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

methodology

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John Dormandy was a consultant vascular surgeon, researcher, and medical educator best known for innovative work on the diagnosis and management of peripheral arterial disease. He had a leading role in developing, and garnering international support for, uniform guidelines that had a major impact on vascular care among specialists.

The Trans-Atlantic Inter-Society Consensus on Management of Peripheral Arterial Disease (TASC) was published in 2000.1 Dormandy, a former president of clinical medicine at the Royal Society of Medicine, was the genial force behind it, steering cooperation between medical and surgical society experts in Europe and North America.

“TASC became the standard for describing the severity of the problem that patients had and then defining what options there were to try and treat them,” says Alison Halliday, professor of vascular surgery at Oxford University who worked with Dormandy at St George’s Hospital, London. “It was the first time anybody had tried to get this general view on the complex picture of lower limb artery disease,” she says.

After stumbling across this totally unexpected obituary in the BMJ, I was deeply saddened. John was a close friend and mentor; I admired and loved him. He has influenced my life more than anyone else.

Our paths first crossed in 1979 when I applied for a post in his lab at St George’s Hospital, London. Even though I had never really envisaged a career in research, I wanted this job badly. At the time, I had been working as a SHO in a psychiatric hospital and was most unhappy. All I wished at that stage was to get out of psychiatry.

John offered me the position (mainly because of my MD thesis in blood clotting, I think) which was to run his haemorheology (the study of the flow properties of blood) lab. At the time, St Georges consisted of a research tract, a library, a squash court and a mega-building site for the main hospital.

John’s supervision was more than relaxed. As he was a busy surgeon then operating at a different site, I saw him only about once per fortnight, usually for less than 5 minutes. John gave me plenty of time to read (and to play squash!). As he was one of the world leader in haemorheology research, the lab was always full with foreign visitors who wanted to learn our methodologies. We all learnt from each other and had a great time!

After about two years, I had become a budding scientist. John’s mentoring had been minimal but nevertheless most effective. After I left to go back to Germany and finish my clinical training, we stayed in contact. In Munich, I managed to build up my own lab and continued to do haemorheology research. We thus met regularly, published papers and a book together, organised conferences, etc. It was during this time that my former boss became my friend.

Later, he also visited us in Vienna several times, and when I told him that I wanted to come back to England to do research in alternative medicine, he was puzzled but remained supportive (even wrote one of the two references that got me the Exeter job). I think he initially felt this might be a waste of a talent, but he soon changed his mind when he saw what I was up to.

John was one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. His intellect was as sharp as a razor and as fast as lightening. His research activities (>220 Medline listed papers) focussed on haemorheology, vascular surgery and multi-national mega-trials. And, of course, he had a wicket sense of humour. When he had become the clinical director of St George’s, he had to implement a strict no-smoking policy throughout the hospital. Being an enthusiastic cigar smoker, this presented somewhat of a problem for him. The solution was simple: at the entrance of his office John put a sign ‘You are now leaving the premises of St George’s Hospital’.

I saw John last in February this year. My wife and I had invited him for dinner, and when I phoned him to confirm the booking he said: ‘We only need a table for three; Klari (his wife) won’t join us, she died just before Christmas.’ I know how he must have suffered but, in typical Dormandy style, he tried to dissimulate and make light of his bereavement. During dinner he told me about the book he had just published: ‘Not a bestseller, in fact, it’s probably the most boring book you can find’. He then explained the concept of his next book, a history of medicine seen through the medical histories of famous people, and asked, ‘What’s your next one?’, ‘It’s called ‘Don’t believe what you think’, ‘Marvellous title!’, he exclaimed.

We parted that evening saying ‘see you soon’.

I will miss my friend vey badly.

Many so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) traditions have their very own diagnostic techniques, unknown to conventional clinicians. Think, for instance, of:

  • iridology,
  • applied kinesiology,
  • tongue diagnosis,
  • pulse diagnosis,
  • Kirlean photography,
  • live blood cell analysis,
  • the Vega test,
  • dowsing.

(Those interested in more detail can find a critical assessment of these and other diagnostic SCAM methods in my new book.)

And what about homeopathy?

Yes, homeopathy is also a diagnostic method.

Let me explain.

According to Hahnemann’s classical homeopathy, the homeopath should not be interested in conventional diagnostic labels. Instead, classical homeopaths are focussed on the symptoms and characteristics of the patient. They conduct a lengthy history to learn all about them, and they show little or no interest in a physical examination of their patient or other diagnostic procedures. Once they are confident to have all the information they need, they try to find the optimal homeopathic remedy.

This is done by matching the symptoms with the drug pictures of homeopathic remedies. Any homeopathic drug picture is essentially based on what has been noted in homeopathic provings where healthy volunteers take a remedy and monitor all that symptoms, sensations and feelings they experience subsequently. Here is an example:

The perfect match is what homeopaths thrive to find with their long and tedious procedure of taking a history. And the perfectly matching homeopathic remedy is essentially the homeopathic diagnosis.

Now, here is the thing: most SCAM diagnostic techniques have been tested (and found to be useless), but homeopathy as a diagnostic tool has – as far as I know – never been submitted to any rigorous tests (if you know otherwise, please let me know). And this, of course,  begs an important question: is it right – ethical, legal, moral – to use homeopathy without such evidence being available?

The simplest such test would be quite easy to conduct: one would send the same patient to 10 or 20 experienced homeopaths and see how many of them prescribe the same remedy.

Simple! But I shudder to think what such an experiment might reveal.

The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) is the professional organisation of UK lay homeopaths (those with no medical training). The SoH has recently published a membership survey. Here are some of its findings:

  • 89% of all respondents are female,
  • 70% are between the ages of 35 and 64.
  • 91% of respondents are currently in practice.
  • 87% are RSHoms.
  • The majority has been in practice for an average of 11 – 15 years.
  • 64% identified their main place of work as their home.
  • 51% work within a multidisciplinary clinic.
  • 43% work in a beauty clinic.
  • 85% offer either telephone or video call consultations.
  • Just under 50% see 5 or fewer patients each week.
  • 38% are satisfied with the number of patients they are seeing.
  • 80% felt confident or very confident about their future.
  • 65% feel supported by the SoH.

What can we conclude from these data?

Nothing!

Why?

Because this truly homeopathic survey is based on exactly 132 responses which equates to 14% of all SoH members.

If, however, we were able to conclude anything at all, it would be that the amateur researchers at the SoH cause Hahnemann to turn in his grave. Offering telephone/video consultations and working in a beauty salon would probably have annoyed the old man. But what would have definitely made him jump with fury in his Paris grave is a stupid survey like this one.

George Vithoulkas, has been mentioned on this blog repeatedly. He is a lay homeopath – one that has no medical background – and has, over the years, become an undisputed hero within the world of homeopathy. Yet, Vithoulkas’ contribution to homeopathy research is perilously close to zero. Judging from a recent article in which he outlines the rules of rigorous research, his understanding of research methodology is even closer to zero. Here is a crucial excerpt from this paper intercepted by a few comment from me in brackets and bold print.

Which are [the] homoeopathic principles to be respected [in clinical trials and meta-analyses]?

1. Homoeopathy does not treat diseases, but only diseased individuals. Therefore, every case may need a different remedy although the individuals may be suffering from the same pathology. This rule was violated by almost all the trials in most meta-analyses. (This statement is demonstrably false; there even has been a meta-analysis of 32 trials that respect this demand)

2. In the homoeopathic treatment of serious chronic pathology, if the remedy is correct usually a strong initial aggravation takes place []. Such an aggravation may last from a few hours to a few weeks and even then we may have a syndrome-shift and not the therapeutic results expected. If the measurements take place in the aggravation period, the outcome will be classified negative. (Homeopathic aggravations exist only in the mind of homeopaths; our systematic review failed to find proof for their existence.)

This factor was also ignored in most trials []. At least sufficient time should be given in the design of the trial, in order to account for the aggravation period. The contrary happened in a recent study [], where the aggravation period was evaluated as a negative sign and the homoeopathic group was pronounced worse than the placebo []. (There are plenty of trials where the follow-up period is long enough to account for this [non-existing] phenomenon.)

3. In severe chronic conditions, the homoeopath may need to correctly prescribe a series of remedies before the improvement is apparent. Such a second or third prescription should take place only after evaluating the effects of the previous remedies []. Again, this rule has also been ignored in most studies. (Again, this is demonstrably wrong; there are many trials where the homeopath was able to adjust his/her prescription according to the clinical response of the patient.)

4. As the prognosis of a chronic condition and the length of time after which any amelioration set in may differ from one to another case [], the treatment and the study-design respectively should take into consideration the length of time the disease was active and also the severity of the case. (This would mean that conditions that have a short history, like post-operative ileus, bruising after injury, common cold, etc. should respond well after merely a short treatment with homeopathics. As this is not so, Vithoulkas’ argument seems to be invalid.)

5. In our experience, Homeopathy has its best results in the beginning stages of chronic diseases, where it might be possible to prevent the further development of the chronic state and this is its most important contribution. Examples of pathologies to be included in such RCTs trials are ulcerative colitis, sinusitis, asthma, allergic conditions, eczema, gangrene rheumatoid arthritis as long as they are within the first six months of their appearance. (Why then is there a lack of evidence that any of the named conditions respond to homeopathy?)

In conclusion, three points should be taken into consideration relating to trials that attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of homoeopathy.

First, it is imperative that from the point of view of homoeopathy, the above-mentioned principles should be discussed with expert homoeopaths before researchers undertake the design of any homoeopathic protocol. (I am not aware of any trial where this was NOT done!)

Second, it would be helpful if medical journals invited more knowledgeable peer-reviewers who understand the principles of homoeopathy. (I am not aware of any trial where this was NOT done!)

Third, there is a need for at least one standardized protocol for clinical trials that will respect not only the state-of-the-art parameters from conventional medicine but also the homoeopathic principles []. (Any standardised protocol would be severely criticised; a good study protocol must always take account of the specific research question and therefore cannot be standardised.)

Fourth, experience so far has shown that the therapeutic results in homeopathy vary according to the expertise of the practitioner. Therefore, if the objective is to validate the homeopathic therapeutic modality, the organizers of the trial have to pick the best possible prescribers existing in the field. (I am not aware of any trial where this was NOT done!)

Only when these points are transposed and put into practice, the trials will be respected and accepted by both homoeopathic practitioners and conventional medicine and can be eligible for meta-analysis.

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I suspect what the ‘GREAT VITHOULKAS’ really wanted to express are ‘THE TWO ESSENTIAL PRINCIPLES OF HOMEOPATHY RESEARCH’:

  1. A well-designed study of homeopathy can always be recognised by its positive result.
  2. Any trial that fails to yield a positive finding is, by definition, wrongly designed.

A team from Israel conducted a pragmatic trial to evaluate the impact of So-called Alternative Medicine (SCAM) treatments on postoperative symptoms. Patients ≥ 18 years referred to SCAM treatments by surgical medical staff were allocated to standard of care with SCAM treatment (SCAM group) or without SCAM. Referral criteria were patient preference and practitioner availability. SCAM treatments included Acupuncture, Reflexology, or Guided Imagery. The primary outcome variable was the change from baseline in symptom severity, measured by Visual Analogue Scale (VAS).

A total of 1127 patients were enrolled, 916 undergoing 1214 SCAM treatments and 211 controls. Socio-demographic characteristics were similar in both groups. Patients in the SCAM group had more severe baseline symptoms. Symptom reduction was greater in the SCAM group compared with controls. No significant adverse events were reported with any of the CAM therapies.

The authors concluded that SCAM treatments provide additional relief to Standard Of Care (SOC) for perioperative symptoms. Larger randomized control trial studies with longer follow-ups are needed to confirm these benefits.

Imagine a situation where postoperative patients are being asked “do you want merely our standard care or do you prefer having a lot of extra care, fuss and attention? Few would opt for the former – perhaps just 211 out of a total of 1127, as in the trial above. Now imagine being one of those patients receiving a lot of extra care and attention; would you not feel better, and would your symptoms not improve faster?

I am sure you have long guessed where I am heading. The infamous A+B versus B design has been discussed often enough on this blog. Researchers using it can be certain that they will generate a positive result for their beloved SCAM – even if the SCAM itself is utterly ineffective. The extra care and attention plus the raised expectation will do the trick. If the researchers want to make extra sure that their bogus treatments come out of this study smelling of roses, they can – like our Israeli investigators – omit to randomise patients to the two groups and let them chose according to their preference.

To cut a long story short: this study had zero chance to yield a negative result.

  • As such it was not a test but a promotion of SCAM.
  • As such it was not science but pseudo science.
  • As such it was not ethical but unethical.

WHEN WILL WE FINALLY STOP PUBLISHING SUCH MISLEADING NONSENSE?

Tian Jiu (TJ) therapy is a so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that has been widely utilized in the management of allergic rhinitis (AR). TJ is also known as “drug moxibustion” or “vesiculating moxibustion.” Herbal patches are applied on the selected acupoints or the diseased body part. In TCM, this treatment is said to regulate the functions of meridians and zang-fu organs, warm the channels, disperse coldness, invigorate qi movement, harmonize nutrient absorption and defence mechanisms, and resolve stagnation in the body and stasis of the blood.

But does it work? This single-blinded, three-arm, randomized controlled study evaluated the efficacy of TJ therapy in AR. A total of 138 AR patients were enrolled. The TJ group and placebo group both received 4-weeks of treatment with either TJ or placebo patches for 2 hours. The patches were applied to Dazhui (GV 14), bilateral Feishu (UB 13), and bilateral Shenshu (UB 23) points. Patients received one session per week and then underwent a 4-week follow-up. The waitlist group received no treatment during the corresponding treatment period, but would be given compensatory TJ treatment in the next 4 weeks.

The primary outcome was the change of the Total Nasal Symptom Score (TNSS) after treatment. The secondary outcomes included the changes of Rhinoconjunctivitis Quality of Life Questionnaire (RQLQ) and rescue medication score (RMS).

After the treatment period, the total TNSS in TJ group was significantly reduced compared with baseline, but showed no statistical difference compared with placebo. Among the four domains of TNSS, the change of nasal obstruction exhibited statistical difference compared with placebo group. The total RQLQ score in TJ group was significantly reduced compared with both placebo and waitlist groups. The needs of rescue medications were not different between the two groups.

There were no serious adverse events. The common adverse events included flush, pruritus, blister, and pigmentation, occurring in 17, 23, 3, and 36 person-times among TJ group, and 3, 7, 1, and 4 person-times among placebo group, respectively. These adverse events were generally tolerated and disappeared quickly after removing the patches.

The authors (from the Hong Kong Chinese Medicine Clinical Study Centre, School of Chinese Medicine, Hong Kong Baptist University) concluded that this randomized, single-blinded, controlled trial served primary evidence of the efficacy and safety of TJ therapy on AR in Hong Kong. This pilot study provided a fundamental TJ protocol for future research. Through adjusting treatment timing, frequency, retention time, and even body response settings, it has the potential to develop into an optimal therapeutic method for future application.

The authors of this poorly written paper seem to ignore their own findings by concluding as they do. The fact is that the primary endpoint of this trial failed to show a significant difference between TJ and placebo. Moreover, TJ does have considerable adverse effects. Therefore, this study  fails to demonstrate both the effectiveness and the safety of TJ as a treatment of AR.

PS

I often hesitate whether or not to discuss the plethora such frightfully incompetent research. The reason I sometimes do it is to alert the public to the fact that so much utter rubbish is published by incompetent researchers in trashy (but Medline-listed) journals, passed by incompetent ethics committees, supported by naïve funding agencies, accepted by reviewers and editors who evidently do not do their job properly. Do all these people have forgotten that they have a responsibility towards the public?

It is time to stop this nonsense!

It gives a bad name to science, misleads the public and inhibits progress.

I have become used to lamentably poor research in the realm of SCAM, particularly homeopathy. Thus, there is little that can amaze me these days; at least this is what I had thought. But this paper is an exception. The new trial is entitled ‘ETHICAL CLINICAL TRIAL OF LESSER KNOWN HOMEOPATHIC REMEDIES IN INFERTILITY IN FEMALES’, and it is truly outstanding. Here is the abstract:

Background & Objective:  Homoeopathy with time honoured results, has a great number of cured cases of infertility, but without much evidence. So, it is imperative to show scientifically the scope of homoeopathy in treating infertility cases. Materials and Methodology: 7 lesser known medicines (Alteris farinosa, Janosia Ashoka, Viburnum opulus, Euphonium, Ustilago, Bacillus sycocuss, Bacillus morgan) were prescribed to the sample size (n=23), at the project site O.P.D/I.P.D. of Homoeopathy university, Saipura, Jaipur and Dr Madan Pratap Khunteta Homoeopathic Medical College, Hospital & Research Centre, Station Road, Jaipur & its extension O.P.D.’s. for study within 12 months. Result-In the present study 7 (30.43%) patients were prescribed Janosia Ashoka amongst whom 2(28.57%) showed marked improvement, while 5(71.43%) remained in the state of status quo. Conclusion- Study has shown encouraging and effective treatment in infertility in females.

It does not tell us much; therefore, let me copy several crucial passages from the paper itself:

Objectives of the study-

  • To study the efficacy of homoeopathic medicines in the treatment of infertility in females.
  • To enhance the knowledge of materia medica in cases of infertility in females.

Material and Methodology-

The study was conducted at O.P.D./I.P.D.of Homoeopathy University, Saipura, Sanganer and Dr M.P.K. Homoeopathic Medical College &Research Centre, Station Road, Jaipur from 2010 to 2013 for a total period of 3 Years. A sample size of n=23 and 7 lesser known remedies were selected for the studies.

Result-

Inferences- Based on clinical symptoms and pathological investigations. It was inferred that out of 23 patients taken for study, 2 (8.69%) patients showed marked improvement, while 21 (91.31%) patients remained in the state of status quo.

_________________________________________________

No, I am not kidding you. There is no further relevant information about the trial methodology nor about the results. Therefore, I feel unable to even criticise this study; it is even too awful for a critique.

As I said: outstanding!

And all this could be quite funny – except, of course, some nutter will undoubtedly use this paper for claiming that there is evidence for homeopathy to efficiently treat female infertility.

You have to be a homeopath to call this an ethical trial!

Many cancer patients use so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). On this blog, we have repeatedly discussed whether this does more good than harm. This study sheds new light on the question. Specifically, it aims to explore the benefits of TCM therapy in the long-term survival of patients with hepatocellular carcinoma in China.

In total, 3483 patients with HCC admitted to the Beijing Ditan Hospital of Capital Medical University were enrolled. The researchers used 1:1 frequency matching by sex, age, diagnosis time, Barcelona Clinic Liver Cancer staging, and type of treatments to compare the TCM users (n = 526) and non-TCM users (n = 526). A Cox multivariate regression model was employed to evaluate the effects of TCM therapy on the HR value and Kaplan-Meier survival curve for mortality risk in HCC patients. A log-rank test was performed to analyse the effect of TCM therapy on the survival time of HCC patients.

The Cox multivariate analysis indicated that TCM therapy was an independent protective factor for 5-year survival in patients with HCC. The Kaplan-Meier curve also showed that after PS matching, TCM users had a higher overall survival rate and a higher progression-free survival rate than non-TCM users. TCM users, regardless of the classification of etiology, tumor stage, liver function level, or type of treatment, all benefited significantly from TCM therapy. The most commonly used Chinese patent medications used were Fufang Banmao Capsule, Huaier Granule, and Jinlong Capsule.

The authors concluded that using traditional Chinese medications as adjuvant therapy can probably prolong median survival time and improve the overall survival among patients with HCC. Further scientific studies and clinical trials are needed to examine the efficiency and safety.

I was unable to access the full article and therefore am unable to provide a detailed critique of it. From reading the abstract, I should point out, however, that this was not an RCT. To minimise bias, the researchers used a matching technique to generate two comparable groups. Such methods can be successful in matching for the named parameters, but they cannot match for the plethora of variables that might be relevant but were not measured. Therefore, the survival difference between the two groups might be due not to the therapies they received, but to the fact that the groups were not comparable in terms of factors that impact on survival.

Another important point about this paper is the obvious fact that it originates from China. We know from several independent investigations that such studies almost never report negative findings. We also know that TCM is a hugely important export item for China. Adding two and two together should therefore make us sceptical. I for one take the present findings with more than a pinch of salt.

Glucosamine supplements are often advocated for the treatment of osteoarthritis. But there is evidence that they might convey other benefits as well. This prospective observational study assessed the association of habitual glucosamine use with risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) events. The UK Biobank data of 466 039 participants without CVD at baseline was used. They completed a questionnaire on supplement use, which included glucosamine. These participants were enrolled from 2006 to 2010 and were followed up to 2016. The main outcome measures were incident CVD events, including CVD death, coronary heart disease, and stroke.

During a median follow-up of seven years, there were 10 204 incident CVD events, 3060 CVD deaths, 5745 coronary heart disease events, and 3263 stroke events. After adjustment for age, sex, body mass index, race, lifestyle factors, dietary intakes, drug use, and other supplement use, glucosamine use was associated with a significantly lower risk of total CVD events (hazard ratio 0.85, 95% confidence interval 0.80 to 0.90), CVD death (0.78, 0.70 to 0.87), coronary heart disease (0.82, 0.76 to 0.88), and stroke (0.91, 0.83 to 1.00).

The authors concluded that habitual use of glucosamine supplement to relieve osteoarthritis pain might also be related to lower risks of CVD events.

This is an impressive study! It incorporates both a huge sample size and a long observation period. Moreover, the authors analysed the data expertly and interpreted their results with the necessary caution.

The association between glucosamine intake and CVD risk were independent of CVD risk factors, such as gender, age, income, body mass index, physical activity, healthy diet, alcohol intake, smoking status, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, arthritis, drug use, and other supplement use. Moreover, the findings are in line with several previous studies that show inverse associations of glucosamine use with CVD risk and mortality. And finally, the authors discuss several biologically plausible mechanisms that could explain the observed findings.

Yet, it is conceivable that the association is not of a causal nature. There might be a host of confounders responsible for the finding. Therefore, before we now all rush to the next health-food store to buy glucosamine supplements – they are not all that cheap! – we should perhaps wait for further independent replications and research.

Radix Salviae Miltiorrhizae (Danshen) is a herbal remedy that is part of many TCM herbal mixtures. Allegedly, Danshen has been used in clinical practice for over 2000 years.

But is it effective?

The aim of this systematic review was to evaluate the current available evidence of Danshen for the treatment of cancer. English and Chinese electronic databases were searched from PubMed, the Cochrane Library, EMBASE, and the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), VIP database, Wanfang database until September 2018. The methodological quality of the included studies was evaluated by using the method of Cochrane system.

Thirteen RCTs with 1045 participants were identified. The studies investigated the lung cancer (n = 5), leukemia (n = 3), liver cancer (n = 3), breast or colon cancer (n = 1), and gastric cancer (n = 1). A total of 83 traditional Chinese medicines were used in all prescriptions and there were three different dosage forms. The meta-analysis suggested that Danshen formulae had a significant effect on RR (response rate) (OR 2.38, 95% CI 1.66-3.42), 1-year survival (OR 1.70 95% CI 1.22-2.36), 3-year survival (OR 2.78, 95% CI 1.62-4.78), and 5-year survival (OR 8.45, 95% CI 2.53-28.27).

The authors concluded that the current research results showed that Danshen formulae combined with chemotherapy for cancer treatment was better than conventional drug treatment plan alone.

I am getting a little tired of discussing systematic reviews of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that are little more than promotion, free of good science. But, because such articles do seriously endanger the life of many patients, I do nevertheless succumb occasionally. So here are a few points to explain why the conclusions of the Chinese authors are nonsense:

  • Even though the authors claim the trials included in their review were of high quality, most were, in fact, flimsy.
  • The trials used no less than 83 different herbal mixtures of dubious quality containing Danshen. It is therefore not possible to define which mixture worked and which did not.
  • There is no detailed discussion of the adverse effects and no mention of possible herb-drug interactions.
  • There seemed to be a sizable publication bias hidden in the data.
  • All the eligible studies were conducted in China, and we know that such trials are unreliable to say the least.
  • Only four articles were published in English which means those of us who cannot read Chinese are unable to check the correctness of the data extraction of the review authors.

I know it sounds terribly chauvinistic, but I do truly believe that we should simply ignore Chinese articles, if they have defects that set our alarm bells ringing – if not, we are likely to do a significant disservice to healthcare and progress.

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