Leah Bracknell, started raising funds ~3 years ago for alternative cures of her stage 4 lung cancer. Bracknell who, after her acting career, had become a yoga teacher said at the time that, in the UK, she was given “a fairly brutal and bleak diagnosis, but one I am determined to challenge”. Her partner, Jez Hughes, who helped with the fund-raising said the money would be used for “immunotherapy and integrative medicine, which are seeing previously ‘incurable’ cancers going into complete remission”.
The team thus raised over £50 000 and went to Germany, a country that is well-known for its liberal stance on quackery. In Britain, there are just a few physicians who are devoted to this or that alternative medicine. In Germany, there are thousands of them. In addition, Germany has a healthcare profession called the ‘Heilpraktiker’, a poorly-regulated left-over from the Third Reich. A Heilpraktiker has not studied medicine, yet is legally permitted to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and treat many serious diseases, including cancer, with unproven therapies.
It was reported that Leah Bracknell went to the ‘Hallwang Private Oncology Clinic’, an institution which claims that “Healing-oriented and individualised medicine considers all aspects of lifestyle and not only relies on conventional treatments and recent cutting-edge developments in medicine, but also takes into account our experience in natural remedies and is open for alternative treatment options in order to work in synergy with conventional treatment strategies. We always try to be as natural as possible and as conventional as needed to achieve the best results. Integrative Health Concepts are successfully used in many diseases including malignant diseases, neurological disorders as well as in prevention and rehabilitation.” The SCAMs used there include homeopathy, micronutrients, natural supplements, whole body hyperthermia and ozone therapy.
The evidence does not support these or other alternative cancer ‘cures’. In fact, the very notion of an alternative cancer cure is nonsensical: if an alternative cancer therapy showed even the slightest shimmer of promise, it would get investigated and, if shown to work, become part of routine oncology. The suggestion that there are treatments out there that are effective, yet shunned by oncologists because they originate from nature or from some exotic tradition is insulting and utterly barmy.
Yet cancer patients can easily fall for such claims. They are understandably desperate and listen to anyone promissing a cure. Therefore, they all too easily believe in weird conspiracy theories of ‘Big Parma’, the evil ‘establishment’ etc. who allegedly suppress the news of an effective therapy, as it might threaten their profits. If they do fall for such lies, they not only lose pots of money but also their lives.
Last Wednesday, it was reported that Leah Bracknell had died of cancer.
Autologous whole blood (AWB) therapy is a treatment where a patients blood is first drawn from a vein and then (unmodified or treated in various bizarre ways) reinjected intra-muscularly. This sounds barmy, not least because there is no remotely plausible mode of action. Nonetheless, the therapy is popular in some countries (like Germany, where it is practised by many doctors and Heilpraktikers) and recommended for all sorts of illnesses, particularly for strengthening the immune system and fend off infections.
I have personally used it quite a bit and even conducted the first but very small double-blind, placebo-controlled RCT of AWB therapy which showed promising results. Now two systematic reviews of AWB therapy have become available almost simultaneously.
The first systematic review included our plus 7 more clinical studies. The authors included all prospective controlled trials concerning intra-muscular AWB therapy with the exception of trials using oxygenated, UV radiated or heated blood. Information was extracted on the indication, design, additions to AWB and outcome. Full texts were screened for information about the effector mechanisms.
Eight trials met their inclusion criteria. In three controlled trials with patients suffering from atopic dermatitis and urticaria, AWB therapy showed beneficial effects. In five randomized controlled trials (RCTs), two of which concerned respiratory tract infections, two urticaria and one ankylosing spondylitis, no efficacy could be found. A quantitative assessment was not possible due to the heterogeneity of the included studies. The authors found only 4 controlled trials with sample sizes bigger than 37 individuals per group. Only one study investigated the effector mechanisms of AWB.
The German authors concluded that there is some evidence for efficacy of AWB therapy in urticaria patients and patients with atopic eczema. Firm conclusions can, however, not be drawn. We see a great need for further RCTs with adequate sample sizes and for investigation of the effector mechanisms of AWB therapy.
The second systematic review had a slightly different focus in that it assessed AWB therapy as well as autologous serum therapy (AST) for patients suffering from chronic spontaneous urticaria (CSU). Its authors managed to include 8 clinical trials. AST was not more effective than the placebo treatment in alleviating CSU symptoms at the end of treatment (p = .161), and AWB injection was also not more effective in response rates than the placebo at the end of follow-up (p = .099). Furthermore, the efficacy of AST or AWB injection for CSU and the ASST status were not significantly related. No remarkable adverse events were recorded during therapy.
The Taiwanese authors concluded that their meta-analysis suggested that AWB therapy and AST are not significantly more effective in alleviating CSU symptoms than the placebo treatment.
These somewhat contradictory conclusions will confuse most readers. Personally, I think that caution is well-justified. The trials are mostly flawed, and even our positive study (which received the highest possible quality marks by the authors of the first review) can in no way be definitive, because it was far too small for allowing firm conclusions.
Yet, despite all this, I do think that AWB therapy merits further study.
I recently saw a tweet by a German homeopath stating that ‘homeopathy is 100% experienced based medicine’. It made me think and realise that there is not just one EBM, there are, in fact, at least three EBMs!
- Experience based medicine
- Eminence based medicine
- Evidence based medicine
I will start with the type which I encountered first when studying medicine all those years ago.
EMINENCE BASED MEDICINE
German healthcare was at the time – 1970s – deeply steeped in this variety of EBM. What the professor said was right, and there was no discussion about it. I don’t even know how my teachers would have reacted, if we had challenged their wisdom, because nobody ever did; it just did not occur to us.
Personally, I never got along too well with this type of EBM. I found it stifling, and this feeling might have contributed to my first ‘escape’ to England in 1979. In the UK, I felt, things were refreshingly different (see also my recent obituary of my former boss).
EXPERIENCE BASED MEDICINE
So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is almost entirely based on this type of EBM. Practitioners of SCAM pride themselves of their experience and are convinced that it outweighs evidence any time. They rarely miss an occasion to stress that their treatment as stood the test of time. And as such it does not require evidence; if SCAM did not work, it would not have survived all these years.
Little do they know that the appeal to tradition is a logical fallacy. And little do they care that the long tradition of their SCAMs might just signal how obsolete their treatments truly are. Hundreds (homeopathy) or thousands (acupuncture) of years ago, we had little knowledge about physiology, pathology, etc., and clinicians had to make do with the little that got. Seen in this light, experience based medicine is a negative label that indicates the fact that the treatments are likely to be obsolete and out-dated.
EVIDENCE BASED MEDICINE
Providers of SCAM have a deeply rooted dislike for the word evidence. The reason is simple: their SCAMs are usually very shy on evidence; little wonder that they like to focus on experience instead. Yet, try to explain the concept of evidence to someone neutral like a barman, for instance – whenever I made this attempt, I was interrupted by him saying: ‘Hold on, are you saying that before EBM you did not depend on evidence? This is frightening! What on earth did you rely on then?’
It is indeed not logical to rely on eminence or on experience, in my view. And therefore, I have stopped explaining EBM to people who have common sense, like my barman. Let’s try something else instead: imagine you are seriously ill and are able to chose between three clinician who are each the leading head in their type of EMB.
THE EMINENCE IS A PROFESSOR MANY TIMES OVER AND SIMPLY KNOWS THAT HE IS ALWAYS RIGHT
Personally, I would run a mile. I have seen too many of those blundering through the wards of university hospitals. He never makes a mistake, except that things do go wrong quite often; and when they do, it is the fault of some underling, of course.
THE EXPERIENCED CLINICIAN WITH YEARS OF PRACTICE WHO HAS SEEN IT ALL AND HAS ALL THE ANSWERS
With a bit of bad luck, he might be a homeopath. He will tell you endlessly of cases that were similar to yours. Occasionally, there was an aggravation (which, of course, is a good sign in his view), but in the end he cured them all with his treatments that had stood the test of time. He has excellent bedside manners, a lot of charisma, and is a good listener. Who was it that said: “the three most dangerous words in medicine are IN MY EXPERIENCE”?
Yes, you guessed it: run and don’t turn back!
THE CLINICIAN WHO KNOWS WHAT THE CURRENT BEST EVIDENCE HAS TO OFFER
He might not be all that charismatic, perhaps he even is a bit abrupt. But he will know the latest developments and weigh the risks of all therapeutic options against their benefits.
But hold on, my barman would interrupt at this point, this is not either or. One can have both experience and evidence!
I told you my barman was clever. The definition of evidence based medicine is not healthcare based on up-to date knowledge, it is the integration of best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values. It thus rests on three pillars: external evidence, ideally from systematic reviews, the clinician’s experience, and the patient’s preferences.
Therefore, my barman and I agree that eminence based medicine is highly questionable, experience based medicine can be outright dangerous, and evidence based medicine is the only EBM version that does make sense.
It is hard to deny that many practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) advise their patients to avoid ‘dangerous chemicals’. By this they usually mean prescription drugs. If you doubt how strong this sentiment often is, you have not followed the recent posts and the comments that regularly followed. Frequently, SCAM practitioners will suggest to their patients to not take this or that drug and predict that patients would then see for themselves how much better they feel (usually, they also administer their SCAM at this point).
Lo and behold, many patients do indeed feel better after discontinuing their ‘chemical’ medicines. Of course, this experience is subsequently interpreted as a proof that the drugs were dangerous: “I told you so, you are much better off not taking synthetic medicines; best to use the natural treatments I am offering.”
But is this always interpretation correct?
I seriously doubt it.
Let’s look at a common scenario: a middle-aged man on several medications for reducing his cardiovascular risk (no, it’s not me). He has been diagnosed to have multiple cardiovascular risk factors. Initially, his GP told him to change his life-style, nutrition and physical activity – to which he was only moderately compliant. Despite the patient feeling perfectly healthy, his blood pressure and lipids remained elevated. His doctor now strongly recommends drug treatment and our chap soon finds himself on statins, beta-blockers plus ACE-inhibitors.
Our previously healthy man has thus been turned into a patient with all sorts of symptoms. His persistent cough prompts his GP to change the ACE-inhibitor to a Ca-channel blocker. Now the patients cough is gone, but he notices ankle oedema and does not feel in top form. His GP said that this is nothing to worry about and asks him to grin and bear it. But the fact is that a previously healthy man has been turned into a patient with reduced quality of life (QoL).
This fact takes our man to a homeopath in the hope to restore his QoL (you see, it certainly isn’t me). The homeopath proceeds as outlined above: he explains that drugs are dangerous chemicals and should therefore best be dropped. The homeopath also prescribes homeopathics and is confident that they will control the blood pressure adequately. Our man complies. After just a few days, he feels miles better, his QoL is back, and even his sex-life improves. The homeopath is triumphant: “I told you so, homeopathy works and those drugs were really nasty stuff.”
When I was a junior doctor working in a homeopathic hospital, my boss explained to me that much of the often considerable success of our treatments was to get rid of most, if not all prescription drugs that our patients were taking (the full story can be found here). At the time, and for many years to come, this made a profound impression on me and my clinical practice. As a scientist, however, I have to critically evaluate this strategy and ask: is it the correct one?
The answer is YES and NO.
YES, many (bad) doctors over-prescribe. And there is not a shadow of a doubt that unnecessary drugs must be scrapped. But what is unnecessary? Is it every drug that makes a patient less well than he was before?
NO, treatments that are needed should not be scrapped, even if this would make the patient feel better. Where possible, they might be altered such that side-effects disappear or become minimal. Patients’ QoL is important, but it is not the only factor of importance. I am sure this must sound ridiculous to lay people who, at this stage of the discussion, would often quote the ethical imperative of FIRST DO NO HARM.
So, let me use an extreme example to explain this a bit better. Imagine a cancer patient on chemo. She is quite ill with it and QoL is a thing of the past. Her homeopath tells her to scrap the chemo and promises she will almost instantly feel fine again. With some side-effect-free homeopathy see will beat the cancer just as well (please, don’t tell me they don’t do that, because they do!). She follows the advice, feels much improved for several months. Alas, her condition then deteriorates, and a year later she is dead.
I know, this is an extreme example; therefore, let’s return to our cardiovascular patient from above. He too followed the advice of his homeopath and is happy like a lark for several years … until, 5 years after discontinuing the ‘nasty chemicals’, he drops dead with a massive myocardial infarction at the age of 62.
I hope I made my message clear: those SCAM providers who advise discontinuing prescribed drugs are often impressively successful in improving QoL and their patients love them for it. But many of these practitioners haven’t got a clue about real medicine, and are merely playing dirty tricks on their patients. The advise to stop a prescribed drug can be a very wise move. But frequently, it improves the quality, while reducing the quantity of life!
The lesson is simple: find a rational doctor who knows the difference between over-prescribing and evidence-based medicine. And make sure you start running when a SCAM provider tries to meddle with necessary prescribed drugs.
Dr Alice Hodkinson is a GP in Cambridge, England. She says of herself that she is interested in supporting people to make informed choices about their own health, reduce the burden of illness and lighten the load of medication on patients and the country’s National Health Service. She is studying medical ethics and law at King’s College London.
Even though we live in the same town, I don’t know Dr Hodkinson personally and never met her. My only contact with her is the one depicted here: on Twitter I had posted my recent article entitled ‘A new, comprehensive review: HOMEOPATHY = PLACEBO THERAPY‘. This prompted the following exchange:
At the very least homeopathy and placebos don’t cause harm that medicines do.
Edzard Ernst @EdzardErnst
have you heard of something called ‘risk/benefit balance’?
Which is precisely where homeopathy wins over toxins I prescribe as medication.
Edzard Ernst @EdzardErnst
oh really? I do worry about the students you teach
I worry about the over-use of toxins that harm. Lots of ppl get much better when meds are stopped. They come back from the dead and live much happier. Lots of evidence for this.
Edzard Ernst @EdzardErnst
” Lots of ppl get much better when meds are stopped.” surely this is a sign that they never needed them; in other words, it is the mistake of the GP who did the prescription
It’s a sign meds’ aren’t reviewed and they do harm. Water doesn’t harm, unless in excess. Promoting water as a cure might be harmful, yet there are sooooo many conditions where medicine has no answers, and for these, homeopathy comes up trumps.
Edzard Ernst @EdzardErnst
I am sooooooo pleased you are not my GP!
I’m bored. Go poison yourself on prescribed medication!
END OF EXCHANGE
I don’t know why this shocks me more than any of the often much more disagreeable disputes I have with other proponents of homeopathy on Twitter or on this blog. Perhaps it is because it occurred with a person who is a doctor like myself, or because it happened with a complete stranger, or because it was with someone who is, for all I know, an entirely reasonable clinician in other medical matters, or because Dr Hodkinson is studying medical ethics? I really don’t know.
Or perhaps nobody have ever told me to poison myself?
Guest post by Toby Katz
Who am I?
I’m a final-year graduate medic (also hold an Economics degree) studying at St George’s University. I founded the Integrative Medicine Society at the university, with the aim of hosting talks on evidence-based CAM. My interest in evidence-based CAM arose as many of my family members have benefitted from different CAM interventions (mostly due to chronic MSk pain), where conventional interventions (physiotherapy and chronic pain teams) have failed to resolve their issues.
When it comes to the CAM debate, I see myself as a centrist. I am both a CAM apologist and sceptic and in recent years I have looked to educate myself around this subject. I have read Ernst’s Desktop Guide to CAM and Moral Maze books, spoken to Professor Colquhoun and most recently I undertook the Foundation Course in CAM run by the College of Medicine. My review of the course follows.
Overall, there’s a lot to learn from both sides of the debate and the debate continues due to systematic issues in the UK. Ad hominem attacks don’t help anyone, but conversation can. I hope I can converse with many of you in the future.
The Foundation Course
Two days of fast-paced talks on Integrative/Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The topics included: Resilience, nutritional therapy, medical acupuncture, MSk methods for non-osteopaths, homeopathy, herbs and spices, imagery and relaxation, cancer, hypnotherapy and social prescribing.
The speakers included: Professor David Peters, Dr Catherine Zollman (Medical Director for Penny Brohn), Heather Richards (Nutritional Therapist), Dr Elizabeth Thompson (GP and homeopath), Trevor Hoskisson (Hypnotherapist), Dr Mike Cummings (BMAS), Simon Mills (Medical Herbalist) – at least two of these are already in the infamous Alt Med Hall of Fame!
My initial feelings upon hearing the talks were that most of these individuals are inherently good people, who want the best outcomes for their patients. Their aim is to operate in the areas of medicine where conventional medicine doesn’t hold the answers – chronic pain, idiopathic headache, IBS etc. But there were also people who were advocating the use of unproven alternative therapies.
These were some of my thoughts I jotted down during the two days:
Professor Peters – Constantly speaking in generalisations. Uses historic references, romantic and philosophical language to entice listeners but generally has little point to what he says. Suffers from tangential thinking. Loses track of his own point. Very Freudian-like thinking (everyone has gone through childhood trauma according to him).
Dr Catherine Zollman – Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The doctor I resonate most closely with out of everyone speaking. Promoting the holistic management of a cancer diagnosis; integrating (not undermining) conventional medicine with complementary ways of dealing with the stress surrounding the diagnosis and much more. Works for a non-for-profit organisation. She has many years of oncology experience and strives to create a patient-centred approach to management.
Dr Mike Cummings – promoting medical acupuncture mainly for myofascial pain syndrome. I volunteered to receive acupuncture in my shoulder (have had post-op muscular pain since April). He dry-needled one of my trigger points and it helped, for a few days – this is better than anything a physio has done for me so far. I don’t know why dry-needling isn’t taught at medical school to help with myofascial pain syndrome.
Dr Elizabeth Thompson – Very respectable but I do feel the homeopathy ship has well and truly sailed. Provided ‘evidence’ on how ‘succussion’ changes the make-up of water molecules. Though Dr Thompson is medically trained, there are many non-medical homeopaths who promote things such as homeoprophylaxis and anti-vaccine views and I’m more worried about these such homeopaths. I do respect Dr Thompson and believe her when she says she has helped many patients. Whether this is due to placebo or the get-better-anyway effect I don’t know.
What they were promoting
On reflection, it’s clear that there was a real mix in promoting evidence-based therapies and eyebrow-raising alternatives – this is often difficult for those with an untrained eye to spot the difference. There was a general air of distrust with modern science and EBM floating around the room at all times. Sure, there are things wrong with it, but I think it’s done us pretty well over the last few decades!
I irritated a few speakers when I asked about the evidence behind their claims!
What to take away
There were many GPs present, who stated they’re often in a difficult position in the current system of healthcare we have in the UK. Around half of all consultations are MSk based, many of which are associated with chronic, muscular pain. The WHO analgesic pathway does little for these patients (unless you want to knock them for six with oxycodone) and physiotherapists struggle to make a real difference in a 30-minute appointment. The truth is, we are not providing GPs with the right toolkit to cope with these “difficult” patients.
– Get a copy of Ernst et al.’s Desktop Guide for CAM
– Release more formal guidelines using this book as a base for any positive evidence
– Engage in conversation with those from both sides. We have a lot to learn from one another
– SCRAP the forms of CAM that have no plausibility
Food for thought
– If a patient’s pain improves after a session of acupuncture and not from physiotherapy, does it fit with a utilitarian ethical model to deny this person access to acupuncture if EBM shows acupuncture has rates similar to placebo?
– Chronic myofascial pain syndrome. Can we manage it better in primary care? Why not teach dry needling to healthcare professionals? (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4107879/ – Desai et al suggest it works)
– What is the alternative for no CAM for many patients who suffer? If patient’s choice is reduced, does that not reduce their autonomy?
If anyone wishes to contact me, you can at firstname.lastname@example.org
An article in the ‘Chronicle of Chiropractic’ defends the currently much debated chiropractic care for children. It is authored by ‘ChiroFuture‘, a Risk Purchasing Group founded by chiropractors. Here is the unabridged article (the references were added by me and refer to my comments below):
The chiropractic care of children has been the subject of increased media attention and scrutiny following decisions by chiropractic regulatory boards in Europe, Australia and Canada. These decisions were not based on science, research or data but rather a purposeful misrepresentation of the concept of evidence informed practice (1) and its application coupled with compelled speech.
As with the chiropractic care of adults, an evidence informed perspective (2) respects the needs and wants of parents for the care of their child, the published research evidence and the clinical expertise of chiropractors in the care of children.
ChiroFutures Malpractice Program does not base its malpractice insurance rates on the age of the patients a chiropractor sees. In fact, we are not aware of any actuarial data showing an increase in adverse events from the tens of millions of pediatric chiropractic visits per year (3). The vast majority of claims or incidents alleging chiropractic negligence involve adult patients (4).
What chiropractors do is minimally invasive and typically nothing else but their hands are used to gently ease any obstruction to the functioning of the patient’s nervous system (5). Since the nervous system controls and coordinates all functions of the body it is important to be sure it is functioning as best it can with no obstructions and no matter the disease afflicting the patient.
State and provincial laws, federal governments, international, national and state chiropractic organizations and chiropractic educational institutions all support the role and responsibility of chiropractors in the management of children’s health (6). The rationale for chiropractic care of children is supported by published protocols that are safe, efficacious, and valid (7). The scientific literature is sufficiently supportive of the usefulness of these protocols in regard to the chiropractic care of children (8).
Those contending that there is no evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of the chiropractic care of children demonstrate a complete disregard for the evidence and scientific facts related to the chiropractic care of children (9).
ChiroFutures encourages and supports a shared decision making process between doctors (10) and patients regarding health needs. As a part of that process, patients have a right to be informed about the state of their health as well as the risks, benefits and alternatives related to care. Any restriction on that dialogue or compelled statements inconsistent with the doctrine of informed consent present a threat to public health (11).
Here are my comments:
- Why ‘evidence informed’ and not evidence-based’? The term ‘evidence informed’ is popular with SCAM practitioners. Barratt and Hodson noted, “The evidence-informed practitioner carefully considers what research evidence tells them in the context of a particular child, family or service, and then weighs this up alongside knowledge drawn from professional experience and the views of service users to inform decisions about the way forward.” This seems to imply that the two terms are synonymous. However, in reality they are not.
- Does that mean that ‘evidence-informed’ is defined as the practice wanted by patients, regardless of the evidence?
- There is no post-marketing surveillance in chiropractic. Therefore we do not have reliable data on adverse events.
- That might be true but it is unclear what it tells us. It might simply mean that chiropractors treat more adults than children.
- There is no good evidence to show that the function of the nervous system can be enhanced by manual therapy.
- Provincial laws and federal governments might tolerate but I don’t think they ‘support’ the role and responsibility of chiropractors. That chiropractic organisations support it surprises nobody.
- This sentence does not make sense to me. The facts, however, are clear: there is no sound rational for chiropractic manipulations and they are neither efficacious nor totally safe for children.
- The scientific evidence does not show that chiropractic care is effective for any paediatric condition.
- I think the complete disregard is shown not by critics but by the authors of these lines.
- Calling chiropractors ‘doctors’ gives the impression they have been to medical school and is therefore misleading the public.
- The threat to public health are those chiropractors who advise parents not to immunise their children.
Perhaps ChiroFuture need to brush up on their knowledge of the evidence. Chiropractic has no place in the healthcare of children. Parents should be warned!
One of the favourite arguments of proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is that conventional medicine is amongst the world’s biggest killers. The argument is used cleverly to discredit conventional medicine and promote SCAM. It has been shown to be wrong many times, but it nevertheless is much-loved by SCAM enthusiasts and thus refuses to disappear. Perhaps this new and important review might help instilling some realism into this endless discussion? Here is its abstract:
Objective To systematically quantify the prevalence, severity, and nature of preventable patient harm across a range of medical settings globally.
Design Systematic review and meta-analysis.
Data sources Medline, PubMed, PsycINFO, Cinahl and Embase, WHOLIS, Google Scholar, and SIGLE from January 2000 to January 2019. The reference lists of eligible studies and other relevant systematic reviews were also searched.
Review methods Observational studies reporting preventable patient harm in medical care. The core outcomes were the prevalence, severity, and types of preventable patient harm reported as percentages and their 95% confidence intervals. Data extraction and critical appraisal were undertaken by two reviewers working independently. Random effects meta-analysis was employed followed by univariable and multivariable meta regression. Heterogeneity was quantified by using the I2 statistic, and publication bias was evaluated.
Results Of the 7313 records identified, 70 studies involving 337 025 patients were included in the meta-analysis. The pooled prevalence for preventable patient harm was 6% (95% confidence interval 5% to 7%). A pooled proportion of 12% (9% to 15%) of preventable patient harm was severe or led to death. Incidents related to drugs (25%, 95% confidence interval 16% to 34%) and other treatments (24%, 21% to 30%) accounted for the largest proportion of preventable patient harm. Compared with general hospitals (where most evidence originated), preventable patient harm was more prevalent in advanced specialties (intensive care or surgery; regression coefficient b=0.07, 95% confidence interval 0.04 to 0.10).
Conclusions Around one in 20 patients are exposed to preventable harm in medical care. Although a focus on preventable patient harm has been encouraged by the international patient safety policy agenda, there are limited quality improvement practices specifically targeting incidents of preventable patient harm rather than overall patient harm (preventable and non-preventable). Developing and implementing evidence-based mitigation strategies specifically targeting preventable patient harm could lead to major service quality improvements in medical care which could also be more cost effective.
One in 20 patients is undoubtedly an unacceptably high proportion, but it is nowhere close to some of the extraordinarily alarming claims by SCAM enthusiasts. And, as I try regularly to remind people, the harm must be viewed in relation to the benefit. For the vast majority of conventional treatments, the benefits outweigh the risks. But, if there is no benefit at all – as with some form of SCAM – a risk/benefit balance can never be positive. Moreover, many experts work hard and do their very best to improve the risk/benefit balance of conventional healthcare by educating clinicians, maximising the benefits, minimising the risks, and filling the gaps in our current knowledge. Do equivalent activities exist in SCAM? The answer is VERY FEW?
In Germany there are about 150,000 doctors, and around 7,000 specialize in homeopathy. Multiple surveys confirm that Germans do like their SCAMs, particularly homeopathy. Two examples:
- A 2016 cross-sectional analysis conducted among all patients being referred to the Department of Internal and Integrative Medicine at Essen, Germany, over a 3-year period showed that 35% of the 2,045 respondents reported having used homeopathy for their primary medical complaint. 359 (50.2%) patients reported benefits and 15 (2.1%) reported harm.
- More recently, a questionnaire survey concerning current and lifetime use of SCAM was distributed to German adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The results suggested that 45% of the respondents were currently using or had used at least one SCAM modality in their life. Homeopathy and acupuncture were most frequently used SCAMs, followed by mind-body interventions.
But since a few years, the German opposition to homeopathy has become much more active. In particular the INH, the GWUP, and the Muensteraner Kreis have been instrumental in informing the public about the uselessness and dangers of homeopathy. The press has now taken up this message and, as this article explains, now the debate about homeopathy has finally reached the political level.
The head of the main doctors’ association and the SPD’s health specialist have called for an end to refunds for homeopathy treatments in Germany. The head of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KBV), which represents 150,000 doctors and psychotherapists in Germany, recently urged health insurance companies to stop funding homeopathic services. “There is insufficient scientific evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic procedures,” Andreas Gassen told the Rheinische Post. “If people want homeopathic remedies, they should have them — but not at the expense of the community.“
Gassen’s comments follow those of the Social Democrat (SPD) health issues specialist and lawmaker Karl Lauterbach who has pressed for a law banning refunds for homeopathy. “We have to talk about it in GroKo,” Lauterbach said earlier this month, suggesting a discussion in the government grand coalition. He said the benefits paid for by insurers should be medically and economically sensible. He has the support of the Federal Joint Committee which decides on what is covered by payments from the statutory health funds.
So, what is going to happen?
As I have written previously, one can only be sure of this:
- 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.
It is not that long ago that I published a post entitled HOMEOPATHY IN FRANCE: A TRIUMPH OF PROFIT OVER REASON. Today, I am pleased to post one with the reverse title.
It has taken a few years (compared to the UK where it has taken a few decades, it was nevertheless fast), but now it is done. Very briefly, this is what happened:
- In 2014, our book was published in French. I might be fooling myself, but I do hope that it helped starting a ball rolling in France where, up to then, homeopathy had enjoyed a free ride.
- Subsequently, French sceptics began raising their voices against quackery in general and homeopathy in particular.
- In 2018, they got organised and 124 doctors published an open letter criticising the use of alternative medicine as dangerous practised by charlatans of all kinds.
- In the same year, the Collège National des Généralistes Engseignants, the national association for teaching doctors, pointed out that there was no rational justification for the reimbursement of homeopathics nor for the teaching of homeopathy in medical schools stating that It is necessary to abandon these esoteric methods, which belong in the history books.
- Also in 2018, the University of Lille announced its decision to stop its course on homeopathy. The faculty of medicine’s dean, Didier Gosset, said: It has to be said that we teach medicine based on proof – we insist on absolute scientific rigour – and it has to be said that homeopathy has not evolved in the same direction, that it is a doctrine that has remained on the margins of the scientific movement, that studies on homeopathy are rare, that they are not very substantial. Continuing to teach it would be to endorse it.
- In 2019, the French Academies of Medicine and Pharmacy have published a document entitled ‘L’homéopathie en France : position de l’Académie nationale de médecine et de l’Académie nationale de pharmacie’. It stated that L’homéopathie a été introduite à la fin du XVIIIe siècle, par Samuel Hahnemann, postulant deux hypothèses : celle des similitudes (soigner le mal par le mal) et celle des hautes dilutions. L’état des données scientifiques ne permet de vérifier à ce jour aucune de ces hypothèses. Les méta-analyses rigoureuses n’ont pas permis de démontrer une efficacité des préparations homéopathiques. The academies concluded that no French university should offer degrees in homeopathy, and that homeopathy should no longer be funded by the public purse: “no homeopathic preparation should be reimbursed by Assurance Maladie [France’s health insurance] until the demonstration of sufficient medical benefit has been provided. No university degree in homeopathy should be issued by medical or pharmaceutical faculties … The reimbursing of these products by the social security seems aberrant at a time when, for economic reasons, we are not reimbursing many classic medicines because they are more or less considered to not work well enough …”
- Only weeks later, the French health regulator (HAS) has recommended with a very large majority (only one vote against) for the discontinuation of the reimbursement of homeopathic products.
- The health minister, Agnès Buzyn, announced “Je me tiendrai à l’avis de la Haute Autorité de santé”.
- Consequently, the powerful French homeopathy lobby created political pressure in multiple ways, including a petition with over 1000000 signatures and the last minute press-release below.
- President Macron allegedly was hesitant and considered a range of options, including a reduction of the percentage of reimbursement.
- Apparently, the minister stood up for science and, it was rumoured, even put her job on the line to turn this affaire into the triumph of reason it now has become.
- Yesterday, she announced the end of reimbursement and was quoted saying “J’ai toujours dit que je suivrais l’avis de la Haute Autorité de santé (HAS), j’ai donc décidé d’engager la procédure de déremboursement total“
It is important, I think, to use this occasion for considering the main arguments of the homeopathy lobby in their defence of homeopathy.
- Homeopathy is effective. This argument is demonstrably false and can only be made, if one abuses the published evidence. One way to demonstrate this is to look at the official verdicts from around the globe.
- Homeopathy may only be a placebo, but it prevents patients taking dangerous drugs instead. This argument is tricky but wrong. If patients are ill, they need an effective therapy and not homeopathy. If they are not ill, they need reassurance and not a placebo. We need to educate the public and doctors to understand this simple message rather than pulling wool over their eyes.
- Discontinuing homeopathy is an undesirable curtailment of our freedom of choice. This is a pseudo-argument, because nobody forbids anyone using homeopathy. All we advocate is that the public purse should only pay for effective treatments. Any other strategy means that we jeopardise funds for effective therapies.
- Homeopathy employs over 1000 workers, and any cut in reimbursement would jeopardise these jobs. This argument is also tricky (and it is probably the one that created a headache for politicians). It is, however, spurious. Firstly, job preservation is only a good thing, if the jobs in question are worth preserving. If they serve no good service to the public, they are probably not worth preserving. (We don’t need to all start smoking, for instance, in order to preserve the jobs in the tobacco industry.) Secondly, the argument contradicts the other arguments of the homeopathy lobby. If homeopathy were effective and helpful, people would carry on buying homeopathics regardless of any cut in reimbursement. Thirdly, I suspect the figure of > 1000 will turn out to be hugely exaggerated. Fourthly, arguments of this kind are deeply regressive; they have historically stood in the way of progress whenever an innovation was inescapable (think of the industrial revolution, for instance), and they have never succeeded.
To contemplate these arguments carefully is important, I feel, because this will help other rational thinkers to fight for progress, optimal healthcare and good science. There is still plenty of quackery out there. So, let’s celebrate the French triumph (à votre santé, Agnès Buzyn!!!) – and then roll up our sleeves and get cracking!