The public is often impressed by scenes shown on TV where surgeons in China operate patients apparently with no other anaesthesia than acupuncture. Such films have undoubtedly contributed significantly to the common belief that acupuncture cannot possibly be a placebo (every single time I give a public talk about acupuncture, the issue comes up, and someone asks me: how can you doubt the efficacy of acupuncture when, in China, they use it for major operations?).
Some years ago, I have myself been involved is such a BBC broadcast and had to learn the hard way that such scenes are more than just a bit misleading.
Unfortunately, the experts rarely object to any of this. They seem to have become used to the false claims and overt propaganda that is rife in the promotion of acupuncture, and have resigned to the might of poor journalism.
The laudable exception is a team of French authors of a recent and excellent paper.
This unusual article analysed a clip from the program “Acupuncture, osteopathy, hypnosis: do complementary medicines have superpowers?” about acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures in China. Their aim was to propose a rational explanation for the phenomena observed and to describe the processes leading a public service broadcasting channel to offer this type of content at prime time and the potential consequences in terms of public health. For this purpose, they used critical thinking attitudes and skills, along with a bibliographical search of Medline, Google Scholar and Cochrane Library databases.
Their results reveal that the information delivered in the television clip is ambiguous. It did not allow the viewer to form an informed opinion on the relevance of acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures. It is reasonable to assume that the clip shows surgery performed with undisclosed epidural anaesthesia coupled with mild intravenous anaesthesia, sometimes performed in other countries.
What needs to be highlighted, the authors of this critique state, is the overestimation of acupuncture added to the protocol. The media tend to exaggerate the risks and expected effects of the treatments they report on, which can lead patients to turn to unproven therapies.
The authors concluded that broadcasting such a clip at prime time underlines the urgent need for the public and all health professionals to be trained in sorting and critically analysing health information.
In my view, broadcasting such misleading films also underlines the urgent need for journalists to be conscious of their responsibility not to mislead the public and do more rigorous research before reporting on matters of health.
Acupuncture is a branch of alternative medicine where pseudo-science abounds. Here is yet another example of this deplorable phenomenon.
This study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of primary dysmenorrhea.
Sixty females aged 17-23 years were randomly assigned to either a study group or a control group.
- The study group received acupuncture for the duration of 20 minutes/day, for 15 days/month, for the period of 90 days.
- The control group did not receive acupuncture for the same period.
Both groups were assessed on day 1; day 30 and day 60; and day 90. The results showed a significant reduction in all the variables such as the visual analogue scale score for pain, menstrual cramps, headache, dizziness, diarrhoea, faint, mood changes, tiredness, nausea, and vomiting in the study group compared with those in the control group.
The authors concluded that acupuncture could be considered as an effective treatment modality for the management of primary dysmenorrhea.
These findings contradict those of a recent Cochrane review (authored by known acupuncture-proponents) which included 42 RCTs and concluded that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate whether or not acupuncture or acupressure are effective in treating primary dysmenorrhoea, and for most comparisons no data were available on adverse events. The quality of the evidence was low or very low for all comparisons. The main limitations were risk of bias, poor reporting, inconsistency and risk of publication bias.
The question that I ask myself is this: why do researchers bother to conduct studies that contribute NOTHING to our knowledge and progress? The new study had a no-treatment control group which means it cannot control for the effects of placebo, the extra attention, social desirability etc. In view of the fact that already 42 poor quality trials exist, it is not just useless to add a 43rd but, in my view, it is scandalous! A 43rd useless trial:
- tells us nothing of value;
- misleads the public;
- pollutes the medical literature;
- is a waste of resources;
- undermines the trust in clinical research;
- is deeply unethical.
It is high time to stop such redundant, foolish, wasteful and unethical pseudo-science.
I regularly scan the new publications in alternative medicine hoping that I find some good quality research. And sometimes I do! In such happy moments, I write a post and make sure that I stress the high standard of a paper.
Sadly, such events are rare. Usually, my searches locate a multitude of deplorably poor papers. Most of the time, I ignore them. Sometime, I do write about exemplarily bad science, and often I report about articles that are not just bad but dangerous as well. The following paper falls into this category, I fear.
The aim of this systematic review was to assess the efficacy and safety of herbal medicines for the induction of labor (IOL). The researchers considered experimental and non-experimental studies that compared relevant pregnancy outcomes between users and non-user of herbal medicines for IOL.
A total of 1421 papers were identified and 10 studies, including 5 RCTs met the authors’ inclusion criteria. Papers not published in English were not considered. Three trials were conducted in Iran, two in the USA and one each in South Africa, Israel, Thailand, Australia and Italy.
The quality of the included trial, even of the 5 RCTs, was poor. The results suggest, according to the authors of this paper, that users of herbal medicine – raspberry leaf and castor oil – for IOL were significantly more likely to give birth within 24 hours than non-users. No significant difference in the incidence of caesarean section, assisted vaginal delivery, haemorrhage, meconium-stained liquor and admission to nursery was found between users and non-users of herbal medicines for IOL.
The authors concluded that the findings suggest that herbal medicines for IOL are effective, but there is inconclusive evidence of safety due to lack of good quality data. Thus, the use of herbal medicines for IOL should be avoided until safety issues are clarified. More studies are recommended to establish the safety of herbal medicines.
As I stated above, I am not convinced that this review is any good. It included all sorts of study designs and dismissed papers that were not in English. Surely this approach can only generate a distorted or partial picture. The risks of herbal remedies for mother and baby are not well investigated. In view of the fact that even the 5 RCTs were of poor quality, the first sentence of this conclusion seems most inappropriate.
On the basis of the evidence presented, I feel compelled to urge pregnant women NOT to consent to accept herbal remedies for IOL.
And on the basis of the fact that far too many papers on alternative medicine that emerge every day are not just poor quality but also dangerously mislead the public, I urge publishers, editors, peer-reviewers and researchers to pause and remember that they all have a responsibility. This nonsense has been going on for long enough; it is high time to stop it.
The ‘CANADIAN COLLEGE OF HOMEOPATHIC MEDICINE’ has posted an interesting announcement:
Homeopathic Treatment of Asthma with Homeopath Kim Elia www.wholehealthnow.com/bios/kim-elia
In asthma, bronchial narrowing results in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a sense of tightness in the chest. Traditional treatments, such as bronchodilator and steroidal inhalers, reasonably control the condition, but cure is elusive. Side effects and long-term use can eventually be quite damaging, including impairment of immune function and growth rate in children. Homeopathy has an excellent track record in treating this debilitating illness, and offers the hope of weaning off of traditional injurious treatments, replacing them with a far gentler and deeper-acting solution.
About Kim Elia
Students from around the world have expressed appreciation and admiration for Kim’s superb knowledge of the history of homeopathy, his deep understanding of homeopathic prescribing, and his extensive knowledge of materia medica. He is known for his dynamic and distinctive teaching methods which reflect his immense knowledge of the remedies and his genuine desire to educate everyone about this affordable and effective healing modality.
END OF QUOTE
There a few facts that the college seems to have forgotten to mention or even deliberately distorted:
- Asthma is a potentially lethal disease; each year, hundreds of patients die during acute asthma attacks.
- The condition can be controlled with conventional treatments.
- The best evidence fails to show that homeopathy is an effective treatment of asthma.
- Therefore, encouraging homeopathy as an alternative for asthma, risks the unnecessary, premature death of many patients.
And who is Kim Elia?
- Apparently, he was inspired to study homeopathy when he read Gandhi’s quote about homeopathy, “Homeopathy cures a greater percentage of cases than any other method of treatment. Homeopathy is the latest and refined method of treating patients economically and non-violently.” He has been studying homeopathy since 1987 and graduated from the New England School of Homeopathy.
- Kim is the former Director of Nutrition at Heartwood Institute, California.
- He was the Director of Fasting at Heartwood.
- Kim was a trainer at a company providing whole food nutritional supplements.
- Kim serves as CEO of WholeHealthNow, the distributors of OPUS Homeopathic Software and Books in North America.
- Kim provides and coordinates software training and support, and oversees new software development with an international team of homeopaths and software developers.
- He was inspired to create the Historic Homeopathic Timeline, and is responsible for a growing library of recorded interviews and presentations with today’s world renowned homeopaths.
- Kim was the principal instructor and developer of the four year classical homeopathy program at the Hahnemann Academy in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan.
- He is currently developing new homeopathy projects.
What the site does not reveal is his expertise in treating asthma.
The Canadian College of Homeopathic Medicine claims to be dedicated to the training of homeopaths according to the highest standard of homeopathic education, emphasizing the art and practice of homeopathy as outlined in Hahnemanns’s Organon of the Medical Art. We aim to further the field of homeopathy as a whole through the provision of quality, primary homeopathic care.
If that is what the highest standard of homeopathic education looks like, I would prefer an uneducated homeopath any time!
According to the 2014 European Social Survey, Spain is relatively modest when it comes to using alternative therapies. While countries such as Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Sweden and Switzerland all have 1-year prevalence figures of over 30%, Spain only boasts a meagre 17%. Yet, its opposition to bogus treatments has recently become acute.
In 2016, it was reported that a master’s degree in homeopathic medicine at one of Spain’s top universities has been scrapped. Remarkably, the reason was “lack of scientific basis”. A university spokesman confirmed the course was being discontinued and gave three main reasons: “Firstly, the university’s Faculty of Medicine recommended scrapping the master’s because of the doubt that exists in the scientific community. Secondly, a lot of people within the university – professors and students across different faculties – had shown their opposition to the course. Thirdly, the postgraduate degree in homeopathic medicine is no longer approved by Spain’s Health Ministry.”
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being invited to a science festival in Bilbao and was impressed by the buoyant sceptic movement in Spain. At the time, two of my books were published in Spanish and received keen interest by the Spanish press.
And now, it has been reported that Spain’s Ministry of Health has released a list of only 2,008 homeopathic products whose manufacturers will have to apply for an official government license for if they wish to continue selling them. The homeopathic producers have until April 2019 to prove that their remedies actually work, which may very well completely slash homeopathic products in Spain.
It’s the latest blow for Spain’s homeopathy industry, once worth an estimated €100 million but which has seen a drop in public trust and therefore sales of around 30 percent in the last five years. Spain’s Health Ministry stopped allowing homeopathy treatments from being prescribed as part of people’s social security benefits, along with acupuncture, herbal medicine and body-based practices such as osteopathy, shiatsu or aromatherapy.
“Homeopathy is an alternative therapy that has not shown any scientific evidence that it works” Spanish Minister of Health Maria Luisa Carcedo is quoted as saying in La Vanguardia in response to the homeopathic blacklist. “I’m committed to combatting all forms of pseudoscience.”
Twenty years ago (5 years into my post at Exeter), I published this little article (BJGP, Sept 1998). It was meant as a sort of warning – sadly, as far as I can see, it has not been heeded. Oddly, the article is unavailable on Medline, I therefore take the liberty of re-publishing it here without alterations (if I had to re-write it today, I would not change much) or comment:
Once the omnipotent heroes in white, physicians today are at risk of losing the trust of their patients. Medicine, some would say, is in a deep crisis. Shouldn’t we start to worry?
The patient-doctor relationship, it seems, is at the heart of this argument. Many patients are deeply dissatisfied with this aspect of medicine. A recent survey on patients consulting GPs and complementary practitioners in parallel and for the same problem suggested that most patients are markedly more happy with all facets of the therapeutic encounter as offered by complementary practitioners. This could explain the extraordinary rise of complementary medicine during recent years. The neglect of the doctor-patient relationship might be the gap in which complementary treatments build their nest.
Poor relationships could be due to poor communication. Many books have been written about communications skills with patients. But never mind the theory, the practice of all this may be less optimal than we care to believe. Much of this may simply relate to the usage of language. Common terms such as ‘stomach’, ‘palpitations’, ‘lungs’, for instance, are interpreted in different ways by lay and professional people. Words like ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’, and ‘irritability’ are well defined for doctors, while patients view them as more or less interchangeable. At a deeper level, communication also relates to concepts and meanings of disease and illness. For instance, the belief that a ‘blockage of the bowel’ or an ‘imbalance of life forces’ lead to disease is as prevalent with patients as it is alien to doctors. Even on the most obvious level of interaction with patients, physicians tend to fail. Doctors often express themselves unclearly about the nature, aim or treatment schedule of their prescriptions.
Patients want to be understood as whole persons. Yet modern medicine is often seen as emphazising a reductionistic and mechanistic approach, merely treating a symptom or replacing a faulty part, or treating a ‘case’ rather than an individual. In the view of some, modern medicine has become an industrial behemoth shifted from attending the sick to guarding the economic bottom line, putting itself on a collision course with personal doctoring. This has created a deeply felt need which complementary medicine is all too ready to fill. Those who claim to know the reason for a particular complaint (and therefore its ultimate cure) will succeed in satisfying this need. Modern medicine has identified the causes of many diseases while complementary medicine has promoted simplistic (and often wrong) ideas about the genesis of health and disease. The seductive message usually is as follows: treating an illness allopathically is not enough, the disease will simply re-appear in a different guise at a later stage. One has to tackle the question – why the patient has fallen ill in the first place. Cutting off the dry leaves of a plant dying of desiccation won’t help. Only attending the source of the problem, in the way complementary medicine does, by pouring water on to the suffering plant, will secure a cure. This logic is obviously lop-sided and misleading, but it creates trust because it is seen as holistic, it can be understood by even the simplest of minds, and it generates a meaning for the patient’s otherwise meaningless suffering.
Doctors, it is said, treat diseases but patients suffer from illnesses. Disease is something an organ has; illness is something an individual has. An illness has more dimensions than disease. Modern medicine has developed a clear emphasis on the physical side of disease but tends to underrate aspects like the patient’s personality, beliefs and socioeconomic environment. The body/mind dualism is (often unfairly) seen as a doctrine of mainstream medicine. Trust, it seems, will be given to those who adopt a more ‘holistic’ approach without dissecting the body from the mind and spirit.
Empathy is a much neglected aspect in today’s medicine. While it has become less and less important to doctors, it has grown more and more relevant to patients. The literature on empathy is written predominantly by nurses and psychologists. Is the medical profession about to delegate empathy to others? Does modern, scientific medicine lead us to neglect the empathic attitude towards our patients? Many of us are not even sure what empathy means and confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy with the patient can be described as a feeling of ‘I want to help you’. Empathy, on these terms, means ‘I am (or could be) you’; it is therefore some sort of an emotional resonance. Empathy has remained somewhat of a white spot on the map of medical science. We should investigate it properly. Re-integrating empathy into our daily practice can be taught and learned. This might help our patients as well as us.
Lack of time is another important cause for patients’ (and doctors’) dissatisfaction. Most patients think that their doctor does not have enough time for them. They also know from experience that complementary medicine offers more time. Consultations with complementary practitioners are appreciated, not least because they may spend one hour or so with each patient. Obviously, in mainstream medicine, we cannot create more time where there is none. But we could at least give our patients the feeling that, during the little time available, we give them all the attention they require.
Other reasons for patients’ frustration lie in the nature of modern medicine and biomedical research. Patients want certainty but statistics provides probabilities at best. Some patients may be irritated to hear of a 70% chance that a given treatment will work; or they feel uncomfortable with the notion that their cholesterol level is associated with a 60% chance of suffering a heart attack within the next decade. Many patients long for reassurance that they will be helped in their suffering. It may be ‘politically correct’ to present patients with probability frequencies of adverse effects and numbers needed to treat, but anybody who (rightly or wrongly) promises certainty will create trust and have a following.
Many patients have become wary of the fact that ‘therapy’ has become synonymous with ‘pharmacotherapy’ and that many drugs are associated with severe adverse reactions. The hope of being treated with ‘side-effect-free’ remedies is a prime motivator for turning to complementary medicine.
Complementary treatments are by no means devoid of adverse reactions, but this fact is rarely reported and therefore largely unknown to patients. Physicians are regularly attacked for being in league with the pharmaceutical industry and the establishment in general. Power and money are said to be gained at the expense of the patient’s well-being. The system almost seems to invite dishonesty. The ‘conspiracy theory’ goes as far as claiming that ‘scientific medicine is destructive, extremely costly and solves nothing. Beware of the octopus’. Spectacular cases could be cited which apparently support it. Orthodox medicine is described as trying to ‘inhibit the development of unorthodox medicine’, in order to enhance its own ‘power, status and income’. Salvation, it is claimed, comes from the alternative movement which represents ‘… the most effective assault yet on scientific biomedicine’. Whether any of this is true or not, it is perceived as the truth by many patients and amounts to a serious criticism of what is happening in mainstream medicine today.
In view of such criticism, strategies for overcoming problems and rectifying misrepresentations are necessary. Mainstream medicine might consider discovering how patients view the origin, significance, and prognosis of the disease. Furthermore, measures should be considered to improve communication with patients. A diagnosis and its treatment have to make sense to the patient as much as to the doctor – if only to enhance adherence to therapy. Both disease and illness must be understood in their socio-economic context. Important decisions, e.g. about treatments, must be based on a consensus between the patient and the doctor. Scientists must get better in promoting their own messages, which could easily be far more attractive, seductive, and convincing than those of pseudo-science.These goals are by no means easy to reach. But if we don’t try, trust and adherence will inevitably deteriorate further. I submit that today’s unprecedented popularity of complementary medicine reflects a poignant criticism of many aspects of modern medicine. We should take it seriously
The ‘Schwaebische Tageblatt’ is not on my regular reading list. But this article of yesterday (16/10/2018) did catch my attention. For those who read German, I will copy it below, and for those who don’t I will provide a brief summary and comment thereafter:
Die grün-schwarze Landesregierung lässt 2019 den ersten Lehrstuhl für Naturheilkunde und Integrative Medizin in Baden-Württemberg einrichten. Lehrstuhl für Naturheilkunde und Integrative Medizin
Ihren Schwerpunkt soll die Professur im Bereich Onkologie haben. Strömungen wie Homöopathie oder Anthroposophie sollen nicht gelehrt, aber innerhalb der Lehre beleuchtet werden, sagte Ingo Autenrieth, Dekan der Medizinischen Fakultät in Tübingen am Dienstag der Deutschen Presse-Agentur. «Ideologien und alles, was nichts mit Wissenschaft zu tun hat, sortieren wir aus.»
Die Professur soll sich demnach mit Themen wie Ernährung, Probiotika und Akupunktur beschäftigten. Geplant ist laut Wissenschaftsministerium, die Lehre in Tübingen anzusiedeln; die Erforschung der komplementären Therapien soll vorwiegend am Centrum für Tumorerkrankungen des Robert-Bosch-Krankenhauses in Stuttgart stattfinden. Die Robert-Bosch-Stiftung finanziert die Professur in den ersten fünf Jahren mit insgesamt 1,84 Millionen Euro, danach soll das Land die Mittel dafür bereitstellen.
«Naturheilkunde und komplementäre Behandlungsmethoden werden von vielen Menschen ganz selbstverständlich genutzt, beispielsweise zur Ergänzung konventioneller Therapieangebote», begründete Wissenschaftsministerin Theresia Bauer (Grüne) das Engagement. Sogenannte sanfte oder natürliche Methoden könnten schwere Krankheiten wie etwa Krebs alleine nicht heilen, heißt es in einer Mitteilung des Ministeriums. Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse zeigten aber, dass sie häufig zu Therapieerfolgen beitragen könnten, da sie den Patienten helfen, schulmedizinische Therapien gut zu überstehen – etwa die schweren Nebenwirkungen von Chemotherapien mindern.
Im Gegensatz zur Schulmedizin gebe es bisher aber kaum kontrollierte klinische Studien zur Wirksamkeit solcher Therapien, ergänzte Ingo Autenrieth. Ihre Erforschung am neuen Lehrstuhl solle Patienten Sicherheit bringen und ermöglichen, dass die gesetzlichen Krankenkassen die Kosten dafür übernehmen.
Hersteller alternativer Arzneimittel loben den Schritt der Politik. «Baden-Württemberg nimmt damit eine Vorreiterrolle in Deutschland und in Europa ein», heißt es beim Unternehmen Wala Heilmittel GmbH in Bad Boll. Die Landesregierung trage mit der Entscheidung dem Wunsch vieler Patienten und Ärzte nach umfassenden Behandlungskonzepten Rechnung.
Auch hoffen die Unternehmen, dass Licht in die oft kritische Debatte um Homöopathie gebracht wird. «Wir sehen mit Erstaunen und Befremden, dass eine bewährte Therapierichtung wie die Homöopathie, die Teil der Vielfalt des therapeutischen Angebots in Deutschland ist, diskreditiert werden soll», sagte ein Sprecher des Herstellers Weleda AG mit Sitz in Schwäbisch Gmünd der Deutschen Presse-Agentur. Deshalb begrüße man den Lehrstuhl: «Es ist gut, dass Forschung und Lehre ausgebaut werden, da eine Mehrheit der Bevölkerung Komplementärmedizin wünscht und nachfragt. Es braucht Ärzte, die in diesen Bereichen auch universitär ausgebildet werden.»
Laut Koalitionsvertrag will Baden-Württemberg künftig eine Vorreiterrolle in der Erforschung der Komplementärmedizin einnehmen. Bisher gab es im Südwesten mit dem Akademischen Zentrum für Komplementäre und Integrative Medizin (AZKIM) zwar einen Verbund der Unikliniken Tübingen, Freiburg, Ulm und Heidelberg, aber keinen eigenen Lehrstuhl. Bundesweit existieren nach Angaben der Hufelandgesellschaft, dem Dachverband der Ärztegesellschaften für Naturheilkunde und Komplementärmedizin, Lehrstühle für Naturheilkunde noch an den Universitäten Duisburg-Essen, Rostock und Witten/Herdecke sowie drei Stiftungsprofessuren an der Berliner Charité.
END OF QUOTE
And here is my English summary:
The black/green government of Baden-Wuerttemberg has decided to create a ‘chair of naturopathy and integrated medicine’ at the university of Tuebingen in 2019. The chair will focus in the area of oncology. Treatments such as homeopathy and anthroposophical medicine will not be taught but merely mentioned in lectures. Ideologies and everything that is not science will be omitted.
The chair will thus deal with nutrition, acupuncture and probiotics. The teaching activities will be in the medical faculty at Tuebingen, while the research will be located at the Robert-Bosch Hospital in Stuttgart. The funds for the first 5 years – 1.84 million Euro – will come from the Robert-Bosch Foundation; thereafter they will be provided by the government of the county.
So-called gentle or natural therapies cannot cure serious diseases on their own, but as adjuvant treatments they can be helful, for instance, in alleviating the adverse effects of chemotherapy. There are only few studies on this, and the new chair will increase patient safety and facilitate the reimbursement of these treatments by health insurances.
Local anthroposophy manufacturers like Wala welcomed the move stating it would be in accordance with the wishes of many patients and doctors. They also hope that the move will bring light in the current critical debate about homeopathy. A spokesperson of Weleda added that they ‘note with surprise that time-tested therapies like homeopathy are being discredited. Therefore, it is laudable that research and education in this realm will be extended. The majority of the public want complementary medicine and need doctors who are also university-trained.’
Baden-Wurttemberg aims for a leading role in researching complementary medicine. Thus far, chairs of complementary medicine existed only at the universities of Duisburg-Essen, Rostock und Witten/Herdecke as well as three professorships at the Charité in Berlin.
END OF MY SUMMARY
As I have occupied a chair of complementary medicine for 19 years, I am tempted to add a few points here.
- In principle, a new chair can be a good thing.
- The name of the chair is odd, to say the least.
- As the dean of the Tuebingen medical school pointed out, it has to be based on science. But how do they define science?
- Where exactly does the sponsor, the Robert-Bosch Stiftung, stand on alternative medicine. Do they have a track-record of being impractical and scientific?
- In order to prevent this becoming a unrealistic prospect, it is essential that the new chair needs to fall into the hands of a scientist with a proven track record of critical thinking.
- Rigorous scientist with a proven track record of critical thinking are very rare in the realm of alternative medicine.
- The ridiculous comments by Wala and Weleda, both local firms with considerable local influence, sound ominous and let me suspect that proponents of alternative medicine aim to exert their influence on the new chair.
- The above-voiced notion that the new chair is to facilitate the reimbursement of alternative treatments by the health insurances seems even more ominous. Proper research has to be objective and could, depending on its findings, have the opposite effect. To direct it in this way seems to determine its results before the research has started.
- I miss a firm commitment to medical ethics, to the principles of EBM, and to protecting the independence of the new chair.
Thus, I do harbour significant anxieties about this new chair. It is in danger of becoming a chair of promoting pseudoscience. I hope the dean of the Tuebingen medical school might read these lines.
I herewith offer him all the help I can muster in keeping pseudoscience out of this initiative, in defining the remit of the chair and, crucially, in finding the right individual for doing the job.
On 29 August, I published a post discussing a case report of a patient who had suffered multiple unilateral pre-retinal haemorrhages immediately following chiropractic neck manipulation suggesting that chiropractic spinal adjustments can not only affect the carotid artery, but also could lead to pre-retinal haemorrhages. Two days ago (over one month after my blog-post), the story was reported in the Daily Mail. They (originally) quoted me both in their on-line and print version as follows: “Edzard Ernst, an expert in alternative medicine, said chiropractic treatments were too dangerous and not sufficiently effective to be recommended for any condition.”
I think this is a statement that does not really relate well to the story. Crucially, it is a sentence that I do not identify with.
So, why did I say it?
The answer is simple: I didn’t!
What happened is this:
The ‘science correspondent’ of the Mail emailed me asking whether she could speak to me. I replied that I am currently in Brittany and that it would be better to send me questions which I promised to answer swiftly. She then send a press-release about the above-mentioned case report and asked for a quote. The paragraph I swiftly sent her read as follows:
“Chiropractors frequently manipulate patients’ neck in such a way that the joints are taken beyond their physiological range of motion. This can lead to all sorts of problems, sometimes even death. This new report suggests that chiropractic neck manipulations can also damage the eyes. As the ensuing problems tend to be temporary, it is likely that such eye-damage occurs often after chiropractic treatments. Chiropractic neck manipulations are not convincingly effective for any condition; as they can cause a lot of harm, their risk/benefit balance is clearly negative. In other words, we should not use or recommend them.”
The science correspondent thanked me and replied that my quote was too long and had to be shortened; would I be happy, she asked, with the following text:
“Edzard Ernst, an expert in the study of alternative medicine and former professor at the University of Exeter, said: ‘Chiropractors frequently manipulate patients’ neck in such a way that the joints are taken beyond their physiological range of motion.
‘The ensuing problems tend to be temporary but it is likely that this kind of eye damage occurs often after chiropractic treatments.
‘Chiropractic neck manipulations are not convincingly effective for any condition as they can cause a lot of harm. Therefore we should not use or recommend them.’ ”
I made a slight alteration (exchanging ‘the ensuing problems’ for ‘the ensuing eye-problems’) and replied that this was fine by me.
When I saw what was eventually published (the nonsense printed in bold above), I was baffled and irritated. Therefore I instantly complained to the science correspondent. She apologised saying that my quote had been “paraphrased from [my] full quote, probably for reasons of space during the production process”. She also changed the quote in the on-line version to what it says currently.
I replied: “of course, I accept your apology personal, as I knew it was not your doing. nevertheless, I find it totally unacceptable that someone at the DM can just go ahead and change direct quotes. you say he/she paraphrased me; I disagree! the published sentence has an entirely different meaning. this is not journalism! I want an apology from the person who is responsible.”
The science correspondent then promised to take care of it; but, so far, nothing has happened.
One could easily view this episode as trivial. However, I believe that decent journalism should stick to the rules. And one of the most fundamental one is that journalists cannot put words into people’s mouths just because it fits their story-line (Boris Johnson did this when he was a journalist, and look what a formidable mess he is now creating!). If we let journalists get away with such behaviour, we cannot have trust in journalism. And if we cannot trust journalism, it has lost its purpose.
So, should I continue insisting on an adequate apology from the person responsible or not?
What do you think?
Samuel Hahnemann invented homeopathy about 200 years ago. His placebos were better than (or not as bad as) the ‘heroic’ medicine of his time which frequently was more dangerous than the disease it aimed to cure. Thus, homeopathy took Germany by storm. When, about 100 years ago, medicine finally became scientific and was able to offer more and more effective treatments, the popularity of homeopathy began to wane. Yet, before its natural demise, during the Third Reich, it received a significant boost from Nazi-greats such as Hess and Himmler. After this nightmare was over, German homeopathy went into another slow decline. But when the New Age movement and the current boom in alternative medicine reached Germany, homeopathy seemed to thrive once again.
In the 1990s evidence-based medicine (EBM) grew into one of the central concepts of medicine. In Germany, however, EBM had a relatively hard time to get established. This might be one of the reasons why homeopathy continued to prosper, despite the arrival of ever clearer evidence that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos. While, in the UK, we had an increasingly lively debate about the uselessness of homeopathy, Germany remained the promised land of homeopathy. Sales figures of homeopathics continued to increase steadily and reached a level of about half a billion Euros per annum.
The golden age of German homeopathy had dawned:
- The media, often sponsored by homeopathic interest groups, kept on promoting homeopathy largely unopposed.
- The mighty Carstens Stiftung worked tirelessly to promote it.
- Homeopathy became established in many medical schools.
- Homeopathy was available and often advertised in almost all pharmacies.
- The public was convinced that homeopathy worked.
- The Heilpraktiker adopted homeopathy fully.
- The medical and other conventional healthcare professions embraced it to a large degree.
- The adult education institutes (Volkshochschulen) offered courses.
- Politicians were squarely on the side of homeopathy,
- Health insurances, paid for it.
Of course, there were also some (and always had been) opposing voiced and organisations, such as the GWUP (the German sceptic organisation), for example. But somehow, they remained relatively low-key. When, every now and then, courageous journalists dared to think of a critical take on homeopathy, they had to search far and wide to find a German-speaking expert who was willing or able to tell them the truth: that homeopathy is neither biologically plausible nor evidence-based and therefore an expensive, potentially harmful waste of money that makes a mockery of EBM. During this period, journalists (far too) often asked me for some critical comments. I hardly ever published my research in German, but they nevertheless would find me via my Medline-listed papers. I often felt like a very lone voice in a German desert.
For the German homeopathic industry, I evidently was more than just a lone voice. Unbeknown to me, they clubbed together and financed a PR-man/journalist (at the tune of Euro 30 000/year) to write as many defamatory articles about me as he could muster. First, I was bewildered by his activity, then I tried to communicate with him (only to get mis-quoted), and eventually I ignored his writings. Yet, a German investigative journalist found Fritzsche’s one-sided activities offensive and started investigating. His research and subsequent article disclosed the fact that he was being paid by the homeopathic industry. Once I learn about this scandal, I wrote to some of the financiers directly and asked for an explanation. As a result, they discontinued their sponsorship. Shortly afterwards, Fritzsche committed suicide.
At heart, I have always been an optimist and strongly believe that in medicine the truth, in this case the evidence, will always prevail, no matter what obstacles others might put in its way. Recent developments seem to suggest that I might be right.
In the last few years, several individuals in Germany have, from entirely different angles, taken a fresh look at the evidence on homeopathy and found it to be desperately wanting. Independent of each other, they published articles and books about their research and insights. Here are 5 examples:
In Sachen Homöopathie: Eine Beweisaufnahme, Norbert Aust, 2013
Homöopathie neu gedacht: Was Patienten wirklich hilft, Natalie Grams, 2015
Inevitably, these individuals came into contact with each other and subsequently founded several working-groups to discuss their concerns and coordinate their activities. Thus the INH and the Muensteraner Kreis were born. So, now we have at least three overlapping groups of enthusiastic, multidisciplinary experts who voluntarily work towards informing the German public that paying for homeopathy out of public funds is unethical, nonsensical and not in the interest of progress:
- the GWUP,
- the INH
- and the Muensteraner Kreis.
No wonder then, that the German homeopathic industry and other interested parties got worried. When they realised that (presumably due to the work of these altruistic enthusiasts) the sales figures of homeopathics in Germany had, for the first time since many years, started declining, they panicked.
Their reaction was, as far as I can see, similar to their previous response to criticism: they started a media campaign in an attempt to sway public opinion. And just like before, they have taken to employing PR-people who currently spend their time defaming all individuals voicing criticism of homeopathy in Germany. Their prime targets are those experts who are most exposed to activities of responsibly informing the public about homeopathy via lectures, publications social media, etc. All of us currently receive floods of attack, insults and libellous defamations. As before (innovation does not seem to be a hallmark of homeopathy), these attacks relate to claims that:
- we are incompetent,
- we do not care about the welfare of patients,
- we are habitual liars,
- we are on the payroll of the pharmaceutical industry,
- we aim at limiting patient choice,
- we do what we do because we crave the limelight.
So, what is going to happen?
I cannot read tea leaves but am nevertheless sure of a few things:
- The German homeopathy lobby will not easily give up; after all, they have half a billion Euros per year to lose.
- They will not argue on the basis of science or evidence, because they know that neither are in their favour.
- They will fight dirty and try to defame everyone who stands in their way.
- They will use their political influence and their considerable financial power.
AND YET THEY WILL LOSE!
Not because we are so well organised or have great resources – in fact, as far as I can see, we have none – but because, in medicine, the evidence is invincible and will eventually prevail. Progress might be delayed, but it cannot be halted by those who cling to an obsolete dogma.
For years, Margaret McCartney, a GP from Scotland, wrote a weekly column in the BMJ. It was invariably well-worth reading. Recently, she regrettably ended it by publishing her last article entitled A summary of four and a half years of columns in one column. In it, she makes 36 short points. They are all poignant, but the one that made me think most (probably because it is relevant to my work and this blog) reads as follows:
Many people seek to make money from those who don’t understand science. Doctors should call out bollocksology when they see it.
On this blog, I have often discussed people who make money from consumers and patients who are unable to detect the quackery they are being sold. No doubt, the most famous case of me doing this was when, in 2009, I criticised Prince Charles and his ‘Dodgy Originals Detox Tincture’. It made many headlines; the BBC, for instance, reported:
Edzard Ernst, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, said the Duchy Originals detox tincture was based on “outright quackery”.
There was no scientific evidence to show that detox products work, he said.
Duchy Originals says the product is a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes”.
But Professor Ernst of Peninsula Medical School said Prince Charles and his advisers appeared to be deliberately ignoring science, preferring “to rely on ‘make-believe’ and superstition”.
He added: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.”
Marketed as Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, the artichoke and dandelion mix is described as “a food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”.
At the time, I got a right blocking from my dean, Prof John Tooke, for my audacity. As far as I could see, there was almost no support from the UK medical profession. Since then, the exploitation of the public by quacks has not diminished; on the contrary, I have the feeling that it is thriving. And are doctors calling out bollocksology left right and centre? No, they are not!
Of course, some do occasionally raise their voices (and some do it even regularly). But mostly, it is the group of non-medical sceptics who open their mouths and try their best to prevent harm. Yet, I wholly agree with my friend Margret: doctors have a responsibility and must do more.
And why don’t they?
I think, there are several reasons for their inactivity:
- doctors are frightfully busy,
- doctors often don’t know how much bollocksology is out there,
- doctors don’t (want to) see how dangerous much of this bollocksology is,
- doctors fail to realise that it would be their ethical responsibility to speak out against bollocksology,
- some doctors do not seem to understand science either,
- some doctors are active bollocksologists themselves,
- some doctors simply don’t care.
This clearly is a depressing state of affairs! But, at the same time, it also is a cheerful occasion for me to thank all those doctors who are the laudable exceptions, who do care, who do think critically, who see their ethical responsibility, and who do something about the never-ending flood of bollocksology endangering their patients’ health and wealth.