Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) was developed in the mid-seventies. It is a so-called alternative therapy (SCAM) that is not easy to define. Those who started it and those involved in it use such vague language that NLP means different things to different people. One metaphor keeps recurring: NLP claims to help people change by teaching them to program their brains. We were given brains, we are told, without an instruction manual, and NLP offers a user-manual for the brain. Consciously or unconsciously, NLP is based on the assumptions that:
- the unconscious mind constantly influences our conscious thoughts and actions;
- Freud’s theories are correct;
- hypnotherapy is effective.
Wikipedia is more outspoken about it: Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a pseudoscientific approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy…
Despite the fact that NLP is unproven (to say the least), the COLLEGE OF MEDICINE AND INTEGRATED HEALTH (COMAIH) is sufficiently impressed by NLP to offer a course for GPs and SCAM practitioners. Here is their announcement:
Neurolinguistic Healthcare in association with the College of Medicine brings you a 2-day Introduction to Hypnosis, Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and Neurolinguistic Healthcare (NLH). Dr Wong and Dr Akhtar who lead the course are Trainers in NLP and Hypnosis and GPs who apply their skills in daily practice within the 10-minute consultation. The course is suitable for both medical professionals and complementary therapists. This is a limited training event offered by them to share their years of knowledge and skills with you.
You will learn:
- A basic overview of NLP and the most useful aspects to use it to begin making effective changes in how you and the people you treat think and behave
- An understanding of the NLH model of the mind so that you understand the concepts of therapy using this mixed hypnosis/ NLP approach in relation to health.
- The ability to Hypnotise effectively in a very short period of time with practical experience – the ability to go through all the stages of hypnosis – the induction, deepening, therapy, and emergence, including rapid hypnosis techniques. (Hypnosis courses which are less practical often charge in excess of £2000 for this)
- Learn at least 3 therapeutic techniques, including the NLP therapeutic techniques which work much better in trance, so using and applying the skills you will learn in hypnosis
- Access to an online mentorship programme with Dr Akhtar or Dr Wong for 6 months and who will provide 3x30mins group webinar meetings after the course to ensure any remaining questions get answered and that you are actually going forth to apply these skills. (worth another £600 in value)
- Access to an online learning membership site with educational videos and other content like pain relief techniques, papers with therapeutic scripts, etc
This is an opportunity to learn a different way of helping people from doctors who target the 10-minute consultation with fast, effective formal hypnosis techniques and sleight-of-mouth. It is possible to make change happen in 10-minutes.
Note that attending this course will not make you a certified hypnotherapist, but confer you the skills you will learn to use personally and in the context of guided meditations and relaxations that are commonplace now.
And what evidence do I have for stating that NLP is unproven?
Is there an up-to-date and sound systematic review of NLP?
The answer is yes.
This systematic review of NLP included 10 experimental studies. Five studies were RCTs and five were uncontrolled pre-post studies. Targeted health conditions were anxiety disorders, weight maintenance, morning sickness, substance misuse, and claustrophobia during MRI scanning. NLP interventions were mainly delivered across 4-20 sessions although three were single session. Eighteen outcomes were reported and the RCT sample sizes ranged from 22 to 106. Four RCTs reported no significant between group differences with the fifth finding in favour of NLP. Three RCTs and five pre-post studies reported within group improvements. Risk of bias across all studies was high or uncertain.
The authors concluded that there is little evidence that NLP interventions improve health-related outcomes. This conclusion reflects the limited quantity and quality of NLP research, rather than robust evidence of no effect. There is currently insufficient evidence to support the allocation of NHS resources to NLP activities outside of research purposes.
I am not!
I did not expect the COMAIH to allow critical thinking to get in the way of quackery-promotion.
Whatever SCAM is, it is not an alternative to conventional medicine. Nevertheless, one might still ask why so many people pay for ‘unproven’ SCAM when they can have scientifically backed medicine at no extra expense. Chandola et al suggest that 44% who use CM hope for a cure, 30% fear adverse effects of mainstream drugs, and 27% are dissatisfied with conventional care. In a much larger survey conducted in the USA, Astin found that dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine was prevalent but did not predict use of SCAM. SCAM users tended to be better educated and to subscribe to a more ‘holistic’ philosophy of healthcare. Interestingly, they reported poorer health status than non-users. Moreover, SCAM attracts patients because it offers more personal autonomy or control and is less impersonal or high-tech than mainstream medicine. Finally patients, particularly those with chronic conditions, may simply try SCAM so as to leave no stone unturned.
‘Scientifically backed’ medicine may not be quite as helpful as one tends to assume at least not in the eyes of the patient. A survey of 1420 (mostly musculoskeletal) pain sufferers suggested that SCAMs were perceived as more successful than mainstream drugs. In fact, orthodox therapies such as parenteral injections and oral medications ranked only 8th and 11th, respectively. Perhaps more disturbingly, patients seem to experience the therapeutic encounter with SCAM practitioners as more satisfying, empathetic and informative than that with their general practitioners. While many physicians (rightly or wrongly) continue to see SCAM as a nuisance, maybe we should think again: SCAM’s popularity amounts to a biting criticism of mainstream medicine that ought to be taken seriously.
How are clinicians to reconcile the public demand for SCAM with the new zeal for evidence-based medicine? The apparently easy answer is to pursue a strategy of evidence-based SCAM. This is precisely what my department is doing. There are now about 2000 clinical trials in this diverse area. But clinical trials are often full of contradictions and seldom clarify clinical questions adequately. A US study, for instance, has contributed to increasing doubts about whether chiropractic is helpful for acute uncomplicated low back pain in a clinically relevant way. What we really need for informing clinicians’ decisions are systematic reviews incorporating the totality of the available data. For the past 5 years this has been the focus of my department’s work, and we have published a considerable number of such papers. The notion that SCAM is totally devoid of evidence is a cliché which, like many clichés, is not entirely true.
Undoubtedly, vast areas of uncertainty do remain. The more difficult question is, therefore, how should clinicians deal with their patients’ desire for SCAM in the absence of evidence? Embarrassingly few convincing answers are on offer. Physicians have become experts in dealing with uncertainty in many aspects of their work. A dose of common sense will usually go quite far. At the very least, doctors should know what type of treatments their patients are trying. Taking a detailed history should nowadays include asking specifically about use of SCAM. In order not to alienate patients, one should resist the temptation to be dismissive. If there are good reasons to warn of a certain form of SCAM, these are best offered in an objective manner. To give evidence-based advice, clinicians obviously have to be informed about the facts, and impartial information is hard to find. One ray of light in this relative darkness is the Cochrane Collaboration, which now has a ‘field’ working on SCAM. The number of systematic reviews available from the Cochrane database is growing rapidly.
Once a patient is using SCAM (with or against the doctor’s advice), it makes sense to monitor the effects. This increases the safety of the patient and contributes to the physician’s knowledge of and experience with SCAM. There is also a good argument for establishing working relationships with a selection of local SCAM therapists who have a good track record and adequate training. At present, communication between doctors and therapists is often poor or even non-existent. Surely this cannot be to the benefit of the patient.
For SCAM, the best chance of survival in a harsh climate of evidence-based medicine and increasing rationing of resources is to come up with the goods and demonstrate what treatments are effective, safe and cost-effective for which condition. For physicians, the best way of reconciling the ‘two worlds’ is to inform themselves adequately and guide their patients through the ‘SCAM maze’ with a generous helping of good common sense. For patients, last but not least, the best approach is to be cautious and remember that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
END OF QUOTE
Twenty years, and little has changed:
- There still are vast areas of uncertainty.
- Imparcial information about SCAM is still scarce.
- Patient demand for SCAM is still considerable.
- The implied criticism of conventional medicine is still not taken seriously.
- The communication between doctors and SCAM practitioners is still lamentable.
- Most doctors still do not include questions about SCAM in their medical history taking.
- Arguably, SCAM has become even less evidence-based.
- Most doctors remain blissfully uninformed about SCAM.
- Most of the claims made for SCAM are too good to be true.
I think you get the gist.
Guest post by Richard Rasker
Almost two years ago, in March 2018, a group of 124 doctors and other medical professionals published an article in the French newspaper ‘Le Figaro’, warning the general public for the false promises, unproven claims and dangers of alternative medicine.
Homeopathy in particular is denounced as an unscientific belief in magic, utterly lacking in plausibility as well as in evidence of efficacy for any condition. Subjecting people to these kinds of unproven treatments is unethical, and may result in serious harm by delaying proper medical treatment. Also, homeopaths and other alternative practitioners often express anti-vaccine sentiments, endangering children by dissuading their parents from vaccination.
For these and several other reasons, these 124 medical professionals made an appeal for alternative and esoteric treatments to be excluded from the field of science-based medicine, and to stop reimbursement of homeopathic and other alternative treatments under France’s national health care insurance system.
In a somewhat belated response, French homeopaths are now filing no less than 63 disciplinary complaints with the French Medical Council against the signatories of the appeal in Le Figaro, apparently for “uncollegial behaviour” and “defiling medical ethics”. The homeopaths are represented by homeopathic doctor Daniel Scimeca, president of the French Federation of Homeopathic Societies, who also has close relations with Boiron laboratories, the biggest manufacturer of homeopathic products in the world.
At the time of this writing, 11 complaints have been adjudicated, resulting in 7 warnings, and 4 releases or dismissals. It is unclear how serious such a ‘warning’ should be taken, but it is clear that homeopaths are trying to punish real doctors for supporting and expressing an overwhelming scientific consensus, i.e. that there is no evidence whatsoever that homeopathy is actually good for anything.
And even though these French homeopaths do not resort to the sort of vile, underhanded media smear campaign perpetrated by the late Claus Fritzsche against Dr. Ernst, there are certain parallels – the most important of which is that proponents of unproven ‘medicine’ attempt to silence science-based criticism by unscientific means, instead of open discourse about the merits (or more precisely: the lack thereof) of their chosen profession.
I personally find it rather worrying that almost two-thirds of the complaints resulted in a slap on the wrist for the medical professional involved. Especially in a field that is so strongly dependent on both science and trust, well-founded criticism should be encouraged and made public, not punished and silenced.
At the heart of this story is Joseph Mercola, a dietary supplement entrepreneur and osteopath.
His website states that:
EVERYONE can benefit from Dr Mercola’s unparalleled knowledge. For expertise in alternative healthcare and high quality supplemental medicine, it’s hard to beat visionary Dr Joseph Mercola. The Chicago-based health wizard has his own website, Mercola.com (‘Take Control of Your Health’), but you can find so many of his health support products right here at Evolution Organics. Our customers swear by them. They love the diversity of the range, and that the products are priced affordably, meaning that everyone can benefit from Dr Mercola’s vast experience and unmatched know-how. And it’s not just men, women and children who can feel better ‘the Dr Mercola way’ – his brand includes health support products for pets, too.
However, an article in the Washington Post tells a different story; allow me to quote a few excerpts:
The National Vaccine Information Center was founded in 1982 by Barbara Loe Fisher, who has said that her son was injured by a vaccine. The group claimed credit this year for helping to defeat legislation in a dozen states that would have made it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children. At the beginning of last year’s flu season, Fisher and Mercola appeared in a YouTube video urging people to be skeptical about flu shots. Mercola claimed that vaccines have been associated with “deaths and permanent neurological complications,” and he said vitamin D supplements were among “far more effective, less expensive and less risky alternatives.” … Fisher said in an interview that Mercola has asked for nothing in exchange for his donations and that the National Vaccine Information Center does not sell or advertise Mercola’s products on its site. “I do not take funding for a quid pro quo,” she said. “When [Mercola] called me, he said, ‘I admire your work. I’d like to help you.’ ” The center’s homepage, which the group says was visited more than 1.2 million times last year, displays Mercola.com’s logo. An affiliated website run by Fisher’s group refers numerous times to Mercola.com as one of the most popular health and wellness websites…
In recent years, the center has been at the forefront of a movement that has led some parents to forgo or delay immunizing their children against vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles… The Northern Virginia-based National Vaccine Information Center lists Mercola.com as a partner on its homepage and links to the website, where readers can learn about and purchase Mercola’s merchandise…Asked if his companies benefit from his donations to the anti-vaccine group, Mercola said in an email that “being an adversary to powerful industries is not a positive for a business like mine.” …
On this blog, I have repeatedly warned that many so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) practitioners recommend against vaccinations. Specifically implicated are:
- Physicians practising integrative medicine
- Doctors of anthroposophical medicine
We knew about the ‘ideology’ and the misinformation pushing SCAM-related anti-vaccination sentiments. The article in the Washington Post is a stark reminder of the financial interests behind all this. As a result, SCAM-use is associated with low vaccination-uptake (as we have discussed ad nauseam – see for instance here, here, here and here). Anyone who needs more information will find it by searching this blog. Anyone claiming that this is all my exaggeration might look at papers which have nothing to do with me (there are plenty more for those who are willing to conduct a Medline search):
- Lehrke P, Nuebling M, Hofmann F, Stoessel U. Attitudes of homeopathic physicians towards vaccination. Vaccine. 2001;19:4859–4864. doi: 10.1016/S0264-410X(01)00180-3. [PubMed]
- Halper J, Berger LR. Naturopaths and childhood immunizations: Heterodoxy among the unorthodox. Pediatrics. 1981;68:407–410. [PubMed]
- Colley F, Haas M. Attitudes on immunization: A survey of American chiropractors. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. 1994;17:584–590. [PubMed]
If you had thought that HRH Prince Charles, soon to be King, would calm down regarding his royal bee under his alternative bonnet, you evidently were mistaken. In June 2019, he became the patron of the ‘Faculty of Homeopathy‘ the professional organisation of UK doctor homeopaths. And a few days ago, it has been announced that he now has also become the patron of the ‘College of Medicine and Integrated Health’ (CMIH). The College chair, Michael Dixon, was quoted stating: ‘This is a great honour and will support us as an organisation committed to taking medicine beyond drugs and procedures. This generous royal endorsement will enable us to be ever more ambitious in our mission to achieve a more compassionate and sustainable health service.”
I find it hard to be surprised by Charles’ latest move. After all, the CHIM is the direct successor of Charles’ ‘Foundation for Integrated Health‘ (FIH). When this bizarre organisation had to close in 2010 amid claims of fraud, money laundering and misuse of charity status (its chief executive later went to prison!), Dixon quickly organised the creation of the CMIH. Even though he was clearly involved, Charles was probably wise to keep his distance after the scandal. But now, almost a decade later, the dust has settled and he feels he can again patronise (= become a patron).
Dixon who was the medical director of the FIH did not go to prison; why should he? He had done nothing wrong! On the contrary, he collected another gong and even aspired to become the president of the ‘Royal College of General Practitioners‘. He failed, but his honours and appointments are still second to none:
- LVO (2015)
- OBE (2001)
- Visiting Professor University College of London
- Visiting Professor Westminster University
- Honorary Senior Fellow, HSMC Birmingham University
- Honorary Senior Lecturer Peninsula Medical School, Exeter
- Medical Advisor to the Prince of Wales
Don’t I just admire my ex-friend Michael?!
And so should you!!!
Just read the abstract of his study of spiritual healing. If you are not impressed by this work of beauty, there must be something wrong with you.
This study was designed to examine the effects of a healer seeing chronically ill patients in a large semirural practice. The 57 patients were allocated alternately either to receive ten weekly healing sessions or to become waiting-list controls. Two weeks after completion of ‘healing’ 22 (81%) of the 27 study patients thought their symptoms had improved and 15 of these thought they had improved substantially. Study patients scored better than controls on both measures of symptoms (P < 0.05, P < 0.01), on anxiety and depression ratings (P < 0.01, P < 0.05) and on general function measured by the Nottingham Health Profile (P < 0.01). Treatment differences were still evident three months later for one of the measures of symptom change (P < 0.05) and for both anxiety and depression ratings (P < 0.01, P < 0.05). The percentages of natural killer cells (CD16, CD56) did not change greatly in either group. These results suggest that healing may be an effective adjunct for the treatment of chronically ill patients presenting in general practice. They do not distinguish between any specific effects of spiritual healing and non-specific effects such as relaxation; for further investigation, randomized controlled trials will be needed.
Sorry, I digress – this should be about Charles, not Michael.
Now that he is patron of both the FoH and the CMIH, what might be next? As he has already tried his own brand of herbal remedies, I suggest the next launches a brand of homeopathics. What about
‘HRH – Hopeless Royal Homeopathy‘?
‘HRH – Hopeless Royal’s Homeopathy’
Well, suggest something better then!
There are no representative studies using a probability sample examining whether US physicians recommend so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) to their patients. This article fills a void in the current literature for robust data on recommendations for SCAMs by office-based physicians in the US.
Descriptive statistics and multivariable regression analyses of physician-level data were from the 2012 Physician Induction Interview of the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS PII), a nationally representative survey of office-based physicians. Weighted response rate among eligible physicians sampled for the 2012 NAMCS PII was 59.7%.
Recommendations by physicians to their patients were recorded for any SCAM, and the following individual SCAMs: massage therapy, herbs/nonvitamin supplements, chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation, yoga, acupuncture, and mind–body therapies.
Massage therapy was the most commonly recommended SCAM (30.4%), followed by chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation (27.1%), herbs/nonvitamin supplements (26.5%), yoga (25.6%), and acupuncture (22.4%). The most commonly recommended SCAMs by general/family practice physicians were chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation (54.0%) and massage therapy (52.6%). Of all U.S. physicians, 53.1% recommended at least one SCAM to patients during the previous 12 months. Multivariable analyses found physician’s sex, race, specialty, and U.S. region to be significant predictors of SCAMrecommendations. Female physicians were more likely than male physicians to recommend massage therapy, herbs/nonvitamin supplements, yoga, acupuncture, and mind–body therapies to patients. Psychiatrists, OB/GYNs, and paediatricians were all less likely to recommend chiropractic/osteopathic manipulation than general and family practitioners.
The authors concluded that, overall, more than half of office-based physicians recommended at least one SCAM to their patients. Female physicians recommended every individual SCAM at a higher rate than male physicians except for chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation. These findings may enable consumers, physicians, and medical schools to better understand potential differences in use of SCAMs with patients.
Yes, I know!
Who cares what type of SCAMs US physicians recommended to their patients 7 years ago?
And who knows what the true figures would have looked like, if the ~40% who did not respond would have been included?
Such surveys usually tell us little of relevance. What is worse, they are misused for exploiting the ‘appeal to authority’ fallacy which hold that, if physicians recommend SCAMs, they must be fine. That this is a fallacy becomes obvious, if we remind ourselves that US physicians also are the main cause for the current opioid crisis in the US (if physicians recommend opioids, they must be fine???).
More importantly, I think, this survey also suggests the following:
- 73% of US physicians do NOT recommend chiropractic/osteopathic manipulations.
- 73% of them do NOT recommend herbal medicine.
- 74% of them do NOT recommend yoga.
- 77% of them do NOT recommend acupuncture.
I wonder why!
So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) could easily be described as a business that exists mainly because it profits from the flaws of conventional medicine. I know, this is not a good definition, and I don’t want to suggest it as one, but I think it highlights an important aspect of SCAM.
Let me explain.
If we ask ourselves why consumers feel attracted to SCAM, we can identify a range of reasons, and several of them relate to the weaknesses of conventional medicine as it is practised today. For instance:
- People feel the need to have more time with their clinician in order to discuss their problems more fully. This means that their GP does not offer them sufficient time, empathy and compassion they crave.
- Patients are weary of the side-effects of drugs and prefer treatments that are gentle and safe. This shows that they realise that conventional medicine can cause harm and they hope to avoid this risk.
- Patients find it often hard to accept that their symptoms are ‘nothing to worry about’ and does not require any treatment at all. They prefer to hear that the clinician knows exactly what is wrong and can offer a therapy that puts it right.
Conventional medicine and the professionals who administer it have many flaws. Most doctors have such busy schedules that there is little time for building an empathetic therapeutic relationship with their patients. Thus they often palm them off with a prescription and fail to discuss the risks in sufficient detail. Even worse, they sometimes prescribe drugs in situations where none are needed and where a reassuring discussion would be more helpful. It is too easy to excuse such behaviours with work pressures; such flaws are serious and cannot be brushed under the carpet in this way.
Recently, the flawed behaviour of doctors has become the focus of media attention in the form of
- opioid over-prescribing
- over-use of anti-biotics.
In both cases, SCAM providers were quick to offer the solution.
- Acupuncturists and chiropractors claim that their treatments are sensible alternatives to opioids. Yet, there is no good evidence that either acupuncture or chiropractic have analgesic effects that are remotely comparable to those of opioids. They only are seemingly successful in cases where opioids were not needed in the first place.
- Homeopaths claim that their remedies can easily replace antibiotics. Yet, there is not a jot of evidence that homeopathics have antibiotic activity. They only are seemingly successful in cases where the antibiotic was not needed in the first place.
In both instances, SCAM is trying to profit from the weaknesses of conventional medicine. In both cases, the offered solutions are clearly bogus. Yet, in both cases, scientifically illiterate politicians are seriously considering the alleged solutions. Few seem to be smart enough to take a step backwards and contemplate the only viable solution to these problems. If doctors over-prescribe, they need to be stopped; and the best way to stop them is to give them adequate support, more time with their patients and adequate recognition of the importance of reassuring and talking to patients when they need it.
To put it differently:
The best way to reduce the use of bogus SCAMs is to make conventional medicine less flawed.
On this blog and elsewhere, I have repeatedly claimed that as early as 2002 I published data to show that UK homeopaths advise their patients against vaccinations.
So sorry, but this not entirely true!
The truth is that I had forgotten about this article published 1995 in the British Journal of General Practice. As it is quite short and reveals several interesting facts, allow me to provide it here in full:
Homoeopathic remedies are believed by doctors and patients to be almost totally safe. Is homoeopathic advice safe, for example on the subject of immunization? In order to answer this question, a questionnaire survey was undertaken in 1995 of all 45 homoeopaths listed in the Exeter ‘yellow pages’ business directory. A total of 23 replies (51%) were received, 10 from medically qualified and 13 from non-medically qualified homoeopaths.
The homoeopaths were asked to suggest which conditions they perceived as being most responsive to homoeopathy. The three most frequently cited conditions were allergies (suggested by 10 respondents), gynaecological problems (seven) and bowel problems (five). They were then asked to estimate the proportion of patients that were referred to them by orthodox doctors and the proportion that they referred to orthodox doctors. The mean estimated percentages were 1 % and 8%, respectively. The 23 respondents estimated that they spent a mean of 73 minutes on the first consultation.
The homoeopaths were asked whether they used or recommended orthodox immunization for children and whether they only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization. Seven of the 10 homoeopaths who were medically qualified recommended orthodox immunization but none of the 13 non-medically qualified homoeopaths did. One non-medically qualified homoeopath only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization.
Homoeopaths have been reported as being against orthodox immunization and advocating homoeopathic immunization for which no evidence of effectiveness exists. As yet there has been no attempt in the United Kingdom to monitor homoeopaths’ attitudes in this respect. The above findings imply that there may be a problem.
The British homoeopathic doctors’ organization (the Faculty of Homoeopathy) has distanced itself from the polemic of other homoeopaths against orthodox immunization, and editorials in the British Homoeopathic Journal call the abandonment of mass immunization ‘criminally irresponsible’ and ‘most unfortunate, in that it will be seen by most people as irresponsible and poorly based’.’ Homoeopathic remedies may be safe, but do all homoeopaths merit this attribute?
Yes indeed! These findings indicate that there may be a problem with non-medically trained homeopaths in the UK. It is good to see that now (24 years later) the NHS has taken note of it. At the same time, it is not at all good to see that non-medically trained homeopaths and their professional organisations have managed to remain in complete denial of it.
On 6 November the Guardian published an article in which acupuncture and its risks were briefly mentioned. It prompted a complaint by the British Acupuncture Council which, I think, is sufficiently interesting to merit a discussion. The British Acupuncture Council (BAcC) has a membership of around 3,000 professionally qualified acupuncturists. It is the UK’s largest professional/ self-regulatory body for the practice of traditional acupuncture. Here is their complaint in full:
Re: Guardian article ‘Doctors call for tighter regulation of traditional Chinese medicine’, published 6 November 2019. We wish to respond to the article referenced above, specifically with regards to the two sentences relating to the safety of acupuncture. We request you correct the misleading comments made in the article and publish this letter online.
1. ‘And acupuncture, they will say, “is not necessarily harmless.”’
Yes, of course it may not be harmless: it involves piercing the skin with a sharp object. Hence the need for proper training of acupuncturists, together with evidenced guidelines, a robust code of safe practice and regulatory teeth. These components are all in place for members of the British Acupuncture Council (BAcC). Acupuncture has not been taken into state control in the UK precisely because it has been found to be so safe; instead, the BAcC is entrusted with self-regulation and is an accredited member of the Professional Standards Authority. Statements about the safety of acupuncture commonly conclude: ‘Acupuncture seems, in skilled hands, one of the safer forms of medical intervention’ (White 2001).
2. ‘…A review in 2017 found many injuries, infections and adverse reactions.’
That first part of your acupuncture safety comment was a direct quote from the FEAM/EASAC statement, which was the focus of the article, but it then departs from the script to manufacture the colourful soundbite above. You refer to the same acupuncture safety overview paper (Chan et al 2017) that FEAM/EASAC drew on, but then substantially misrepresent its content and messages. It is neither a quote from the FEAM/EASAC statement, nor from the overview paper. In fact, the latter sums up the findings of the 17 included reviews thus: ‘However, all the reviews have suggested that adverse events are rare and often minor.’ Your statement about many injuries, infections and adverse reactions gives a very different message to the paper’s authors.
The Guardian article appears to have been written with little understanding of the science involved in investigating medical adverse events. In particular, it is impossible to establish the significance of the numbers of adverse events reported without knowing how many treatments they came from. Chan et al (2017) noted that incidence rates could not be calculated ‘because many adverse events came from case reports and many of the reviews did not include full details about the number of participants in their included studies’. The 17 reviews between them covered literature from 1950 to 2014 and countries across the globe, so potentially millions and millions of treatments. No wonder they turned up plenty of incidents!
One of the ‘gold standard’ acupuncture safety reviews (Xu et al 2013), which was included in Chan’s overview, provides the following information on this issue:
‘Incidence rates for major AEs [adverse events] of acupuncture are best estimated from large prospective surveys of practitioners. Four recent surveys of acupuncture safety among regulated, qualified practitioners, two conducted in Germany (Melchart 2004; Witt 2009), and two in the United Kingdom (MacPherson 2001; White 2001), confirm that serious adverse events after acupuncture are uncommon. Indeed, of these surveys, covering more than 3 million acupuncture treatments all together, there were no deaths or permanent disabilities, and all those with AEs fully recovered (Witt 2011). Thus, it can be concluded that acupuncture has a very low rate of AEs, when conducted among licensed, qualified practitioners in the West.’
The overview authors also raised this concern: ‘A major limitation of the presented information was that no causality could be determined’. In other words there is often no evidence to link acupuncture to the reported event: it is implicated just because it was around at the time. Adverse events only become adverse reactions (your words) if there is a substantiated link.
Your article (and indeed the FEAM/EASAC statement) completely omits perhaps the most important consideration: how does acupuncture compare to other available treatment options? It is most often used by people for chronic pain. The evidence base for this is good (Vickers 2018) and supports acupuncture’s effectiveness compared to conventional treatments (Trinh 2019). The potential harms of opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are well known and acupuncture is associated with fewer adverse events than medications in controlled trials across a wide range of conditions (Cao 2018; Xu 2018; Lu 2016). It was estimated that one in 1,200 people taking NSAIDS for at least two months will die of gastrointestinal complications (Tramer 2000). Six percent of hospitalisations in developed countries are due to adverse drug reactions (Angamo 2016).
On safety grounds there is no comparison: no serious adverse events were reported in a survey covering 34,407 acupuncture treatments given by BAcC members (Macpherson 2001). Of the mild transient reactions reported, the most frequent were ‘feeling relaxed’, and ‘feeling energised’. This is not to downplay the potential harms, for they can be serious, but as with any medical intervention there should be a proper assessment of how likely this is, which the Guardian article signally failed to do.
Mark Bovey Research Manager British Acupuncture Council
I had no involvement in the Guardian article; I nevertheless feel that several things need to be pointed out about this bizarre complaint:
- The quote attributed to White A is, in fact, by White, Hayhoe, Hart and Ernst (yes, petty point), and our investigation showed (not petty point) that there were 43 significant minor adverse events reported, a rate of 14 per 10,000, of which 13 (30%) interfered with daily activities. One patient suffered a seizure (probably reflex anoxic) during acupuncture, but no adverse event was classified as serious. Avoidable events included forgotten patients, needles left in patients, cellulitis and moxa burns. This, I think, entirely justifies the words -is not necessarily harmless – published by the Guardian.
- The complaint states that there is often no evidence to link acupuncture to the reported event: it is implicated just because it was around at the time. Adverse events only become adverse reactions (your words) if there is a substantiated link. What this seems to imply is this: the BAcC claim that causality of adverse effects remains speculative, while having failed to establish a surveillance system that could establish their causality more firmly. Perhaps the BAcC should file a complaint about themselves?
- The BAcC claim that the author of the Guardian article lacks understanding of the science of adverse effect reporting. However, I get the impression that the lack of understanding is embarrassingly evident on the side of the BAcC.
- The BAcC then highlight the most important consideration: how does acupuncture compare to other available treatment options? This is more than a little odd. Firstly, such comparisons hardly were the aim of the Guardian article. Secondly, such comparisons only make sense with options that have a comparable risk/benefit profile. As the benefits of acupuncture for most conditions are still debatable, and since its risks are finite, its risk/benefit balance might not be clearly positive. Therefore, such comparisons are of doubtful value and could easily turn out to generate unfavourable evidence against acupuncture.
- Comparisons to opioids or NSAIDS are evidently nonsensical for the reason just mentioned.
- The Guardian article’s comments on acupuncture risks were of a general nature and were unelated to any specific issues about BAcC members. There are many non-medically trained acupuncturists – both in the UK and abroad – who might represent a substantially higher risk. Therefore the Guardian should not be criticised but praised for publishing words of caution.
The BAcC state that this is not to downplay the potential harms, yet I fear that this is precisely what they are trying to do. Until there is a post-marketing surveillance system, it would be honest and ethical to admit that the risks of acupuncture are essentially not known.
In my view, the complaint has no reasonable basis, tells us more about the BAcC than the Guardian, and should not be acted upon by the Guardian.
As reported, the Bavarian government has set aside almost half a million Euros for research to determine whether the over-use of antibiotics can be reduced by replacing them with homeopathic remedies. Homeopaths in and beyond Germany were delighted, of course, but many experts were bewildered (see also this or this, if you read German).
While the Bavarians are entering the planning stage of this research, I want to elaborate on the question what methodology might be employed for this task. As far as I can see, there are, depending on the precise research questions, various options.
IN VITRO TESTS OF HOMEOPATHICS
The most straight forward way to find out whether homeopathics are an alternative to antibiotics would be to screen them for antibiotic activity. For this, we would take all homeopathic remedies in several potencies that are commonly used, for instance D12 and C30, and add them to bacterial cultures. To cover even part of the range of homeopathic remedies, several thousand such tests would be required. The remedies that show activity in vitro would then be candidates for further clinical tests.
I doubt that this will generate meaningful findings. As homeopaths would probably point out quickly, they never claimed that their remedies have any antibiotic effects. Homeopathics work not via pharmacological mechanisms (there is none), they stimulate the vital force, the immune system, or whatever mystical force you fancy. Faced with the inevitably negative results of in vitro tests, homeopaths would merely shrug their shoulders and say: ‘we told you so’.
Thus it might be more constructive to go directly into animal models. Such tests could take several shapes and forms. For instance, scientists could infect animals with a bacterium and subsequently treat one group with a high potency homeopathic remedy and the control group with a placebo. If the homeopathic animals survive, while the controls die, the homeopathic treatment was effective.
Such concepts would run into problems on at least two levels. Firstly, any ethics committee worth its name would refuse to pass such a protocol and argue that it is not ethical to infect and then treat animals with two different types of placebo. Secondly, the homeopathic fraternity would explain that homeopathy must be individualised which cannot be done properly in animals. Faced with the inevitably negative results of such animal studies, homeopaths would merely shrug their shoulders and say: ‘we told you so’.
Homeopathy may, according to some homeopaths, defy in vitro and animal tests, but it is most certainly amenable to being tested in clinical trials. The simplest version of a clinical study would entail randomising a group of patients with bacterial infections – say pneumonia – into receiving either individualised homeopathy or placebo. Possibly, one could add a third group of patients being treated with appropriate antibiotics.
The problem here would again be the ethics; no proper ethic committee would pass such a concept (see above). Another problem might be that even the homeopathic fraternity would oppose such a study. Why? Because all but the most deluded homeopaths know only too well that the result of such a trial would be devastatingly negative for homeopathy.
Therefore, homeopaths are likely to go for a different study design, for instance, one where patients suspected to have a bacterial infection are randomised to two groups of GPs. One group of ‘normal’ GPs would proceed as usual, while the other group are also trained in homeopathy and would be free to give whatever they feel is right for each individual patient. With a bit of luck, the ‘normal’ GPs would over-prescribe antibiotics (because that’s what they are apparently doing routinely), while the homeopathic GPs would often use homeopathics instead.
Such a study would indeed generate a result alleging that the use of homeopathy reduces the use of antibiotics. Of course, to be truly ‘positive’ it would need to exclude any clinical outcome such as time to recovery, because that might not be in favour of homeopathy.
The problem might again be the ethics committee. Assuming they are scientifically switched on, they will see through the futility of a trial designed to produce the desired result. They might also argue that science is not for testing one faulty approach (over-prescribing) against another (homeopathy) and insist that science is about finding the best treatment (which is neither of the two).
There are, of course, many other study designs that could be considered. Generally, they fall into two different categories: if they are rigorous tests of a hypothesis, they are sure to produce a result unfavourable to homeopathy. Such studies will therefore be opposed to by the powerful homeopathic fraternity. If, however, studies are flimsily designed to generate a positive finding, they might be liked by homeopaths, yet rejected by scientists and ethicists.
A much easier solution to the question ‘does the use of homeopathy reduce the use of antibiotics’ might be to not do a trial at all, but to run a simple survey. For instance, one could retrospectively assess how many antibiotics 100 homeopathic GPs have prescribed during the last year and compare this to the figure of 100 over-prescribing, ‘normal’ GPs. This type of ‘research’ is a sure winner for the homeopaths. Therefore, I predict that they will advocate this or a similarly flawed concept.
Most politicians are scientifically illiterate to such a degree that they might actually agree to finance such a survey and then confuse correlation with causation by triumphantly stating that the use of homeopathy reduces over-prescribing of antibiotics. Few, I fear, will realise that there is only one method for reducing the over-prescribing of antibiotics: remind doctors what they all learnt in medical school, namely to prescribe antibiotics only in cases where they are indicated. And for that we evidently need no homeopathy or other SCAM.