonstrate a low level of reliability for all types of assessment made by doctors.

This is worrying, I think. It is comparable to a situation where you go to see your GP and he measures your blood pressure, or weight, or cholesterol, or any other parameter with a test that produces a different result each time someone tries to repeat it. Your blood pressure could be 160/90 when measured with this fictionally unreliable test and 110/ 60 when repeated two minutes later by the practice nurse, for instance. Any treatment based on such random numbers would be idiotic…and so, it seems, is any Ayurvedic treatment based on the pulse (nadi), tongue (jivha), and body constitution (prakriti).

I regularly used to ask alternative practitioners what diseases they are good at treating. In fact, we once ran an entire research project dedicated to this question and found that their own impressions were generally based on wishful thinking rather than on evidence. The libel case of the BCA versus Simon Singh then brought this issue into the focus of the public eye, and consequently several professional organisations of alternative practitioners seem to have advised their members to be cautious about making unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. This could have been an important step into the right direction – unless, of course, a clever trick had not been devised to bypass the need for evidence. Today, when I ask alternative practitioners ‘what do you treat effectively?’ I tend to get answers like:

  • Alternative practitioners, unlike conventional clinicians, do not treat diseases.
  • I treat the whole person, not just the disease.
  • I treat people and their specific set of signs and symptoms, rather than disease labels (this actually is a quote from the comments section of one of my recent posts).
  • I focus on the totality of the symptoms; disease labels are irrelevant in the realm of my therapy.
  • Chiropractors adjust subluxations which are the root cause for most diseases.
  • Acupuncturists re-balance life energies which is a precondition for healing to commence irrespective of the disease.
  • Homeopaths treat the totality of symptoms so that the patient’s vital force can do the healing.
  • etc. etc.

All of these statements are deeply rooted in the long obsolete notions of vitalism, i.e. the assumption that a vital energy flows in all living organisms and is responsible for our health irrespective of the disease we happen to suffer from. But what do the answers to my question ‘what do you treat?’ really mean? If we analyse the above responses critically, they seem to imply that:

  1. Conventional clinicians do not treat patients but merely disease labels.
  2. Alternative practitioners can successfully treat any disease or condition.

Ad 1 In my view, it is arrogant and grossly unfair to claim that alternative practitioners work holistically, while conventional health care professionals do not. I have pointed out repeatedly that any good medicine always has been and always will be holistic. High-jacking holism as a specific characteristic for alternative medicine is misleading and an insult to all conventional clinicians who do their best to practice good medicine.

Ad 2 By claiming that they treat the whole person irrespective of her disease, alternative practitioners effectively try to give themselves a ‘carte blanche’ for treating any disease or any condition or any symptom. If a child has asthma, a chiropractor will find a subluxation, adjust it with spinal manipulation, and claim that the child’s condition will improve as a consequence of his treatment – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a person wants to give up smoking, an acupuncturist will use acupuncture to re-balance her yin and yang claiming that this intervention will make smoking cessation more successful – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE. If a patient suffers from cancer, a homeopath might find a remedy that promotes her vital energy claiming that the cancer will subsequently be cured – NEVER MIND THE EVIDENCE which in all of the three cases is negative.

The claim of alternative practitioners to not treat disease labels but the whole patient is doubtlessly attractive to consumers and it is also extremely good for business. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be a distraction from the fact that alternative practitioners treat everything and anything, usually without the slightest evidence that their interventions generates more good than harm. It allows alternative practitioners to live in a fool’s paradise of quackery where they believe themselves to be protected from any challenges and demands for evidence.

Researchers from the ‘Complementary and Integrative Medicine Research, Primary Medical Care, University of Southampton’ conducted a study of Professional Kinesiology Practice (PKP) What? Yes, PKP! This is a not widely known alternative method.

According to its proponents, it is unique and a complete kinesiology system… It was developed by a medical doctor, Dr Bruce Dewe and his wife Joan Dewe in the 1980s and has been taught since then in over 16 countries around the world with great success… Kinesiology is a unique and truly holistic science and on the cutting edge of energy medicine. It uses muscle monitoring as a biofeedback system to identify the underlying cause of blockage from the person’s subconscious mind via the nervous system. Muscle monitoring is used to access information from the person’s “biocomputer”, the brain, in relation to the problem or issue and also guides the practitioner to find the priority correction in order to stimulate the person’s innate healing capacity and support their physiology to return to normal function. Kinesiology is unique as it looks beyond symptoms. It recognizes the flows of energy within the body not only relate to the muscles but to every tissue and organ that make the human body a living ever changing organism. These energy flows can be evaluated by testing the function of the muscles, which in turn reflect the body’s overall state of structural, chemical, emotional and spiritual balance. In this way kinesiology taps into energies that the more conventional modalities overlook and helps remove all the guesswork, doubt and hard work of subjective diagnostics. This is a revolutionary way to communicate with the body/mind connection. Through muscle monitoring and the use of over 300 fingermodes we can detect and correct the cause of the problem and effect a long lasting change for better health and wellbeing. Our posture could be considered to be the visual display unit from our internal bio-computer. Our posture / life energy improves as we upgrade the way we respond to life’s constant challenges and demands.

You do not understand? Let me make it crystal clear by citing another PKP-site:

PKP is a phenomenological practice – this means practitioners use manual muscle testing to demonstrate to the client how much or how little they are able to move in relation to their problem. PKP practitioners have tests for more than 100 muscles, and dozens of other tests that they do so they can clearly show you how your movement is affected by your problem. This muscle story shows a person how their life is unfolding, and it also helps to guide on how to transcend the situation and design a future which is more in alignment with nature and the laws of the cosmos… PKP is about living life more wisely.

In case you still have not understood what PKP is, you might have to watch this youtube clip. And now that everyone knows what it is, let us have a look at the new study.

According to its authors, it was an exploratory, pragmatic single-blind, 3-arm randomised sham-controlled pilot trial with waiting list control (WLC) which was conducted in the setting of a UK private practice. Seventy participants scoring ≥4 on the Roland and Morris Disability Questionnaire (RMDQ) were randomised to real or sham PKP receiving one treatment weekly for 5 weeks or a WLC. WLC’s were re-randomised to real or sham after 6 weeks. The main outcome measure was a change in RMDQ from baseline to end of 5 weeks of real or sham PKP.

The results show an effect size of 0.7 for real PKP which was significantly different to sham. Compared to WLC, both real and sham groups had significant RMDQ improvements. Practitioner empathy (CARE) and patient enablement (PEI) did not predict outcome; holistic health beliefs (CAMBI) did, though. The sham treatment appeared credible; patients did not guess treatment allocation. Three patients reported minor adverse reactions.

From these data, the authors conclude that real treatment was significantly different from sham demonstrating a moderate specific effect of PKP; both were better than WLC indicating a substantial non-specific and contextual treatment effect. A larger definitive study would be appropriate with nested qualitative work to help understand the mechanisms involved in PKP.

So, PKP has a small specific effect in addition to generating a sizable placebo-effect? Somehow, I doubt it! This was, according to its authors, a pilot study. Such an investigation should not evaluate the effectiveness of a treatment but the feasibility of the protocol. Even if we disregard this detail, I assume that the results indicate the effects of PKP to be essentially due to placebo. The small effect which the authors label as “specific” is, in my view, almost certainly caused by residual confounding and hidden biases.

One could also go one step further and say that any treatment that is shrouded in pseudo-scientific language and has zero plausibility is an ill-conceived candidate for a clinical trial of this nature. If it should be tested at all – and thus cost money, effort and patient-participation – a rigorous study should be designed and conducted not by apologists of the intervention but by more level-headed scientists.

Ignaz von Peczely (1826-1911), a Hungarian physician, got the idea for iridology (or iris-diagnosis) more than a century ago, after seeing streaks in the iris of a man he was treating for a broken leg, and similar phenomena the iris of an owl whose leg von Peczely had broken many years before. He subsequently became convinced that his method was able to distinguish between healthy organs and those that are overactive, inflamed, or distressed. Iridology became internationally known when US chiropractors began adopting this method in their clinical practice. In the United States, most insurance programs do not cover iridology but, in some European countries, they often do. In Germany, for instance, 80% of the Heilpraktiker (non-medically qualified health practitioners) practice iridology.

Iridologists claim to be able to diagnose the health status of an individual, medical conditions or predispositions to disease through abnormalities of pigmentation in the iris. The popularity of iridology renders it necessary to ask whether this method is valid.

The aim of my systematically review from 1999 was to critically evaluate all available, reliable tests of iridology as a diagnostic tool. Four case control studies were included; these are investigations where iridologists are asked to tell by looking at the iris of individuals whether that person does or does not have a certain condition. The majority of these studies suggested that iridology is not a valid diagnostic method. Back then, I concluded that “the validity of iridology as a diagnostic tool is not supported by scientific evaluations. Patients and therapists should be discouraged from using this method.”

Since the publication of my article, several further studies have emerged:

One German team conducted a study investigating the applicability of iridology as a screening method for colorectal cancer. Digital color slides were obtained from both eyes of 29 patients with histologically diagnosed colorectal cancer and from 29 age- and gender-matched healthy control subjects. The slides were presented in random order to acknowledged iridologists without knowledge of the number of patients in the two categories. The iridologists correctly detected 51.7% and 53.4%, respectively, of the patients’ slides; therefore, the likelihood was statistically no better than chance. Sensitivity was, respectively, 58.6% and 55.2%, and specificity was 44.8% and 51.7%. The authors’ conclusion was blunt: “Iridology had no validity as a diagnostic tool for detecting colorectal cancer in this study.”

A study from South Africa aimed to determine the efficacy of iridology in the identification of moderate to profound sensorineural hearing loss in adolescents. A controlled trial was conducted with an iridologist, blind to the actual hearing status of participants, analysing the irises of participants with and without hearing loss. Fifty hearing impaired and fifty normal hearing subjects, between the ages of 15 and 19 years, controlled for gender, participated in the study. An experienced iridologist analysed the randomised set of participants’ irises. A 70% correct identification of hearing status was obtained with a false negative rate of 41% compared to a 19% false positive rate. The respective sensitivity and specificity rates therefore were 59% and 81%. The authors of this investigation concluded that “iridological analysis of hearing status indicated a statistically significant relationship to actual hearing status (P < 0.05). Although statistically significant sensitivity and specificity rates for identifying hearing loss by iridology were not comparable to those of traditional audiological screening procedures.”

A further German study investigated the value of iridology as a diagnostic tool in detecting some common cancers. One hundred ten subjects were enrolled; 68 subjects had histologically proven cancers of the breast, ovary, uterus, prostate, or colorectum, and 42 were cancer-free controls. All subjects were examined by an experienced practitioner of iridology, who was unaware of their medical details. He was allowed to suggest up to five diagnoses for each subject and his results were then compared with each subject’s medical diagnosis to determine the accuracy of iridology in detecting malignancy. Iridology identified the correct diagnosis in only 3 cases (sensitivity, 0.04). The authors concluded that “iridology was of no value in diagnosing the cancers investigated in this study.”

Based on these results it is impossible, I think, to claim that iridology is a valid or useful diagnostic tool. As there is no anatomical or physiological basis for its assumptions, iridology is not biologically plausible. Furthermore, the available clinical evidence does not support its validity as a diagnostic tool. In other words, iridology is bogus. This statement is in sharp contract to the information consumers receive about the method on uncounted websites, books, articles, etc. One website picked at random provides the following information:

The iris reveals changing conditions of every part and organ of the body. Every organ and part of the body is represented in the iris in a well defined area. In addition, through various marks, signs, and discoloration in the iris, nature reveals inherited weaknesses and strengths.

By means of this art / science, an iridologist (one who studies the coloration and fiber structure of the eye) can tell an individual his/her inherited and acquired tendencies towards health and disease, his current condition in general, and the state of every organ in particular.

Iridology cannot detect a specific disease, but, can tell an individual if they have over or under activity in specific areas of the body. For example, an under-active pancreas might indicate a diabetic condition.

Another source claims:

The underlying platform of iridology is that that eyes act as a ‘window’ to a person’s health & well being. This ‘window’ enables the practitioner to see whether areas or organs within the body are healthy, inflamed or ‘over active’. It also enables them to assess a person’s past/ possible future health problems & consider if the patient has a susceptibility to certain diseases. It is important to understand that iridology is simply a method of diagnosis & analysis.

You may well think that none of this really matters. Who cares whether iridology is bogus or not! I would argue that it does matter. Bogus methods cost money that could be better spent elsewhere. More importantly, false positive and false negative diagnoses generated by bogus diagnostic methods can put lives at risk.

But there is a more general and perhaps more crucial point here: alternative medicine is an area where people far too easily get away with ignoring the published evidence and scientific consensus. In the last two decades, I have seen many alternative modalities getting scientifically dis-proven; not in a single such instance can I remember that the corresponding alternative practitioners and their professional organisations took any notice of this fact, and not once did I notice that their practice had changed.

If research is  systematically ignored, it becomes a useless appendix. More importantly, progress is then stifled to the detriment of all our best interests.

Whenever we consider alternative medicine, we think of therapeutic interventions and tend to forget that alternative practitioners frequently employ diagnostic methods which are alien to mainstream health care. Acupuncturists, iridologists, spiritual healers, massage therapists, reflexologists, applied kinesiologists, homeopaths, chiropractors, osteopaths and many other types of alternative practitioners all have their very own ways of diagnosing what might be wrong  with their patients.

The purpose of a diagnostic test or technique is, of course, to establish the presence or absence of an abnormality, condition or disease. Conventional doctors use all sorts of validated diagnostic methods, from physical examination to laboratory tests, from blood pressure measurements to X-rays. Alternative practitioners use mostly alternative methods for arriving at a diagnosis, and we should ask: how reliable are these techniques?

Anyone trying to answer this question, will be surprised to find how very little reliable information on this topic exists. Scientific tests of the validity of alternative diagnostic tests are a bit like gold dust. And this is why a recently published article is, in my view, of particular importance and value.

The aim of this study was to evaluate the inter-rater reliability of pulse-diagnosis as performed by Traditional Korean Medicine (TKM) clinicians. A total 658 patients with stroke who were admitted into Korean oriental medical university hospitals were included. Each patient was seen by two TKM-experts for an examination of the pulse signs – pulse diagnosis is regularly used by practitioners of TKM and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and is entirely different from what conventional doctors do when they feel the pulse of a patient. Inter-observer reliability was assessed using three methods: simple percentage agreement, the kappa value, and the AC(1) statistic. The kappa value indicated that the inter-observer reliability in evaluating the pulse signs ranged from poor to moderate, whereas the AC(1) analysis suggested that agreement between the two experts was generally high (with the exception of ‘slippery pulse’). The kappa value indicated that the inter-observer reliability was generally moderate to good (with the exceptions of ‘rough pulse’ and ‘sunken pulse’) and that the AC(1) measure of agreement between the two experts was generally high.

Based on these findings, the authors drew the following conclusion: “Pulse diagnosis is regarded as one of the most important procedures in TKM… This study reveals that the inter-observer reliability in making a pulse diagnosis in stroke patients is not particularly high when objectively quantified. Additional research is needed to help reduce this lack of reliability for various portions of the pulse diagnosis.”

This indicates, I think, that the researchers (who are themselves practitioners of TCM!) are not impressed with the inter-rater reliability of the most commonly used diagnostic tool in TCM/TKM. Imagine this to be true for a commonly used test in conventional medicine; imagine, for instance, that one doctor measuring your blood pressure produces entirely different readings than the next one. Hardly acceptable, don’t you think?

And, of course, inter-rater reliability would be only one of several preconditions for their diagnostic methods to be valid. Other essential preconditions for diagnostic tests to be of value are their specificity and their sensitivity; do they discriminate between healthy and unhealthy, and are they capable of differentiating between severely abnormal findings and those that are just a little out of the normal range?

Until we have answers to all the open questions about each specific alternative diagnostic method, it would be unwise to pretend these tests are valid. Imagine a doctor prescribing a life-long anti-hypertensive therapy on the basis of a blood pressure reading that is little more than guess-work!

Since non-validated diagnostic tests can generate both false positive and false negative results, the danger of using them should not be under-estimated. In a way, invalid diagnostic tests are akin to bogus bomb-detectors (which made headlines recently): both are techniques to identify a problem. If the method generates a false positive result, an alert will be issued in vain, people will get anxious for nothing, time and money will be lost, etc. If the method generates a false negative result, we will assume to be safe while, in fact, we are not. In extreme cases, such an error will cost lives.

It is difficult to call those ‘experts’ who advocate using such tests anything else than irresponsible, I’d say. And it is even more difficult to have any confidence in the treatments that might be administered on the basis of such diagnostic methods, wouldn’t you agree?

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