The notion that ‘chiropractic adds years to your life’ is often touted, particularly of course by chiropractors (in case you doubt it, please do a quick google search). It is logical to assume that chiropractors themselves are the best informed about what they perceive as the health benefits of chiropractic care. Chiropractors would therefore be most likely to receive some level of this ‘life-prolonging’ chiropractic care on a long-term basis. If that is so, then chiropractors themselves should demonstrate longer life spans than the general population.
Perhaps, but is the theory supported by evidence?
Back in 2004, a chiropractor, Lon Morgan, courageously tried to test the theory and published an interesting paper about it.
He used two separate data sources to examine the mortality rates of chiropractors. One source used obituary notices from past issues of Dynamic Chiropractic from 1990 to mid-2003. The second source used biographies from Who Was Who in Chiropractic – A Necrology covering a ten year period from 1969-1979. The two sources yielded a mean age at death for chiropractors of 73.4 and 74.2 years respectively. The mean ages at death of chiropractors is below the national average of 76.9 years; it also is below the average age at death of their medical doctor counterparts which, at the time, was 81.5.
So, one might be tempted to conclude that ‘chiropractic substracts years from your life’. I know, this would be not very scientific – but it would probably be more evidence-based than the marketing gimmick of so many chiropractors trying to promote their trade by saying: ‘chiropractic adds years to your life’!
In any case, Morgan, the author of the paper, concluded that this paper assumes chiropractors should, more than any other group, be able to demonstrate the health and longevity benefits of chiropractic care. The chiropractic mortality data presented in this study, while limited, do not support the notion that chiropractic care “Adds Years to Life …”, and it fact shows male chiropractors have shorter life spans than their medical doctor counterparts and even the general male population. Further study is recommended to discover what factors might contribute to lowered chiropractic longevity.
Another beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact!
The German Association of Medical Homeopaths (Deutscher Zentralverein homöopathischer Ärzte (DZVhÄ)) have recently published an article where, amongst other things, they lecture us about evidence-based medicine (EBM). If you feel that this might be a bit like an elephant teaching Fred Astaire how to step-dance, you could have a point. Here is their relevant paragraph:
… das Konzept der modernen Evidenzbasierte Medizin nach Sackett [stützt sich] auf drei Säulen: auf die klinischen Erfahrung der Ärzte, auf die Werte und Wünsche des Patienten und auf den aktuellen Stand der klinischen Forschung. Homöopathische Ärzte wehren sich gegen einen verengten Evidenzbegriff der Kritiker, der Evidenz allein auf die Säule der klinischen Forschung bzw. ausschließlich auf RCT verengen möchte und die anderen beiden Säulen ausblendet. Experten schätzen, dass bei einer solchen Auffassung von EbM rund 70 Prozent aller Leistungen der GKV nicht evidenzbasiert sei. Nötiger als eine Homöopathie-Debatte hat die deutsche Ärzteschaft aus unserer Sicht eine klare Verständigung darüber, welcher Evidenzbegriff nun gilt.
For those who cannot understand the full splendour of their argument because of the language problem, I translate as literally as I can:
… the concept of the modern EBM according to Sackett is based on three pillars: on the clinical experience of the doctors, on the values and wishes of the patient and on the current state of the clinical research. Homeopaths defend themselves against the narrowed understanding of ‘evidence’ of the critics which aims at narrowing evidence solely to the pillar of the clinical research or exclusively to RCT, while eliminating the other two pillars. Experts estimate that, with such an view of EBM, about 70% of all treatments reimbursed by our health insurances would not be evidence-based. We feel that we more urgently need a clear understanding which evidence definition applies than a debate about homeopathy.
END OF MY TRANSLATION
So, where is the hilarity in this?
I don’t know about you, but I find the following things worth a giggle:
- ‘narrowed understanding of evidence’ – this is a classical strawman; non-homeopaths tend to apply Sackett’s definition which states that ‘evidence-based medicine is the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence-based medicine means integrating individual clinical experience with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research‘;
- as we see, Sackett’s definition is quite different from the one cited by the homeopaths;
- the three pillars cited by the homeopaths are those subsequently developed for Evidence Based Practice (EBP) and include: A) patient values, B) clinical expertise and C) external best evidence;
- as we see, these three pillars are also not quite the same as those suggested by the homeopaths;
- non-homeopaths do certainly not aim at eliminating the ‘other two pillars’;
- current best evidence clearly includes much more than just RCTs – to mention RCTs in this context therefore suggests that the ones guilty of narrowing anything might, in fact, be the homeopaths;
- even if it were true that 70% of reimbursable treatments are not evidence-based, this would hardly be a good reason to employ homeopathic remedies of which 100% are not even remotely evidence-based;
- unbeknown to the German homeopaths, the discussion about a valid definition of EBM has been intense, is as old as EBM itself, and would by now probably fill a mid-size library;
- this discussion does, however, in no way abolish the need to bring the debate about homeopathy to the only evidence-based conclusion possible, namely the discontinuation of reimbursement of this and all other bogus therapies.
In conclusion, I do thank the German homeopaths for being such regular contributors to fun and hilarity. I shall miss them, once they have fully understood EBM and are thus compelled to stop prescribing placebos.
The most frequent of all potentially serious adverse events of acupuncture is pneumothorax. It happens when an acupuncture needle penetrates the lungs which subsequently deflate. The pulmonary collapse can be partial or complete as well as one or two sided. This new case-report shows just how serious a pneumothorax can be.
A 52-year-old man underwent acupuncture and cupping treatment at an illegal Chinese medicine clinic for neck and back discomfort. Multiple 0.25 mm × 75 mm needles were utilized and the acupuncture points were located in the middle and on both sides of the upper back and the middle of the lower back. He was admitted to hospital with severe dyspnoea about 30 hours later. On admission, the patient was lucid, was gasping, had apnoea and low respiratory murmur, accompanied by some wheeze in both sides of the lungs. Because of the respiratory difficulty, the patient could hardly speak. After primary physical examination, he was suspected of having a foreign body airway obstruction. Around 30 minutes after admission, the patient suddenly became unconscious and died despite attempts of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Whole-body post-mortem computed tomography of the victim revealed the collapse of the both lungs and mediastinal compression, which were also confirmed by autopsy. More than 20 pinprick injuries were found on the skin of the upper and lower back in which multiple pinpricks were located on the body surface projection of the lungs. The cause of death was determined as acute respiratory and circulatory failure due to acupuncture-induced bilateral tension pneumothorax.
The authors caution that acupuncture-induced tension pneumothorax is rare and should be recognized by forensic pathologists. Postmortem computed tomography can be used to detect and accurately evaluate the severity of pneumothorax before autopsy and can play a supporting role in determining the cause of death.
The authors mention that pneumothorax is the most frequent but by no means the only serious complication of acupuncture. Other adverse events include:
- central nervous system injury,
- epidural haematoma,
- subarachnoid haemorrhage,
- cardiac tamponade,
- gallbladder perforation,
No other possible lung diseases that may lead to bilateral spontaneous pneumothorax were found. The needles used in the case left tiny perforations in the victim’s lungs. A small amount of air continued to slowly enter the chest cavities over a long period. The victim possibly tolerated the mild discomfort and did not pay attention when early symptoms appeared. It took 30 hours to develop into symptoms of a severe pneumothorax, and then the victim was sent to the hospital. There he was misdiagnosed, not adequately treated and thus died. I applaud the authors for nevertheless publishing this case-report.
This case occurred in China. Acupuncturists might argue that such things would not happen in Western countries where acupuncturists are fully trained and aware of the danger. They would be mistaken – and alarmingly, there is no surveillance system that could tell us how often serious complications occur.
The inventor of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was a German physician. It is therefore not surprising that homeopathy quickly took hold in Germany. After its initial success, homeopathy’s history turned out to be a bit of a roller coaster. But only recently, a vocal and effective opposition has come to the fore (see my previous post).
Despite the increasing opposition, the advent of EBM, and the much-publicised fact that the best evidence fails to show homeopathy’s effectiveness, there are many doctors who still practice it. According to one website, there are 4330 doctor homeopaths in Germany (plus, of course, almost the same number of Heilpraktiker who also use homeopathy). This figure is, however, out-dated. The German Medical Association told a friend that, at the end of 2017, there were 5612 doctors practising in Germany who hold the additional qualification (‘Zusatz-Weiterbildung’) homeopathy.
That’s a lot, I find.
Why so many?
Whenever I give lectures on the subject, this is the question that comes up with unfailing regularity. Many people who ask would also imply that, if so many doctors use it, homeopathy must be fine, because doctors have studied and know what they are doing.
My answer usually is that the phenomenon is due to many factors:
- powerful lobby groups,
- patient demand,
- homeopathy’s image of being gentle, safe and holistic,
- patients’ need to believe in something more than ‘just science’,
- the fact that most German health insurances reimburse it,
- political support,
But, in fact, the true explanation, as I have learnt recently, might be much simpler and more profane: MONEY!
A German GP gets 4.36 Euros for taking a conventional history.
If he is a homeopath taking an initial homeopathic history, (s)he gets 130 € according to the ‘Selektivvertrag’.
So, yes, doctors have studied and know that the difference between the two amounts is significant.
In the latest issue of ‘Simile’ (the Faculty of Homeopathy‘s newsletter), the following short article with the above title has been published. I took the liberty of copying it for you:
Members of the Faculty of Homeopathy practising in the UK have the opportunity to take part in a trial of a new homeopathic remedy for treating infant colic. An American manufacturer of homeopathic remedies has made a registration application for the new remedy to the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) under the UK “National Rules” scheme. As part of its application the manufacturer is seeking at least two homeopathic doctors who would be willing to trial the product for about a year, then write a short report about using the remedy and its clinical results. If you would like to take part in the trial, further details can be obtained from …
END OF QUOTE
A homeopathic remedy for infant colic?
The British Homeopathic Association and many similar ‘professional’ organisations recommend homeopathy for infant colic: Infantile colic is a common problem in babies, especially up to around sixteen weeks of age. It is characterised by incessant crying, often inconsolable, usually in the evenings and often through the night. Having excluded underlying pathology, the standard advice given by GPs and health visitors is winding technique, Infacol or Gripe Water. These measures are often ineffective but fortunately there are a number of homeopathic medicines that may be effective. In my experience Colocynth is the most successful; alternatives are Carbo Veg, Chamomilla and Nux vomica.
SO, IT MUST BE GOOD!
But hold on, I cannot find a single clinical trial to suggest that homeopathy is effective for infant colic.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I see, that’s why they now want to conduct a trial!
They want to do the right thing and do some science to see whether their claims are supported by evidence.
How very laudable!
After all, the members of the Faculty of Homeopathy are doctors; they have certain ethical standards!
After all, the Faculty of Homeopathy aims to provide a high level of service to members and members of the public at all times.
Judging from the short text about the ‘homeopathy for infant colic trial’, it will involve a few (at least two) homeopaths prescribing the homeopathic remedy to patients and then writing a report. These reports will unanimously state that, after the remedy had been administered, the symptoms improved considerably. (I know this because they always do improve – with or without treatment.)
These reports will then be put together – perhaps we should call this a meta-analysis? – and the overall finding will be nice, positive and helpful for the American company.
And now, we all understand what homeopaths, more precisely the Faculty of Homeopathy, consider to be evidence.
The Clinic for Complementary Medicine and Diet in Oncology was opened, in collaboration with the oncology department, at the Hospital of Lucca (Italy) in 2013. It uses a range of alternative therapies aimed at reducing the adverse effects of conventional oncology treatments.
Their latest paper presents the results of complementary medicine (CM) treatment targeted toward reducing the adverse effects of anticancer therapy and cancer symptoms, and improving patient quality of life. Dietary advice was aimed at the reduction of foods that promote inflammation in favour of those with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
This is a retrospective observational study on 357 patients consecutively visited from September 2013 to December 2017. The intensity of symptoms was evaluated according to a grading system from G0 (absent) to G1 (slight), G2 (moderate), and G3 (strong). The severity of radiodermatitis was evaluated with the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG) scale. Almost all the patients (91.6%) were receiving or had just finished some form of conventional anticancer therapy.
The main types of cancer were breast (57.1%), colon (7.3%), lung (5.0%), ovary (3.9%), stomach (2.5%), prostate (2.2%), and uterus (2.5%). Comparison of clinical conditions before and after treatment showed a significant amelioration of all symptoms evaluated: nausea, insomnia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, mucositis, hot flashes, joint pain, dysgeusia, neuropathy.
The authors concluded that the integration of evidence-based complementary treatments seems to provide an effective response to cancer patients’ demand for a reduction of the adverse effects of anticancer treatments and the symptoms of cancer itself, thus improving patient’s quality of life and combining safety and equity of access within public healthcare systems. It is, therefore, necessary for physicians (primarily oncologists) and other healthcare professionals in this ﬁeld to be appropriately informed about the potential beneﬁts of CMs.
Why do I call this ‘wishful thinking’?
I have several reasons:
- A retrospective observational study cannot establish cause and effect. It is likely that the findings were due to a range of factors unrelated to the interventions used, including time, extra attention, placebo, social desirability, etc.
- Some of the treatments in the therapeutic package were not CM, reasonable and evidence-based. Therefore, it is likely that these interventions had positive effects, while CM might have been totally useless.
- To claim that the integration of evidence-based complementary treatments seems to provide an effective response to cancer patients’ is pure fantasy. Firstly, some of the CMs were certainly not evidence-based (the clinic’s prime focus is on homeopathy). Secondly, as already pointed out, the study does not establish cause and effect.
- The notion that it is necessary for physicians (primarily oncologists) and other healthcare professionals in this ﬁeld to be appropriately informed about the potential beneﬁts of CMs is not what follows from the data. The paper shows, however, that the authors of this study are in need to be appropriately informed about EBM as well as CM.
I stumbled across this paper because a homeopath cited it on Twitter claiming that it proves the effectiveness of homeopathy for cancer patients. This fact highlights why such publications are not just annoyingly useless but acutely dangerous. They mislead many cancer patients to opt for bogus treatments. In turn, this demonstrates why it is important to counterbalance such misinformation, critically evaluate it and minimise the risk of patients getting harmed.
Twenty years ago (5 years into my post at Exeter), I published this little article (BJGP, Sept 1998). It was meant as a sort of warning – sadly, as far as I can see, it has not been heeded. Oddly, the article is unavailable on Medline, I therefore take the liberty of re-publishing it here without alterations (if I had to re-write it today, I would not change much) or comment:
Once the omnipotent heroes in white, physicians today are at risk of losing the trust of their patients. Medicine, some would say, is in a deep crisis. Shouldn’t we start to worry?
The patient-doctor relationship, it seems, is at the heart of this argument. Many patients are deeply dissatisfied with this aspect of medicine. A recent survey on patients consulting GPs and complementary practitioners in parallel and for the same problem suggested that most patients are markedly more happy with all facets of the therapeutic encounter as offered by complementary practitioners. This could explain the extraordinary rise of complementary medicine during recent years. The neglect of the doctor-patient relationship might be the gap in which complementary treatments build their nest.
Poor relationships could be due to poor communication. Many books have been written about communications skills with patients. But never mind the theory, the practice of all this may be less optimal than we care to believe. Much of this may simply relate to the usage of language. Common terms such as ‘stomach’, ‘palpitations’, ‘lungs’, for instance, are interpreted in different ways by lay and professional people. Words like ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’, and ‘irritability’ are well defined for doctors, while patients view them as more or less interchangeable. At a deeper level, communication also relates to concepts and meanings of disease and illness. For instance, the belief that a ‘blockage of the bowel’ or an ‘imbalance of life forces’ lead to disease is as prevalent with patients as it is alien to doctors. Even on the most obvious level of interaction with patients, physicians tend to fail. Doctors often express themselves unclearly about the nature, aim or treatment schedule of their prescriptions.
Patients want to be understood as whole persons. Yet modern medicine is often seen as emphazising a reductionistic and mechanistic approach, merely treating a symptom or replacing a faulty part, or treating a ‘case’ rather than an individual. In the view of some, modern medicine has become an industrial behemoth shifted from attending the sick to guarding the economic bottom line, putting itself on a collision course with personal doctoring. This has created a deeply felt need which complementary medicine is all too ready to fill. Those who claim to know the reason for a particular complaint (and therefore its ultimate cure) will succeed in satisfying this need. Modern medicine has identified the causes of many diseases while complementary medicine has promoted simplistic (and often wrong) ideas about the genesis of health and disease. The seductive message usually is as follows: treating an illness allopathically is not enough, the disease will simply re-appear in a different guise at a later stage. One has to tackle the question – why the patient has fallen ill in the first place. Cutting off the dry leaves of a plant dying of desiccation won’t help. Only attending the source of the problem, in the way complementary medicine does, by pouring water on to the suffering plant, will secure a cure. This logic is obviously lop-sided and misleading, but it creates trust because it is seen as holistic, it can be understood by even the simplest of minds, and it generates a meaning for the patient’s otherwise meaningless suffering.
Doctors, it is said, treat diseases but patients suffer from illnesses. Disease is something an organ has; illness is something an individual has. An illness has more dimensions than disease. Modern medicine has developed a clear emphasis on the physical side of disease but tends to underrate aspects like the patient’s personality, beliefs and socioeconomic environment. The body/mind dualism is (often unfairly) seen as a doctrine of mainstream medicine. Trust, it seems, will be given to those who adopt a more ‘holistic’ approach without dissecting the body from the mind and spirit.
Empathy is a much neglected aspect in today’s medicine. While it has become less and less important to doctors, it has grown more and more relevant to patients. The literature on empathy is written predominantly by nurses and psychologists. Is the medical profession about to delegate empathy to others? Does modern, scientific medicine lead us to neglect the empathic attitude towards our patients? Many of us are not even sure what empathy means and confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy with the patient can be described as a feeling of ‘I want to help you’. Empathy, on these terms, means ‘I am (or could be) you’; it is therefore some sort of an emotional resonance. Empathy has remained somewhat of a white spot on the map of medical science. We should investigate it properly. Re-integrating empathy into our daily practice can be taught and learned. This might help our patients as well as us.
Lack of time is another important cause for patients’ (and doctors’) dissatisfaction. Most patients think that their doctor does not have enough time for them. They also know from experience that complementary medicine offers more time. Consultations with complementary practitioners are appreciated, not least because they may spend one hour or so with each patient. Obviously, in mainstream medicine, we cannot create more time where there is none. But we could at least give our patients the feeling that, during the little time available, we give them all the attention they require.
Other reasons for patients’ frustration lie in the nature of modern medicine and biomedical research. Patients want certainty but statistics provides probabilities at best. Some patients may be irritated to hear of a 70% chance that a given treatment will work; or they feel uncomfortable with the notion that their cholesterol level is associated with a 60% chance of suffering a heart attack within the next decade. Many patients long for reassurance that they will be helped in their suffering. It may be ‘politically correct’ to present patients with probability frequencies of adverse effects and numbers needed to treat, but anybody who (rightly or wrongly) promises certainty will create trust and have a following.
Many patients have become wary of the fact that ‘therapy’ has become synonymous with ‘pharmacotherapy’ and that many drugs are associated with severe adverse reactions. The hope of being treated with ‘side-effect-free’ remedies is a prime motivator for turning to complementary medicine.
Complementary treatments are by no means devoid of adverse reactions, but this fact is rarely reported and therefore largely unknown to patients. Physicians are regularly attacked for being in league with the pharmaceutical industry and the establishment in general. Power and money are said to be gained at the expense of the patient’s well-being. The system almost seems to invite dishonesty. The ‘conspiracy theory’ goes as far as claiming that ‘scientific medicine is destructive, extremely costly and solves nothing. Beware of the octopus’. Spectacular cases could be cited which apparently support it. Orthodox medicine is described as trying to ‘inhibit the development of unorthodox medicine’, in order to enhance its own ‘power, status and income’. Salvation, it is claimed, comes from the alternative movement which represents ‘… the most effective assault yet on scientific biomedicine’. Whether any of this is true or not, it is perceived as the truth by many patients and amounts to a serious criticism of what is happening in mainstream medicine today.
In view of such criticism, strategies for overcoming problems and rectifying misrepresentations are necessary. Mainstream medicine might consider discovering how patients view the origin, significance, and prognosis of the disease. Furthermore, measures should be considered to improve communication with patients. A diagnosis and its treatment have to make sense to the patient as much as to the doctor – if only to enhance adherence to therapy. Both disease and illness must be understood in their socio-economic context. Important decisions, e.g. about treatments, must be based on a consensus between the patient and the doctor. Scientists must get better in promoting their own messages, which could easily be far more attractive, seductive, and convincing than those of pseudo-science.These goals are by no means easy to reach. But if we don’t try, trust and adherence will inevitably deteriorate further. I submit that today’s unprecedented popularity of complementary medicine reflects a poignant criticism of many aspects of modern medicine. We should take it seriously
Dr Alok Pareek has been elected as the World President of the International Homeopathic Medical league (LMHI – Liga Medicorum Homoeopathica Internationalis), the largest, oldest and only association of Medical Homeopaths in the World. He is the first Asian in 4 decades to bring this honour to India. Dr Alok Pareek was elected at the 71st World Congress of the LMHI held in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 23rd August 2016. He was elected unopposed by over 70 member countries. He has been elected for a three year tenure from 2016 to 2019
Dr. Alok Pareek runs a homeopathic hospital together with his father R.S. Pareek in Agra, India with fifty beds, treating around two hundred patients daily. His clinical practice spans thirty years. This extensive experience has given him a wealth of opportunity to carry out and refine homeopathic treatment in a wide range of acute and emergency situations… Dr. Pareek demonstrates that homeopathy has much to offer in acute and emergency settings. He aims to increase the confidence of practitioners, to improve results and encourage them to offer safe and effective treatment in this important field, enabling homeopathy to take its place alongside conventional approaches within mainstream medicine. “As an Emergency Medicine physician who deals with life threatening diseases on a daily basis, I found Dr. Pareek’s homeopathic approach to be full of well-rounded clinical criteria and plenty of wise advice to the homeopathic doctor. I truly hope to be in medicine long enough to see us practice ‘hand in hand’ and enjoy the great benefits of this marvelous ‘scientific marriage’ in my emergency medicine patients.” Gladys H. Lopez M.D., M.P.H. USA Board Certified in Emergency Medicine
These two quotes might give you a fairly good impression of Dr Alok Pareek.
But why do I dedicate an entire post to him?
The reason is that I was alerted to one of his books entitled ‘Cancer is curable with homeopathy’. Even though it is obviously a translation from English, I could not find the original; so you have to bear with me as I translate for you the German abstract copied below:
75 years of homeopathic experience by father and son from India are expressed in this book about the homeopathic cure of cancers. Based on excellently documented cases, it demonstrates how homeopathy is clearly superior to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. We experience how a cure is possible even for such a serious disease as cancer in advanced stages. Dr D. Spinedi (Switzeralnd) estimates the immense experience of the doctors Pareek as ‘essential basic knowledge that should be accessible to all homeopaths’. It is a book that gives courage to both patients and therapists.
Zusammen 75 Jahre homöopathischer Erfahrung von Vater und Sohn Pareek aus Indien mit Tausenden von Patienten finden in diesem Buch ihren Niederschlag in der homöopathischen Heilung von Krebserkrankungen. Anhand exzellent dokumentierter Fallbeispiele wird gezeigt, wie in klassischer Arbeitsweise die Homöopathie der Chemotherapie und der Strahlentherapie deutlich überlegen ist. Wir erleben mit, wie Heilung bei einer so schweren Krankheit wie Krebs auch noch in fortgeschrittenen Stadien durch Homöopathie möglich ist. Dr. D. Spinedi (Schweiz) wertet die immense Erfahrung der Dres. Pareek als “unverzichtbares Grundlagenwissen, das allen Homöopathen zugänglich sein sollte.” Ein Buch, das Patienten wie Therapeuten Mut macht!
It is by Jove not often that I am speechless, but today, that’s exactly what I am.
Samuel Hahnemann invented homeopathy about 200 years ago. His placebos were better than (or not as bad as) the ‘heroic’ medicine of his time which frequently was more dangerous than the disease it aimed to cure. Thus, homeopathy took Germany by storm. When, about 100 years ago, medicine finally became scientific and was able to offer more and more effective treatments, the popularity of homeopathy began to wane. Yet, before its natural demise, during the Third Reich, it received a significant boost from Nazi-greats such as Hess and Himmler. After this nightmare was over, German homeopathy went into another slow decline. But when the New Age movement and the current boom in alternative medicine reached Germany, homeopathy seemed to thrive once again.
In the 1990s evidence-based medicine (EBM) grew into one of the central concepts of medicine. In Germany, however, EBM had a relatively hard time to get established. This might be one of the reasons why homeopathy continued to prosper, despite the arrival of ever clearer evidence that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos. While, in the UK, we had an increasingly lively debate about the uselessness of homeopathy, Germany remained the promised land of homeopathy. Sales figures of homeopathics continued to increase steadily and reached a level of about half a billion Euros per annum.
The golden age of German homeopathy had dawned:
- The media, often sponsored by homeopathic interest groups, kept on promoting homeopathy largely unopposed.
- The mighty Carstens Stiftung worked tirelessly to promote it.
- Homeopathy became established in many medical schools.
- Homeopathy was available and often advertised in almost all pharmacies.
- The public was convinced that homeopathy worked.
- The Heilpraktiker adopted homeopathy fully.
- The medical and other conventional healthcare professions embraced it to a large degree.
- The adult education institutes (Volkshochschulen) offered courses.
- Politicians were squarely on the side of homeopathy,
- Health insurances, paid for it.
Of course, there were also some (and always had been) opposing voiced and organisations, such as the GWUP (the German sceptic organisation), for example. But somehow, they remained relatively low-key. When, every now and then, courageous journalists dared to think of a critical take on homeopathy, they had to search far and wide to find a German-speaking expert who was willing or able to tell them the truth: that homeopathy is neither biologically plausible nor evidence-based and therefore an expensive, potentially harmful waste of money that makes a mockery of EBM. During this period, journalists (far too) often asked me for some critical comments. I hardly ever published my research in German, but they nevertheless would find me via my Medline-listed papers. I often felt like a very lone voice in a German desert.
For the German homeopathic industry, I evidently was more than just a lone voice. Unbeknown to me, they clubbed together and financed a PR-man/journalist (at the tune of Euro 30 000/year) to write as many defamatory articles about me as he could muster. First, I was bewildered by his activity, then I tried to communicate with him (only to get mis-quoted), and eventually I ignored his writings. Yet, a German investigative journalist found Fritzsche’s one-sided activities offensive and started investigating. His research and subsequent article disclosed the fact that he was being paid by the homeopathic industry. Once I learn about this scandal, I wrote to some of the financiers directly and asked for an explanation. As a result, they discontinued their sponsorship. Shortly afterwards, Fritzsche committed suicide.
At heart, I have always been an optimist and strongly believe that in medicine the truth, in this case the evidence, will always prevail, no matter what obstacles others might put in its way. Recent developments seem to suggest that I might be right.
In the last few years, several individuals in Germany have, from entirely different angles, taken a fresh look at the evidence on homeopathy and found it to be desperately wanting. Independent of each other, they published articles and books about their research and insights. Here are 5 examples:
In Sachen Homöopathie: Eine Beweisaufnahme, Norbert Aust, 2013
Homöopathie neu gedacht: Was Patienten wirklich hilft, Natalie Grams, 2015
Inevitably, these individuals came into contact with each other and subsequently founded several working-groups to discuss their concerns and coordinate their activities. Thus the INH and the Muensteraner Kreis were born. So, now we have at least three overlapping groups of enthusiastic, multidisciplinary experts who voluntarily work towards informing the German public that paying for homeopathy out of public funds is unethical, nonsensical and not in the interest of progress:
- the GWUP,
- the INH
- and the Muensteraner Kreis.
No wonder then, that the German homeopathic industry and other interested parties got worried. When they realised that (presumably due to the work of these altruistic enthusiasts) the sales figures of homeopathics in Germany had, for the first time since many years, started declining, they panicked.
Their reaction was, as far as I can see, similar to their previous response to criticism: they started a media campaign in an attempt to sway public opinion. And just like before, they have taken to employing PR-people who currently spend their time defaming all individuals voicing criticism of homeopathy in Germany. Their prime targets are those experts who are most exposed to activities of responsibly informing the public about homeopathy via lectures, publications social media, etc. All of us currently receive floods of attack, insults and libellous defamations. As before (innovation does not seem to be a hallmark of homeopathy), these attacks relate to claims that:
- we are incompetent,
- we do not care about the welfare of patients,
- we are habitual liars,
- we are on the payroll of the pharmaceutical industry,
- we aim at limiting patient choice,
- we do what we do because we crave the limelight.
So, what is going to happen?
I cannot read tea leaves but am nevertheless sure of a few things:
- The German homeopathy lobby will not easily give up; after all, they have half a billion Euros per year to lose.
- They will not argue on the basis of science or evidence, because they know that neither are in their favour.
- They will fight dirty and try to defame everyone who stands in their way.
- They will use their political influence and their considerable financial power.
AND YET THEY WILL LOSE!
Not because we are so well organised or have great resources – in fact, as far as I can see, we have none – but because, in medicine, the evidence is invincible and will eventually prevail. Progress might be delayed, but it cannot be halted by those who cling to an obsolete dogma.
For years, Margaret McCartney, a GP from Scotland, wrote a weekly column in the BMJ. It was invariably well-worth reading. Recently, she regrettably ended it by publishing her last article entitled A summary of four and a half years of columns in one column. In it, she makes 36 short points. They are all poignant, but the one that made me think most (probably because it is relevant to my work and this blog) reads as follows:
Many people seek to make money from those who don’t understand science. Doctors should call out bollocksology when they see it.
On this blog, I have often discussed people who make money from consumers and patients who are unable to detect the quackery they are being sold. No doubt, the most famous case of me doing this was when, in 2009, I criticised Prince Charles and his ‘Dodgy Originals Detox Tincture’. It made many headlines; the BBC, for instance, reported:
Edzard Ernst, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, said the Duchy Originals detox tincture was based on “outright quackery”.
There was no scientific evidence to show that detox products work, he said.
Duchy Originals says the product is a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes”.
But Professor Ernst of Peninsula Medical School said Prince Charles and his advisers appeared to be deliberately ignoring science, preferring “to rely on ‘make-believe’ and superstition”.
He added: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.”
Marketed as Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, the artichoke and dandelion mix is described as “a food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”.
At the time, I got a right blocking from my dean, Prof John Tooke, for my audacity. As far as I could see, there was almost no support from the UK medical profession. Since then, the exploitation of the public by quacks has not diminished; on the contrary, I have the feeling that it is thriving. And are doctors calling out bollocksology left right and centre? No, they are not!
Of course, some do occasionally raise their voices (and some do it even regularly). But mostly, it is the group of non-medical sceptics who open their mouths and try their best to prevent harm. Yet, I wholly agree with my friend Margret: doctors have a responsibility and must do more.
And why don’t they?
I think, there are several reasons for their inactivity:
- doctors are frightfully busy,
- doctors often don’t know how much bollocksology is out there,
- doctors don’t (want to) see how dangerous much of this bollocksology is,
- doctors fail to realise that it would be their ethical responsibility to speak out against bollocksology,
- some doctors do not seem to understand science either,
- some doctors are active bollocksologists themselves,
- some doctors simply don’t care.
This clearly is a depressing state of affairs! But, at the same time, it also is a cheerful occasion for me to thank all those doctors who are the laudable exceptions, who do care, who do think critically, who see their ethical responsibility, and who do something about the never-ending flood of bollocksology endangering their patients’ health and wealth.