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

medical ethics

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a journalist who wanted to publish the result in a magazine. He now informed me that his editor decided against it, and the interview thus remained unpublished. I have the journalist’s permission to publish it here. The journalist who, in my view, was well-prepared (much better than most), prefers to remain unnamed.

Q: How would you describe yourself?

A: I am a researcher of alternative medicine.

Q: Not a critic of alternative medicine?

A: Primarily, I am a researcher; after all, I have published more Medline-listed research papers on the subject than anyone else on the planet.

Q: You are retired since a few years; why do you carry on working?

A: Mainly because I see a need for a critical voice amongst all the false and often dangerous claims made by proponents of alternative medicine. But also because I enjoy what I am doing. Since I retired, I can focus on the activities I like. There is nobody to tell me what to do and what not to do; the latter happened far too often when I was still head of my research unit.

Q: Fine, but I still do not quite understand what drives you. Who is motivating you to criticise alternative medicine?

A: Nobody. Some people claim I am paid for my current activities. This is not true. My blog actually costs me money. My books never return enough royalties to break even, considering the time they take to write. And for most of my lectures I don’t charge a penny.

Q: There are people who find this hard to believe.

A: I know. This just shows how money-orientated they are. Do they want me to publish my tax returns?

Q: Sorry, but I still don’t understand your motivation.

A: I guess what motivates me is a sense of responsibility, a somewhat naïve determination to do something good as a physician. I am one of the only – perhaps even THE only – scientist who has researched alternative medicine extensively and who is not a promoter of bogus therapies but voices criticism about them. There are several other prominent and excellent critics of alternative medicine, of course, but they all come ‘from the outside’. I come from the inside of the alternative medicine business. This probably gives me a special understanding of this field. In any case, I feel the responsibility to counter-balance all the nonsense that is being published on a daily basis.

Q: What’s your ultimate aim?

A: I want to create progress through educating people to think more critically.

Q: Which alternative medicine do you hate most?

A: I do not hate any of them. In fact, I still have more sympathy for them than might be apparent. For my blog, for instance, I constantly search for new research papers that are rigorous and show a positive result. The trouble is, there are so very few of those articles. But when I find one, I am delighted to report about it. No, I do not hate or despise any alternative medicine; I am in favour of good science, and I get irritated by poor research. And yes, I do dislike false claims that potentially harm consumers. And yes, I do dislike it when chiropractors or other charlatans defraud consumers by taking their money for endless series of useless interventions.

Q: I noticed you go on about the risks of alternative medicine. But surely, they are small compared to the risks of conventional healthcare, aren’t they?

A: That’s a big topic. To make it simple: alternative medicine is usually portrayed as risk-free. The truth, however, is that there are numerous risks of direct and indirect harm; the latter is usually much more important than the former. Crucially, the risk-free image is incongruent with reality. I want to redress this incongruence. And as to conventional medicine: sure, it can be much more harmful. But one always has to see this in relation to the proven benefit. Chemotherapy, for instance, can kill a cancer patient, but more likely it saves her life. Homeopathic remedies cannot kill you, but employed as an alternative to an effective cancer treatment, homeopathy will certainly kill you.

Q: Homeopathy seems to be your particular hobby horse.

A: Perhaps. This is because it exemplifies alternative medicine in several ways, and because I started my alternative ‘career’ in a homeopathic hospital, all those years ago.

Q: In what way is homeopathy exemplary?

A: Its axioms are implausible, like those of many other alternative modalities. The clinical evidence fails to support the claims, like with so many alternative therapies. And it is seemingly safe, yet can do a lot of harm, like so many other treatments.

Q: You have no qualification in homeopathy, is that right?

A: No, I have no such qualifications. And I never said so. When I want to tease homeopaths a little, I state that I am a trained homeopath; and that is entirely correct.

Q: In several countries, homeopathy has taken spectacular hits recently. Is that your doing?

A: No, I don’t think so. But I do hope that my work has inspired the many dedicated activists who are currently protesting against the reimbursement of homeopathy by the public purse in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, etc.

Q: You often refer to medical ethics; why is that?

A: Because, in the final analysis, many of the questions we already discussed are really ethical issues. And in alternative medicine, few people have so far given the ethical dimensions any consideration. I think ethics are central to alternative medicine, so much so that I co-authored an entire book on this topic this year.

Q: Any plans for the future?

A: Plenty.

Q: Can you tell me more?

A: I will publish another book in 2019 with Springer. It will be a critical evaluation of precisely 150 different alternative modalities. I am thinking of writing yet another book, but have not yet found a literary agent who wants to take me on. I have been offered a new professorship at a private University in Vienna, and am hesitant whether to accept or not. I have been invited to give a few lectures in 2019 and hope to receive more invitations. Last not least, I work almost every day on my blog.

Q: More than enough for a retiree, it seems. Thank you for your time.

A: My pleasure.

On their website, the UK ‘ROYAL COLLEGE OF CHIROPRACTORS (RCC) published a short statement regarding the safety of chiropractic. Here it is in full:

Experiencing mild or moderate adverse effects after manual therapy, such as soreness or stiffness, is relatively common, affecting up to 50% of patients. However, such ‘benign effects’ are a normal outcome and are not unique to chiropractic care.

Cases of serious adverse events, including spinal or neurological problems and strokes caused by damage to arteries in the neck, have been associated with spinal manipulation. Such events are rare with estimates ranging from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 13 per 10,000 patients; furthermore, due to the nature of the underlying evidence in relation to such events (case reports, retrospective surveys and case-control studies), it is very difficult to confirm causation (Swait and Finch, 2017).

For example, while an association between stroke caused by vertebral artery damage or ‘dissection’ (VAD) and chiropractor visits has been reported in a few case-control studies, the risk of stoke has been found to be similar after seeing a primary care physician (medical doctor). Because patients with VAD commonly present with neck pain, it is possible they seek therapy for this symptom from a range of practitioners, including chiropractors, and that the VAD has occurred spontaneously, or from some other cause, beforehand (Biller et al, 2014). This highlights the importance of ensuring careful screening for known neck artery stroke risk factors, or signs or symptoms that there is an ongoing problem, is performed prior to manual treatment of patients (Swait and Finch, 2017). Chiropractors are well trained to do this on a routine basis, and to urgently refer patients if necessary.

END OF QUOTE

The statement reads well but it might not be entirely free from conflicts of interest. Yet, in the name of accuracy, completeness and truthfulness, I take the liberty of making a few slight alterations. Here is my revised version:

Experiencing mild or moderate adverse effects after chiropractic spinal manipulations, such as pain or stiffness (usually lasting 1-3 days and strong enough to impair patients’ quality of life), is very common. In fact, it affects around 50% of all patients. 

Cases of serious adverse events, including spinal or neurological problems and strokes often caused by damage to arteries in the neck, have been reported after spinal manipulation. Such events are probably not frequent (several hundred are on record including about 100 fatalities).  But, as we have never established proper surveillance systems, nobody can tell how often they occur. Furthermore, due to our reluctance of introducing such surveillance, some of us are able to question causality.

An association between stroke caused by vertebral artery damage or ‘dissection’ (VAD) and chiropractic spinal manipulation has been reported in about 20 independent investigations. Yet one much-criticised case-control study found the risk of stoke to be similar after seeing a primary care physician (medical doctor). Because patients with VAD commonly have neck pain, it is possible they seek therapy for this symptom from chiropractors, and that the VAD has occurred spontaneously, or from some other cause, beforehand (Biller et al, 2014). Ensuring careful screening for known neck artery stroke risk factors, or signs that there is an ongoing problem would therefore be important (Swait and Finch, 2017). Sadly, no reliable screening tests exist, and neck pain (the symptom that might be indicative of VAD) continues to be one of the conditions most frequently treated by chiropractors.

I do not expect the RCC to adopt my improved version. In case I am wrong, let me state this: I am entirely free of conflicts of interest and will not charge a fee for my revision. In the interest of advancing public health, I herewith offer it for free.

The Spanish Ministries of Health and Sciences have announced their ‘Health Protection Plan against Pseudotherapies’. Very wisely, they have included chiropractic under this umbrella. To a large degree, this is the result of Spanish sceptics pointing out that alternative therapies are a danger to public health, helped perhaps a tiny bit also by the publication of two of my books (see here and here) in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, such delelopments alarm Spanish chiropractors who fear for their livelihoods. A quickly-written statement of the AEQ (Spanish Chiropractic Association) is aimed at averting the blow. It makes the following 11 points (my comments are below):

1. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines chiropractic as a healthcare profession. It is independent of any other health profession and it is neither a therapy nor a pseudotherapy.

2. Chiropractic is statutorily recognised as a healthcare profession in many European countries including Portugal, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom10, as well as in the USA, Canada and Australia, to name a few.

3. Chiropractic members of the AEQ undergo university-level training of at least 5 years full-time (300 ECTS points). Chiropractic training is offered within prestigious institutions such as the Medical Colleges of the University of Zurich and the University of Southern Denmark.

4. Chiropractors are spinal health care experts. Chiropractors practice evidence-based, patient-centred conservative interventions, which include spinal manipulation, exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice.

5. The use of these interventions for the treatment of spine-related disorders is consistent with guidelines and is supported by high quality scientific evidence, including multiple systematic reviews undertaken by the prestigious Cochrane collaboration15, 16, 17.

6. The Global Burden of Disease study shows that spinal disorders are the leading cause of years lived with disability worldwide, exceeding depression, breast cancer and diabetes.

7. Interventions used by chiropractors are recommended in the 2018 Low Back Pain series of articles published in The Lancet and clinical practice guidelines from Denmark, Canada, the European Spine Journal, American College of Physicians and the Global Spine Care Initiative.

8. The AEQ supports and promotes scientific research, providing funding and resources for the development of high quality research in collaboration with institutions of high repute, such as Fundación Jiménez Díaz and the University of Alcalá de Henares.

9. The AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based, patient-centred care, consistent with a biopsychosocial model of health.

10. The AEQ demands the highest standards of practice and professional ethics, by implementing among its members the Quality Standard UNE-EN 16224 “Healthcare provision by chiropractors”, issued by the European Committee of Normalisation and ratified by AENOR.

11. The AEQ urges the Spanish Government to regulate chiropractic as a healthcare profession. Without such legislation, citizens of Spain cannot be assured that they are protected from unqualified practitioners and will continue to face legal uncertainties and barriers to access an essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service.

END OF QUOTE

I think that some comments might be in order (they follow the numbering of the AEQ):

  1. The WHO is the last organisation I would consult for information on alternative medicine; during recent years, they have published mainly nonsense on this subject. How about asking the inventor of chiropractic? D.D. Palmer defined it as “a science of healing without drugs.” Chiropractors nowadays prefer to be defined as a profession which has the advantage that one cannot easily pin them down for doing mainly spinal manipulation; if one does, they indignantly respond “but we also use many other interventions, like life-style advice, for instance, and nobody can claim this to be nonsense” (see also point 4 below).
  2. Perfect use of a classical fallacy: appeal to authority.
  3. Appeal to authority, plus ignorance of the fact that teaching nonsense even at the highest level must result in nonsense.
  4. This is an ingenious mix of misleading arguments and lies: most chiros pride themselves of treating also non-spinal conditions. Very few interventions used by chiros are evidence-based. Exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice are hardy typical for chiros and can all be obtained more authoratively from other healthcare professionals.
  5. Plenty of porkies here too. For instance, the AEQ cite three Cochrane reviews. The first concluded that high-quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between SMT and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain. The second stated that combined chiropractic interventions slightly improved pain and disability in the short term and pain in the medium term for acute/subacute LBP. However, there is currently no evidence that supports or refutes that these interventions provide a clinically meaningful difference for pain or disability in people with LBP when compared to other interventions. And the third concluded that, although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and QoL, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse. Publication bias cannot be ruled out. Research designed to protect against various biases is needed. Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up. Since the risk of rare but serious adverse events for manipulation exists, further high-quality research focusing on mobilisation and comparing mobilisation or manipulation versus other treatment options is needed to guide clinicians in their optimal treatment choices. Hardly the positive endorsement implied by the AEQ!
  6. Yes, but that is not an argument for chiropractic; in fact, it’s another fallacy.
  7. Did they forget the many guidelines, institutions and articles that do NOT recommend chiropractic?
  8. I believe the cigarette industry also sponsors research; should we therefore all start smoking?
  9. I truly doubt that the AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based healthcare; if they did, they would have to discourage spinal manipulation!
  10. The ‘highest standards of practice and professional ethics’ are clearly not compatible with chiropractors’ use of spinal manipulation. In our recent book, we explained in full detail why this is so.
  11. An essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service? Chiropractic is certainly not essential, rarely high-quality, and clearly not evidence-based.

Nice try AEQ.

But not good enough, I am afraid.

Many chiropractors tell new mothers that their child needs chiropractic adjustments because the birth is in their view a trauma for the new-born that causes subluxations of the baby’s spine. Without expert chiropractic intervention, they claim, the poor child risks serious developmental disorders.

This article (one of hundreds) explains it well: Birth trauma is often overlooked by doctors as the cause of chronic problems, and over time, as the child grows, it becomes a thought less considered. But the truth is that birth trauma is real, and the impact it can have on a mother or child needs to be addressed. Psychological therapy, physical therapy, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and other healing techniques should all be considered following an extremely difficult birth.

And another article makes it quite clear what intervention is required: Caesarian section or a delivery that required forceps or vacuum extraction procedures, in-utero constraint, an unusual presentation of the baby, and many more can cause an individual segment of the spine or a region to shift from its normal healthy alignment. This ‘shift’ in the spine is called a Subluxation, and it can happen immediately before, during, or after birth.

Thousands of advertisements try to persuade mothers to take their new-born babies to a chiropractor to get the problem sorted which chiropractors often call KISS (kinetic imbalance due to suboccipital strain-syndrome), caused by intrauterine-constraint or the traumas of birth.

This abundance of advertisements and promotional articles is in sharp contrast with the paucity of scientific evidence.

A review of 1993 concluded that birth trauma remains an underpublicized and, therefore, an undertreated problem. There is a need for further documentation and especially more studies directed toward prevention. In the meantime, manual treatment of birth trauma injuries to the neuromusculoskeletal system could be beneficial to many patients not now receiving such treatment, and it is well within the means of current practice in chiropractic and manual medicine.

A more critical assessment of … concluded that, given the absence of evidence of beneficial effects of spinal manipulation in infants and in view of its potential risks, manual therapy, chiropractic and osteopathy should not be used in infants with the kinetic imbalance due to suboccipital strain-syndrome, except within the context of randomised double-blind controlled trials.

So, what follows from all this?

How about this?

Chiropractors’ assumption of an obligatory birth trauma that causes subluxation and requires spinal adjustments is nothing more than a ploy by charlatans for filling their pockets with the cash of gullible parents.

Acupressure is the stimulation of acu-points by using pressure instead of needles, as in acupuncture. The evidence for or against acupressure mirrors that of acupuncture, except there is far less of it. This is why this new trial might be important.

The aim of this RCT was to determine the effect of self-acupressure on fasting blood sugar (FBS) and insulin level in type 2 diabetes patients. A total of 60 diabetic patients were selected from diabetes clinic in Rafsanjan in Iran, and  assigned to 2 groups, 30 in the acupressure and 30 in the control-group. The intervention group received acupressure at ST-36, LIV-3, KD-3 and SP-6 points bilaterally for 5 minutes at each point in 10 seconds pressure and 2 seconds rest periods. Subjects in the control group received no intervention. The FBS and insulin levels were measured before and after the intervention for both groups.

There were no significant differences between the acupressure and control group regarding age, sex and level of education. The insulin level significantly increased after treatment in the acupressure group (p=0.001). There were no significant differences between the levels of insulin in study or control groups. Serum FBS level decreased significantly after intervention in the acupressure group compared to the control group (p=0.02).

The authors concluded that self-acupressure as a complementary alternative medicine can be a helpful complementary method in reducing FBS and increasing insulin levels in type 2 diabetic patients.

I do not want to go into the methodological details of this study; suffice to say that it was less than rigorous and that its findings are therefore not trustworthy (never mind the fact that the results are biologically implausible). Even if that had not been the case, a single study would certainly not be sufficient reason to reach the conclusion that acupressure is helpful to control diabetes. For that, I am sure, we would need at least half a dozen independent replications.

Like most people, I have several non-medical friends who suffer from diabetes. They would love nothing better than having a simple, safe and effective method applying pressure to their skin in order to manage their disease. If they read this paper, some of them might conclude that acupressure is the answer to their problems and use it to control their condition. One does not need all that much imagination to see that this could seriously harm them, or even cost several lives.

Acupressure might be virtually free of risks, but with a bit of ill advice, even seemingly harmless treatments can kill.

Ginkgo biloba is a well-researched herbal medicine which has shown promise for a number of indications. But does this include coronary heart disease?

The aim of this systematic review was to provide information about the effectiveness and safety of Ginkgo Leaf Extract and Dipyridamole Injection (GD) as one adjuvant therapy for treating angina pectoris (AP) and to evaluate the relevant randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with meta-analysis. (Ginkgo Leaf Extract and Dipyridamole Injection is a Chinese compound preparation, which consists of ginkgo flavone glycosides (24%), terpene lactones (ginkgolide about 13%, ginkgolide about 2.9%) and dipyridamole.)

RCTs concerning AP treated by GD were searched and the Cochrane Risk Assessment Tool was adopted to assess the methodological quality of the RCTs. A total of 41 RCTs involving 4,462 patients were included in the meta-analysis. The results indicated that the combined use of GD and Western medicine (WM) against AP was associated with a higher total effective rate [risk ratio (RR)=1.25, 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.21–1.29, P<0.01], total effective rate of electrocardiogram (RR=1.29, 95% CI: 1.21–1.36, P<0.01). Additional, GD combined with WM could decrease the level of plasma viscosity [mean difference (MD)=–0.56, 95% CI:–0,81 to–0.30, P<0.01], fibrinogen [MD=–1.02, 95% CI:–1.50 to–0.54, P<0.01], whole blood low shear viscosity [MD=–2.27, 95% CI:–3.04 to–1.49, P<0.01], and whole blood high shear viscosity (MD=–0.90, 95% CI: 1.37 to–0.44, P<0.01).

The authors concluded that comparing with receiving WM only, the combine use of GD and WM was associated with a better curative effect for patients with AP. Nevertheless, limited by the methodological quality of included RCTs more large-sample, multi-center RCTs were needed to confirm our findings and provide further evidence for the clinical utility of GD.

If one reads this conclusion, one might be tempted to use GD to cure AP. I would, however, strongly warn everyone from doing so. There are many reasons for my caution:

  • All the 41 RCTs originate from China, and we have repeatedly discussed that Chinese TCM trials are highly unreliable.
  • The methodological quality of the primary RCTs was, according to the review authors ‘moderate’. This is not true; it was, in fact, lousy.
  • Dipyridamole is not indicated in angina pectoris.
  • To the best of my knowledge, there is no good evidence from outside China to suggest that Ginkgo biloba is effective for angina pectoris.
  • Angina pectoris is caused by coronary artery disease (a narrowing of one or more coronary arteries due to atherosclerosis), and it seems implausible that this condition can be ‘cured’ with any medication.

So, what we have here is yet another nonsensical paper, published in a dubious journal, employing evidently irresponsible reviewers, run by evidently irresponsible editors, hosted by a seemingly reputable publisher (Springer). This is reminiscent of my previous post (and many posts before). Alarmingly, it is also what I encounter on a daily basis when scanning the new publications in my field.

The effects of this incessant stream of nonsense can only have one of two effects:

  1. People take this ‘evidence’ seriously. In this case, many patients might pay with their lives for this collective incompetence.
  2. People conclude that alt med research cannot be taken seriously. In this case, we are unlikely to ever see anything useful emerging from it.

Either way, the result will be profoundly negative!

It is high time to stop this idiocy; but how?

I wish, I knew the answer.

Shiatsu has been mentioned here before (see for instance here, here and here). It is one of those alternative therapies for which a plethora of therapeutic claims are being made in the almost total absence of reliable evidence. This is why I am delighted each time a new study emerges.

This proof of concept study explored the feasibility of ‘hand self-shiatsu’ as an intervention to promote sleep onset and continuity for young adults with SRC. It employed a prospective case-series design, where participants, athletes who have suffered from concussion, act as their own controls. Baseline and follow-up data included standardized self-reported assessment tools and sleep actigraphy. Seven athletes, aged between 18 and 25 years, participated. Although statistically significant improvement in actigraphy sleep scores between baseline and follow-up was not achieved, metrics for sleep quality and daytime fatigue showed significant improvement.

The authors concluded from these data that these findings support the hypothesis that ‘hand self-shiatsu has the potential to improve sleep and reduce daytime fatigue in young postconcussion athletes. This pilot study provides guidance to refine research protocols and lays a foundation for further, large-sample, controlled studies.

How very disappointing! If this was truly meant to be a pilot study, it should not mention findings of clinical improvement at all. I suspect that the authors labelled it ‘a pilot study’ only when they realised that it was wholly inadequate. I also suspect that the study did not yield the result they had hoped for (a significant improvement in actigraphy sleep scores), and thus they included the metrics for sleep quality and daytime fatigue in the abstract.

In any case, even a pilot study of just 7 patients is hardly worth writing home about. And the remark that participants acted as their own controls is a new level of obfuscation: there were no controls, and the results are based on before/after comparisons. Thus none of the outcomes can be attributed to shiatsu; more likely, they are due to the natural history of the condition, placebo effects, concomitant treatments, social desirability etc.

What sort of journal publishes such drivel that can only have the effect of giving a bad name to clinical research? The Journal of Integrative Medicine (JIM) is a peer-reviewed journal sponsored by Shanghai Association of Integrative Medicine and Shanghai Changhai Hospital, China. It is a continuation of the Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine (JCIM), which was established in 2003 and published in Chinese language. Since 2013, JIM has been published in English language. They state that the editorial board is committed to publishing high-quality papers on integrative medicine... I consider this as a bad joke! More likely, this journal is little more than an organ for popularising TCM propaganda in the West.

And which publisher hosts such a journal?

Elsevier

What a disgrace!

 

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

Hardly anything!

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

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

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

Let me explain:

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

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

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

The treatments enjoy a lot of support.

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

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

The treatments are natural and therefore safe.

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

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

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

The treatments are holistic.

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

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

The treatments tackle the root causes of the problem.

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

The treatments are being suppressed by the establishment.

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

The treatments are inexpensive and therefore value for money.

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

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

After 25 years of full-time research into alternative medicine, I thought that I have seen it all. But I was wrong! Here is an article that surpasses every irresponsible stupidity I can remember. It is entitled ‘Ginger is the monumentally superior alternative to chemotherapy‘:

Let’s say that your doctor has given you a cancer diagnosis. Let’s revisit animal wisdom. If a squirrel was looking over a tasty morsel of ginger on one side, or a vial full of Mehotrexate, Danorubicin or Tioguanine on the other, what would that intelligent squirrel choose? The answer is obvious. And it’s the right answer, because ginger roots, after being dried and cooked, manifest an ingredient called 6-shogaol.

This naturally occurring element is up to 10,000 times more effective at killing cancer cells than those vials of destructive drugs, reports David Guiterrez from Natural News, who states that “researchers found that 6-shogaol is active against cancer stem cells at concentrations that are harmless to healthy cells. This is dramatically different from conventional chemotherapy, which has serious side effects largely because it kills healthy as well as cancerous cells.”

END OF QUOTE

As David Guiterrez from Natural News might not be the most reliable of sources, I did a bit of searching for evidence. This is what I found:

A study examining the efficacy of ginger, as an adjuvant drug to standard antiemetic therapy, in ameliorating acute and delayed CINV in patients with lung cancer receiving cisplatin-based regimens. It concluded that as an adjuvant drug to standard antiemetic therapy, ginger had no additional efficacy in ameliorating CINV in patients with lung cancer receiving cisplatin-based regimens.

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter study in patients planned to receive ≥2 chemotherapy cycles with high dose (>50 mg/m2) cisplatin. Patients received ginger 160 mg/day (with standardized dose of bioactive compounds) or placebo in addition to the standard antiemetic prophylaxis for CINV, starting from the day after cisplatin administration. The authors found that in patients treated with high-dose cisplatin, the daily addition of ginger, even if safe, did not result in a protective effect on CINV. 

Yes, there are also a few trials to suggest that ginger is effective for reducing nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy, but by and large they are older and less rigorous. And anyway, this is besides the point. The question here is not whether there is good evidence to show that ginger is helpful against chemo-induced nausea; the question is whether Ginger is clinically effective in ‘killing cancer cells’. And the answer is an emphatic

NO!!!

And this means the above-quoted article irresponsible, unethical, perhaps even criminal to the extreme. I shudder to think how many cancer patients have read it and consequently given up their conventional treatments opting for Ginger instead.

I have just been in Sao Paulo to give a lecture at the opening of a new university institute, ‘Question of Science‘. Under the leadership of Natalia Pasternak, the institute will promote scepticism in Brazil, particularly in the area of alternative medicine. Brazil currently has no less than 29 types of alternative medicine paid for with public money, and even homeopathy is officially being recognised and taught at all Brazilian medical schools.

But the most peculiar case of Brazilian quackery must surely be phosphoethanolamine. Gilberto Chierice, a Chemistry Professor at the University of São Paulo, used resources from a campus laboratory to unofficially manufacture, distribute, and promote the chemical to cancer patients claiming that it was a cheap cure for all cancers without side-effects. Remarkably, this was in the total absence of through clinical testing. In September 2015, university administrators therefore began preventing him from continuing with this practice. However, in October 2015, several courts in Brazil ruled in favour of plaintiffs who wanted the compound to remain available. In an unusual move of defence of common sense, a state court overturned the lower courts’ decision a month later, and the secretary for Brazil’s science and technology ministry promised to fund further research on the compound. In 2016, a law was passed in Brazil allowing the sale of synthetic phosphorylethanolamine for cancer treatment. Due to opposition from the Brazilian Medical Association, the Brazilian Society of Clinical Oncology, and the regulatory agency ANVISA, the country’s Supreme Court then suspended the law. I was told that a stepwise plan of clinical testing had been implemented. As the drug even failed to pass the most preliminary tests, the program had to be aborted.

This story seems like a re-play of many similar tales of bogus cancer cures of the past. They all seem to follow a similar pattern:

  1. Someone dreams up a ‘cure’ for all cancers that is cheap and free of side-effects.
  2. This appeals to many desperate cancer patients who are fighting for their lives.
  3. It also attracts several entrepreneurs who are hoping to make a fast buck.
  4. The story is picked up by the press and consequently a sizable grass-roots movement of support emerges.
  5. Populist politicians jump on the vote-winning band-waggon.
  6. The experts caution that the bogus cancer ‘cure’ is devoid of evidence and might put patients’ lives at risk.
  7. The legislators get involved.
  8. Law suits start left, right and centre.
  9. Eventually, the cancer ‘cure’ is scientifically tested and confirmed to be bogus.
  10. Eventually, the law rules against the bogus ‘cure’.
  11. A conspiracy theory emerges stating that the cancer ‘cure’ was unjustly suppressed to protect the interests of Big Pharma.
  12. A few years later, the subject re-surfaces and the whole cycle starts from the beginning.

Such stories remind us that fighting bogus claims is hugely important, even if it does not always succeed or turns out to be merely an exercise of damage limitation. Every life saved by the struggle against quackery makes it worthwhile.

I wish the new Institute ‘Question of Science‘ all the luck it richly deserves and desperately needs.

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