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

education

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This was essentially the question raised in a correspondence with a sceptic friend. His suspicion was that statistical methods might produce false-positive overall findings, if the research is done by enthusiasts of the so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in question (or other areas of inquiry which I will omit because they are outside my area of expertise). Consciously or inadvertently, such researchers might introduce a pro-SCAM bias into their work. As the research is done mostly by such enthusiasts; the totality of the evidence would turn out to be heavily skewed in favour of the SCAM under investigation. The end-result would then be a false-positive overall impression about the SCAM which is less based on reality than on the wishful thinking of the investigators.

How can one deal with this problem?

How to minimise the risk of being overwhelmed by false-positive research?

Today, we have several mechanisms and initiatives that are at least partly aimed at achieving just this. For instance, there are guidelines on how to conduct the primary research so that bias is minimised. The CONSORT statements are an example. As many studies pre-date CONSORT, we need a different approach for reviews of clinical trials. The PRISMA guideline or the COCHRANE handbook are attempts to make sure systematic reviews are transparent and rigorous. These methods can work quite well in finding the truth, but one needs to be aware, of course, that some researchers do their very best to obscure it. I have also tried to go one step further and shown that the direction of the conclusion correlates with the rigour of the study (btw: this was the paper that prompted Prof Hahn’s criticism and slander of my work and person).

So, problem sorted?

Not quite!

The trouble is that over-enthusiastic researchers may not always adhere to these guidelines, they may pretend to adhere but cut corners, or they may be dishonest and cheat. And what makes this even more tricky is the possibility that they do all this inadvertently; their enthusiasm could get the better of them, and they are doing research not to TEST WHETHER a treatment works but to PROVE THAT it works.

In the realm of SCAM we have a lot of this – trust me, I have seen it often with my own eyes, regrettably sometimes even within my own team of co-workers. The reason for this is that SCAM is loaded with emotion and quasi-religious beliefs; and these provide a much stronger conflict of interest than money could ever do, in my experience.

And how might we tackle this thorny issue?

After thinking long and hard about it, I came up in 2012 with my TRUSTWORTHYNESS INDEX:

If we calculated the percentage of a researcher’s papers arriving at positive conclusions and divided this by the percentage of his papers drawing negative conclusions, we might have a useful measure. A realistic example might be the case of a clinical researcher who has published a total of 100 original articles. If 50% had positive and 50% negative conclusions about the efficacy of the therapy tested, his TI would be 1.

Depending on what area of clinical medicine this person is working in, 1 might be a figure that is just about acceptable in terms of the trustworthiness of the author. If the TI goes beyond 1, we might get concerned; if it reaches 4 or more, we should get worried.

An example would be a researcher who has published 100 papers of which 80 are positive and 20 arrive at negative conclusions. His TI would consequently amount to 4. Most of us equipped with a healthy scepticism would consider this figure highly suspect.

Of course, this is all a bit simplistic, and, like all other citation metrics, my TI provides us not with any level of proof; it merely is a vague indicator that something might be amiss. And, as stressed already, the cut-off point for any scientist’s TI very much depends on the area of clinical research we are dealing with. The lower the plausibility and the higher the uncertainty associated with the efficacy of the experimental treatments, the lower the point where the TI might suggest  something  to be fishy.

Based on this concept, I later created the ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME. This is a list of researchers who manage to go through life researching their particular SCAM without ever publishing a negative conclusion about it. In terms of TI, these people have astronomically high values. The current list is not yet long, but it is growing:

John Weeks (editor of JCAM)

Deepak Chopra (US entrepreneur)

Cheryl Hawk (US chiropractor)

David Peters (osteopathy, homeopathy, UK)

Nicola Robinson (TCM, UK)

Peter Fisher (homeopathy, UK)

Simon Mills (herbal medicine, UK)

Gustav Dobos (various, Germany)

Claudia Witt (homeopathy, Germany and Switzerland)

George Lewith (acupuncture, UK)

John Licciardone (osteopathy, US)

The logical consequence of a high TI would be that researchers of that nature are banned from obtaining research funds and publishing papers, because their contribution is merely to confuse us and make science less reliable.

I am sure there are other ways of addressing the problem of being mislead by false-positive research. If you can think of one, I’d be pleased to hear about it.

 

Yesterday, it was announced that UK universities are not doing well according to international league tables. Of the UK’s 84 ranked universities, 66 saw their staff to student ratio decline while 59 had a drop in research citations. International student numbers at 51 universities also fell.

No reason to despair; help is on the way!

The University of Exeter reported that “as International Education Champion, Sir Steve will have a leading role in a 10-year strategy to both increase the number of international students choosing to study in the UK higher education system to 600,000 and increase the value of education exports to £35 billion per year by 2030. The University of Exeter is delighted and proud with this appointment…

The role of International Education Champion will be to work with organisations across the breadth of the education sector, including universities, schools, the EdTech industry, vocational training, and early years schooling providers. Steve will also help target priority regions worldwide to build networks and promote the UK as the international education partner of choice. The role will additionally help to boost the numbers of international students in the UK.

The appointment of Sir Steve Smith fulfils a priority action from the International Education Strategy, published by the Department for Education and the Department for International Trade. Sir Steve will spearhead overseas activity and address a number of market access barriers on behalf of the whole education sector, including concerns over the global recognition of UK degrees and other qualifications. Sir Steve’s experience, knowledge and global connections will help to develop long-term relationships with international governments and overseas stakeholders…”

Shortly after becoming VC at Exeter, Prof Smith closed two Departments: Music and Chemistry. Apparently, they were not bringing in enough cash. Several years later, he had a key role in closing my unit. It had attracted a complaint from Prince Charles’ 1st private secretary (full story here, in case you are interested).

I hope Sir Steve is more productive in boosting international education. One thing seems certain to me: post-Brexit/post-COVID academia in the UK will need a boost after what our current government has done to it.

In the wake of both the NEJM and the LANCET withdrawing two potentially influential papers due unanswered questions about the source and reliability of the data, one has to ask how good or bad the process of peer review is.

Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people with similar competences as the producers of the work (peers). It functions as a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. It normally involves multiple steps:

  1. Authors send their manuscript to a journal of their choice for publication.
  2. The journal editor has a look at it and decides whether to reject it straight away (for instance, because the subject area is not of interest) or whether to send it out to referees for examination (often to experts suggested by the authors of the submission).
  3. The referees (usually 2 or 3) have the opportunity to reject or accept the invitation to review the submission.
  4. If they accept, they review the paper and send their report to the editor (usually following a deadline).
  5. The editor tries to come to a decision about publication; often the referees are not in agreement, and a further referee has to be recruited.
  6. Even if the submission is potentially publishable, the referees will have raised several points that need addressing. In such cases, the editor sends the submission back to the original authors asking them to revise the article.
  7. The authors do their revision (often following a deadline) and re-submit their paper.
  8. Now the editor can decide to either publish it or send it back to the referees asking them whether they feel their criticisms have been adequately addressed.
  9. Depending on the referees’ verdicts, the editor makes the final decision and informs all the involved parties accordingly.
  10. If the paper was accepted, it then goes into production.
  11. When this process is finished, the authors receive the proofs for final a check.
  12. Eventually, the paper is published and the readers of the journal may scrutinise it.
  13. Often this prompts comment which may get published.
  14. In this case, the authors of the original paper may get invited to write a reply.
  15. Finally the comments and the reply are published in the journal side by side.

The whole process takes time, sometimes lots of time. I have had papers that took almost two years from submissions to publications. This delay seems tedious and, if the paper is important, unacceptable (if it is not important, it should arguably not be published at all). Equally unacceptable is the fact that referees are expected to do their reviewing for free. The consequence is that many referees do their reviewing less than well.

When I was still at Exeter, I had plenty of opportunity to see the problems of peer review from the reviewers perspective. At a time, I accepted about 5 reviews per week, and in total I surely have reviewed over 1000 papers. I often recommended inviting a statistician to do a specialist review of the stats. Only rarely were such suggestions accepted by the journal editors. Very often I recommended rejecting a submission because it was rubbish, and occasionally, I told the editor that there was a strong suspicion of the paper being fraudulent. The editors very often (I estimate in about 50% of cases) ignored my suggestions and comments and published the papers nonetheless. If the editor did follow my advice to reject a paper, I regularly saw it published elsewhere later (usually in a less well-respected journal). Several times, an author of a submission contacted me directly after seeing my criticism of his paper. Occasionally this resulted in unpleasantness, once or twice even in threats. Eventually I realised that improving the publications in the realm of SCAM was a Sisyphean task, became quite disenchanted with all this and accepted less and less reviews. Today, I do only very few.

I had even more opportunity to see the peer review process from the author’s perspective. All authors must have suffered from unfair or incompetent reviews and most will have experienced the frustrations of the endless delays. Once (before my time in alternative medicine) a reviewer rejected my paper and soon after published results that were uncannily similar to mine. In alternative medicine, researchers tend to be rather emotional about their subject. Imagine, for instance, the review you might get from Dana Ullmann of a trial of homeopathy that fails to show what he believes in.

Finally, since 40 years, I have also had the displeasure of experiencing peer review as an editor. This often seemed like trying to sail between the devil and the deep blue sea. Editors want to fill their journals with the best science they can find. But all too often, they receive the worst science they can imagine. They are constantly torn by tensions pulling them in opposite directions. And they have to cope not just with poor quality submissions but also with reviewers who miss deadlines and do their work badly.

So, peer review is fraught with problems! The trouble is that there are few solutions that would keep a better check on the reliability of science. Peer review, it often seemed to me, is the worst idea, except for all others. If peer review is to survive (and I think it probably will), there are a few things that could, from my point of view, be done to improve it:

  1. Make it much more attractive for the referees. Payment would be the obvious thing – and by Jove, the big journals like the LANCET and NEJM could afford it. But recognising refereeing academically would be even more important. At present, academic careers depend largely of publications; if they also depended on reviewing, experts would queue up to do it.
  2. The reports of the referees should get independently evaluated according to sensible criteria. These data could be conflated an published as a criterion of academic standing. Referees who fail to to a good job would spoil their chances to get re-invited for this task.
  3. Speed up the entire process. Waiting months on months is hugely counter-productive for all concerned.
  4. Today many journals ask authors for the details of experts who are potential reviewers of their submission and then send the paper in question to them for review. I find this ridiculous! No author I know of has ever resisted the temptation to name people who are friends or owe a favour. Journals should afford the extra work to find who the best independent experts on any particular subject are.

None of this is simple or fool-proof or even sure to work well, of course. But surely it is worth trying to get peer-review right. The quality of future science depends on it.

Homeopathy has had its fair share of declarations, and now there is another one. I find this new one important because it is from German medical students and might thus indicate where German homeopathy is heading.

The ‘Bundesvertretung der Medizinstudenten in Deutschland’ – the German Medical Students’ Association – has recently looked into the evidence for and against homeopathy and came up with this poignant declaration:

Here is my translation for those who cannot read German; I have added a few footnotes to explain the German context:

  • Homeopathy does not work beyond placebo [1].
  • The legal health insurances should not reimburse homeopathy [2].
  • The law stating that homeopathy can only be sold in pharmacies should be abolished [3].
  • Medicines should only be licenced, if there is a valid proof of efficacy [4].
  • In public debates, it must be made clear that homeopathy is not part of naturopathy [5].
  • The medical degree in homeopathy must be scrapped [6].
  • The teaching of homeopathy must be evidence-based and context-related [7].

_______________________________

  1. This seems to refer to the wording a German manufacturer of homeopathic preparations tried to suppress.
  2. At the moment most German health insurances do pay for homeopathy.
  3. In Germany, pharmacies have a monopoly on homeopathic remedies.
  4. Since many years, there has been a special regulation in Germany whereby homeopathics could get a licence without proof of efficacy.
  5. German homeopaths tend to be keen on muddying the water by claiming homeopathy is part of naturopathy.
  6. All German students are being taught (and examined on) some rudimentary knowledge of homeopathy.

The new declaration is ‘spot on’. I congratulate the students for their courage and wisdom to publish it. They are the future of German medicine, a future where homeopathy’s place is exclusively in the history books as a bizarre episode of anti-science.

People who use so-called alternative medicines (SCAM) tend to be more vaccine hesitant. One possible conclusion that can be drawn from this is that trusting SCAM results in people becoming more vaccine hesitant. An alternative possibility is that vaccine hesitancy and use of SCAM are both consequences of a distrust in conventional treatments. an International team of researchers conducted analyses designed to disentangle these two possibilities.

They measured vaccine hesitancy and SCAM use in a representative sample of Spanish residents (N = 5200). They also quantified their trust in three CCAM interventions;     

  1. acupuncture,
  2. reiki,
  3. homeopathy                                                                  

and in two conventional medical interventions:

  1. chemotherapy,
  2. antidepressants.

Vaccine hesitancy turned out to be strongly associated with (dis)trust in conventional medicine, and this relationship was particularly strong among SCAM users. In contrast, trust in SCAM was a relatively weak predictor of vaccine hesitancy, and the relationship was equally weak regardless of whether or not participants themselves had a history of using SCAM.

According to the authors of this paper, the implication for practitioners and policy makers is that SCAM is not necessarily a major obstacle to people’s willingness to vaccinate, and that the more proximal obstacle is people’s mistrust of conventional treatments.

This is an interesting study. Yet, it begs a few questions:

  1.  Is it possible to reliably establish trust in SCAM by asking about just 3 specific therapies?
  2. Is it possible to reliably establish trust in conventional medicine by asking about just 2 treatments?
  3. Why those therapies out of hundreds of options?
  4. Could it be that here are national differences (in other countries distrust in conventional medicine is not a strong determinant of SCAM use)?
  5. Is trust in SCAM and distrust in conventional medicine perhaps the common expression of an anti-science attitude or cultist tendencies?

During the last few months, I have done little else on this blog than trying to expose misinformation about COVID-19 in the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). However, the usefulness and accuracy of most viewed YouTube videos on COVID-19 have so far not been investigated. Canadian researchers have just published a very nice paper that fills this gap.

They performed a YouTube search on 21 March 2020 using keywords ‘coronavirus’ and ‘COVID-19’, and the top 75 viewed videos from each search were analysed. Videos that were duplicates, non-English, non-audio and non-visual, exceeding 1 hour in duration, live and unrelated to COVID-19 were excluded. Two reviewers coded the source, content and characteristics of included videos. The primary outcome was usability and reliability of videos, analysed using the novel COVID-19 Specific Score (CSS), modified DISCERN (mDISCERN) and modified JAMA (mJAMA) scores.

Of 150 videos screened, 69 (46%) were included, totalling 257 804 146 views. Nineteen (27.5%) videos contained non-factual information, totalling 62 042 609 views. Government and professional videos contained only factual information and had higher CSS than consumer videos (mean difference (MD) 2.21, 95% CI 0.10 to 4.32, p=0.037); mDISCERN scores than consumer videos (MD 2.46, 95% CI 0.50 to 4.42, p=0.008), internet news videos (MD 2.20, 95% CI 0.19 to 4.21, p=0.027) and entertainment news videos (MD 2.57, 95% CI 0.66 to 4.49, p=0.004); and mJAMA scores than entertainment news videos (MD 1.21, 95% CI 0.07 to 2.36, p=0.033) and consumer videos (MD 1.27, 95% CI 0.10 to 2.44, p=0.028). However, they only accounted for 11% of videos and 10% of views.

The authors concluded that over one-quarter of the most viewed YouTube videos on COVID-19 contained misleading information, reaching millions of viewers worldwide. As the current COVID-19 pandemic worsens, public health agencies must better use YouTube to deliver timely and accurate information and to minimise the spread of misinformation. This may play a significant role in successfully managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think this is an important contribution to our knowledge about the misinformation that currently bombards the public. It explains not only the proliferation of conspiracy theories related to the pandemic, but also the plethora of useless SCAM options that are being touted endangering the public.

The authors point out that the videos included statements consisting of conspiracy theories, non-factual information, inappropriate recommendations inconsistent with current official government and health agency guidelines and discriminating statements. This is particularly alarming, when considering the immense viewership of these videos. Evidently, while the power of social media lies in the sheer volume and diversity of information being generated and spread, it has significant potential for harm. The proliferation and spread of misinformation can exacerbate racism and fear and result in unconstructive and dangerous behaviour, such as toilet paper hoarding and mask stealing behaviours seen so far in the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, this misinformation impedes the delivery of accurate pandemic-related information, thus hindering efforts by public health officials and healthcare professionals to fight the pandemic.

Good work!

I suggest to critically evaluate the statements of some UK and US politicians next.

 

An international team of students of chiropractic have published a paper protesting against those chiropractors and chiropractic organisations that claim their treatments boost the immune system and thus protect the public from the corona-virus infection. Here their abstract:

Background

The 2019 coronavirus pandemic is a current global health crisis. Many chiropractic institutions, associations, and researchers have stepped up at a time of need. However, a subset of the chiropractic profession has claimed that spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) is clinically effective in improving one’s immunity, despite the lack of supporting scientific evidence. These unsubstantiated claims contradict official public health policy reflecting poorly on the profession. The aim of this commentary is to provide our perspective on the claims regarding SMT and clinically relevant immunity enhancement, drawing attention to the damaging ramifications these claims might have on our profession’s reputation.

Main text

The World Federation of Chiropractic released a rapid review demonstrating the lack of clinically relevant evidence regarding SMT and immunity enhancement. The current claims contradicting this review carry significant potential risk to patients. Furthermore, as a result of these misleading claims, significant media attention and public critiques of the profession are being made. We believe inaction by regulatory bodies will lead to confusion among the public and other healthcare providers, unfortunately damaging the profession’s reputation. The resulting effect on the reputation of the profession is greatly concerning to us, as students.

Conclusion

It is our hope that all regulatory bodies will protect the public by taking appropriate action against chiropractors making unfounded claims contradicting public health policy. We believe it is the responsibility of all stakeholders in the chiropractic profession to ensure this is carried out and the standard of care is raised. We call on current chiropractors to ensure a viable profession exists moving forward.

In the paper, the authors also state that significant reputational damage can follow when unfounded claims are made that undermine public health policy… We call for a strong stance to be taken against these unsubstantiated claims and do not condone this unacceptable behaviour. As students, we are worried for the profession’s reputation and call on current chiropractors to ensure we have a viable profession moving forward. 

BRAVO!!!

Now that the students have realised that the immunity claim is bogus, it would be only a small step to realise that so many other claims chiropractors make on a daily basis are false as well. There may be a difference in terms of severity, but there is none in terms of principle. As responsible healthcare professional to be, the student must rebel against ALL false claims made in their name.

So, will these students and other like-minded chiropractors please not stop here. I urge them to have a serious look at the claims their profession makes. Subsequently, they ought to take the ethically appropriate action.

And what might that be?

I see two possibilities:

  1. Get rid of the abundance of lies that dominate chiropractic.
  2. Find a different, more honest profession.

As we have discussed repeatedly, chiropractors tend to be critical of vaccinations. This attitude is easily traced back to DD Palmer, the founding father of chiropractic, who famously wrote about smallpox vaccinations: ‘…the monstrous delusion … fastened on us by the medical profession, enforced by the state boards, and supported by the mass of unthinking people …

In Canada, the anti-vaccination attitude of chiropractors has been the subject of recent media attention. Therefore, researchers explored the association between media attention and public dissemination of vaccination information on Canadian chiropractors’ websites.

In 2016, an international team of investigators identified all Canadian chiropractors’ websites that provided information on vaccination by extracting details from the regulatory college website for each province using the search engine on their “find a chiropractor” page. The researchers assessed the quality of information using the Web Resource Rating Tool (scores range from 0% [worst] to 100% [best]), determined whether vaccination was portrayed in a positive, neutral or negative manner, and conducted thematic analysis of vaccination content. Now the researchers have revisited all identified websites to explore the changes to posted vaccination material.

Here are their findings:

In July 2016, of 3733 chiropractic websites identified, 94 unique websites provided information on vaccination:

  • 59 (63%) gave negative messaging,
  • 19 (20%) were neutral,
  • 16 (17%) were positive.

The quality of vaccination content on the websites was generally poor, with a median Web Resource Rating Tool score of 19%. Four main themes were identified:

  1. there are alternatives to vaccination,
  2. vaccines are harmful,
  3. evidence regarding vaccination,
  4. health policy regarding vaccination.

From 2012 to 2016, there was one single Canadian newspaper story concerning anti-vaccination statements by chiropractors, whereas 51 news articles were published on this topic between 2017 and 2019. In April 2019, 45 (48%) of the 94 websites originally identified in 2016 had removed all vaccination content or had been discontinued.

The authors of this investigation concluded that in 2016, a minority of Canadian chiropractors provided vaccination information on their websites, the majority of which portrayed vaccination negatively. After substantial national media attention, about half of all vaccination material on chiropractors’ websites was removed within several years.

I find these findings encouraging. They demonstrate that media attention can produce change for the better. That gives me the necessary enthusiasm to carry on my work in putting the finger on the dangers of chiropractic and other forms of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). At the same time, the findings of this investigation are also disappointing. About half of all the chiropractors had not removed their misleading content from their websites despite the 51 articles highlighting the problem. This shows, I think, how deeply entrenched this vitalistic nonsense is in the heads of many chiropractor.

This means there is still a lot to do – so, let’s get on with it!

The UK university at Teesside has announced its plan to offer a chiropractic degree. The course will be hosted by its School of Health and Life Sciences and the Department of Allied Health Professions. The designated course leader, Daniel Moore, explains:

“The benefit for us when we developed this curriculum from a blank canvas was not only exciting, but it granted an opportunity for us to do things in a slightly different way.  The placement model is something I feel we may see more of in the future because the benefit it gives students is significant from a confidence point of view, and provides interaction with both the profession and patients from the first semester.  We also could create our modules from scratch giving us the ability to build context into historically quite fixed modular content whilst staying mapped to the education standards.  We also give all students iPads from the start of their degree which will allow us to collaborate and communicate in a really unique and beneficial way throughout the course.”

“I have always been interested in knowledge transfer, and how as individuals we learn and how we develop ourselves.  Part of my draw to being a chiropractor was my wanting to help people become the best version of themselves.  So it isn’t a great leap to the higher educational world where my goal now is similar, facilitating and leading people towards being the best chiropractor they can be.  They can then move into the profession and make a positive impact themselves.  I feel I can make a positive difference to the profession here, and that is important to me.”

“My goal in my mind is clear.  To create chiropractors that are safe, competent and confident, to go into practice and add value to the chiropractic profession.  I also hope I can create students that are excited to graduate and practice chiropractic, I feel we have a lot to offer as chiropractors and students should be excited about that opportunity.”

“I am from the North East of England, so have an affinity to this region.  I am passionate about chiropractic and think my history, since being a student shows my willingness to represent that.  I was a student member of the NMSK faculty of the College of Medicine as well as being on WIOC Student Council for 4 years.  I then moved into practice where I took on delivery of CPD events for the RCC, qualified as an FA Medical Tutor, I was also involved in writing initial material for the RCC’s online Quality Standards offering, and have been involved in multiple British Masters Athletics Medical Team events with a great group of people over the years.  I am a dad, to two wonderful boys and a husband to Elaine (also a chiropractor and BCA member).  I keep myself fit, and race Cross Country Mountain Bikes and Cyclocross to a national level and plan on competing at the World Masters Championships this August all things being well. Now I lead the chiropractic course at Teesside and I am planning my PhD, I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities that lay ahead.”

Allow me to add a few points and ask a few questions:

  1. Mr Moore wants to ‘create chiropractors that are safe, competent and confident’. How about creating therapists who are effective in curing or alleviating disease or symptoms? Has he perhaps realised that, in chiropractic, this is not possible? Do his peers at Teesside know that chiropractic does not generate more good than harm?
  2. I am fascinated to learn that Mr Moore is now planning to do his PhD. Should a higher degree not have been a precondition to becoming a course leader in academia?
  3. As far as I can see, Mr Moore has never published a single paper in the peer-reviewed literature. Should a track record in research not have been a precondition to becoming a course leader in academia?
  4. Does the University of Teesside know that even the most proper (and I fear the course does not even appear to be proper) teaching of nonsense must result in nonsense?
  5. Have they taken leave of their senses at Teesside university?

This study by Australian pharmacists, assessed the quality and relevance of community pharmacists’ information gathering (questioning), counselling and product selection when interacting with customers requesting a s0-called alternative medicine (SCAM) product for stress and consequently determine whether Australian pharmacy practice indicates the need for guidelines similar to those provided for ‘pharmacy only’ (S2) and ‘pharmacist only’ (S3) medicines.

A covert simulated patient (SP) was used to investigate the response of pharmacists to a request for a natural product for stress. The SP documented the details of the pharmacist-simulated patient interaction immediately on leaving the pharmacy and then re-entered the pharmacy to debrief the pharmacist. The quality of the interaction was scored as a Total CARE (check, assess, respond, explain) Score, based on anticipated questions and counselling advice. The appropriateness of the product was scored as a Product Efficacy Score, based on evidence-based literature.

Data from 100 pharmacies was provided. Information gathering illustrated by the questioning components Check and Assess (C and A) of the total CARE score by pharmacists was poor. The number of questions asked ranged from zero (13 pharmacists) to 7 (four pharmacists), the average being 3.1 (SD 1.9). Provision of advice was generally better (a description of the suggested product was offered by 87 pharmacists) but was lacking in other areas (duration of use and side effects were explained by only 41 and 16 pharmacists respectively). The most common product suggested was B-group vitamins (57 pharmacists) followed by a proprietary flower essence product (19 pharmacists). A two-step cluster analysis revealed two sub-groups of pharmacists: one cluster (74 pharmacists) with a high Total CARE score provided an appropriate product. The other cluster (20 pharmacists) had a low total CARE score and provided an inappropriate product.

The authors concluded that the pharmacy visits revealed major shortcomings in questioning, counselling and product recommendation. There is a need to develop guidelines for pharmacists to make evidence-based decisions in recommending SCAMs.

This paper offers a host of interesting information. For instance, it reveals that almost all pharmacists recommended at least one product for sale, about half of them recommended more than one. Considering that the evidence for most of the products in question is weak (to say the least), this seems concerning.

The second most recommended product, the ‘Bach Rescue Remedy‘, is perhaps a good case in point. There is no evidence that it has any effect on stress or any other condition. As the product contains no active ingredient, it is also implausible to assume it might work beyond placebo. Yet, many pharmacists are happy not only to sell it to the unsuspecting public, but even to recommend it to a customer who seeks out their advice.

I find this quite intolerable.

The paper thus confirms the point I have made repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere: community pharmacists seem to behave like commercially motivated shopkeepers, yet they are healthcare professionals who have to abide by an ethical code. When confronted with this overt conflict of interest, their vast majority seem to opt for violating their professional ethics in favour of profit.

I fail to understand why, despite these facts being well-known for so long, the professional organisations of pharmacists are doing do very little to rectify this appalling situation.

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