On this blog and elsewhere, I have repeatedly criticised the concepts of ‘integrative medicine’ (IM). But criticising is easy, improving would be better. Today, I want to re-visit and revise the idea of IM and propose the concept of a ‘reformed integrated medicine’ (RIM).
Proponents of IM suggest that we should use ‘the best of both worlds’ for the benefit of our patients. This seems to be a progressive and ethical approach to improving healthcare. Therefore, I fully accept this idea. However, I suggest to not stop here; if we are serious about wanting the best for our patients, we must not just integrate, we should also disintegrate! We also need to think about disintegrating (discarding) modalities that are not fit for purpose. This, in a nutshell, is the concept of RIM.
In order to make real progress, we need to have a critical look at all the diagnostic, preventive, therapeutic and rehabilitative practices available to date and:
- integrate those into routine care that demonstrably generate more good than harm,
- disintegrate those that do not meet this criterion.
THE BEST, AND ONLY THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS!!!
This means, we use must throw overboard those that are not best. In healthcare ‘best’ can, of course, only mean effective and safe.
I am aware that this is only a very rough sketch of what RIM stands for. But even in this preliminary form, it is easy to see that, although IM and RIM seem to differ only marginally, their effects on healthcare would differ dramatically. Let me demonstrate this by providing 5 examples from my area of expertise:
|Iridology||embraced by IM||discarded by RIM|
|Homeopathy||embraced by IM||discarded by RIM|
|Chiropractic||embraced by IM||discarded by RIM|
|Reiki||embraced by IM||discarded by RIM|
|Reflexology||embraced by IM||discarded by RIM|
I am sure, you get the gist of it. In RIM, we no longer employ things that don’t work. They are of no real use to patients and possibly even cause harm. RIM not only is the only ethical approach, it also generates progress.
So, RIM – just a tiny adaptation of IM – is the solution.
Gosh, I am proud of my splendid innovation.
Progress at last!
Ooops … I just realised, RIM has one little flaw: it already exists.
It’s called evidence-based medicine.
A survey was commissioned in 2015 to obtain general population figures for practitioner-led CAM use in England, and to discover people’s views and experiences regarding access.
Of 4862 adults surveyed, 766 (16%) had seen a CAM practitioner. People most commonly visited CAM practitioners for manual therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic) and acupuncture, as well as yoga, pilates, reflexology, and mindfulness or meditation. Women, people with higher socioeconomic status (SES) and those in south England were more likely to access CAM. Musculoskeletal conditions (mainly back pain) accounted for 68% of use, and mental health 12%. Most was through self-referral (70%) and self-financing. GPs (17%) or NHS professionals (4%) referred and/or recommended CAM to users. These CAM users were more often unemployed, with lower income and social grade, and receiving NHS-funded CAM. Responders were willing to pay varying amounts for CAM; 22% would not pay anything. Almost two in five responders felt NHS funding and GP referral and/or endorsement would increase their CAM use.
The authors concluded that CAM use in England is common for musculoskeletal and mental health problems, but varies by sex, geography, and SES. It is mainly self-referred and self-financed; some is GP-endorsed and/or referred, especially for individuals of lower SES. Researchers, patients, and commissioners should collaborate to research the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of CAM and consider its availability on the NHS.
The table below shows the percentage figures for specific CAMs (right column).
|Type of CAM practitioner||n||%|
|Meditation and/or mindfulness teacher||20||3|
|Chinese herbal medical practitioner||12||2|
Our own survey suggested that, in 2005, the 1-year prevalence of CAM-use in England was 26.3 % and the practitioner-led CAM-use was 12.1 %. The two surveys are, however, not comparable because they did use different methodologies; for instance, they included different types of CAM. I therefore think that any conclusion of an increase in practitioner-led CAM-use between 2005 and 2015 is not warranted.
In the discussion, the authors of the new survey make the following point: Ability to pay may be a factor in accessing CAM (indicated by the association of CAM use with higher SES; lower SES responders being more likely to be GP-referred to CAM; and responders stating that they may use more CAM if the NHS provided services, and GPs endorsed and/or referred them). Integration of CAM into the NHS through primary care could promote continuity of care, safety, and balance of power. An integrative medicine approach includes many of the values recently included in UK health policy documents; for example, Five Year Forward View. It is patient-centred, as discussed in 2010, focuses on prevention, and emphasises patient self-management and person- and community-centred approaches to health and wellbeing. Many of these values underpin social prescribing, which is an increasingly popular model of health care. There seems to be significant patient demand for CAM and more holistic approaches, and a view that CAM may improve patient satisfaction.
I have in a previous post commented on prevalence surveys: the argument that is all too often spun around such survey data goes roughly as follows: a large percentage of the population uses alternative medicine; people pay out of their own pocket for these treatments; they are satisfied with them (if not, they would not pay for them). BUT THIS IS GROSSLY UNFAIR! Why should only those individuals who are rich enough to afford alternative medicine benefit from it? ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE SHOULD BE MADE AVAILABLE FOR ALL.
To me, it is obvious that this line of argument is dangerously wrong. It lends itself to the promotion of unproven therapies to the detriment of good healthcare and progress. Sadly, I fear that the new survey is going to be misused in this way.
The DAILY MAIL is by no means my favourite paper (see, for instance, here, here and here). This week, the Mail published another article which, I thought, is worth mentioning. The Mail apparently asked several UK doctors which dietary supplements they use for their own health (no mention of the number they had to approach to find any fitting into this category). The results remind me of a statement by the Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby in the famous TV series YES MINISTER: “if nobody knows anything then nobody can accuse anybody else of knowing nothing, and so the one thing we do know is that nobody knows anything, and that’s better than us knowing nothing”.
Below, I present the relevant quotes by the doctors who volunteered to be interviewed and add the most up-to date evidence on each subject.
Professor Christopher Eden, 57, is a consultant urological surgeon at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford.
“I take a 1g supplement of vitamin C daily. (The recommended daily amount, or RDA, is 40mg, which is equivalent to a large orange.) This amount of vitamin C makes the urine mildly acidic and increases the levels of an antimicrobial protein called siderocalin, found naturally in urine, which makes the environment less favourable to bad bacteria and reduces the risk of infection.”
Louise Newson, 48, is a GP and menopause specialist based in Stratford-upon-Avon.
“Women going through the menopause or perimenopause may get bowel symptoms such as bloating which are due to hormone imbalances affecting the balance of gut bacteria. Probiotic (good bacteria) supplements correct this imbalance and are also linked to levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which can improve mood. This is important during the menopause. I make sure I take a probiotic daily, specifically one with a high bacteria count including Lactobacillus acidophilus. I look for one that has to be kept in the fridge, as this is a sign of a quality product.”
Professor Tony Kochhar, 45, is a consultant orthopaedic surgeon at London Bridge Hospital.
“Having taken statins for a couple of years, I developed tendonitis, inflammation in the foot, which caused pain around the outside of it. My GP told me to stop taking the statins, which helped, and I now control my condition with diet. I also take a supplement of collagen (a natural protein found in the tendons) to build up tendon structure and reduce pain. I take two 1,200mg collagen supplements daily and it has really helped. Within two weeks of starting them, my pain had gone.”
Dr Anne Rigg, 51, is a consultant oncologist at London Bridge Hospital.
“One theory is that vitamin D may help control normal breast cell growth and may even stop breast cancer cells from growing. The body creates vitamin D from sunlight on the skin when we are outdoors, but because of the British weather and the rightful use of sunscreen, it’s easy to become deficient. I take the recommended daily dose of 10mcg. [Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel are good sources, too, but you’d have to eat them in large amounts to get the recommended daily dosage.] It’s vital not to overdose, as it can increase the risk of kidney stones: the vitamin helps absorb calcium from the diet, which can build up into stones.”
Dr Rob Hogan, 62, is an optometrist at iCare Consulting.
“I’m aware, too, of the increased risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of sight loss in people over 60. This is where the small central portion of the retina (the macula) at the back of the eye deteriorates. So I take MacuShield, a supplement which, studies have found, can help improve vision and keep the back of the eye healthy. It contains a mixture of natural compounds — lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin — which are antioxidants that have been found in studies to improve vision and eye health. I take one a day, usually with a meal.”
In early AMD, macular pigment can be augmented with a variety of supplements, although the inclusion of MZ may confer benefits in terms of panprofile augmentation and in terms of contrast sensitivity enhancement.
Dr Milad Shadrooh, 37, is a dentist in Basingstoke, Hampshire.
“I take a varied supplement daily to maintain good health and, specifically, healthy teeth. It contains calcium (an adult’s RDA is 700mg, which is equivalent to three 200ml cups of milk) as most people, including me, don’t get enough in their diet.”
Dr Joanna Gach, 49, is a consultant dermatologist at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust.
“Every so often, I take a multivitamin capsule containing zinc, selenium and biotin. These are all helpful for sorting out my brittle nails and maintaining healthy hair.”
… no evidence supports the use of vitamin supplementation with vitamin E, vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin A, retinoids, retinol, retinal, silicon, zinc, iron, copper, selenium, or vitamin B12 (Cyanocobalamin) for improving the nail health of well-nourished patients or improving the appearance of nails affected by pathologic disease.
Luke Cascarini, 47, is a consultant maxillofacial surgeon at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
“I take a daily vitamin drink containing a high-dose vitamin B complex, which is necessary for good oral health.”
The published research reveals only a possible relationship between vitamins and minerals and periodontal disease. Vitamin E, zinc, lycopene and vitamin B complex may have useful adjunct benefits. However, there is inadequate evidence to link the nutritional status of the host to periodontal inflammation. More randomized controlled trials are needed to explore this association.
Dr Jenni Byrom, 44, is a consultant gynaecologist at Birmingham’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
“I take evening primrose oil for premenstrual symptoms such as breast pain. I take 1g of evening primrose oil daily and have found it really makes a difference.”
Evening primrose oil has not been shown to improve breast pain, and has had its licence withdrawn for this indication in the UK owing to lack of efficacy (it is still available to purchase without prescription).
Dr Sarah Myhill, 60, is a GP based in Wales.
“I take 10g of vitamin C dissolved in a glass of water every day before I start my shift — and I never get colds. I believe that high doses of vitamin C can kill bad microbes on contact — or, at least, help reduce the severity of infections such as colds and sore throats.”
Jonathan Dearing, 49, is a consultant orthopaedic surgeon specialising in sports injuries at BMI Carrick Glen Hospital in Ayrshire.
“I carry a vitamin D oral spray and use it after exercise, as it helps improve muscle recovery by regulating various processes that help them repair and grow.”
… supraphysiological dosages of vitamin D3 have potential ergogenic effects on the human metabolic system and lead to multiple physiological enhancements. These dosages could increase aerobic capacity, muscle growth, force and power production, and a decreased recovery time from exercise. These dosages could also improve bone density. However, both deficiency (12.5 to 50 nmol/L) and high levels of vitamin D (>125 nmol/L) can have negative side effects, with the potential for an increased mortality. Thus, maintenance of optimal serum levels between 75 to 100 nmol/L and ensuring adequate amounts of other essential nutrients including vitamin K are consumed, is key to health and performance. Coaches, medical practitioners, and athletic personnel should recommend their patients and athletes to have their plasma 25(OH)D measured, in order to determine if supplementation is needed. Based on the research presented on recovery, force and power production, 4000-5000 IU/day of vitamin D3 in conjunction with a mixture of 50 mcg/day to 1000 mcg/day of vitamin K1 and K2 seems to be a safe dose and has the potential to aid athletic performance. Lastly, no study in the athletic population has increased serum 25(OH)D levels past 100 nmol/L, (the optimal range for skeletal muscle function) using doses of 1000 to 5000 IU/day. Thus, future studies should test the physiological effects of higher dosages (5000 IU to 10,000 IU/day or more) of vitamin D3 in combination with varying dosages of vitamin K1 and vitamin K2 in the athletic population to determine optimal dosages needed to maximize performance.
Dr Glyn Thomas, 46, is a cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist at the Bristol Heart Institute.
“I take a magnesium supplement as it can help address an extra heartbeat — something I suffered with for 20 years.”
Firstly, let me congratulate those colleagues who actually might have got it right:
- Dr Hogan
- Dr Shadrooh
- Mr Cascarini
- Mr Dearing
I say ‘MIGHT HAVE GOT IT RIGHT’ because, even in their cases, the evidence is far from strong and certainly not convincing.
Secondly, let me commiserate those who spend their money on unproven supplements. I find it sad that this group amounts to two thirds of all the ‘experts’ asked.
Thirdly, let me remind THE DAILY MAIL of what I posted recently: journalists to be conscious of their responsibility not to mislead the public and do more rigorous research before reporting on matters of health. Surely, the Mail did us no favour in publishing this article. It will undoubtedly motivate lots of gullible consumers to buy useless or even harmful supplements.
And lastly, let me remind all healthcare professionals that promoting unproven treatments to the unsuspecting public is not ethical.
The public is often impressed by scenes shown on TV where surgeons in China operate patients apparently with no other anaesthesia than acupuncture. Such films have undoubtedly contributed significantly to the common belief that acupuncture cannot possibly be a placebo (every single time I give a public talk about acupuncture, the issue comes up, and someone asks me: how can you doubt the efficacy of acupuncture when, in China, they use it for major operations?).
Some years ago, I have myself been involved is such a BBC broadcast and had to learn the hard way that such scenes are more than just a bit misleading.
Unfortunately, the experts rarely object to any of this. They seem to have become used to the false claims and overt propaganda that is rife in the promotion of acupuncture, and have resigned to the might of poor journalism.
The laudable exception is a team of French authors of a recent and excellent paper.
This unusual article analysed a clip from the program “Acupuncture, osteopathy, hypnosis: do complementary medicines have superpowers?” about acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures in China. Their aim was to propose a rational explanation for the phenomena observed and to describe the processes leading a public service broadcasting channel to offer this type of content at prime time and the potential consequences in terms of public health. For this purpose, they used critical thinking attitudes and skills, along with a bibliographical search of Medline, Google Scholar and Cochrane Library databases.
Their results reveal that the information delivered in the television clip is ambiguous. It did not allow the viewer to form an informed opinion on the relevance of acupuncture as an anaesthetic for surgical procedures. It is reasonable to assume that the clip shows surgery performed with undisclosed epidural anaesthesia coupled with mild intravenous anaesthesia, sometimes performed in other countries.
What needs to be highlighted, the authors of this critique state, is the overestimation of acupuncture added to the protocol. The media tend to exaggerate the risks and expected effects of the treatments they report on, which can lead patients to turn to unproven therapies.
The authors concluded that broadcasting such a clip at prime time underlines the urgent need for the public and all health professionals to be trained in sorting and critically analysing health information.
In my view, broadcasting such misleading films also underlines the urgent need for journalists to be conscious of their responsibility not to mislead the public and do more rigorous research before reporting on matters of health.
Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, the infamous start of the Nazi holocaust. For Cristian Becker, a German PR man who is currently spending much of his time promoting homeopathy and attacking critics of homeopathy, it was the occasion to publish this tweet:
Today, on 9 November, all fundamentalist GWUP-sceptics such as Natalie Grams and Edzard Ernst reflect on what hate can bring about. First, one hates homeopathy, then advocates of homeopathy, and then it can seem as though one tolerates violence.
I struggle to respond to such vitriolic stupidity.
What makes this even more shocking is the fact that, as far as I see, none of the professional bodies of German homeopathy have distanced themselves for it.
I know Dr Grams a little, and can honestly say that neither of us ‘hates’ homeopathy nor homeopaths. And crucially, we both detest violence.
If such pseudo-arguments are now being used by the defenders of homeopathy, it mainly shows, I think, two things:
- They clearly have run out of real arguments which, in turn, suggests that the end of publicly funded homeopathy is imminent.
- Homeopathic remedies are not an effective therapy against feeble-mindedness.
The Clinic for Complementary Medicine and Diet in Oncology was opened, in collaboration with the oncology department, at the Hospital of Lucca (Italy) in 2013. It uses a range of alternative therapies aimed at reducing the adverse effects of conventional oncology treatments.
Their latest paper presents the results of complementary medicine (CM) treatment targeted toward reducing the adverse effects of anticancer therapy and cancer symptoms, and improving patient quality of life. Dietary advice was aimed at the reduction of foods that promote inflammation in favour of those with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
This is a retrospective observational study on 357 patients consecutively visited from September 2013 to December 2017. The intensity of symptoms was evaluated according to a grading system from G0 (absent) to G1 (slight), G2 (moderate), and G3 (strong). The severity of radiodermatitis was evaluated with the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG) scale. Almost all the patients (91.6%) were receiving or had just finished some form of conventional anticancer therapy.
The main types of cancer were breast (57.1%), colon (7.3%), lung (5.0%), ovary (3.9%), stomach (2.5%), prostate (2.2%), and uterus (2.5%). Comparison of clinical conditions before and after treatment showed a significant amelioration of all symptoms evaluated: nausea, insomnia, depression, anxiety, fatigue, mucositis, hot flashes, joint pain, dysgeusia, neuropathy.
The authors concluded that the integration of evidence-based complementary treatments seems to provide an effective response to cancer patients’ demand for a reduction of the adverse effects of anticancer treatments and the symptoms of cancer itself, thus improving patient’s quality of life and combining safety and equity of access within public healthcare systems. It is, therefore, necessary for physicians (primarily oncologists) and other healthcare professionals in this ﬁeld to be appropriately informed about the potential beneﬁts of CMs.
Why do I call this ‘wishful thinking’?
I have several reasons:
- A retrospective observational study cannot establish cause and effect. It is likely that the findings were due to a range of factors unrelated to the interventions used, including time, extra attention, placebo, social desirability, etc.
- Some of the treatments in the therapeutic package were not CM, reasonable and evidence-based. Therefore, it is likely that these interventions had positive effects, while CM might have been totally useless.
- To claim that the integration of evidence-based complementary treatments seems to provide an effective response to cancer patients’ is pure fantasy. Firstly, some of the CMs were certainly not evidence-based (the clinic’s prime focus is on homeopathy). Secondly, as already pointed out, the study does not establish cause and effect.
- The notion that it is necessary for physicians (primarily oncologists) and other healthcare professionals in this ﬁeld to be appropriately informed about the potential beneﬁts of CMs is not what follows from the data. The paper shows, however, that the authors of this study are in need to be appropriately informed about EBM as well as CM.
I stumbled across this paper because a homeopath cited it on Twitter claiming that it proves the effectiveness of homeopathy for cancer patients. This fact highlights why such publications are not just annoyingly useless but acutely dangerous. They mislead many cancer patients to opt for bogus treatments. In turn, this demonstrates why it is important to counterbalance such misinformation, critically evaluate it and minimise the risk of patients getting harmed.
Acupuncture is a branch of alternative medicine where pseudo-science abounds. Here is yet another example of this deplorable phenomenon.
This study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of primary dysmenorrhea.
Sixty females aged 17-23 years were randomly assigned to either a study group or a control group.
- The study group received acupuncture for the duration of 20 minutes/day, for 15 days/month, for the period of 90 days.
- The control group did not receive acupuncture for the same period.
Both groups were assessed on day 1; day 30 and day 60; and day 90. The results showed a significant reduction in all the variables such as the visual analogue scale score for pain, menstrual cramps, headache, dizziness, diarrhoea, faint, mood changes, tiredness, nausea, and vomiting in the study group compared with those in the control group.
The authors concluded that acupuncture could be considered as an effective treatment modality for the management of primary dysmenorrhea.
These findings contradict those of a recent Cochrane review (authored by known acupuncture-proponents) which included 42 RCTs and concluded that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate whether or not acupuncture or acupressure are effective in treating primary dysmenorrhoea, and for most comparisons no data were available on adverse events. The quality of the evidence was low or very low for all comparisons. The main limitations were risk of bias, poor reporting, inconsistency and risk of publication bias.
The question that I ask myself is this: why do researchers bother to conduct studies that contribute NOTHING to our knowledge and progress? The new study had a no-treatment control group which means it cannot control for the effects of placebo, the extra attention, social desirability etc. In view of the fact that already 42 poor quality trials exist, it is not just useless to add a 43rd but, in my view, it is scandalous! A 43rd useless trial:
- tells us nothing of value;
- misleads the public;
- pollutes the medical literature;
- is a waste of resources;
- undermines the trust in clinical research;
- is deeply unethical.
It is high time to stop such redundant, foolish, wasteful and unethical pseudo-science.
I regularly scan the new publications in alternative medicine hoping that I find some good quality research. And sometimes I do! In such happy moments, I write a post and make sure that I stress the high standard of a paper.
Sadly, such events are rare. Usually, my searches locate a multitude of deplorably poor papers. Most of the time, I ignore them. Sometime, I do write about exemplarily bad science, and often I report about articles that are not just bad but dangerous as well. The following paper falls into this category, I fear.
The aim of this systematic review was to assess the efficacy and safety of herbal medicines for the induction of labor (IOL). The researchers considered experimental and non-experimental studies that compared relevant pregnancy outcomes between users and non-user of herbal medicines for IOL.
A total of 1421 papers were identified and 10 studies, including 5 RCTs met the authors’ inclusion criteria. Papers not published in English were not considered. Three trials were conducted in Iran, two in the USA and one each in South Africa, Israel, Thailand, Australia and Italy.
The quality of the included trial, even of the 5 RCTs, was poor. The results suggest, according to the authors of this paper, that users of herbal medicine – raspberry leaf and castor oil – for IOL were significantly more likely to give birth within 24 hours than non-users. No significant difference in the incidence of caesarean section, assisted vaginal delivery, haemorrhage, meconium-stained liquor and admission to nursery was found between users and non-users of herbal medicines for IOL.
The authors concluded that the findings suggest that herbal medicines for IOL are effective, but there is inconclusive evidence of safety due to lack of good quality data. Thus, the use of herbal medicines for IOL should be avoided until safety issues are clarified. More studies are recommended to establish the safety of herbal medicines.
As I stated above, I am not convinced that this review is any good. It included all sorts of study designs and dismissed papers that were not in English. Surely this approach can only generate a distorted or partial picture. The risks of herbal remedies for mother and baby are not well investigated. In view of the fact that even the 5 RCTs were of poor quality, the first sentence of this conclusion seems most inappropriate.
On the basis of the evidence presented, I feel compelled to urge pregnant women NOT to consent to accept herbal remedies for IOL.
And on the basis of the fact that far too many papers on alternative medicine that emerge every day are not just poor quality but also dangerously mislead the public, I urge publishers, editors, peer-reviewers and researchers to pause and remember that they all have a responsibility. This nonsense has been going on for long enough; it is high time to stop it.
According to the 2014 European Social Survey, Spain is relatively modest when it comes to using alternative therapies. While countries such as Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Sweden and Switzerland all have 1-year prevalence figures of over 30%, Spain only boasts a meagre 17%. Yet, its opposition to bogus treatments has recently become acute.
In 2016, it was reported that a master’s degree in homeopathic medicine at one of Spain’s top universities has been scrapped. Remarkably, the reason was “lack of scientific basis”. A university spokesman confirmed the course was being discontinued and gave three main reasons: “Firstly, the university’s Faculty of Medicine recommended scrapping the master’s because of the doubt that exists in the scientific community. Secondly, a lot of people within the university – professors and students across different faculties – had shown their opposition to the course. Thirdly, the postgraduate degree in homeopathic medicine is no longer approved by Spain’s Health Ministry.”
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being invited to a science festival in Bilbao and was impressed by the buoyant sceptic movement in Spain. At the time, two of my books were published in Spanish and received keen interest by the Spanish press.
And now, it has been reported that Spain’s Ministry of Health has released a list of only 2,008 homeopathic products whose manufacturers will have to apply for an official government license for if they wish to continue selling them. The homeopathic producers have until April 2019 to prove that their remedies actually work, which may very well completely slash homeopathic products in Spain.
It’s the latest blow for Spain’s homeopathy industry, once worth an estimated €100 million but which has seen a drop in public trust and therefore sales of around 30 percent in the last five years. Spain’s Health Ministry stopped allowing homeopathy treatments from being prescribed as part of people’s social security benefits, along with acupuncture, herbal medicine and body-based practices such as osteopathy, shiatsu or aromatherapy.
“Homeopathy is an alternative therapy that has not shown any scientific evidence that it works” Spanish Minister of Health Maria Luisa Carcedo is quoted as saying in La Vanguardia in response to the homeopathic blacklist. “I’m committed to combatting all forms of pseudoscience.”
Twenty years ago (5 years into my post at Exeter), I published this little article (BJGP, Sept 1998). It was meant as a sort of warning – sadly, as far as I can see, it has not been heeded. Oddly, the article is unavailable on Medline, I therefore take the liberty of re-publishing it here without alterations (if I had to re-write it today, I would not change much) or comment:
Once the omnipotent heroes in white, physicians today are at risk of losing the trust of their patients. Medicine, some would say, is in a deep crisis. Shouldn’t we start to worry?
The patient-doctor relationship, it seems, is at the heart of this argument. Many patients are deeply dissatisfied with this aspect of medicine. A recent survey on patients consulting GPs and complementary practitioners in parallel and for the same problem suggested that most patients are markedly more happy with all facets of the therapeutic encounter as offered by complementary practitioners. This could explain the extraordinary rise of complementary medicine during recent years. The neglect of the doctor-patient relationship might be the gap in which complementary treatments build their nest.
Poor relationships could be due to poor communication. Many books have been written about communications skills with patients. But never mind the theory, the practice of all this may be less optimal than we care to believe. Much of this may simply relate to the usage of language. Common terms such as ‘stomach’, ‘palpitations’, ‘lungs’, for instance, are interpreted in different ways by lay and professional people. Words like ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’, and ‘irritability’ are well defined for doctors, while patients view them as more or less interchangeable. At a deeper level, communication also relates to concepts and meanings of disease and illness. For instance, the belief that a ‘blockage of the bowel’ or an ‘imbalance of life forces’ lead to disease is as prevalent with patients as it is alien to doctors. Even on the most obvious level of interaction with patients, physicians tend to fail. Doctors often express themselves unclearly about the nature, aim or treatment schedule of their prescriptions.
Patients want to be understood as whole persons. Yet modern medicine is often seen as emphazising a reductionistic and mechanistic approach, merely treating a symptom or replacing a faulty part, or treating a ‘case’ rather than an individual. In the view of some, modern medicine has become an industrial behemoth shifted from attending the sick to guarding the economic bottom line, putting itself on a collision course with personal doctoring. This has created a deeply felt need which complementary medicine is all too ready to fill. Those who claim to know the reason for a particular complaint (and therefore its ultimate cure) will succeed in satisfying this need. Modern medicine has identified the causes of many diseases while complementary medicine has promoted simplistic (and often wrong) ideas about the genesis of health and disease. The seductive message usually is as follows: treating an illness allopathically is not enough, the disease will simply re-appear in a different guise at a later stage. One has to tackle the question – why the patient has fallen ill in the first place. Cutting off the dry leaves of a plant dying of desiccation won’t help. Only attending the source of the problem, in the way complementary medicine does, by pouring water on to the suffering plant, will secure a cure. This logic is obviously lop-sided and misleading, but it creates trust because it is seen as holistic, it can be understood by even the simplest of minds, and it generates a meaning for the patient’s otherwise meaningless suffering.
Doctors, it is said, treat diseases but patients suffer from illnesses. Disease is something an organ has; illness is something an individual has. An illness has more dimensions than disease. Modern medicine has developed a clear emphasis on the physical side of disease but tends to underrate aspects like the patient’s personality, beliefs and socioeconomic environment. The body/mind dualism is (often unfairly) seen as a doctrine of mainstream medicine. Trust, it seems, will be given to those who adopt a more ‘holistic’ approach without dissecting the body from the mind and spirit.
Empathy is a much neglected aspect in today’s medicine. While it has become less and less important to doctors, it has grown more and more relevant to patients. The literature on empathy is written predominantly by nurses and psychologists. Is the medical profession about to delegate empathy to others? Does modern, scientific medicine lead us to neglect the empathic attitude towards our patients? Many of us are not even sure what empathy means and confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy with the patient can be described as a feeling of ‘I want to help you’. Empathy, on these terms, means ‘I am (or could be) you’; it is therefore some sort of an emotional resonance. Empathy has remained somewhat of a white spot on the map of medical science. We should investigate it properly. Re-integrating empathy into our daily practice can be taught and learned. This might help our patients as well as us.
Lack of time is another important cause for patients’ (and doctors’) dissatisfaction. Most patients think that their doctor does not have enough time for them. They also know from experience that complementary medicine offers more time. Consultations with complementary practitioners are appreciated, not least because they may spend one hour or so with each patient. Obviously, in mainstream medicine, we cannot create more time where there is none. But we could at least give our patients the feeling that, during the little time available, we give them all the attention they require.
Other reasons for patients’ frustration lie in the nature of modern medicine and biomedical research. Patients want certainty but statistics provides probabilities at best. Some patients may be irritated to hear of a 70% chance that a given treatment will work; or they feel uncomfortable with the notion that their cholesterol level is associated with a 60% chance of suffering a heart attack within the next decade. Many patients long for reassurance that they will be helped in their suffering. It may be ‘politically correct’ to present patients with probability frequencies of adverse effects and numbers needed to treat, but anybody who (rightly or wrongly) promises certainty will create trust and have a following.
Many patients have become wary of the fact that ‘therapy’ has become synonymous with ‘pharmacotherapy’ and that many drugs are associated with severe adverse reactions. The hope of being treated with ‘side-effect-free’ remedies is a prime motivator for turning to complementary medicine.
Complementary treatments are by no means devoid of adverse reactions, but this fact is rarely reported and therefore largely unknown to patients. Physicians are regularly attacked for being in league with the pharmaceutical industry and the establishment in general. Power and money are said to be gained at the expense of the patient’s well-being. The system almost seems to invite dishonesty. The ‘conspiracy theory’ goes as far as claiming that ‘scientific medicine is destructive, extremely costly and solves nothing. Beware of the octopus’. Spectacular cases could be cited which apparently support it. Orthodox medicine is described as trying to ‘inhibit the development of unorthodox medicine’, in order to enhance its own ‘power, status and income’. Salvation, it is claimed, comes from the alternative movement which represents ‘… the most effective assault yet on scientific biomedicine’. Whether any of this is true or not, it is perceived as the truth by many patients and amounts to a serious criticism of what is happening in mainstream medicine today.
In view of such criticism, strategies for overcoming problems and rectifying misrepresentations are necessary. Mainstream medicine might consider discovering how patients view the origin, significance, and prognosis of the disease. Furthermore, measures should be considered to improve communication with patients. A diagnosis and its treatment have to make sense to the patient as much as to the doctor – if only to enhance adherence to therapy. Both disease and illness must be understood in their socio-economic context. Important decisions, e.g. about treatments, must be based on a consensus between the patient and the doctor. Scientists must get better in promoting their own messages, which could easily be far more attractive, seductive, and convincing than those of pseudo-science.These goals are by no means easy to reach. But if we don’t try, trust and adherence will inevitably deteriorate further. I submit that today’s unprecedented popularity of complementary medicine reflects a poignant criticism of many aspects of modern medicine. We should take it seriously