Some of you might have followed my recent discussion with a homeopath. It followed a typical path, and I decided therefore to try and analyse this exchange here. Perhaps others can learn from this example when debating with homeopaths or other providers of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).
These conversations often start ‘out of the blue’ by some falsehood being trumpeted on social media. In the present case, the encounter commenced by someone tweeting this message to me: “…remember that asthma trial whose results you faked?” As I did not even remember having ever met the man, I was perplexed. And as I have not faked the study in question nor any other results, I did not think his remark was credible or funny. My mention of the fact that the aggressor was being libellous seemed to bring an end to this unhappy dialogue.
But not for very long. When the man insulted me again – this time very publicly in a UK newspaper – I decided to look into it a bit closer. The aggressor turned out to be in charge of the well-known UK homeopathic pharmacy, Ainsworth, and thus had an overt conflict of interest in defaming my often critical stance on homeopathy. Intriguingly, he had also published his own study of homeopathy. When I assessed this research, it turned out to be both incompetent and unethical. I had hoped that he would defend his work and discuss its limitations with me in a rational fashion. Yet, at this stage, he remained silent.
I then decided to write a further post in the hope of getting some sort of response from him. Alas, my hope was disappointed again. Even when I challenged him and his ROYAL WARRANT directly, he remained silent.
It needed a seemingly unrelated post of mine for him to find his voice:
We can all go round in endless circles arguing whether the Earth is Flat, but eventually someone has to venture out in a boat to the horizon to determine the fact. A cursory reading of Hahnemann encourages every student of homoeopathy to gain their own experience empirically. We all know you and your friends on this blog are standing on the shore proclaiming the Earth to be flat, but when are you going to pedal out,to bravely cite actual cases you have treated with homoeopathy as evidence of your position? What the audience reading this wants to know is what experience and knowledge any of you actually have of the subject you spend so much time criticising?
At this stage a had grown a little weary of Mr Pinkus and his innuendos. My response was thus a little impatient:
I don’t think highly of people who
1) are too daft to spell my name correctly,
2) imply I have no experience in homeopathy,
3) pretend that I make a secret of it, while, in fact, I published this multiple times (i.e. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scientist-Wonderland-Searching-Finding-Trouble/dp/1845407776),
4) accuse others of being flat earthers, while evidently being one themselves,
5) do all this without declaring their massive conflict of interest.
What followed was Pinkus’ increasingly irrational attempts to defame me by revealing to the world that I (and other critics of homeopathy) lacked sufficient clinical experience with homeopathy and therefore were not competent to discuss the subject. Explanations by myself and others that,
- firstly I did have knowledge and experience of homeopathy,
- and secondly no experience is required for a critical evaluation of any treatment,
all fell on deaf ears.
The conclusion of this odd discussion was Pinkus’ triumphant declaration of victory:
I came to this blog to see if anyone in the discussion had any serious intention to discuss the subject of homoeopathy. In order to do this there are certain prerequisites for a sensible debate and one of these is actual knowledge and experience of the subject matter under discussion. To this end I asked if anyone has case they treated in order to discuss the merits and demerits of the experience. No one offered one. I repeated the request and the silence changed to attacks on me even asking.
Any scientist worthy of the challenge, and certainly someone who proudly styles himself as a Professor of CAM with experience and knowledge, would be only too glad to share this with others. Sadly though I have met with rebuke and insult but no evidence to support the opposition to homoeopathy saving some incoherent rant about the needlessness of empirical experience. The cornerstone of Hahnemann’s work on homoeopathy and the one thing he advocated to other doctors. “Don’t take my word for it, prove it to yourself”
When you find the need to attack me to defend your incessant argument that homoeopathy is implausible I really cannot take you seriously.
Here we have a blog hosted by a chap who claims to be an expert on the subject but now claims he hasn’t practiced it for over 40 years. Won’t say what he did when he practised, what he learned and when asked to give at least once case he treated, refuses and creates some diversion to cover his ignorance of the question. Now that’s what I call a charlatan.
I understand you have made a living out of this but it must be a miserable existence old chap
I find this exchange rather typical for an argument with SCAM-fanatics. It follows a fairly standard strategy:
- aggression form a complete stranger,
- attempt of a rational defence,
- more aggression and insults
- attempts to debate the published evidence,
- silence from the aggressor who seems unable to defend his evidence,
- more aggression at an unexpected opportunity,
- further attempts to rationalise and discuss the facts,
- the aggressor questions his opponent’s competence,
- more attempts to rationalise and provide valid explanations,
- conclusion of the discussion with aggressor trying to occupy the moral high ground.
Of course, this is eerily similar to playing chess with a pigeon.
So, what, if anything, can we learn from this?
Mainly three things, I think:
- Either you don’t argue with fanatics at all,
- or you realise from the beginning what is about to happen; in this case, have fun exposing irrationality in the hope that others might profit from your experience.
- In any case, do not expect that your aggressor will be able to learn anything.
I wish people would think a bit before naming things! What is ‘natural health’? Is it the opposite of ‘unnatural health’ or of ‘natural illness’? But who am I to question the terminology of the NHS? I am not even a native English speaker!
Therefore, let me rather look at what this oddly-named school does. Here is how the ‘NHS Natural Health School‘ explain their work:
The NHS Natural Health School has been developed to meet the standards of practice, and experience that are essential for complementary therapists wishing to treat patients within an NHS healthcare setting. The school offers a wide range of approved and accredited courses, taught by highly qualified and clinically skilled lecturers who are experienced in working clinically within NHS Healthcare settings and providing complementary therapy treatments for patients with a range of complex needs including cancer diagnosis. By welcoming you into the multi-disciplinary care team, we not only prepare you as a confident, competent practitioner ready to meet the needs of a demanding industry, but we are able to support the provision of specialist care for a wide range of patients and clients who otherwise would miss out on beneficial treatments.
Courses include supervised clinical placements across hospital and community healthcare settings. All proceeds raised from the courses are reinvested into the Harrogate Hospital and Community Charity’s SROMC Complementary Therapy Fund to ensure the financial sustainability of the HDFT NHS Trust Complementary Therapy Service. For more information on the courses and education available please click the courses link above.
Naturally, I am intrigued and have a look at their courses. They include shiatsu, holistic massage and reflexology. Having published several papers on the latter, it is of particular interest to me. Reflexologists have maps of the sole of the foot where all the body’s organs are depicted. Numerous such maps have been published and, embarrassingly, they do not all agree with each other as to the location of the organs on the sole of the feet. By massaging specific zones which are assumed to be connected to specific organs, reflexologists believe to positively influence the function of these organs. Here is what the NHS Natural Health School advertise about their reflexology course:
A combination of theory and practical modules designed to equip the learner with the skills required to provide Reflexology treatments for a wide range of clients. On successful completion of the course you will be able to register with the relevant regulatory and professional associations and gain full insurance to practice.
Course content includes;
- Explore the history and origins of Reflexology
- Explore the use of various mediums used in treatment including waxes, balms, powders and oils
- Explore the philosophy of holism and its role within western bio medicine
- Reading the feet/hands and mapping the reflex points
- Relevant anatomy, physiology and pathology
- Managing a wide range of conditions
- Legal implications
- Cautions and contraindications
- Assessment and client care
- Practical reflexology skills and routines
- Treatment planning
Assessment: You will produce evidence of 30 reflexology treatments. An additional assessment of your competence will determine your readiness to undertake 72 in-depth case studies and complete a practical assessment.
Course Duration: Attendance is required at 8 Reflexology technical days over 12 months, during which time you will demonstrate a minimum of 100 practical hours.
Special Notes: The core modules; Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology, Business Practice and Principles and Practice of Complementary Therapy are normally completed concurrently as part of the diploma.
Learners who already have a Level 3 diploma in a complementary therapy may be exempt from the core modules.
A first aid certificate is required prior to completion of the diploma.
Fascinating! Personally I am most intrigued about the module on anatomy, physiology and pathology, because all of the three squarely contradict what reflexologists believe. But I wonder even more why there is no mention of the evidence. Have they forgotten to mention it? Unlikely; their other courses on SCAMs such as aromatherapy, holistic massage or shiatsu have similar omissions. Or does the ‘NHS Natural Health School’ not think that evidence matters to ‘competent practitioners’ of the NHS? Or perhaps this is where ‘natural health’ is different from unnatural health?
No, silly me! The reason clearly lies elsewhere: the evidence fails to show that reflexology generates more good than harm. So, the clever people from the ‘NHS Natural Health School’ decided to hide it discretely. Shrewd move! Albeit slightly embarrassing as well as just a little unethical, particularly for the NHS Harrogate, I’d say.
Just in case some readers do wonder nonetheless what the evidence does tell us about reflexology, here is the summary table from my recent book:
I cannot help but being reminded of something I stated many times before: EVEN THE MOST PROPER TEACHING OF NONSENSE CAN ONLY RESULT IN NONSENSE.
On this blog, we have often noted that (almost) all TCM trials from China report positive results. Essentially, this means we might as well discard them, because we simply cannot trust their findings. While being asked to comment on a related issue, it occurred to me that this might be not so much different with Korean acupuncture studies. So, I tried to test the hypothesis by running a quick Medline search for Korean acupuncture RCTs. What I found surprised me and eventually turned into a reminder of the importance of critical thinking.
Even though I found pleanty of articles on acupuncture coming out of Korea, my search generated merely 3 RCTs. Here are their conclusions:
The results of this study show that moxibustion (3 sessions/week for 4 weeks) might lower blood pressure in patients with prehypertension or stage I hypertension and treatment frequency might affect effectiveness of moxibustion in BP regulation. Further randomized controlled trials with a large sample size on prehypertension and hypertension should be conducted.
The results of this study show that acupuncture might lower blood pressure in prehypertension and stage I hypertension, and further RCT need 97 participants in each group. The effect of acupuncture on prehypertension and mild hypertension should be confirmed in larger studies.
Bee venom acupuncture combined with physiotherapy remains clinically effective 1 year after treatment and may help improve long-term quality of life in patients with AC of the shoulder.
So yes, according to this mini-analysis, 100% of the acupuncture RCTs from Korea are positive. But the sample size is tiny and I many not have located all RCTs with my ‘rough and ready’ search.
But what are all the other Korean acupuncture articles about?
Many are protocols for RCTs which is puzzling because some of them are now so old that the RCT itself should long have emerged. Could it be that some Korean researchers publish protocols without ever publishing the trial? If so, why? But most are systematic reviews of RCTs of acupuncture. There must be about one order of magnitude more systematic reviews than RCTs!
Why so many?
Perhaps I can contribute to the answer of this question; perhaps I am even guilty of the bonanza.
In the period between 2008 and 2010, I had several Korean co-workers on my team at Exeter, and we regularly conducted systematic reviews of acupuncture for various indications. In fact, the first 6 systematic reviews include my name. This research seems to have created a trend with Korean acupuncture researchers, because ever since they seem unable to stop themselves publishing such articles.
So far so good, a plethora of systematic reviews is not necessarily a bad thing. But looking at the conclusions of these systematic reviews, I seem to notice a worrying trend: while our reviews from the 2008-2010 period arrived at adequately cautious conclusions, the new reviews are distinctly more positive in their conclusions and uncritical in their tone.
Let me explain this by citing the conclusions of the very first (includes me as senior author) and the very last review (does not include me) currently listed in Medline:
penetrating or non-penetrating sham-controlled RCTs failed to show specific effects of acupuncture for pain control in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. More rigorous research seems to be warranted.
Electroacupuncture was an effective treatment for MCI [mild cognitive impairment] patients by improving cognitive function. However, the included studies presented a low methodological quality and no adverse effects were reported. Thus, further comprehensive studies with a design in depth are needed to derive significant results.
Now, you might claim that the evidence for acupuncture has overall become more positive over time, and that this phenomenon is the cause for the observed shift. Yet, I don’t see that at all. I very much fear that there is something else going on, something that could be called the suspension of critical thinking.
Whenever I have asked a Chinese researcher why they only publish positive conclusions, the answer was that, in China, it would be most impolite to publish anything that contradicts the views of the researchers’ peers. Therefore, no Chinese researcher would dream of doing it, and consequently, critical thinking is dangerously thin on the ground.
I think that a similar phenomenon might be at the heart of what I observe in the Korean acupuncture literature: while I always tried to make sure that the conclusions were adequately based on the data, the systematic reviews were ok. When my influence disappeared and the reviews were done exclusively by Korean researchers, the pressure of pleasing the Korean peers (and funders) became dominant. I suggest that this is why conclusions now tend to first state that the evidence is positive and subsequently (almost as an after-thought) add that the primary trials were flimsy. The results of this phenomenon could be serious:
- progress is being stifled,
- the public is being misled,
- funds are being wasted,
- the reputation of science is being tarnished.
Of course, the only right way to express this situation goes something like this:
BECAUSE THE QUALITY OF THE PRIMARY TRIALS IS INADEQUATE, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF ACUPUNCTURE REMAINS UNPROVEN.
After yesterday’s low light, I am in need of cheering up.
Here we go:
John Ioannidis is a pioneer of meta-research, i.e. research on published research papers. Through this work, he has made seminal contributions to evidence-based medicine. I have met John just once; this was when we were both on the panel creating the PRISMA guidelines. Recently, he and his colleagues published a publicly available database of 100,000 top researchers of all scientific disciplines. Researchers who have published more than just a couple of articles can thus look up where exactly they are ranked amongst 100 000 other scientist.
The resource can also be used for multiple other purposes. For instance, the journal NATURE just published this comment about it: The world’s most-cited researchers, according to newly released data, are a curiously eclectic bunch. Nobel laureates and eminent polymaths rub shoulders with less familiar names, such as Sundarapandian Vaidyanathan from Chennai in India. What leaps out about Vaidyanathan and hundreds of other researchers is that many of the citations to their work come from their own papers, or from those of their co-authors…
As you might imagine, the temptation to locate myself in this list of the ‘100 000 best’ proved irresistible. To my utter surprise (and, of course, delight) I found my name on rank 97 of Ioannidis’ ‘composite score’. This means that I am amongst the 100 most cited scientists worldwide. Only 8 other scientists from the UK and globally only 4 other researchers in the category of ‘general & internal medicine’ are in this group. Nobody in Ioannidis’ list of ‘the top 100’ is a researcher of so-called alternative medicines (SCAM). (And Exeter appears again only in the low thousands.)
I find this truly exciting, especially as this is not the only indicator of the standing of our (yes, it is important to stress that much of it was team-work) SCAM research. Another 2019 paper demonstrated that mine was the ‘leading institution’ in homeopathy research. And a 2001 analysis had shown that my unit was the most productive team worldwide doing SCAM research.
But what does all this mean? Does it suggest that I am infallible and cannot be wrong? Does it mean that I am immune to cognitive biases that cloud our judgements?
No, certainly not!
Like anyone else, I am prone to getting things wrong, to making mistakes and to being fooled by my own prejudices. And yes, like everyone else, I did make mistakes in the past, plenty of them!
Evidently, I had to learn the skill of critical thinking the hard way, but it certainly was worth it. Critical thinking leads to wiser decisions and to a better, more responsible life. This is why I want more people to try it.
And this is why I spend so much time and effort publishing this blog.
Yesterday, I had the honour and pleasure to present to the UK press my new book entitled ‘ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, A CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF 150 MODALITIES’ (see also my previous post). The SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE had invited me to do a ‘media briefing’ on the occasion of its publication. I did this by outlining the background around so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and explaining the concept of the new book which essentially is – as its title indicates – to provide concise and critical assessments of 150 modalities.
In the course of my short presentation, I mentioned the following exotic modalities in order to show that my book goes beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of acupuncture, chiropractic, etc.:
- BERLIN WALL
- COLLOIDAL SILVER
- PALEO DIET
- URINE THERAPY
- GUA SHA
- LYMPH DRAINAGE
- SLAPPING THERAPY
- VISCERAL OSTEOPATHY
- JOHREI HEALING
- LEECH THERAPY
- NEURAL THERAPY
- ZERO BALANCE
- APPLIED KINESIOLOGY
- LIVE BLOOD ANALYSIS
- PULSE DIAGNOSIS
As it turned out, the journalists present found the BERLIN WALL remedy the most fascinating aspect of my talk. And this is clearly reflected in today’s articles covering the event:
The DAILY TELEGRAPH published an article much in the same vein, and so did THE SUN and the EXPRESS (not available on line). The only UK newspaper I have seen so far going beyond the Berlin Wall topic is THE DAILY MAIL. The paper mentions several other so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) that consumers need to be protected from, in my view.
Interestingly, none of the articles mentioned that my new book is not an exercise in debunking. During my presentation, I made the point that several of my assessments of 150 modalities do arrive at positive conclusions for therapies that demonstrably generate more good than harm.
I also tried to point out to the journalists that SCAM includes a range of diagnostic techniques. None of them are valid which means that they present a real danger to consumers through false-positive and false-negative diagnoses. In particular the latter scenario can cost lives.
All in all, I did enjoy yesterday’s press briefing very much. I am aware of the fact that, in the realm of SCAM, the press have a most important role to play. Consumers rarely consult their doctor when deciding to use SCAM; frequently they go by what they read in the papers.
In this context, I find it noteworthy that, during the last years, the UK press have become considerably more sceptical. Not so long ago, most UK journalists used to praise SCAM like the best thing since sliced bread; today this attitude has laudably shifted towards a more rational stance. I am sure that the excellent work of the SCIENCE MEDIA CENTRE has played a crucial part in this positive development.
The journal NATURE has just published an excellent article by Andrew D. Oxman and an alliance of 24 leading scientists outlining the importance and key concepts of critical thinking in healthcare and beyond. The authors state that the Key Concepts for Informed Choices is not a checklist. It is a starting point. Although we have organized the ideas into three groups (claims, comparisons and choices), they can be used to develop learning resources that include any combination of these, presented in any order. We hope that the concepts will prove useful to people who help others to think critically about what evidence to trust and what to do, including those who teach critical thinking and those responsible for communicating research findings.
Here I take the liberty of citing a short excerpt from this paper:
Claims about effects should be supported by evidence from fair comparisons. Other claims are not necessarily wrong, but there is an insufficient basis for believing them.
Claims should not assume that interventions are safe, effective or certain.
- Interventions can cause harm as well as benefits.
- Large, dramatic effects are rare.
- We can rarely, if ever, be certain about the effects of interventions.
Seemingly logical assumptions are not a sufficient basis for claims.
- Beliefs alone about how interventions work are not reliable predictors of the presence or size of effects.
- An outcome may be associated with an intervention but not caused by it.
- More data are not necessarily better data.
- The results of one study considered in isolation can be misleading.
- Widely used interventions or those that have been used for decades are not necessarily beneficial or safe.
- Interventions that are new or technologically impressive might not be better than available alternatives.
- Increasing the amount of an intervention does not necessarily increase its benefits and might cause harm.
Trust in a source alone is not a sufficient basis for believing a claim.
- Competing interests can result in misleading claims.
- Personal experiences or anecdotes alone are an unreliable basis for most claims.
- Opinions of experts, authorities, celebrities or other respected individuals are not solely a reliable basis for claims.
- Peer review and publication by a journal do not guarantee that comparisons have been fair.
Studies should make fair comparisons, designed to minimize the risk of systematic errors (biases) and random errors (the play of chance).
Comparisons of interventions should be fair.
- Comparison groups and conditions should be as similar as possible.
- Indirect comparisons of interventions across different studies can be misleading.
- The people, groups or conditions being compared should be treated similarly, apart from the interventions being studied.
- Outcomes should be assessed in the same way in the groups or conditions being compared.
- Outcomes should be assessed using methods that have been shown to be reliable.
- It is important to assess outcomes in all (or nearly all) the people or subjects in a study.
- When random allocation is used, people’s or subjects’ outcomes should be counted in the group to which they were allocated.
Syntheses of studies should be reliable.
- Reviews of studies comparing interventions should use systematic methods.
- Failure to consider unpublished results of fair comparisons can bias estimates of effects.
- Comparisons of interventions might be sensitive to underlying assumptions.
Descriptions should reflect the size of effects and the risk of being misled by chance.
- Verbal descriptions of the size of effects alone can be misleading.
- Small studies might be misleading.
- Confidence intervals should be reported for estimates of effects.
- Deeming results to be ‘statistically significant’ or ‘non-significant’ can be misleading.
- Lack of evidence for a difference is not the same as evidence of no difference.
What to do depends on judgements about the problem, the relevance (applicability or transferability) of evidence available and the balance of expected benefits, harm and costs.
Problems, goals and options should be defined.
- The problem should be diagnosed or described correctly.
- The goals and options should be acceptable and feasible.
Available evidence should be relevant.
- Attention should focus on important, not surrogate, outcomes of interventions.
- There should not be important differences between the people in studies and those to whom the study results will be applied.
- The interventions compared should be similar to those of interest.
- The circumstances in which the interventions were compared should be similar to those of interest.
Expected pros should outweigh cons.
- Weigh the benefits and savings against the harm and costs of acting or not.
- Consider how these are valued, their certainty and how they are distributed.
- Important uncertainties about the effects of interventions should be reduced by further fair comparisons.
END OF QUOTE
I have nothing to add to this, except perhaps to point out how very relevant all of this, of course, is for SCAM and to warmly recommend you study the full text of this brilliant paper.
Before a scientific paper gets published in a journal, it is submitted to the process of peer-review. Essentially, this means that the editor sends it to 2 or 3 experts in the field asking them to review the submission. Reviewers usually do not get any reward for this, yet the task they are asked to do can be tedious, difficult and time-consuming. Therefore, most reviewers think carefully before accepting it.
My friend Timothy Caulfield was recently invited by a medical journal to review a study of homeopathy. Here is his response to the editor as posted on Twitter:
I find myself regularly in similar situations. Yet, I have never responded in this way. Here is what I normally do:
- I have a look at the journal itself. If it is one of those SCAM publications, I tend to politely reject the invitation because, in my experience, their review process is farcical and not worth the effort. All too often it has happened that I reviewed a paper that was of very poor quality and thus recommended rejecting it. Yet the editor ignored my expert opinion and published the article nevertheless. This is why, several years ago, I decided enough is enough and no longer consider investing my time is such frustrating work.
- If the journal is of decent standing, I would have a look at the submission the editor sent me. If it makes any sense at all I would consider reviewing it (obviously depending on whether I have the time and the expertise).
- If a decent journal invites me to review a nonsensical paper (I assume that was the case Timothy referred to), I find myself in the same position as my friend Timothy. But, contrary to Timothy, I normally take the trouble to write a critical review of a nonsensical submission. Why? The reason is simple: if I don’t do it, the editor will simply send it to another reviewer. Many journals allow authors to suggest reviewers of their choice. Thus, the editor might send the submission next to the person suggested by the author who most likely will write a favourable review, thus hugely increasing the chances that the paper will be published in a decent journal.
On this blog, we have seen repeatedly that even top journal occasionally publish rubbish papers. Perhaps they do so because well-intentioned experts react in the way my friend Timothy did above (as he failed to tell us what journal invited him, I might be wrong).
If we want pseudoscience to disappear, we are fighting a lost battle. It will always rear its ugly head in third class journals. This is lamentable, but perhaps not so disastrous: by publishing little else than rubbish, these SCAM journals discredit themselves and will eventually be read only by pseudoscientists.
But we can do our bit to get rid of pseudoscience in decent journals. For this to happen, I think, rational thinkers need to accept invitations from such journals and do a proper review. And, of course, they can add to it a sentence or two about the futility of reviewing nonsense.
I am sure Timothy and I both want to eliminate pseudoscience as much as possible. In other words, we are in agreement about the aim, yet we differ in our approach. The question is: which is more effective?
John Dormandy was a consultant vascular surgeon, researcher, and medical educator best known for innovative work on the diagnosis and management of peripheral arterial disease. He had a leading role in developing, and garnering international support for, uniform guidelines that had a major impact on vascular care among specialists.
The Trans-Atlantic Inter-Society Consensus on Management of Peripheral Arterial Disease (TASC) was published in 2000.1 Dormandy, a former president of clinical medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine, was the genial force behind it, steering cooperation between medical and surgical society experts in Europe and North America.
“TASC became the standard for describing the severity of the problem that patients had and then defining what options there were to try and treat them,” says Alison Halliday, professor of vascular surgery at Oxford University who worked with Dormandy at St George’s Hospital, London. “It was the first time anybody had tried to get this general view on the complex picture of lower limb artery disease,” she says.
After stumbling across this totally unexpected obituary in the BMJ, I was deeply saddened. John was a close friend and mentor; I admired and loved him. He has influenced my life more than anyone else.
Our paths first crossed in 1979 when I applied for a post in his lab at St George’s Hospital, London. Even though I had never really envisaged a career in research, I wanted this job badly. At the time, I had been working as a SHO in a psychiatric hospital and was most unhappy. All I wished at that stage was to get out of psychiatry.
John offered me the position (mainly because of my MD thesis in blood clotting, I think) which was to run his haemorheology (the study of the flow properties of blood) lab. At the time, St Georges consisted of a research tract, a library, a squash court and a mega-building site for the main hospital.
John’s supervision was more than relaxed. As he was a busy surgeon then operating at a different site, I saw him only about once per fortnight, usually for less than 5 minutes. John gave me plenty of time to read (and to play squash!). As he was one of the world leader in haemorheology research, the lab was always full with foreign visitors who wanted to learn our methodologies. We all learnt from each other and had a great time!
After about two years, I had become a budding scientist. John’s mentoring had been minimal but nevertheless most effective. After I left to go back to Germany and finish my clinical training, we stayed in contact. In Munich, I managed to build up my own lab and continued to do haemorheology research. We thus met regularly, published papers and a book together, organised conferences, etc. It was during this time that my former boss became my friend.
Later, he also visited us in Vienna several times, and when I told him that I wanted to come back to England to do research in alternative medicine, he was puzzled but remained supportive (even wrote one of the two references that got me the Exeter job). I think he initially felt this might be a waste of a talent, but he soon changed his mind when he saw what I was up to.
John was one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. His intellect was as sharp as a razor and as fast as lightening. His research activities (>220 Medline listed papers) focussed on haemorheology, vascular surgery and multi-national mega-trials. And, of course, he had a wicket sense of humour. When he had become the clinical director of St George’s, he had to implement a strict no-smoking policy throughout the hospital. Being an enthusiastic cigar smoker, this presented somewhat of a problem for him. The solution was simple: at the entrance of his office John put a sign ‘You are now leaving the premises of St George’s Hospital’.
I saw John last in February this year. My wife and I had invited him for dinner, and when I phoned him to confirm the booking he said: ‘We only need a table for three; Klari (his wife) won’t join us, she died just before Christmas.’ I know how he must have suffered but, in typical Dormandy style, he tried to dissimulate and make light of his bereavement. During dinner he told me about the book he had just published: ‘Not a bestseller, in fact, it’s probably the most boring book you can find’. He then explained the concept of his next book, a history of medicine seen through the medical histories of famous people, and asked, ‘What’s your next one?’, ‘It’s called ‘Don’t believe what you think’, ‘Marvellous title!’, he exclaimed.
We parted that evening saying ‘see you soon’.
I will miss my friend vey badly.
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 Sydney Morning Herald might be interesting to some readers. It informs us that, after more than 25 years of running, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) intends to stop offering its degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). A review of the Chinese Medicine Department found it should be wound up at the end of 2021 because
- it was no longer financially viable,
- did not produce enough research,
- and did not fit with the “strategic direction” of the science faculty.
The UTS’s Chinese medicine clinic, which offers acupuncture and herbal treatments, would also close. Students who don’t finish by the end of 2021 will either move to another health course, or transfer to another university (Chinese medicine is also offered by the University of Western Sydney, RMIT in Melbourne, and several private colleges).
TCM “is a historical tradition that pre-dated the scientific era,” said the president of Friends of Science, Associate Professor Ken Harvey. “There’s nothing wrong with looking at that using modern scientific techniques. The problem is people don’t, they tend to teach it like it’s an established fact. If I was a scientifically-orientated vice chancellor I would worry about having a course in my university that didn’t have much of a research profile in traditional Chinese medicine.”
But a spokesman for the University of Technology Sydney said the debate over the scientific validity of Chinese medicine had nothing to do with the decision, and was “in no way a reflection of an institutional bias against complementary health care”. Personally, I find this statement surprising. Should the scientific validity of a subject not be a prime concern of any university?
In this context, may I suggest that the UTS might also have a critical look at their ‘AUSTRALIAN RESEARCH CENTRE IN COMPLEMENTARY AND INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE‘. They call themselves ‘the first centre worldwide dedicated to public health and health services research on complementary and integrative medicine’. Judging from the centre director’s publications, this means publishing one useless survey after another.