A study by an international team of researchers estimated the proportion of healthcare interventions tested within Cochrane Reviews that are effective according to high-quality evidence.
They selected a random sample of 2428 (35%) of all Cochrane Reviews published between 1 January 2008 and 5 March 2021 and extracted data about interventions within these reviews that were compared with placebo, or no treatment, and whose outcome quality was rated using Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE). They then calculated the proportion of interventions whose effectiveness was based on high-quality evidence according to GRADE, had statistically significant positive effects and were judged as beneficial by the review authors. They also calculated the proportion of interventions that suggested harm.
Of 1567 eligible interventions, 87 (5.6%) had high-quality evidence on first-listed primary outcomes, positive, statistically significant results, and were rated by review authors as beneficial. Harms were measured for 577 (36.8%) interventions, 127 of which (8.1%) had statistically significant evidence of harm. Our dependence on the reliability of Cochrane author assessments (including their GRADE assessments) was a potential limitation of our study.
The authors drew the following conclusions: While many healthcare interventions may be beneficial, very few have high-quality evidence to support their effectiveness and safety. This problem can be remedied by high-quality studies in priority areas. These studies should measure harms more frequently and more rigorously. Practitioners and the public should be aware that many frequently used interventions are not supported by high-quality evidence.
Proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are fond of the ‘strawman’ fallacy; meaning they like to present a picture of conventional medicine that is overtly negative in order for SCAM to appear more convincing (Prince Charles, for instance, uses this trick every single time he speaks about SCAM). Therefore I am amazed that this paper has not been exploited in that way by them. I was expecting headlines such as
Evidence-based medicine is not supported by evidence
Less than 6% of all conventional treatments are supported by sound evidence.
Why did they not have a field day with this new paper then?
As the article is behind a paywall, it took me a while to get the full paper (thanks Paul). Now that I have read it, I think I understand the reason.
In the article, the authors provide figures for specific types of treatments. Let me show you some of the percentages of interventions that met the primary outcome (high quality, statistically significant effect, and authors interpret as effective):
- pharmacological 73.8%
- surgical 4.6%
- exercise 5.8%
- diet 1.2%
- alternative 0.0%
- manual therapies 0.0%
So, maybe the headlines should not be any of the above but:
No good evidence to support SCAM?
SCAM is destroying the evidence base of medicine.
In a previous post, I reported about the ‘biggest ever’, ‘history-making’ conference on integrative medicine. It turns out that it was opened by none other than Prince Charles. Here is what the EXPRESS reported about his opening speech:
Opening the conference, Charles said:
“I know a few people have seen this integrated approach as being in some way opposed to modern medicine. It isn’t. But we need to combine this with a personal approach that also takes account of our beliefs, hopes, culture and history. It builds upon the abilities of our minds and bodies to heal, and to live healthy lives by improving diet and lifestyle.”
Dr. Michael Dixon, Chair of the College of Medicine, said:
“Medicine, as we know it, is no longer affordable or sustainable. Nor is it able to curb the increase in obesity, mental health problems and most long-term diseases. A new medical mindset is needed, which goes to the heart of true healthcare. The advantages and possibilities of social prescription are limitless. An adjustment to the system now will provide a long-term, sustainable solution for the NHS to meet the ever-increasing demand for funding and healthcare professionals.”
Charles very kindly acknowledges that not everyone is convinced about his concept of integrated/integrative medicine. Good point your royal highness! But I fear Charles did not quite understand our objections. In a nutshell: it is not possible to cure the many ills of conventional medicine by adding unproven and disproven therapies to it. In fact, it distracts from our duty to constantly improve conventional medicine. And pretending it is all about diet and lifestyle is simply not true (see below). Moreover, it is disingenuous to pretend that diet and lifestyle do not belong to conventional healthcare.
Dr. Dixon’s concern about the affordability of medicine is, of course, justified. But the notion that “the advantages and possibilities of social prescription are limitless” is a case of severe proctophasia, and so is Dixon’s platitude about ‘adjusting the system’. His promotion of treatments like Acupuncture, Alexander Technique, Aromatherapy, Herbal Medicine, Homeopathy, Hypnotherapy, Massage, Naturopathy, Reflexology, Reiki, Tai Chi, Yoga Therapy will not adjust anything, it will only make healthcare less efficient.
I do not doubt for a minute that doctors are prescribing too many drugs and that we could save huge amounts by reminding patients that they are responsible for their own health while teaching them how to improve it without pills. This is what we learn in medical school! All we need to do is remind everyone concerned. In fact, Charles and his advisor, Michael, could be most helpful in achieving this – but not by promoting a weird branch of healthcare (integrative/integrated medicine or whatever other names they choose to give it) that can only distract from the important task at hand.
I was alerted to the following conference announcement:
The MEP Interest Group on Integrative Medicine and Health is delighted to invite you to the event ‘Integrative Medicine and Health in prevention and management of COVID-19 and long COVID’ on Thursday 2 June 16.00–18.00 CEST.
This event will give you in-depth information about:
Expert speakers will share their knowledge and insights about how:
• Complementary and Integrative Medicine and Health interventions can improve resilience to COVID-19 infection.
• Promoting resilience and health restoration can reduce the risk of severe COVID-19 or development of Long COVID.
• These interventions can improve the recovery from Long COVID.
Key speakers and topics:
Therapeutic strategies of complementary medicines in the COVID 19 pandemic and Long COVID in addition to conventional medicine
Dr Joanna Dietzel, MD Neurologist, Acupuncturist. Department for integrative & complementary medicine, Institute of social medicine, epidemiology and health economics, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany.
Chinese herbal medicine treatment in cases of infections with SARS-CoV-2 – therapeutic strategies for COVID-19 and Long COVID
Dr Christian Thede, MD, General practitioner, specialised in Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Former lecturer in Chinese medicine, University of Witten-Herdecke, Germany
Instructor for Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine at International Society of Chinese Medicine (SMS).
Traditional and Complementary Medicine contributions to health system resilience during COVID-19 – the WHO perspective
Dr Geetha Kopalakrishna, MD, Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine & Surgery
Technical Officer at Traditional, Complementary & Integrative Medicine, Department of Service Delivery and Safety, World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland
Key member of the AYUSH-based COVID-19 response Task Force for the Government of India.
Research programme into integrative medicine’s contribution to improving resilience to COVID-19 infection and reducing the risk of severe COVID-19 or development of Long COVID
Dr Helene M. Langevin, Director at National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland (MD), USA. Previously, Director of the Harvard Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston (MA) and professor of neurological sciences at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont (VT).
Q&A sessions after the presentations.
Resilience to infections: a solution for COVID-19 and other infectious illnesses
Studies show that certain common medical conditions put people at higher risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19. Nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 hospitalizations could be attributed to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and heart failure. There is increasing awareness that a health system that focuses on improving health could prevent all these conditions to a large extent.
More than 40% of people who have or had COVID-19 get long COVID, and among people who needed hospitalization, the statistics go up to 57%. The recovery from such post viral syndromes will be greatly helped by offering patients access to complementary and integrative medicine interventions that aim at restoring their health balance.
MEP Interest Group on Integrative Medicine and Health
The event is hosted by the members of the MEP Interest Group on Integrative Medicine & Health:
Michèle Rivasi, Greens/EFA, France
Sirpa Pietikäinen, EPP, Finland
Tilly Metz, Greens/EFA, Luxembourg
Margrete Auken, Greens/EFA, Denmark
Romana Jerković, S&D, Croatia
Manuela Ripa, Greens/EFA, Germany
I had not been aware of the ‘MEP Interest Group on Integrative Medicine & Health‘. Therefore, I looked it up and found this:
The newly established Interest Group on Integrative Medicine & Health continues the work of the former MEP Interest Group on CAM. This group brings together MEPs who work collectively to promote the inclusion of CAM as part of Integrative Medicine & Health in all possible European Parliament public health policy.
Why an Interest Group in the European Parliament?
One in two EU citizens uses complementary medicine either alongside or as an alternative to conventional biomedical care. This high demand is not yet reflected in EU or national health policy or provision. In addition, there is diversity in complementary medicine regulation across the EU. There are differences in who can practice complementary medicine, what qualifications are required and how services are offered and financed. These discrepancies mean that citizens experience practical and attitudinal barriers that limit their access to and use of TCIM.
The health sector in the EU Member States is facing considerable challenges, such as antimicrobial resistance (AMR), increasing prevalence of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and soaring costs. Complementary medicine can offer a significant contribution to meet these challenges. These modalities are “integrative”, offering patient-centered healthcare, based on evidence-informed integration of conventional biomedicine and complementary medicine. Integrative Medicine and Health focuses on the whole person and considers the individual in its physical, psychological, spiritual, social and environmental context. It is inclusive of all professions and practices that use this approach and meets the demand of EU citizens for a more holistic, patient-centered approach in medicine. At the same time, TCIM is at the center of political and scientific debate. In this context, a forum for discussion on Integrative and Complementary Medicine’s contribution to EU health systems will bring clarity and rationality to this debate.
Aims and objectives of the Interest Group on Integrative Medicine & Health
- Establish and maintain a forum for discussion and action with all stakeholders regarding Integrative Medicine and Health.
- Raise awareness of Integrative Medicine and its contribution to more sustainable healthcare systems in the EU and a more holistic approach to health.
- Focus on the integration of complementary modalities into the health systems of the EU Member States.
- Protect and promote citizens’ right to choose their own healthcare while providing access to Integrative Medicine and Health information.
- Advocate for EU involvement in setting unified standards to regulation of Integrative Medicine and Health.
Unified standards? But what about high or perhaps just scientific standards? What about first doing the research and then making claims about CAM or TCIM or however you decide to call it? Has common sense gone out of fashion?
Yes, you guessed it: I am seriously underwhelmed by all this. To show you why, let me list just a few claims from the above two statements that are based purely on wishful thinking:
- Complementary and Integrative Medicine and Health interventions can improve resilience to COVID-19 infection.
- These interventions can improve the recovery from Long COVID.
- Studies show that certain common medical conditions put people at higher risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19.
- The recovery from such post viral syndromes will be greatly helped by offering patients access to complementary and integrative medicine interventions that aim at restoring their health balance.
- One in two EU citizens uses complementary medicine either alongside or as an alternative to conventional biomedical care.
- The health sector in the EU Member States is facing considerable challenges, such as antimicrobial resistance (AMR), increasing prevalence of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and soaring costs. Complementary medicine can offer a significant contribution to meet these challenges.
- These modalities are “integrative”, offering patient-centered healthcare, based on evidence-informed integration of conventional biomedicine and complementary medicine.
- Integrative medicine … meets the demand of EU citizens for a more holistic, patient-centered approach in medicine.
I find all this confusing and concerning in equal measure. I also seriously doubt that the forum for discussion on Integrative and Complementary Medicine will bring clarity and rationality to this debate. If they really wanted a debate, they would need to include a few critical thinkers; can anyone recognize one on the list of speakers? I cannot!
I fear the aim of the group and their meeting is to mislead us all into thinking that CAM, TCIM, etc. generate more good than harm without ever delivering the evidence for that assumption. Therefore, I suggest they rename both the conference as well as their group:
‘Wishful thinking in prevention and management of COVID-19 and long COVID’
MEP Interest Group on Wishful Thinking and Promotion of Quackery
As an antidote to wishful thinking, I recommend reading some proper science papers on the subject. Here are the conclusions of an up-to-date and wishful-thinking-free review on the subject of post-acute infection syndrome:
Unexplained post-acute infection syndromes (PAISs) appear to be an under-recognized feature of a spectrum of infectious diseases in a minority of patients. At present, our understanding of the underlying pathophysiologic mechanisms and etiologic factors is poor and there are no known objective markers or effective therapeutic options. More basic biomedical research is needed. The overlap of symptoms, signs, and general features of the individual PAISs suggests the involvement of shared pathological pathways and the possibility that common diagnostic markers, or even a unified etiological model, might be established.
However, some symptoms or clinical characteristics seem to be trigger-specific or more prevalent in one PAIS than in others, emphasizing the need for cohorts with a well-documented infectious trigger. The overall clinical picture of many PAISs often overlaps with the presentation of post-infectious ME/CFS or fibromyalgia, or resembles other fatiguing, neurological, or rheumatic disorders. Exploiting existing knowledge of these conditions might help guide future scientific discovery and progress in clinical care.
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic uncovered a significant gap in knowledge about post-acute sequelae of infectious diseases and identified the need for better diagnostic care and clinical infrastructure for patients experiencing these long-term effects. In addition to basic biomedical research, more needs to be done to refine diagnostic criteria and obtain more reliable estimates of the prevalence and societal burden of these disorders to help shape health-policy decisions. Moreover, we call for unified nomenclature and better conceptualization of post-acute infection symptoms.
There is much to be done, but the unprecedented amount of attention and resources that have recently been allocated to the study of COVID-19-related pathology brings a promise of much-needed progress in the wider field of unexplained infection-associated chronic disability.
Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that advocates of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are either in complete denial about the risks of SCAM or they do anything to trivialize them. Here is a dialogue between a SCAM proponent (P) and a scientist (S) that is aimed at depicting this situation. The conversation is fictitious, of course, but it is nevertheless based on years of experience in discussing these issues with practitioners of various types of SCAM. As we shall see, the arguments turn out to be perfectly circular.
P: My therapy is virtually free of risks.
S: How can you be so sure?
P: I am practicing it for decades and have never seen a single problem.
S: That could have several reasons; perhaps the patients who experience problems did simply not come back.
P: I find this unlikely.
S: I don’t, and I know of reports where patients had serious complications after the type of SCAM you practice.
P: These are isolated case reports. They do not amount to evidence.
S: How do you know they are isolated?
P: They must be isolated because, in the many clinical trials of my therapy available to date, you will not find any evidence of serious adverse effects.
S: That is true, but it has been repeatedly shown that these trials regularly fail to mention side effects altogether.
P: That’s because there aren’t any.
S: Not quite, clinical trials should always mention adverse effects, and if there were none, they should mention this too.
P: So, you admit that you have no evidence that my therapy causes adverse effects.
S: The thing is, I don’t need such evidence. It is you, the practitioners of this therapy, who should provide evidence that your treatments are safe.
P: We did! The complete absence of reports of side effects constitutes that evidence.
S: Except, there is some evidence. I already told you that there are several case reports of serious problems.
P: But case reports are anecdotes; they are no evidence.
S: Look, here is a systematic review of all the case reports. You cannot possibly deny that this is a concern.
P: It’s still merely a bunch of anecdotes, nothing more.
S: Only because your profession does nothing about it.
P: What do you think we need to do about it?
S: Like other professions, you need to systematically record adverse effects.
P: How would that help?
S: It would give us a rough indication of the size and severity of the problem.
P: This sounds expensive and complicated to organize.
S: Perhaps, but it is necessary if you want to be sure that your therapy is safe.
P: But we are sure already!
S: No, you believe it, but you don’t know it.
P: You are getting on my nerves with your obsession. Don’t you know that the true danger in healthcare is the adverse effects of pharmaceutical drugs?
S: But these drugs are also effective.
P: Are you saying my therapy isn’t?
S: What I am saying is that the drugs you claim to be dangerous do more good than harm, while this is not at all clear with your SCAM.
P: To me, that is very clear. My therapy helps many and harms nobody!
S: How do you know that it harms nobody?
… At this point, we have gone full circle and we can re-start this conversation from its beginning.
What motivates a doctor to work as an integrative medical practitioner? This is a question I asked myself often. Despite trying to find answers through several methods, I was not very successful. The question does not seem well-researched at all. Here is what I found so far:
Our own 1996 survey of GPs participating in a course at Exeter that was aimed at familiarizing them with so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) found that the main perceived advantage of SCAM, apart from the potential intrinsic value of the techniques themselves, was the time available for establishing a good therapeutic relationship with the patient.
A UK survey from 2001 suggested that doctors are motivated by issues ranging from feeling a responsibility to respond to their patients’ interests and needs to developing “another string to their bow.” Some are attracted to its study in its own right, others by a wish to focus some of their energy away from conventional medical practice, which they may find stressful and unfulfilling. Doctors studying complementary and alternative medicine often call on different personality traits and report a variety of positive benefits from training, including welcoming the opportunity to engage their feelings, trust their intuition, and enjoy therapeutic touch. Comments from attendees at one homoeopathic course were “I started to enjoy seeing patients again,” “Training had improved my conventional history taking,” and “Having another approach made treating heart-sink patients easier.”
A German focus group in 2008 with 17 GP suggested that scientific evidence and patient preference were the main criteria used by these doctors in deciding whether to apply a SCAM or not.
An interview study published in 2011 with Australian doctors provided some details. The researchers invited 43 doctors to participate. Twenty-three agreed to take part in either a face-to-face (n = 7) or telephone (n = 16) interviews. Here is the passage entitled “Motivations to work as an integrative medical practitioner” from their paper:
‘Family of origin health beliefs and practices’ were an important influence on the doctors’ philosophical approach and their decisions to work as an integrative medical practitioner.
…When I grew up it was not uncommon that I would see my aunties and uncles preparing all sorts of things. My auntie laying me on her lap and putting breast milk in my ear and drinking chamomile tea for a sore belly…there was lots of things that influenced me. (Female, 23 years in practice)
…There is a long tradition in [country of origin] of using a herbalist. I heard things from my mum and my grandma and those ideas were there. (Male, 16 years in practice)
The ‘personal or close family illness experiences’ reported by doctors were also influential in motivating them to practice integrative medicine. These experiences included non-conventional approaches to health and illness and the use of CAM as treatment modalities.
…I had my own illness – depression and a very bad back. I’d been on medication for years and I got sick of taking medications and I was given a prognosis of chronic illness with relapses and I really didn’t like it. So I started to look elsewhere and that took me in to the world of mind-body medicine. (Female, 24 years in practice)
Other doctors cited ‘professional experiences’, often early in their careers, of different theoretical approaches to medicine as being a powerful stimulus to practice integrative medicine. These included being inspired by a medical lecturer, an interesting, usually non-conventional experience during a placement as a medical student, and professional experiences of CAM modalities during their residency or early medical career.
…We had this subject Medical Studies 3, where there was a discussion of the French fur trapper in the Yukon who had shot himself in the stomach and the local doctor who was experimenting with various emotional states. There was just that sort of moment, of thinking, that’s the sort of area that I want to work in. (Male, 26 years in practice)
…I found myself doing a clinical attachment at a hospital in Switzerland that used integrated medicine, they had a course and I thought I’ll just do this for interest. I came in contact with an Indian person who did homeopathy and I found his stories quite interesting. (Male, 22 years in practice)
‘Dissatisfaction with the conventional approach to medicine’, which was perceived to be too illness focused or commercialized, was also cited by some doctors as a precursor to adopting an integrative approach to medical practice.
…More and more I’m realising that medicine is a personalised thing. We need to learn the art of treating people individually rather than en masse as a sick lung or a sick toe or a sick whatever because it doesn’t work like that. (Male, 22 years in practice)
…Medicine was hijacked by the market; i.e.: big pharmaceutical companies. And they have seduced the government, the colleges, the universities, general practice, everybody. GPs, in my opinion, have been deskilled. (Female, 19 years in practice).
An Australian survey from 2021 suggested that GPs were attracted to SCAM because they thought it to be relatively safe and effective, offering additional, holistic benefits to patients.
Collectively these investigations suggest that doctors’ motivation to work as integrated medical practitioners vary greatly. They seem to include:
- positive evidence for SCAM’s safety and efficacy,
- having the time to establish a good therapeutic relationship,
- wanting to use all therapeutic options,
- dissatisfaction with conventional medicine,
- patient preferences,
- wanting to practice in a more human and holistic way,
- personal and professional experiences.
But surely, there are other factors as well (from my personal experience in dealing with doctors of integrative medicine, I could list a few that are less than flattering). In any case, I would be most interested to hear your thought and read more published evidence that you might know about.
This is going to be a very short post. Yet, I am sure you agree that my ‘golden rules’ encapsulate the collective wisdom of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM):
- Conventional treatments are dangerous
- Conventional doctors are ignorant
- Natural remedies are by definition good
- Ancient wisdom knows best
- SCAM tackles the roots of all health problems
- Experience trumps evidence
- People vote with their feet (SCAM’s popularity and patients’ satisfaction prove SCAM’s effectiveness)
- Science is barking up the wrong tree (what we need is a paradigm shift)
- Even Nobel laureates and other VIPs support SCAM
- Only SCAM practitioners care about the whole individual (mind, body, and soul)
- Science is not yet sufficiently advanced to understand how SCAM works (the mode of action has not been discovered)
- SCAM even works for animals (and thus cannot be a placebo)
- There is reliable evidence to support SCAM
- If a study of SCAM happens to yield a negative result, it is false-negative (e.g. because SCAM was not correctly applied)
- SCAM is patient-centered
- Conventional medicine is money-orientated
- The establishment is forced to suppress SCAM because otherwise, they would go out of business
- SCAM is reliable, constant, and unwavering (whereas conventional medicine changes its views all the time)
- SCAM does not need a monitoring system for adverse effects because it is inherently safe
- SCAM treatments are individualized (they treat the patient and not just a diagnostic label like conventional medicine)
- SCAM could save us all a lot of money
- There is no health problem that SCAM cannot cure
- Practitioners of conventional medicine have misunderstood the deeper reasons why people fall ill and should learn from SCAM
I am sure that I have forgotten several important rules. If you can think of any, please post them in the comments section.
Yesterday, my new book arrived on my doorstep.
Its full title is CHARLES, THE ALTERNATIVE PRINCE. AN UNAUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY. I guess that it also clarifies its contents. In case you want to know more, here is the full list of topics:
Foreword by Nick Ross v
1. Why this Book? 1
2. Why this Author? 5
3. Words and Meanings 10
4. How Did It All Start? 13
5. Laurens van der Post 17
6. The British Medical Association 25
7. Talking Health 31
8. Osteopathy 37
9. Chiropractic 43
10. The Foundation of Integrated Health 50
11. Open Letter to The Times 56
12. The Model Hospital 62
13. Integrated Medicine 66
14. The Gerson Therapy 73
15. Herbal Medicine 77
16. The Smallwood Report 82
17. World Health Organisation 90
18. Traditional Chinese Medicine 96
19. The ‘GetWellUK’ Study 100
20. Bravewell 106
21. Duchy Originals Detox Tincture 110
22. Charles’ Letters to Health Politicians 115
23. The College of Medicine and Integrated Health 120
24. The Enemy of Enlightenment 126
25. Harmony 132
26. Antibiotic Overuse 142
27. Ayurvedic Medicine 147
28. Social Prescribing 154
29. Homeopathy 160
30. Final Thoughts 169
End Notes 187
In case you want to know more, here is chapter 1 of my book:
Over the past two decades, I have supported efforts to focus healthcare on the particular needs of the individual patient, employing the best and most appropriate forms of treatment from both orthodox and complementary medicine in a more integrated way.
The Prince of Wales 1997
This is a charmingly British understatement, indeed! Charles has been the most persistent champion of alternative medicine in the UK and perhaps even in the world. Since the early 1980s, he has done everything in his power
- to boost the image of alternative medicine,
- to improve the status of alternative practitioners,
- to make alternative therapies more available to the general public,
- to lobby that it should be paid for by the National Health Service (NHS),
- to ensure the press reported favourably about the subject,
- to influence politicians to provide more support for alternative medicine.
He has fought for these aims on a personal, emotional, political, and societal level. He has used his time, his intuition, his influence, and occasionally his money to achieve his goals. In 2010, he even wrote a book, ‘Harmony’, in which he explains his ideas in some detail (discussed in chapter 25, arguably the central chapter of this biography). Charles has thus become the undisputed champion of the realm of alternative medicine. For that he is admired by alternative practitioners across the globe.
Yet, his relentless efforts are not appreciated by everyone (another British understatement!). There are those who view his interventions as counter-productive distractions from the important and never-ending task to improve modern healthcare. There are those who warn that integrating treatments of dubious validity into our medical routine will render healthcare less efficient. There are those who claim that the Prince’s preoccupation with matters that he is not qualified to fully comprehend is a disservice to public health. And there are those who insist that the role of the heir to the throne does not include interfering with health politics.
- So, are Charles’ ideas new and exciting?
- Or are they obsolete and irrational?
- Has Charles become the saviour of UK healthcare?
- Or has he hindered progress?
- Is he a role model for medical innovators?
- Or the laughing stock of the experts?
- Is he a successful reformer of healthcare?
- Or are his concepts doomed to failure?
Charles appears to evade critical questions of this nature. Relying on his intuition, he unwaveringly pursues and promotes his personal beliefs, regardless of the evidence (Box 1). He believes strongly in his mission and is, as most observers agree, full of good intentions. If he even notices any criticism, it is merely to reaffirm his resolve and redouble his efforts. He is reported to work tirelessly, and one could easily get the impression that he is obsessed with his idea of integrating alternative medicine into conventional healthcare.
I have observed Charles’ efforts around alternative medicine for the last 30 years. Occasionally, I was involved in some of them. For 19 years, I have headed the world’s most productive team of researchers in alternative medicine. This background puts me in a unique position to write this account of Charles’ ‘love affair’ with alternative medicine. It is not just a simple outline of Charles’ views and actions but also a critical analysis of the evidence that does or does not support them. In writing it, I pursue several aims:
- I want to summarise this part of medical history, as it amounts to an important contribution to the recent development of alternative medicine in the UK and beyond.
- I hope to explain how Charles and other enthusiasts of alternative medicine think, what motivates them and what logic they follow.
- I will contrast Charles’ beliefs with the published evidence as it pertains to each of the alternative modalities (treatments and diagnostic methods) he supports.
- I want to stimulate my readers’ ability to think critically about health in general and alternative medicine in particular.
My book will thus provide an opportunity to weigh the arguments for and against alternative medicine. In that way, it might even provide Charles with a substitute for a discussion about his thoughts on alternative medicine which, during almost half a century, he so studiously managed to avoid.
In pursuing these aims there are also issues that I hope to avoid. From the start, I should declare an interest. Charles and I once shared a similar enthusiasm for alternative medicine. But, as new evidence emerged, I changed my mind and he did not. This led to much-publicised tensions and conflicts. Yet it would be too easy to dismiss this book as an act of vengeance. It isn’t. I have tried hard to be objective and dispassionate, setting out Charles’ claims as fairly as I can and comparing them with the most reliable evidence. As much as possible:
- I do not want my personal discords with Charles to get in the way of objectivity.
- I do not want to be unfairly dismissive of Charles and his ambitions.
- I do not want to be disrespectful about anyone’s deeply felt convictions.
- I do not aim to weaken the standing of our royal family.
My book follows Charles’ activities in roughly chronological order. Each time we encounter a new type of alternative medicine, I will try to contrast Charles’ perceptions with the scientific evidence that was available at the time. Most chapters of this book are thus divided into four parts
- A short introduction
- Charles’ views
- An outline of the evidence
- A comment about the consequences
While writing this book, one question occurred to me regularly: Why has nobody so far written a detailed history of Charles’s passion for alternative medicine? Surely, the account of Charles ‘love affair’ with alternative medicine is fascinating, diverse, revealing, and important!
I hope you agree.
The nature of evidence in medicine and science
- Evidence is the body of facts, often created through experiments under controlled conditions, that lead to a given conclusion.
- Evidence must be neutral and give equal weight to data that fail to conform to our expectations.
- Evidence is normally used towards rejecting or supporting a hypothesis.
- In alternative medicine, the most relevant hypotheses often relate to the efficacy of a therapy.
- Such hypotheses are best tested with controlled clinical trials where a group of patients is divided into two subgroups and only one is given the therapy to be tested; subsequently the results of both groups are compared.
- Experience does not amount to evidence and is a poor indicator of efficacy; it can be influenced by several phenomena, e.g. placebo effects, natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean.
- If the results of clinical studies are contradictory, the best available evidence is usually a systematic review of the totality of rigorous trials.
- Systematic reviews are methods to minimise random and selection biases. The most reliable systematic reviews are, according to a broad consensus, those from the Cochrane Collaboration.
In case you want to know even more – and I hope you do – please get yourself a copy.
On this blog and elsewhere, I have heard many strange arguments against COVID-19 vaccinations. I get the impression that most proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) hold or sympathize with such notions. Here is a list of those arguments that have come up most frequently together with my (very short) comments:
COVID is not dangerous
It’s just a flu and nothing to be really afraid of, they say. Therefore, no good reason exists for getting vaccinated. This, I think, is easily countered by pointing out that to date about 5.5 million people have died of COVID-19. In addition, I fear that the issues of ‘long-COVID’ is omitted in such discussions
It’s only the oldies who die
As an oldie myself, I find this argument quite distasteful. More importantly, it is simply not correct.
Vaccines don’t work
True they do not protect us 100% from the infection. But they very dramatically reduce the likelihood of severe illness or death from COVID-19.
Vaccines are unsafe
We have now administered almost 10 billion vaccinations worldwide. Thus we know a lot about the risks. In absolute terms, there is a vast amount of cases, and it would be very odd otherwise; just think of the rate of nocebo effects that must be expected. However, the risks are mostly minor, and serious ones are very rare. Some anti-vaxxers predicted that, by last September, the vaccinated population would be dead. This did not happen, did it? The fact is that the benefits of these vaccinations hugely outweigh the risks.
Vaccines are a vicious tracking system
Some claim that ‘they‘ use vaccines to be able to trace the vaccinated people. Who are ‘they‘, and why would anyone want to trace me when my credit card, mobile phone, etc. already could do that?
Vaccines are used for population control
‘They‘ want to reduce the world population through deadly vaccines to ~5 billion, some anti-vaxxers say. Again, who are ‘they‘ and would ‘they‘ want to do that? Presumably ‘they‘ need us to pay taxes and buy their goods and services.
There has not been enough research
If those who make this argument would bother to go on Medline and look for COVID-related research, they might see how ill-informed this argument is. Since 2021, more than 200 000 papers on the subject have emerged.
I trust my immune system
This is just daft. I am triple-vaccinated and also hope that I can trust my immune system – this is why I got vaccinated in the first place. Vaccinations rely on the immune system to work.
It’s all about making money
Yes, the pharma industry aims to make money; this is a sad reality. But does that really mean that their products are useless? I don’t see the logic here.
People should have the choice
I am all for it! But if someone’s poor choice endangers my life, I do object. For instance, I expect other people not to smoke in public places, stop at red traffic lights and drive on the correct side of the street.
Most COVID patients in hospitals have been vaccinated
If a large percentage of the population has been vaccinated and the vaccine conveys not 100% protection, it would be most surprising, if it were otherwise.
I have a friend who…
All sorts of anecdotes are in circulation. The thing to remember here is that the plural of anecdote is anecdotes and not evidence.
SCAM works just as well
Of course, that argument had to be expected from SCAM proponents. The best response here is this: SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE! In response SCAM fans have so far only been able to produce ‘studies’ that are unconvincing or outright laughable.
In conclusion, the arguments put forward by anti-vaxxers or vaccination-hesitant people are rubbish. It is time they inform themselves better and consider information that originates from outside their bubble. It is time they realize that their attitude is endangering others.
Astrology is nonsense!
Hold on, did we not recently discuss an RCT showing that being born under the sign of Pisces was associated with a decreased risk of death? Yes, indeed, we did!
And isn’t there a branch of homeopathy that heavily relies on astrology? Yes, indeed, astro-homeopathy does exist.
This suggests to me that a sizable proportion of my readers do believe in astrology. As I have made a New Year’s resolution to try to be nice and patient to even the weirdest of them, I herewith offer astrology fans an insight into what 2022 will bring. For that purpose, I have taken one key prediction for each star sign from a website fittingly entitled YEARLY HOROSCOPE:
- Aries will have big surprises from his life partner.
- Taurus: dept can increase by leaps and bounds.
- Gemini: expect big developments.
- Cancer: You will have a hard time keeping up with messages and appointments.
- Leo: your abilities will be appreciated.
- Virgo: you should seriously consider advancing your education.
- Libra: you’ll need to work closely with others.
- Scorpio: you, and everyone around you will focus on a variety of challenges.
- Sagittarius: you’ll refuel what might be called your inspiration tank.
- Capricorn: you may meet a fortunate contact.
- Aquarius: don’t burn any bridges that you don’t have.
Being an Aquarius myself, I am struck by the wisdom of not burning bridges that I don’t have. It is brilliant! And so fitting!!!
But then I look at the predictions for all the other signs, and I must say: they also apply to me. In fact, ALL of them apply to me, and not just me – they all apply to everyone.
Does that mean that astrology is nonsense after all?
Does that mean that my attempt to be nice to and patient with even the weirdest of the proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has already ended in defeat?
I hope not!
I came across this article via a German secondary report about it entitled “Scientists discover what else protects from severe symptoms” (Forscher finden heraus, was noch vor schweren Symptomen schützt). The article rightly stressed that vaccination is paramount and then explains that, once you have caught COVID, nutrition can prevent serious symptoms.
Even though I rarely discuss standard nutritional issues on my blog (nutrition belongs to mainstream not so-called alternative medicine [SCAM], in my view), this subject did attract my attention. Here are the essentials of the original scientific paper:
Australian scientists studied the association between habitual frequency of food intake of certain food groups during the COVID-19 pandemic and manifestations of COVID-19 symptoms in adult outpatients with suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection. They included 236 patients who attended an outpatient clinic for suspected COVID-19 evaluation. Severity of symptoms, habitual food intake frequency, demographics and Bristol chart scores were obtained before diagnostic confirmation with real-time reverse transcriptase PCR using nasopharyngeal swab.
The results of the COVID-19 diagnostic tests were positive for 103 patients (44%) and negative for 133 patients (56%). In the SARS-CoV-2-positive group, symptom severity scores had significant negative correlations with the habitual intake frequency of specific food groups. Multivariate binary logistic regression analysis adjusted for age, sex, and occupation confirmed that SARS-CoV-2-positive patients showed a significant negative association between having higher symptom severity and the habitual intake frequency of legumes and grains, bread, and cereals.
The authors concluded that an increase in habitual frequency of intake of ‘legumes’, and ‘grains, bread and cereals’ food groups decreased overall symptom severity in patients with COVID-19. This study provides a framework for designing a protective diet during the COVID-19 pandemic and also establishes a hypothesis of using a diet-based intervention in the management of SARS-CoV-2 infection, which may be explored in future studies.
So, the authors seem to think that they found a causal relationship: A CHANGE IN DIET DECREASES SYMPTOMS. In different sections of the article, they seem to confirm this notion, and they state that they tested the hypothesis of the effect of diet on SARS-CoV-2 infection symptom severity.
Yey, the investigation was merely a correlative study that cannot establish cause and effect. There are many other variables that might be linked to dietary habits which could be the true cause of the observed phenomenon (or contributors to it).
What’s the harm? If the article makes people adopt a healthier diet, all is pukka!
Perhaps, in this case, that might be true (even though one could argue that this paper might support anti-vax notions arguing that vaccination is not important if it is possible to prevent severe symptoms through dietary changes). But the confusion of correlation with causality is both frequent and potentially harmful. And it is unquestionably poor science!
I feel that we need to be concerned about the fact that even reputable journals let such things pass – not least because the above example shows what the popular press subsequently can make of such misleading messages.