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

experience

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Alternative medicine is an odd term (but it is probably as good or bad as any other term for it). It describes a wide range of treatments (and diagnostic techniques which I exclude from this discussion) that have hardly anything in common.

Hardly anything!

And that means there are a few common denominators. Here are 7 of them:

  1. The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.
  2. The treatments enjoy a lot of support.
  3. The treatments are natural and therefore safe.
  4. The treatments are holistic.
  5. The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.
  6. The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.
  7. The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

One only has to scratch the surface to discover that these common denominators of alternative medicine turn out to be unmitigated nonsense.

Let me explain:

The treatments have a long history and have thus stood the ‘test of time’.

It is true that most alternative therapies have a long history; but what does that really mean? In my view, it signals but one thing: when these therapies were invented, people had no idea how our body functions; they mostly had speculations, superstitions and myths. It follows, I think, that the treatments in question are built on speculations, superstitions and myths.

This might be a bit too harsh, I admit. But one thing is absolutely sure: a long history of usage is no proof of efficacy.

The treatments enjoy a lot of support.

Again, this is true. Alternative treatments are supported by many patients who swear by them, by thousands of clinicians who employ them as well as by royalty and other celebrities who make the headlines with them.

Such support is usually based on experience or belief. Neither are evidence; quite the opposite, remember: the three most dangerous words in medicine are ‘IN MY EXPERIENCE’. To be clear, experience and belief can fool us profoundly, and science is a tool to prevent us being misled by them.

The treatments are natural and therefore safe.

Here we have two fallacies moulded into one. Firstly, not all alternative therapies are natural; secondly, none is entirely safe.

There is nothing natural about diluting the Berlin Wall and selling it as a homeopathic remedy. There is nothing natural about forcing a spinal joint beyond its physiological range of motion and calling it spinal manipulation. There is nothing natural about sticking needles into the skin and claiming this re-balances our vital energies.

Acupuncture, chiropractic, herbal medicine, etc. are burdened with their fair share of adverse effects. But the real danger of alternative medicine is the harm done by neglecting effective therapies. Anyone who decides to forfeit conventional treatments for a serious condition, and uses alternative therapies instead, runs the risk of shortening their lives.

The treatments are holistic.

Alternative therapists try very hard to sell their treatments as holistic. This sounds good and must be an excellent marketing gimmick. Alas, it is not true.

There is nothing less holistic than seeing subluxations, yin/yang imbalances, auto-intoxications, energy blockages, etc. as the cause of all illness. Holism is at the heart of all good healthcare; the attempt by alternative practitioners to hijack it is merely a transparent attempt to boost their business.

The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.

Alternative therapists claim that they can identify the root causes of all conditions and thus treat them more effectively than conventional clinicians who merely treat their symptoms. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conventional medicine has been so spectacularly successful not least because we always aim at identifying the cause that underlie a symptom and, whenever possible, treat that cause (often in addition to treating symptoms). Alternative practitioners may well delude themselves that energy imbalances, subluxations, chi-blockages etc. are root causes, but there simply is no evidence to support their deluded claims.

The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.

The feeling of paranoia seems endemic in alternative medicine. Many practitioners are so affected by it that they believe everyone who doubts their implausible notions and misconceptions is out to get them. Big Pharma’ or whoever else they feel prosecuted by are more likely to smile at such wild conspiracy theories than to fear for their profit margins. And whenever ‘Big Pharma’ does smell a fast buck, they do not hesitate to jump on the alternative band-waggon joining them in ripping off the public by flogging dubious supplements, homeopathics, essential oils, vitamins, flower remedies, detox-remedies, etc.

The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

It is probably true that the average cost of a homeopathic remedy, an acupuncture treatment or an aromatherapy session costs less than the average conventional treatment. However, to conclude from it that alternative therapies are value for money is wrong. To be of real value, a treatment needs to generate more good than harm; but very few alternative treatments fulfil this criterion. To use a blunt analogy, if someone offers you a used car, it may well be inexpensive – if, however, it does not run and is beyond repair, it cannot be value for money.

As I already stated: alternative medicine is so diverse that its various branches are almost entirely unrelated, and the few common denominators of alternative medicine that do exist are unmitigated nonsense.

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

Really?

For dogs?

Yes, one (of many) website explains that dogs benefit from acupuncture in 5 different ways:

1. Pain management is one of the most common uses for acupuncture, often in conjunction with a more traditional treatment plan. Strong medical treatments like chemo, which can cause discomfort, are often paired with acupuncture to help make a pet more comfortable and able to fight the illness.

2. Musculoskeletal problems such as arthritis, hip dysplasia, or nerve injuries can respond to acupuncture. It is often employed during rehabilitation after an injury. Carefully monitoring a healing pet is important; without the feeling of pain, a dog can re-injure him or herself with over-activity.

3. Skin problems like allergic dermatitis, granulomas, or hot spots may respond well to acupuncture treatment because increased circulation can improve healing, while pain reduction will reduce a dog’s overgrooming or itching responses.

4. Gastrointestinal problems like nausea and diarrhea can be aided by the increased blood flow from acupuncture. It may also help normalize digestive activity by stimulating digestive secretions.

5. Respiratory problems like asthma and allergies can benefit from the immune-calming, anti-inflammatory capabilities of acupuncture.

But all of this is based on ‘experience’ (or probably more accurately, the wishful thinking of those who earn money by sticking needles into animals), not evidence!

So, what does the evidence tell us about acupuncture for dogs?

The answer is: next to nothing; there are almost no studies. And this is why this recent paper could be important.

This new study was aimed at quantifying changes in gastric and intestinal emptying times in the conscious dog following gastrointestinal acupoint stimulation.

In a randomised, blinded crossover study, six dogs were fed 30×1.5 mm barium-impregnated polyethylene spheres and underwent: (1) no acupuncture (Control); (2) stimulation of target points PC6 and ST36 (Target) and (3) stimulation of non-target points LU7 and BL55 (Sham). Abdominal radiographs were assessed immediately after feeding the spheres and every hour for 12 hours and their number in the stomach and large intestines was counted.

The number of barium-impregnated polyethylene spheres found distal to the stomach was less in the Target group compared to the Control and Sham groups between hours 2 and 4, but no differences between groups were seen for the remainder of the treatment period. The number of spheres found within the colon/rectum was less in the Target group compared to the Control and Sham groups between hours 4 and 6, and compared to the Sham group only at hour 7 but no differences between groups were seen after hour 8.

The authors concluded that acupuncture targeted at the gastrointestinal tract of dogs was associated briefly with slowed gastric emptying and gastrointestinal transit time. This foundational study lays the groundwork for additional studies of acupuncture effects associated with altered physiologic states.

There you have it: the proof has been presented that acupuncture works in dogs; and if it works in animals, it cannot be a placebo!

Hold on, not so quick!

This was a tiny study, and the effects are small, only temporary and of questionable relevance. It is possible (I’d say even likely) that the finding was entirely coincidental.

I think, I wait until we have more and better data.

Dr Alok Pareek has been elected as the World President of the International Homeopathic Medical league (LMHI – Liga Medicorum Homoeopathica Internationalis), the largest, oldest and only association of Medical Homeopaths in the World. He is the first Asian in 4 decades to bring this honour to India. Dr Alok Pareek was elected at the 71st World Congress of the LMHI held in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 23rd August 2016. He was elected unopposed by over 70 member countries. He has been elected for a three year tenure from 2016 to 2019

Dr. Alok Pareek runs a homeopathic hospital together with his father R.S. Pareek in Agra, India with fifty beds, treating around two hundred patients daily. His clinical practice spans thirty years. This extensive experience has given him a wealth of opportunity to carry out and refine homeopathic treatment in a wide range of acute and emergency situations…  Dr. Pareek demonstrates that homeopathy has much to offer in acute and emergency settings. He aims to increase the confidence of practitioners, to improve results and encourage them to offer safe and effective treatment in this important field, enabling homeopathy to take its place alongside conventional approaches within mainstream medicine. “As an Emergency Medicine physician who deals with life threatening diseases on a daily basis, I found Dr. Pareek’s homeopathic approach to be full of well-rounded clinical criteria and plenty of wise advice to the homeopathic doctor. I truly hope to be in medicine long enough to see us practice ‘hand in hand’ and enjoy the great benefits of this marvelous ‘scientific marriage’ in my emergency medicine patients.” Gladys H. Lopez M.D., M.P.H. USA Board Certified in Emergency ­Medicine

These two quotes might give you a fairly good impression of Dr Alok Pareek.

But why do I dedicate an entire post to him?

The reason is that I was alerted to one of his books entitled ‘Cancer is curable with homeopathy’. Even though it is obviously a translation from English, I could not find the original; so you have to bear with me as I translate for you the German abstract copied below:

75 years of homeopathic experience by father and son from India are expressed in this book about the homeopathic cure of cancers. Based on excellently documented cases, it demonstrates how homeopathy is clearly superior to chemotherapy and radiotherapy. We experience how a cure is possible even for such a serious disease as cancer in advanced stages. Dr D. Spinedi (Switzeralnd) estimates the immense experience of the doctors Pareek as ‘essential basic knowledge that should be accessible to all homeopaths’. It is a book that gives courage to both patients and therapists.

Zusammen 75 Jahre homöopathischer Erfahrung von Vater und Sohn Pareek aus Indien mit Tausenden von Patienten finden in diesem Buch ihren Niederschlag in der homöopathischen Heilung von Krebserkrankungen. Anhand exzellent dokumentierter Fallbeispiele wird gezeigt, wie in klassischer Arbeitsweise die Homöopathie der Chemotherapie und der Strahlentherapie deutlich überlegen ist. Wir erleben mit, wie Heilung bei einer so schweren Krankheit wie Krebs auch noch in fortgeschrittenen Stadien durch Homöopathie möglich ist. Dr. D. Spinedi (Schweiz) wertet die immense Erfahrung der Dres. Pareek als “unverzichtbares Grundlagenwissen, das allen Homöopathen zugänglich sein sollte.” Ein Buch, das Patienten wie Therapeuten Mut macht!

It is by Jove not often that I am speechless, but today, that’s exactly what I am.

The UK Royal Pharmaceutical Society have published a quick reference guide on homeopathy. In it, they make the following 5 ‘key points’:

  • The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment because there is no scientific basis for homeopathy nor any evidence to support the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products beyond a placebo effect.
  • The RPS does not support the prescribing of homeopathic products on the NHS.
  • Pharmacists should ensure, wherever possible, that patients do not stop taking their prescribed conventional medication, if they are taking or are considering taking a homeopathic product.
  • Pharmacists must be aware that patients requesting homeopathic products may have serious underlying undiagnosed medical conditions which may require referral to another healthcare professional.
  • Pharmacists must advise patients considering a homeopathic product about their lack of efficacy beyond that of a placebo.

This publication is a few months old, but I only saw it recently. It could not be clearer and it is much more to the point than the General Pharmaceutical Council’s ‘Standards for Pharmacy Professionals‘ which state:

People receive safe and effective care when pharmacy professionals reflect on the application of their knowledge and skills and keep them up-to-date, including using evidence in their decision making. A pharmacy professional’s knowledge and skills must develop over the course of their career to reflect the changing nature of healthcare, the population they provide care to and the roles they carry out. There are a number of ways to meet this standard and below are examples of the attitudes and behaviours expected.

People receive safe and effective care when pharmacy professionals:

  • recognise and work within the limits of their knowledge and skills, and refer to others when needed
  • use their skills and knowledge, including up-to-date evidence, to deliver care and improve the quality of care they provide
  • carry out a range of continuing professional development (CPD) activities relevant to their practice
  • record their development activities to demonstrate that their knowledge and skills are up to date
  • use a variety of methods to regularly monitor and reflect on their practice, skills and knowledge

The two statements together should suffice to finally get some sense into UK pharmacies when it comes to the sale of homeopathic remedies. What is needed now, I think, is an (under-cover?) investigation to see how many UK community pharmacists abide by this guidance.

If anyone has the means to conduct it, I would be delighted to advise them on the best methodology.

Vis a vis the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, why are there so many clinicians (doctors as well as lay practitioners) who still believe that homeopathy is working? And why are there so many patients who still believe that homeopathy is working?

These are questions that puzzle me quite a bit.

Of course, there is no simple, single answer; there are probably dozens. But one reason must be that there are only three possible outcomes after homeopathic treatments, all of which are favourable for homeopathy (at least in the interpretation of proponents of homeopathy). Seen in this light, there simply is no better therapy!

Let me explain:

If a patient consults a homeopath who prescribes a highly diluted homeopathic remedy, she might subsequently:

  1. get better,
  2. get worse,
  3. or experience no change at all.

Analysing these three possibilities, we quickly see that, from the point of view of a convinced homeopath, all are a proof for homeopathy’s effectiveness, and none suggests that the scientific evidence is correct in claiming that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos.

SCENARIO 1

In this situation, it is easy to assume that the remedy was the cause for the clinical improvement. Most clinicians of any discipline fall into this trap, and most patients follow them willingly. Yet, we all know that a temporal relationship is not the same as a causal one (the crowing of a cock before dawn is not the cause of the sun rising). Of course, it is conceivable that the treatment was the cause, but there are several other possibilities as well; just think of the placebo effect, regression towards the mean, and the natural history of the disease. In our case, these non-specific effects are most certainly the cause of our patient’s improvement.

SCENARIO 2

Most clinicians in this situation would start wondering whether they have employed the correct therapy for this patient’s condition – not so the homeopath! He would triumphantly exclaim: “excellent, you are experiencing a ‘homeopathic aggravation’. This is a sure sign that I have given you the optimal remedy. Things will get better soon.” A homeopathic aggravation occurs, according to homeopathic logic, because homeopathy follows the ‘like cures like’ principle. The homeopath prescribes the remedy that would normally cause the symptoms from which his patient is suffering. This means it must also cause these symptoms in every patient. Usually these aggravations are not strong enough to be noticed, but when they are, it is interpreted by homeopaths as a triumph of homeopathy.

SCENARIO 3

In this situation, the homeopath has several options. He can claim “but without my remedy you would be much worse by now. The fact that you are not, shows how very effective homeopathy really is. A more humble homeopaths might explain that the optimal remedy is not always easy to find straight away, and he would therefore proceed in prescribing another one. In both cases, the patient is kept paying for more and homeopathy is presented as an effective therapy.

These three scenarios clearly show that there is no conceivable outcome where any homeopathy-fan would need to consider that scientists are correct in stating that homeopathy is ineffective. And this is one of the reasons why the myth of homeopathy’s effectiveness persists.

Hold on … the patient might be dead!

Yes, that is a rather unfortunate situation for any clinician – except for a homeopath, of course. He would simply point out that the patient must have forgotten to take her medicine. A conventional practitioner might get in trouble, if he tried that excuse; one could easily measure blood levels of the prescribed drug and verify the claim. Not so in homeopathy! Because they contain not a single active molecule, homeopathic remedies are undetectable!

We can easily see that there is no better treatment than homeopathy – at least for the homeopath!

 

 

Needle acupuncture in small children is controversial, not least because the evidence that it works is negative or weak, and because small children are unable to consent to the treatment. Yet it is recommended by some acupuncturists for infant colic. This, of course, begs the questions:

  1. Does the best evidence tell us that acupuncture is effective for infant colic?
  2. Are acupuncturists who recommend acupuncture for this condition responsible and ethical?

This systematic review and a blinding-test validation based on individual patient data from randomised controlled trials was aimed to assess its efficacy for treating infantile colic. Primary end-points were crying time at mid-treatment, at the end of treatment and at a 1-month follow-up. A 30-min mean difference (MD) in crying time between acupuncture and control was predefined as a clinically important difference. Pearson’s chi-squared test and the James and Bang indices were used to test the success of blinding of the outcome assessors [parents].

The investigators included three randomised controlled trials with data from 307 participants. Only one of the included trials obtained a successful blinding of the outcome assessors in both the acupuncture and control groups. The MD in crying time between acupuncture intervention and no acupuncture control was -24.9 min at mid-treatment, -11.4 min at the end of treatment and -11.8 min at the 4-week follow-up. The heterogeneity was negligible in all analyses. The statistically significant result at mid-treatment was lost when excluding the apparently unblinded study in a sensitivity analysis: MD -13.8 min. The registration of crying during treatment suggested more crying during acupuncture.

The authors concluded that percutaneous needle acupuncture treatments should not be recommended for infantile colic on a general basis.

The authors also provide this further comment: “Our blinding test validated IPD meta-analysis of minimal acupuncture treatments of infantile colic did not show clinically relevant effects in pain reduction as estimated by differences in crying time between needle acupuncture intervention and no acupuncture control. Analyses indicated that acupuncture treatment induced crying in many of the children. Caution should therefore be exercised in recommending potentially painful treatments with uncertain efficacy in infants. The studies are few, the analysis is made on small samples of individuals, and conclusions should be considered in this context. With this limitation in mind, our findings do not support the idea that percutaneous needle acupuncture should be recommended for treatment of infantile colic on a general basis.”

So, returning to the two questions that I listed above – what are the answers?

I think they must be:

  1. No.
  2. No.

In the comment section of a recent post, we saw a classic example of the type of reasoning that many alternative practitioners seem to like. In order to offer a service to other practitioners, I will elaborate on it here. The reasoning roughly follows these simple 10 steps:

  1. My treatment works.
  2. My treatment requires a lot of skills, training and experience.
  3. Most people fail to appreciate how subtle my treatment really is.
  4. In fact, only few practitioners manage do it the way it has to be done.
  5. The negative trials of my treatment are false-negative because they were conducted by incompetent practitioners.
  6. In any case, for a whole range of reasons, my treatment cannot be pressed into the straight jacket of a clinical trial.
  7. My treatment is therefore not supported by the type of evidence people who don’t understand it insist upon.
  8. Therefore, we have to rely on the best evidence that is available to date.
  9. And that clearly is the experience of therapists and patients.
  10. So, the best evidence unquestionably confirms that my treatment works.

The case I mentioned above was that of an acupuncturist defending his beloved acupuncture. To a degree, the argument put forward by him sounded (to fellow acupuncturists) reasonable. On closer inspection, however, they seem far less so, perhaps even fallacious. If you are an acupuncturist, you will, of course, disagree with me. Therefore, I invite all acupuncturists to imagine a homeopath arguing in that way (which they often do). Would you still find the line of arguments reasonable?

And what, if you are a homeopath? Then I invite you to imagine that a crystal therapist argues in that way (which they often do). Would you still find the line of arguments reasonable?

And what, if you are a crystal therapist? …

I am not getting anywhere, am I?

To make my point, it might perhaps be best, if I created my very own therapy!

Here we go: it’s called ENERGY PRESERVATION THERAPY (EPT).

I have discovered, after studying ancient texts from various cultures, that the vital energy of our closest deceased relatives can be transferred by consuming their carbon molecules. The most hygienic way to achieve this is to have our deceased relatives cremated and consume their ashes afterwards. The cremation, storage of the ashes, as well as their preparation and regular consumption all have to be highly individualised, of course. But I am certain that this is the only way to preserve their vital force and transfer it to a living relative. The benefits of this treatment are instantly visible.

As it happens, I run special three-year (6 years part-time) courses at the RSM in London to teach other clinicians how exactly to do this. And I should warn you: they are neither cheap nor easy; we are talking of very skilled stuff here.

What! You doubt that my treatment works?

Doubt no more!

Here are 10 convincing arguments for it:

  1. EPT works, I have 10 years of experience and seen hundreds of cases.
  2. EPT requires a lot of skills, training and experience.
  3. Most people fail to appreciate how subtle EPT really is.
  4. In fact, only few practitioners manage do EPT the way it has to be done.
  5. The negative trials of EPT are false-negative because they were conducted by incompetent practitioners.
  6. In any case, for a whole range of reasons, EPT cannot be pressed into the straight jacket of a clinical trial.
  7. EPT is therefore not supported by the type of evidence people who don’t understand it insist upon.
  8. Therefore, we have to rely on the best evidence that is available to date.
  9. And that clearly is the experience of therapists and patients.
  10. So, the best evidence unquestionably confirms that EPT works.

Convinced?

No?

You do surprise me!

Why then are you convinced of the effectiveness of acupuncture, homeopathy, etc?

Having yesterday been to a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event on MEDITATION in Cambridge (my home town since last year) I had to think about the subject quite a bit. As I have hardly covered this topic on my blog, I am today trying to briefly summarise my view on it.

The first thing that strikes me when looking at the evidence on meditation is that it is highly confusing. There seem to be:

  • a lack of clear definitions,
  • hundreds of studies, most of which are of poor or even very poor quality,
  • lots of people with ’emotional baggage’,
  • plenty of strange links to cults and religions,
  • dozens of different meditation methods and regimen,
  • unbelievable claims by enthusiasts,
  • lots of weirdly enthusiastic followers.

What was confirmed yesterday is the fact that, once we look at the reliable medical evidence, we are bound to find that the health claims of various meditation techniques are hugely exaggerated. There is almost no strong evidence to suggest that meditation does affect any condition. The small effects that do emerge from some meta-analyses could easily be due to residual bias and confounding; it is not possible to rigorously control for placebo effects in clinical trials of meditation.

Another thing that came out clearly yesterday is the fact that meditation might not be as risk-free as it is usually presented. Several cases of psychoses after meditation are on record; some of these are both severe and log-lasting. How often do they happen? Nobody knows! Like with most alternative therapies, there is no reporting system in place that could possibly give us anything like a reliable answer.

For me, however, the biggest danger with (certain forms of) meditation is not the risk of psychosis. It is the risk of getting sucked into a cult that then takes over the victim and more or less destroys his or her personality. I have seen this several times, and it is a truly frightening phenomenon.

In our now 10-year-old book THE DESKTOP GUIDE TO COMPLEMENTARY AND ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE, we included a chapter on meditation. It concluded that “meditation appears to be safe for most people and those with sufficient motivation to practise regularly will probably find a relaxing experience. Evidence for effectiveness in any indication is week.” Even today, this is not far off the mark, I think. If I had to re-write it now, I would perhaps mention the potential for harm and also add that, as a therapy, the risk/benefit balance of meditation fails to be convincingly positive. 

PS

I highly recommend ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events to anyone who likes stimulating talks and critical thinking.

On this blog, we constantly discuss the shortcomings of clinical trials of (and other research into) alternative medicine. Yet, there can be no question that research into conventional medicine is often unreliable as well.

What might be the main reasons for this lamentable fact?

A recent BMJ article discussed 5 prominent reasons:

Firstly, much research fails to address questions that matter. For example, new drugs are tested against placebo rather than against usual treatments. Or the question may already have been answered, but the researchers haven’t undertaken a systematic review that would have told them the research was not needed. Or the research may use outcomes, perhaps surrogate measures, that are not useful.

Secondly, the methods of the studies may be inadequate. Many studies are too small, and more than half fail to deal adequately with bias. Studies are not replicated, and when people have tried to replicate studies they find that most do not have reproducible results.

Thirdly, research is not efficiently regulated and managed. Quality assurance systems fail to pick up the flaws in the research proposals. Or the bureaucracy involved in having research funded and approved may encourage researchers to conduct studies that are too small or too short term.

Fourthly, the research that is completed is not made fully accessible. Half of studies are never published at all, and there is a bias in what is published, meaning that treatments may seem to be more effective and safer than they actually are. Then not all outcome measures are reported, again with a bias towards those are positive.

Fifthly, published reports of research are often biased and unusable. In trials about a third of interventions are inadequately described meaning they cannot be implemented. Half of study outcomes are not reported.

END OF QUOTE

Apparently, these 5 issues are the reason why 85% of biomedical research is being wasted.

That is in CONVENTIONAL medicine, of course.

What about alternative medicine?

There is no question in my mind that the percentage figure must be even higher here. But do the same reasons apply? Let’s go through them again:

  1. Much research fails to address questions that matter. That is certainly true for alternative medicine – just think of the plethora of utterly useless surveys that are being published.
  2. The methods of the studies may be inadequate. Also true, as we have seen hundreds of time on this blog. Some of the most prevalent flaws include in my experience small sample sizes, lack of adequate controls (e.g. A+B vs B design) and misleading conclusions.
  3. Research is not efficiently regulated and managed. True, but probably not a specific feature of alternative medicine research.
  4. Research that is completed is not made fully accessible. most likely true but, due to lack of information and transparency, impossible to judge.
  5. Published reports of research are often biased and unusable. This is unquestionably a prominent feature of alternative medicine research.

All of this seems to indicate that the problems are very similar – similar but much more profound in the realm of alternative medicine, I’d say based on many years of experience (yes, what follows is opinion and not evidence because the latter is hardly available).

The thing is that, like almost any other job, research needs knowledge, skills, training, experience, integrity and impartiality to do it properly. It simply cannot be done well without such qualities. In alternative medicine, we do not have many individuals who have all or even most of these qualities. Instead, we have people who often are evangelic believers in alternative medicine, want to further their field by doing some research and therefore acquire a thin veneer of scientific expertise.

In my 25 years of experience in this area, I have not often seen researchers who knew that research is for testing hypotheses and not for trying to prove one’s hunches to be correct. In my own team, those who were the most enthusiastic about a particular therapy (and were thus seen as experts in its clinical application), were often the lousiest researchers who had the most difficulties coping with the scientific approach.

For me, this continues to be THE problem in alternative medicine research. The investigators – and some of them are now sufficiently skilled to bluff us to believe they are serious scientists – essentially start on the wrong foot. Because they never were properly trained and educated, they fail to appreciate how research proceeds. They hardly know how to properly establish a hypothesis, and – most crucially – they don’t know that, once that is done, you ought to conduct investigation after investigation to show that your hypothesis is incorrect. Only once all reasonable attempts to disprove it have failed, can your hypothesis be considered correct. These multiple attempts of disproving go entirely against the grain of an enthusiast who has plenty of emotional baggage and therefore cannot bring him/herself to honestly attempt to disprove his/her beloved hypothesis.

The plainly visible result of this situation is the fact that we have dozens of alternative medicine researchers who never publish a negative finding related to their pet therapy (some of them were admitted to what I call my HALL OF FAME on this blog, in case you want to verify this statement). And the lamentable consequence of all this is the fast-growing mountain of dangerously misleading (but often seemingly robust) articles about alternative treatments polluting Medline and other databases.

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