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

gullible consumer

1 2 3 11

On 11/11/2019, the York Press reported from coroner’s inquest regarding a chiropractor who allegedly killed a patient. John Lawler suffered a broken neck while being treated by a chiropractor for an aching leg, an inquest has been told. His widow told how her husband was on the treatment table when things started to go wrong. She said he started shouting at chiropractor Dr Arleen Scholten: “You are hurting me. You are hurting me.” Then he began moaning and then said: “I can’t feel my arms.”

Mrs Lawler said Scholten tried to turn him over and then manoeuvred him into a chair next to the treatment table but he had become unresponsive. “He was like a rag doll,” she said. “His lips looked a little bit blue but I knew he was breathing. “I said ‘Has he had a stroke?’ She put his head back and said ‘no, his features are symmetrical’.

When the paramedics arrived, they treated Mr Lawler and to hospital. He had an MRI scan and a doctor told Mrs Lawler that he had suffered a broken neck. She was then informed that her husband was a paraplegic and he could undergo a 14 hour operation which would be traumatic but even before that could happen he “faded away” and died.

__________________________________________

There are, as far as I can see, four issues of interest here:

  1. It could be that Mr Lawler had osteoporosis; we will no doubt hear about this in the course of the inquest. If so, normal force could have led to the fracture, and the chiropractor would claim that she is not to blame for the fracture and the subsequent death of her patient. The question then would be whether she was under an obligation to check whether, in a man of Mr Lawler’s age, his bone density was normal or whether she could just assume that it was. In my view, any clinician applying a potentially harmful therapy has the obligation to make sure there are no contra-indications to it. If that all is so, the chiropractor might have been both negligent and reckless.
  2. Has neck manipulation been shown to be effective for any type of pain in the leg? That’s an easy one: No!
  3. Has the chiropractor obtained informed consent from her patient before commencing the treatment? The inquest will no doubt verify this. As many chiropractors fail to do it, I would not be too surprised if, in the present case, this was also not done. Should that be so, the chiropractor would have been negligent.
  4. One might be surprised to hear that the chiropractor manipulated the neck of a patient who consulted her not because of neck pain but because of a condition seemingly unrelated to the neck. This is an issue that comes up regularly and which is therefore importan; some people might be aware that it is dangerous to see a chiropractor when suffering from neck pain because he/she is bound to manipulate the neck. By contrast, most people would probably think it is ok to consult a chiropractor when suffering from lower back pain, because manipulations in that region is far less risky. The truth, however, is that chiropractors have been taught that the spine is one organ and one entity. Thus they tend to check for subluxations (or whatever name they give to the non-existing condition they all aim to treat) in every region of the spine. If they find one in the neck – and they usually do – they would ‘adjust’ it, meaning they would apply one or more high-velocity, low-amplitude thrusts and manipulate the neck. This could well be, I think, how the chiropractor in the case that is before the court at present came to manipulate the neck of her patient. And this might be how poor Mr Lawler lost his life.

Is there a lesson to be learnt from this tragic case?

Yes, I think there is: if you want to make sure that a chiropractor does not break your neck, don’t go and consult one – whatever your health problem happens to be.

 

 

I have recently gone to the trouble of evaluating 150 different modalities from the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in a book. This is what it tells you about Reiki:

Reiki is a form of paranormal or energy healing popularised by Japanese Mikao Usui (1865-1926). Rei means universal spirit (sometimes thought of as a supreme being) and ki is the assumed universal life energy.

    1. Reiki is based on the assumptions of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the existence of ‘chi’, the life-force that determines our health.
    2. Reiki practitioners believe that, with their hands-on healing method, they can transfer ‘healing energy’ to a patient which, in turn, stimulates the self-healing properties of the body. They assume that the therapeutic effects of this technique are obtained from a ‘universal life energy’ that provides strength, harmony, and balance to the body and mind.
    3. There is no scientific basis for such notions, and reiki is therefore not plausible.
    4. Reiki is used for a number of conditions, including the relief of stress, tension and pain.
    5. There have been several clinical trials testing the effectiveness of reiki. Unfortunately, their methodological quality is usually poor.
    6. A systematic review summarising this evidence concluded that the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition. Therefore, the value of reiki remains unproven.[1] And a Cochrane review found that there is insufficient evidence to say whether or not Reiki is useful for people over 16 years of age with anxiety or depression or both.[2]
    7. Reiki appears to be generally safe, and serious adverse effects have not been reported. Some practitioners advise caution about using reiki in people with psychiatric illnesses because of the risk of bringing out underlying psychopathology.

PLAUSIBILITY

Negative

EFFICACY

Negative

SAFETY

Positive

COST

Positive

RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE

Negative

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=lee+pittler+ernst%2C+reikiv

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25835541

So, Reiki is both implausible and unproven. Now a new, large trial has emerged that might change this verdict. The main purpose of this study (published in JCAM) was to measure the effect of a single session of Reiki on physical and psychological health in a large nonclinical sample.

The study design was a single arm effectiveness trial with measures at pre-and postintervention. The study took place at private Reiki practices across the United States. Reiki practitioners were recruited from an online mailing list to participate in the study with their Reiki clients. A total of 99 Reiki practitioners met the inclusion criteria and participated in the study. Reiki practitioners were instructed to give a flyer to each of their Reiki clients that contained information about the study and invited the client to complete a survey before and after their Reiki session.

Trained and certified Reiki Masters conducted the Reiki sessions in person, with each session lasting between 45 and 90 min. The 20-item Positive and Negative Affect Schedule was used to assess affect, and brief, single-item self-report measures were used to assess a wide range of physical and psychological variables immediately before (pre) and after (post) the Reiki session.

A total of N = 1411 Reiki sessions were conducted and included in the analysis. Statistically significant improvements were observed for all outcome measures, including positive affect, negative affect, pain, drowsiness, tiredness, nausea, appetite, shortness of breath, anxiety, depression, and overall well-being (all p-values <0.001).

The authors concluded that the results from this large-scale multisite effectiveness trial suggest that a single session of Reiki improves multiple variables related to physical and psychological health.

Really?

This ‘large scale’ effectiveness trial’ could make you laugh and cry at the same time.

  • Laugh, because it is almost comically daft.
  • Cry, because the conclusion is bound to mislead a lot of gullible people.

Without a control group, the study cannot even attempt to determine anything like the effectiveness of Reiki. What the results truly show is that consumers who consult (and pay) a Reiki master expect to have a positive effect. The expectation translates into a sizable placebo response. The investigators seem to be clueless scientists, or they wilfully mislead the public (the senior author is from the ‘The Center for Reiki Research‘ which, according to its mission statement, is dedicated to gaining acceptance for the practice of Reiki by the medical community).

The only conclusion that can honestly be drawn from the data is that consumers who pay for a serivce often like this service (otherwise they would not use it!). It’s a bit like the thing with the hamburger joint that I often cite: if you ask people eating in a McDonalds whether they enjoy hamburgers, most will answer in the affirmative.

But there might be a valuable lesson in this paper after all: never trust the JACM further than you can throw it.

Leah Bracknell, started raising funds ~3 years ago for alternative cures of her stage 4 lung cancer. Bracknell who, after her acting career, had become a yoga teacher said at the time that, in the UK, she was given “a fairly brutal and bleak diagnosis, but one I am determined to challenge”. Her partner, Jez Hughes, who helped with the fund-raising said the money would be used for “immunotherapy and integrative medicine, which are seeing previously ‘incurable’ cancers going into complete remission”.

The team thus raised over £50 000 and went to Germany, a country that is well-known for its liberal stance on quackery. In Britain, there are just a few physicians who are devoted to this or that alternative medicine. In Germany, there are thousands of them. In addition, Germany has a healthcare profession called the ‘Heilpraktiker’, a poorly-regulated left-over from the Third Reich. A Heilpraktiker has not studied medicine, yet is legally permitted to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and treat many serious diseases, including cancer, with unproven therapies.

It was reported that Leah Bracknell went to the ‘Hallwang Private Oncology Clinic’, an institution which claims that “Healing-oriented and individualised medicine considers all aspects of lifestyle and not only relies on conventional treatments and recent cutting-edge developments in medicine, but also takes into account our experience in natural remedies and is open for alternative treatment options in order to work in synergy with conventional treatment strategies. We always try to be as natural as possible and as conventional as needed to achieve the best results. Integrative Health Concepts are successfully used in many diseases including malignant diseases, neurological disorders as well as in prevention and rehabilitation.” The SCAMs used there include homeopathy, micronutrients, natural supplements, whole body hyperthermia and ozone therapy.

The evidence does not support these or other alternative cancer ‘cures’. In fact, the very notion of an alternative cancer cure is nonsensical: if an alternative cancer therapy showed even the slightest shimmer of promise, it would get investigated and, if shown to work, become part of routine oncology. The suggestion that there are treatments out there that are effective, yet shunned by oncologists because they originate from nature or from some exotic tradition is insulting and utterly barmy.

Yet cancer patients can easily fall for such claims. They are understandably desperate and listen to anyone promissing a cure. Therefore, they all too easily believe in weird conspiracy theories of ‘Big Parma’, the evil ‘establishment’ etc. who allegedly suppress the news of an effective therapy, as it might threaten their profits. If they do fall for such lies, they not only lose pots of money but also their lives.

Last Wednesday, it was reported that Leah Bracknell had died of cancer.

The field of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has long been actively supported by many celebrities. In 2006, we tried to  study the phenomenon systematically. Here is our abstract:

OBJECTIVE:

To collect contemporary accounts of celebrity use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), to aid clinicians in determining which CAM treatments patients are likely to use.

DESIGN:

Articles published during 2005 and 2006 reporting celebrity use of CAM.

RESULTS:

38 celebrities were found to use a wide range of CAM interventions. Homeopathy, acupuncture and Ayurveda were the most popular modalities.

CONCLUSIONS:

There may be many reasons why consumers use CAM, and wanting to imitate their idols is one of them.

Since then, several celebs have sensed that SCAM offers an opportunity to make money, lots of money. Gwyneth Paltrow and others are earning millions by selling SCAM products to the gullible public. Now it seem that even those areas of SCAM are being targeted by celebs where the sale of SCAM products is not the main focus. This article explains:

Cameron Diaz is taking her passion for fashion health to new heights with her latest investment. The health advocate and Hollywood actress is the latest investor in Arizona-based acupuncture company Modern Acupuncture. Modern Acupuncture has been around for over three years and according to its CEO, Matt Hale, the group aims to provide affordable acupuncture across the United States.

Modern Acupuncture has 60 locations and hopes to double that in the upcoming year, and with an A-lister on the board, they seem to be on the right path…

The star’s investment in the alternative medicine space comes in partnership with Seth Rodsky and his firm Strand Equity, who clearly know what they’re doing. It’s the same firm that brought 50 Cent into Vitamin Water before most of us knew what Vitamin Water was. They also introduced Madonna into Vita Coco Coconut Water back in 2010. Now, Seth stated his team “reached out to Modern Acupuncture in late 2018 after identifying acupuncture as a healthcare and wellness service which we thought to be a large white space.” Bringing Cameron into the mix of investors marks an exciting time for Stand Equity, Cameron and Modern Acupuncture. The CEO explained that Cameron’s addition “amplifies it to an entire different ecosystem.”

MODERN ACUPUNCTURE advertise their services by pointing out that:

• The Mayo Clinic has adopted the practice of acupuncture nationwide.

John Hopkin’s also uses acupuncture for pain and supports many other conditions treated around the world.

• Acupuncture helps reduce use of pain killers in U.S. Army patients. Two-thirds of military hospitals and other treatment centers offer acupuncture.

Cleveland Clinic outlines new government advisory recommended non-addictive options before opioids.  Acupuncture was recommended as a first-line treatment in lower back pain by the American College of Physicians.

• A recent article in the Washington Post highlights Medicare now researching acupuncture for back pain.

• Acupuncture is used in hospitals around the world Acupuncture in hospitals.

___________________________________________________________

I find this most lamentable. It shows two things quite clearly. Firstly, the public is an easy victim of fallacious reasoning; the fact that an reputable institution offers acupuncture (or anything else) is no proof of its efficacy, it merely is an example for the sly use of the ‘appeal to authority’. Secondly, the harm caused by established institutions adopting dubious treatments is not confined to those institutions; its effects are being felt nationally and even internationally. This, I think, should make these institutions think twice before they continue with their short-sighted adoption of SCAM.

I live (most of my time) in the UK, a country where the media interest in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is considerable. Years ago, the UK press used to be very much in favour of SCAM. In 2000, we showed that the level of interest was huge and the reporting was biased. Here is our short BMJ paper on the subject:

The media strongly influences the public’s view of medical matters. Thus, we sought to determine the frequency and tone of reporting on medical topics in daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and Germany. The following eight newspapers were scanned for medical articles on eight randomly chosen working days in the summer of 1999: the Times, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, and the Guardian in the United Kingdom, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, and Die Welt in Germany. All articles relating to medical topics were extracted and categorised according to subject, length, and tone of article (critical, positive, or neutral).

A total of 256 newspaper articles were evaluated. The results of our analysis are summarised in the table. We identified 80 articles in the German newspapers and 176 in the British; thus, British newspapers seem to report on medical topics more than twice as often as German broadsheets. Articles in German papers are on average considerably longer and take a positive attitude more often than British ones. Drug treatment was the medical topic most frequently discussed in both countries (51 articles (64%) in German newspapers and 97 (55%) in British). Surgery was the second most commonly discussed medical topic in the UK newspapers (32 articles; 18%). In Germany professional politics was the second most commonly discussed topic (11 articles; 14%); this category included articles about the standing of the medical profession, health care, and social and economic systems—that is, issues not strictly about treating patients.

Because our particular interest is in complementary medicine, we also calculated the number of articles on this subject. We identified four articles in the German newspapers and 26 in the UK newspapers. In the United Kingdom the tone of these articles was unanimously positive (100%) whereas most (3; 75%) of the German articles on complementary medicine were critical.

This analysis is, of course, limited by its small sample size, the short observation period, and the subjectivity of some of the end points. Yet it does suggest that, compared with German newspapers, British newspapers report more frequently on medical matters and generally have a more critical attitude (table). German newspapers frequently discuss medical professional politics, a subject that is almost totally absent from newspapers in the United Kingdom.

The proportion of articles about complementary medicine seems to be considerably larger in the United Kingdom (15% v 5%), and, in contrast to articles on medical matters in general, reporting on complementary medicine in the United Kingdom is overwhelmingly positive. In view of the fact that both healthcare professionals and the general public gain their knowledge of complementary medicine predominantly from the media, these findings may be important.2,3

Table

Reporting on medical topics by daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and Germany, 1999

Country

United Kingdom (n=176) Germany (n=80)
Mean No articles/day 5.5 2.5
Mean (SD) No words/article 130 (26) 325 (41)
Ratio of positive articles to critical articles* 1.0 3.2

Even though I have no new data on this, my impression is that things have since changed. It seems that the UK press has become more objective and are now reporting more critical comments on SCAM. While this is most welcome, of course, one feature is still deplorable, in my view: journalists’ obsession with ‘balance’.

A recent example might explain this best. The ‘i’ newspaper published an article about homeopathy which was well-written and thoroughly researched. It explained the current best evidence on the subject and made it quite clear why homeopathy is not a reasonable therapy for any condition. But then, towards the end of the article, the journalist added this section:

Dr Lise Hansen, a veterinary homeopath based in London and author of a forthcoming book, The Complete Book of Cat and Dog Health, argues that scientists have shown how homeopathy works. She cites a paper by Luc Montagnier, the French virologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for his role in discovering HIV. The following year, he published evidence of his discovery of “electromagnet signals that are produced by nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA at high aqueous dilutions”. “Mainstream medicine is about chemistry, homeopathy is physics and scientists have only recently begun to study these nanostructures,” Hansen says.

Basically, the reader is left with the impression that homeopathy might be fine after all, and that science will soon be able to catch up with it. In the interest of balance, the journalist thus confused her readers and misled the public.

Why?

Journalists are obviously taught to always cover ‘both sides’ of their stories, and they adhere to this dogma no matter what. In most instances, this works out well, because in most cases there are two sides.

But not always!

When there is a strong consensus supported by facts, science and reproducible findings, the other side ceases to have a reasonable point. There simply is no reasonable ‘other side’ when we consider global warming, evolution, the Holocaust, and many other subjects. Of course, one can always find some loon who claims the earth is flat, or that cancer is a Jewish plot against public health. But these arguments lack reason and integrity – to dish them out without anything remotely resembling a ‘fact check’ is not just annoying but harmful.

Journalists should, in my view, be more responsible, check the facts, and avoid false balance. I know this will often entail much more work, but they owe it to their readers and to the reputation of their profession.

On Twitter, I recently found this remarkable advertisement:

Naturally, it interested me. The implication seemed to be that we can boost our immune system and thus protect ourselves from colds, the flu and other infections by using this supplement. With the flu season approaching, this might be important. On the other hand, the supplement might be unsafe for many other patients. As I had done a bit of research in this area, I needed to know more.

According to the manufacturer’s information sheet, Viracid

  • Provides Support for Immune Challenges
  • Strengthens Immune Function
  • Maintains Normal Inflammatory Balance

The manufacurer furthermore states the following:

Our body’s immune system is a complex and dynamic defense system that comes to our rescue at the first sign of exposure to an outside invader. The dynamic nature of the immune system means that all factors that affect health need to be addressed in order for it to function at peak performance. The immune system is very sensitive to nutrient deficiencies. While vitamin deficiencies can compromise the immune system, consuming immune enhancing nutrients and botanicals can support and strengthen your body’s immune response. Viracid’s synergistic formula significantly boosts immune cell function including antibody response, natural killer (NK) cell activity, thymus hormone secretions, and T-cell activation. Viracid also helps soothe throat irritations and nasal secretions, and maintains normal inflammatory balance by increasing antioxidant levels throughout the body.

This sounds impressive. Viracid could thus play an important role in keeping us healthy. It could also be contra-indicated to lots of patients who suffer from autoimmune and other conditions. In any case, it is worth having a closer look at this dietary supplement. The ingredients of the product include:

  • Vitamin A,
  • Vitamin C,
  • Vitamin B12,
  • Pantothenic Acid,
  • Zinc,
  • L-Lysine Hydrochloride,
  • Echinacea purpurea Extract,
  • Acerola Fruit,
  • Andrographis paniculata,
  • European Elder,
  • Berry Extract,
  • Astragalus membranaceus Root Extract

Next, I conducted several literature searches. Here is what I did NOT find:

  • any clinical trial of Viracid,
  • any indication that its ingredients work synergistically,
  • any proof of Viracid inducing an antibody response,
  • or enhancing natural killer (NK) cell activity,
  • or thymus hormone secretions,
  • or T-cell activation,
  • or soothing throat irritations,
  • or controlling nasal secretions,
  • or maintaining normal inflammatory balance,
  • any mention of contra-indications,
  • any reliable information about the risks of taking Viracid.

There are, of course, two explanations for this void of information. Either I did not search well enough, or the claims that are being made for Viracid by the manufacturer are unsubstantiated and therefore bogus.

Which of the two explanations apply?

Please, someone – preferably the manufacturer – tell me.

I have often discussed the fact that many proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) have in recent years adopted the following argument: even if our SCAM were just a placebo, it would still be useful. After all, placebo effects are real and increasingly backed by sound science. The argument is deeply flawed, yet it convinces many lay people.

A recent article by Fabrizio Benedetti, the leading researcher in the area of placebo, is addressing exactly this issue. I feel that it is sufficiently important to quote it extensively here:

… a number of biochemical pathways, such as endogenous opioids and cannabinoids,5,6 and brain regions, like the prefrontal cortex, have been found to be involved in placebo analgesia. Likewise, dopamine and the basal ganglia circuitry have been found to mediate placebo responses in Parkinson’s disease. Although this is wonderful news for science, this may not be the case for society. The number of nonmedical organizations and healers that rely on this hard science, and actually justify their odd and bizarre procedures, has increased over the past few years. The main claim is that any procedure boosting patients’ expectations, which represent the main mediator of placebo effects, is acceptable because it can activate the same biochemical pathways and neural networks that have been made credible by hard science…

The crucial point here is that when hard science started investigating placebo effects, it unconsciously produced a shift in quackery thinking. In fact, charlatans are becoming more and more aware that their bizarre interventions could work through a placebo effect. Indeed, whereas hard science has so far denied any scientific basis for nonconventional therapies, now the very same hard science certifies that the placebo effect has scientific grounds. Therefore, quacks are no longer interested in showing that their pseudo-interventions work; rather, they justify their use on the basis of the possibility that these bizarre interventions may induce strong placebo effects…

… A first point that should be emphasized is that placebos do not cure, but rather, they may sometimes improve quality of life. There is plenty of confusion on this point, and unfortunately, many claim that they can cure virtually all illnesses with placebos. Hard science tells us that placebos can reduce symptoms such as pain and muscle rigidity in Parkinson’s disease, yet the progression of the disease is not affected; for example, in Parkinson’s disease, neurons keep degenerating even though some symptoms can be reduced for a short time.4 The second point is related to the first. The type of disease is crucial, and we need to make people understand that pain is different from cancer and that anxiety differs from infectious diseases. The psychological component of some illnesses can indeed be modulated by placebos, but placebos cannot stop cancer growth, nor can they kill the bacteria of pneumonia. The third point is related to the difference between real placebo effects and spontaneous remissions. So far, hard science has studied the placebo effect within a time span of hours/days, thereby limiting our knowledge to short-lasting effects. Consequently, long-lasting effects can be often attributed to spontaneous remissions.

In addition to these three important points, we should also make patients understand that a diagnosis is required before any sort of therapy. An apparently trivial pain may conceal a danger; thus, it must never be treated unless a diagnosis has been made before, and this can be made only by physicians. Moreover, not only should we discuss and consider the positive effects of placebos and the impact they may have in clinical trials and medical practice, but we should also pay much of our attention to the negative counterpart, that is, the misuse and abuse by quacks, charlatans, shamans, and nonmedical organizations. Thus, we need to inform the whole society that the benefits following a nonconventional healing procedure are attributable to a placebo effect in most of the cases. Last but not least, we need to be more honest on the real efficacy of many pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatments, acknowledging that some of them are useful whereas some others are not: This will boost patients’ trust and confidence in medicine further, which I believe are the best foes of quackery…

…Unfortunately, quackery has today one more weapon on its side, which is paradoxically represented by the hard science–supported placebo mechanisms. This new “scientific quackery” can do a lot of damage; thus, we must be very cautious and vigilant as to how the findings of hard science are exploited. The study of the biology of these vulnerable aspects of mankind may unravel new mechanisms of how our brain works, but it may have a profound negative impact on our society as well. We cannot accept a world where expectations can be enhanced with any means and by anybody. This is a perspective that would surely be worrisome and dangerous. I believe that some reflections are necessary in order to avoid a regression of medicine to past times, in which quackery and shamanism were dominant. Unfortunately, the new knowledge about placebos by hard science is now backfiring on it. What we need to do is to stop for a while and reflect on what we are doing and how we want to move forward. A crucial question to answer is, Does placebo research boost pseudoscience?

__________________________________________________________________

I am immensely thankful to Prof Benedetti to make such clear and long-overdue statements. They will be most helpful in refuting the myth that homeopathy, para-normal healing, reflexology, acupuncture, chiropractic, etc., etc. are legitimate and uselful therapies, even if they are not better than a placebo. Using placebo therapies in routine care is not in the best interest of either the patient or progress.

I wish people would think a bit before naming things! What is ‘natural health’? Is it the opposite of ‘unnatural health’ or of ‘natural illness’? But who am I to question the terminology of the NHS? I am not even a native English speaker!

Therefore, let me rather look at what this oddly-named school does. Here is how the ‘NHS Natural Health School‘ explain their work:

The NHS Natural Health School has been developed to meet the standards of practice, and experience that are essential for complementary therapists wishing to treat patients within an NHS healthcare setting. The school offers a wide range of approved and accredited courses, taught by highly qualified and clinically skilled lecturers who are experienced in working clinically within NHS Healthcare settings and providing complementary therapy treatments for patients with a range of complex needs including cancer diagnosis. By welcoming you into the multi-disciplinary care team, we not only prepare you as a confident, competent practitioner ready to meet the needs of a demanding industry, but we are able to support the provision of specialist care for a wide range of patients and clients who otherwise would miss out on beneficial treatments.

Courses include supervised clinical placements across hospital and community healthcare settings. All proceeds raised from the courses are reinvested into the Harrogate Hospital and Community Charity’s SROMC Complementary Therapy Fund to ensure the financial sustainability of the HDFT NHS Trust Complementary Therapy Service. For more information on the courses and education available please click the courses link above.

Naturally, I am intrigued and have a look at their courses. They include shiatsu, holistic massage and reflexology. Having published several papers on the latter, it is of particular interest to me. Reflexologists have maps of the sole of the foot where all the body’s organs are depicted. Numerous such maps have been published and, embarrassingly, they do not all agree with each other as to the location of the organs on the sole of the feet. By massaging specific zones which are assumed to be connected to specific organs, reflexologists believe to positively influence the function of these organs.  Here is what the NHS Natural Health School advertise about their reflexology course:

A combination of theory and practical modules designed to equip the learner with the skills required to provide Reflexology treatments for a wide range of clients. On successful completion of the course you will be able to register with the relevant regulatory and professional associations and gain full insurance to practice.

Course content includes;

  • Explore the history and origins of Reflexology
  • Explore the use of various mediums used in treatment including waxes, balms, powders and oils
  • Explore the philosophy of holism and its role within western bio medicine
  • Reading the feet/hands and mapping the reflex points
  • Relevant anatomy, physiology and pathology
  • Managing a wide range of conditions
  • Legal implications
  • Cautions and contraindications
  • Assessment and client care
  • Practical reflexology skills and routines
  • Treatment planning

Assessment: You will produce evidence of 30 reflexology treatments. An additional assessment of your competence will determine your readiness to undertake 72 in-depth case studies and complete a practical assessment.

Course Duration: Attendance is required at 8 Reflexology technical days over 12 months, during which time you will demonstrate a minimum of 100 practical hours.

Special Notes: The core modules; Anatomy, Physiology and Pathology, Business Practice and Principles and Practice of Complementary Therapy are normally completed concurrently as part of the diploma.

Learners who already have a Level 3 diploma in a complementary therapy may be exempt from the core modules.

A first aid certificate is required prior to completion of the diploma.

Fascinating! Personally I am most intrigued about the module on anatomy, physiology and pathology, because all of the three squarely contradict what reflexologists believe. But I wonder even more why there is no mention of the evidence. Have they forgotten to mention it? Unlikely; their other courses on SCAMs such as aromatherapy, holistic massage or shiatsu have similar omissions. Or does the ‘NHS Natural Health School’ not think that evidence matters to ‘competent practitioners’ of the NHS? Or perhaps this is where ‘natural health’ is different from unnatural health?

No, silly me! The reason clearly lies elsewhere: the evidence fails to show that reflexology generates more good than harm. So, the clever people from the ‘NHS Natural Health School’ decided to hide it discretely. Shrewd move! Albeit slightly embarrassing as well as just a little unethical, particularly for the NHS Harrogate, I’d say.

Just in case some readers do wonder nonetheless what the evidence does tell us about reflexology, here is the summary table from my recent book:

PLAUSIBILITY Negative
EFFICACY Negative
SAFETY Positive
COST Debatable
RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE negative

I cannot help but being reminded of something I stated many times before: EVEN THE MOST PROPER TEACHING OF NONSENSE CAN ONLY RESULT IN NONSENSE.

It is hard to deny that many practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) advise their patients to avoid ‘dangerous chemicals’. By this they usually mean prescription drugs. If you doubt how strong this sentiment often is, you have not followed the recent posts and the comments that regularly followed. Frequently, SCAM practitioners will suggest to their patients to not take this or that drug and predict that patients would then see for themselves how much better they feel (usually, they also administer their SCAM at this point).

Lo and behold, many patients do indeed feel better after discontinuing their ‘chemical’ medicines. Of course, this experience is subsequently interpreted as a proof that the drugs were dangerous: “I told you so, you are much better off not taking synthetic medicines; best to use the natural treatments I am offering.”

But is this always interpretation correct?

I seriously doubt it.

Let’s look at a common scenario: a middle-aged man on several medications for reducing his cardiovascular risk (no, it’s not me). He has been diagnosed to have multiple cardiovascular risk factors. Initially, his GP told him to change his life-style, nutrition and physical activity – to which he was only moderately compliant. Despite the patient feeling perfectly healthy, his blood pressure and lipids remained elevated. His doctor now strongly recommends drug treatment and our chap soon finds himself on statins, beta-blockers plus ACE-inhibitors.

Our previously healthy man has thus been turned into a patient with all sorts of symptoms. His persistent cough prompts his GP to change the ACE-inhibitor to a Ca-channel blocker. Now the patients cough is gone, but he notices ankle oedema and does not feel in top form. His GP said that this is nothing to worry about and asks him to grin and bear it. But the fact is that a previously healthy man has been turned into a patient with reduced quality of life (QoL).

This fact takes our man to a homeopath in the hope to restore his QoL (you see, it certainly isn’t me). The homeopath proceeds as outlined above: he explains that drugs are dangerous chemicals and should therefore best be dropped. The homeopath also prescribes homeopathics and is confident that they will control the blood pressure adequately. Our man complies. After just a few days, he feels miles better, his QoL is back, and even his sex-life improves. The homeopath is triumphant: “I told you so, homeopathy works and those drugs were really nasty stuff.”

When I was a junior doctor working in a homeopathic hospital, my boss explained to me that much of the often considerable success of our treatments was to get rid of most, if not all prescription drugs that our patients were taking (the full story can be found here). At the time, and for many years to come, this made a profound impression on me and my clinical practice. As a scientist, however, I have to critically evaluate this strategy and ask: is it the correct one?

The answer is YES and NO.

YES, many (bad) doctors over-prescribe. And there is not a shadow of a doubt that unnecessary drugs must be scrapped. But what is unnecessary? Is it every drug that makes a patient less well than he was before?

NO, treatments that are needed should not be scrapped, even if this would make the patient feel better. Where possible, they might be altered such that side-effects disappear or become minimal. Patients’ QoL is important, but it is not the only factor of importance. I am sure this must sound ridiculous to lay people who, at this stage of the discussion, would often quote the ethical imperative of FIRST DO NO HARM.

So, let me use an extreme example to explain this a bit better. Imagine a cancer patient on chemo. She is quite ill with it and QoL is a thing of the past. Her homeopath tells her to scrap the chemo and promises she will almost instantly feel fine again. With some side-effect-free homeopathy see will beat the cancer just as well (please, don’t tell me they don’t do that, because they do!). She follows the advice, feels much improved for several months. Alas, her condition then deteriorates, and a year later she is dead.

I know, this is an extreme example; therefore, let’s return to our cardiovascular patient from above. He too followed the advice of his homeopath and is happy like a lark for several years … until, 5 years after discontinuing the ‘nasty chemicals’, he drops dead with a massive myocardial infarction at the age of 62.

I hope I made my message clear: those SCAM providers who advise discontinuing prescribed drugs are often impressively successful in improving QoL and their patients love them for it. But many of these practitioners haven’t got a clue about real medicine, and are merely playing dirty tricks on their patients. The advise to stop a prescribed drug can be a very wise move. But frequently, it improves the quality, while reducing the quantity of life!

The lesson is simple: find a rational doctor who knows the difference between over-prescribing and evidence-based medicine. And make sure you start running when a SCAM provider tries to meddle with necessary prescribed drugs.

A chiro, a arms dealer and a Brexit donor meet in a bar.

The arms dealer: my job is so secret, I cannot tell my neighbour what I do.

The Brexit donor: I have to keep things so close to my chest that not even my wife knows what I am doing.

The chiro: that’s nothing; my work is so secret that not even I know what I am doing.

CHILDISH, I KNOW!

But I am yet again intrigued by a survey aimed at finding out what chiropractors are up to. One might have thought that, after 120 years, they know what they are doing.

This survey described the profiles of chiropractors’ practice and the reasons, nature of the care provided to their patients and extent of interprofessional collaborations in Ontario, Canada. The researchers randomly recruited chiropractors from a list of registered chiropractors (n=3978) in active practice in 2015. Of the 135 randomly selected chiropractors, 120 were eligible, 43 participated and 42 completed the study.

Each chiropractor recorded information for up to 100 consecutive patient encounters, documenting patient health profiles, reasons for encounter, diagnoses and care provided. Descriptive statistics summarised chiropractor, patient and encounter characteristics, with analyses accounting for clustering and design effects. Thus data on 3523 chiropractor-patient encounters became available. More than 65% of participating chiropractors were male, mean age 44 years and had practised on average 15 years. The typical patient was female (59% of encounters), between 45 and 64 years (43%) and retired (21%) or employed in business and administration (13%). Most (39.4%) referrals were from other patients, with 6.8% from physicians. Approximately 68% of patients paid out of pocket or claimed extended health insurance for care. Most common diagnoses were back (49%, 95% CI 44 to 56) and neck (15%, 95% CI 13 to 18) problems, with few encounters related to maintenance/preventive care (0.86%, 95% CI 0.2 to 3.9) and non-musculoskeletal problems (1.3%, 95% CI 0.7 to 2.3). The most common treatments included spinal manipulation (72%), soft tissue therapy (70%) and mobilisation (35%).

The authors concluded that this is the most comprehensive profile to date of chiropractic practice in Canada. People who present to Ontario chiropractors are mostly adults with a musculoskeletal condition. Our results can be used by stakeholders to make informed decisions about workforce development, education and healthcare policy related to chiropractic care.

I am so sorry to have mocked this paper. I shouldn’t have, because it actually does reveal a few interesting snippets:

  1. Only 7% of referrals come from real doctors.
  2. The vast majority of all patients receive spinal manipulations.
  3. About 6% of them are under 14 years of age.
  4. Chiropractors seem to dislike surveys; only 35% of those asked complied.
  5. 23% of all consultations were for general or unspecified problems,
  6. 8% for neurologically related problems,
  7. 5% for non-musculoskeletal problems (eg, digestive, ear, eye, respiratory, skin, urology, circulatory, endocrine and metabolic, psychological).
  8. Chiropractors rarely refer patients to other clinicians; this only happened in less than 3% of encounters.
  9. Apart from manipulation, chiropractors employ all sorts of other dubious therapies (ultrasound 3%, acupuncture 3%, , traction 1%, interferential therapy 3%, soft laser therapy 3%).
  10.  68% of patients pay out of their own pocket…

… NO WONDER, THEY DO NOT SEEM TO BE IN NEED OF ANY TYPE OF TREATMENT: 54% of all patients reported being in “excellent/very good overall health”!

1 2 3 11
Recent Comments

Note that comments can be edited for up to five minutes after they are first submitted but you must tick the box: “Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.”

The most recent comments from all posts can be seen here.

Archives
Categories