It is hard to deny that many practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) advise their patients to avoid ‘dangerous chemicals’. By this they usually mean prescription drugs. If you doubt how strong this sentiment often is, you have not followed the recent posts and the comments that regularly followed. Frequently, SCAM practitioners will suggest to their patients to not take this or that drug and predict that patients would then see for themselves how much better they feel (usually, they also administer their SCAM at this point).
Lo and behold, many patients do indeed feel better after discontinuing their ‘chemical’ medicines. Of course, this experience is subsequently interpreted as a proof that the drugs were dangerous: “I told you so, you are much better off not taking synthetic medicines; best to use the natural treatments I am offering.”
But is this always interpretation correct?
I seriously doubt it.
Let’s look at a common scenario: a middle-aged man on several medications for reducing his cardiovascular risk (no, it’s not me). He has been diagnosed to have multiple cardiovascular risk factors. Initially, his GP told him to change his life-style, nutrition and physical activity – to which he was only moderately compliant. Despite the patient feeling perfectly healthy, his blood pressure and lipids remained elevated. His doctor now strongly recommends drug treatment and our chap soon finds himself on statins, beta-blockers plus ACE-inhibitors.
Our previously healthy man has thus been turned into a patient with all sorts of symptoms. His persistent cough prompts his GP to change the ACE-inhibitor to a Ca-channel blocker. Now the patients cough is gone, but he notices ankle oedema and does not feel in top form. His GP said that this is nothing to worry about and asks him to grin and bear it. But the fact is that a previously healthy man has been turned into a patient with reduced quality of life (QoL).
This fact takes our man to a homeopath in the hope to restore his QoL (you see, it certainly isn’t me). The homeopath proceeds as outlined above: he explains that drugs are dangerous chemicals and should therefore best be dropped. The homeopath also prescribes homeopathics and is confident that they will control the blood pressure adequately. Our man complies. After just a few days, he feels miles better, his QoL is back, and even his sex-life improves. The homeopath is triumphant: “I told you so, homeopathy works and those drugs were really nasty stuff.”
When I was a junior doctor working in a homeopathic hospital, my boss explained to me that much of the often considerable success of our treatments was to get rid of most, if not all prescription drugs that our patients were taking (the full story can be found here). At the time, and for many years to come, this made a profound impression on me and my clinical practice. As a scientist, however, I have to critically evaluate this strategy and ask: is it the correct one?
The answer is YES and NO.
YES, many (bad) doctors over-prescribe. And there is not a shadow of a doubt that unnecessary drugs must be scrapped. But what is unnecessary? Is it every drug that makes a patient less well than he was before?
NO, treatments that are needed should not be scrapped, even if this would make the patient feel better. Where possible, they might be altered such that side-effects disappear or become minimal. Patients’ QoL is important, but it is not the only factor of importance. I am sure this must sound ridiculous to lay people who, at this stage of the discussion, would often quote the ethical imperative of FIRST DO NO HARM.
So, let me use an extreme example to explain this a bit better. Imagine a cancer patient on chemo. She is quite ill with it and QoL is a thing of the past. Her homeopath tells her to scrap the chemo and promises she will almost instantly feel fine again. With some side-effect-free homeopathy see will beat the cancer just as well (please, don’t tell me they don’t do that, because they do!). She follows the advice, feels much improved for several months. Alas, her condition then deteriorates, and a year later she is dead.
I know, this is an extreme example; therefore, let’s return to our cardiovascular patient from above. He too followed the advice of his homeopath and is happy like a lark for several years … until, 5 years after discontinuing the ‘nasty chemicals’, he drops dead with a massive myocardial infarction at the age of 62.
I hope I made my message clear: those SCAM providers who advise discontinuing prescribed drugs are often impressively successful in improving QoL and their patients love them for it. But many of these practitioners haven’t got a clue about real medicine, and are merely playing dirty tricks on their patients. The advise to stop a prescribed drug can be a very wise move. But frequently, it improves the quality, while reducing the quantity of life!
The lesson is simple: find a rational doctor who knows the difference between over-prescribing and evidence-based medicine. And make sure you start running when a SCAM provider tries to meddle with necessary prescribed drugs.
Apparently, Hahnemann gave a lecture on the subject of veterinary homeopathy in the mid-1810s. Ever since, homeopathy has been used for treating animals. Von Boennighausen was one of the first influential proponents of veterinary homeopathy. However, veterinary medical schools tended to reject homoeopathy, and the number of veterinary homeopaths remained small. In the 1920ies, veterinary homoeopathy was revived in Germany. Members of the “Studiengemeinschaft für tierärztliche Homöopathie” (Study Group for Veterinary Homoeopathy) which was founded in 1936 started to investigate this approach systematically.
Today, veterinary homeopathy is still popular in some countries. Prince Charles has become a prominent advocate who claims to treat his own life stock with homeopathy. In many countries, veterinary homeopaths have their own professional organisations. Elsewhere, however, veterinarians are banned from practicing homeopathy. In the UK, only veterinarians are allowed to use homeopathy on animals (but anyone regardless of background can use it on human patients) and there is a British Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy. In the US, homeopathic vets are organised in the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy.
If this sounds promising, we should not forget that, as discussed so often on this blog, homeopathy lacks plausibility the evidence for veterinary homeopathy fails to be positive (see for instance here). But, hold on, there is a new study, perhaps it will change everything?
This ‘study‘ was aimed at providing an initial insight into the existing prerequisites on dairy farms for the use of homeopathy (i.e. the consideration of homeopathic principles) and on homeopathic treatment procedures (including anamnesis, clinical examination, diagnosis, selection of a remedy, follow-up checks, and documentation) on 64 dairy farms in France, Germany and Spain.
The use of homeopathy was assessed via a standardised questionnaire during face-to-face interviews. The results revealed that homeopathic treatment procedures were applied very heterogeneously and differed considerably between farms and countries. Farmers also use human products without veterinary prescription as well as other prohibited substances.
The authors of this ‘study’ concluded that the subjective treatment approach using the farmers’ own criteria, together with their neglecting to check the outcome of the treatment and the lack of appropriate documentation is presumed to substantially reduce the potential for a successful recovery of the animals from diseases. There is, thus, a need to verify the effectiveness of homeopathic treatments in farm practices based on a lege artis treatment procedure and homeopathic principles which can be achieved by the regular monitoring of treatment outcomes and the prevailing rate of the disease at herd level. Furthermore, there is a potential risk to food safety due to the use of non-veterinary drugs without veterinary prescription and the use of other prohibited substances.
So did this ‘study’ change the evidence on veterinary homeopathy?
This ‘study’ is hardly worth the paper it is printed on.
Who conceives such nonsense?
And who finances such an investigation?
The answer to the latter question is one of the few provided by the authors: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under Grant Agreement No 311824 (IMPRO).
Time for a constructive suggestion! Could the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme with their next research project in veterinary homeopathy please evaluate the question why farmers in the EU are allowed to use disproven therapies on defenceless animals?
As most of us know, the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) can be problematic; its use in children is often most problematic:
- There are hardly any SCAMs that have been shown to work for paediatric conditions.
- Most SCAMs can cause considerable harm to children.
- Some might even amount to child abuse.
- Most SCAM practitioners lack adequate training to treat children.
- Many SCAM providers offer dangerous advice to parents.
- Parents are sometimes unable to differentiate between nonsense and medicine.
- Informed consent can present a trick subject when treating children.
In this context, the statement from the ‘Spanish Association Of Paediatrics Medicines Committee’ is of particular value and importance:
Currently, there are some therapies that are being practiced without adjusting to the available scientific evidence. The terminology is confusing, encompassing terms such as “alternative medicine”, “natural medicine”, “complementary medicine”, “pseudoscience” or “pseudo-therapies”. The Medicines Committee of the Spanish Association of Paediatrics considers that no health professional should recommend treatments not supported by scientific evidence. Also, diagnostic and therapeutic actions should be always based on protocols and clinical practice guidelines. Health authorities and judicial system should regulate and regularize the use of alternative medicines in children, warning parents and prescribers of possible sanctions in those cases in which the clinical evolution is not satisfactory, as well responsibilities are required for the practice of traditional medicine, for health professionals who act without complying with the “lex artis ad hoc”, and for the parents who do not fulfill their duties of custody and protection. In addition, it considers that, as already has happened, Professional Associations should also sanction, or at least reprobate or correct, those health professionals who, under a scientific recognition obtained by a university degree, promote the use of therapies far from the scientific method and current evidence, especially in those cases in which it is recommended to replace conventional treatment with pseudo-therapy, and in any case if said substitution leads to a clinical worsening that could have been avoided.
Of course, not all SCAM professions focus on children. The following, however, treat children regularly:
- anthroposophical doctors
- craniosacral therapists
- energy healers
I believe that all SCAM providers who treat children should consider the above statement very carefully. They must ask themselves whether there is good evidence that their treatments generate more good than harm for their patients. If the answer is not positive, they should stop. If they don’t, they should realise that they behave unethically and quite possibly even illegally.
Treating children is an important income stream for chiropractors and osteopaths. There is plenty of evidence to suspect that their spinal manipulations generate more harm than good; on this blog, we have discussed this problem more often than I care to remember (see for instance here, here, here, here and here). Yet, osteopaths and chiropractors carry on misleading parents to abuse their children with ineffective and dangerous spinal manipulations. A new and thorough assessment of the evidence seems to confirm this suspicion.
This systematic review evaluated the evidence for effectiveness and harms of specific SMT techniques for infants, children and adolescents. Controlled studies, describing primary SMT treatment in infants (<1 year) and children/adolescents (1-18 years), were included to determine effectiveness.
Of the 1,236 identified studies, 26 studies were eligible. Infants and children/adolescents were treated for various (non-)musculoskeletal indications, hypothesized to be related to spinal joint dysfunction. Studies examining the same population, indication and treatment comparison were scarce. The results showed that:
- Due to very low quality evidence, it is uncertain whether gentle, low-velocity mobilizations reduce complaints in infants with colic or torticollis, and whether high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulations reduce complaints in children/adolescents with autism, asthma, nocturnal enuresis, headache or idiopathic scoliosis.
- Five case reports described severe harms after HVLA manipulations in 4 infants and one child. Mild, transient harms were reported after gentle spinal mobilizations in infants and children, and could be interpreted as side effect of treatment.
The authors concluded that due to very low quality of the evidence, the effectiveness of gentle, low-velocity mobilizations in infants and HVLA manipulations in children and/or adolescents is uncertain. Assessments of intermediate outcomes are lacking in current pediatric SMT research. Therefore, the relationship between specific treatment and its effect on the hypothesized spinal dysfunction remains unclear. Gentle, low-velocity spinal mobilizations seem to be a safe treatment technique. Although scarcely reported, HVLA manipulations in infants and young children could lead to severe harms. Severe harms were likely to be associated with unexamined or missed underlying medical pathology. Nevertheless, there is a need for high quality research to increase certainty about effectiveness and safety of specific SMT techniques in infants, children and adolescents. We encourage conduction of controlled studies that focus on the effectiveness of specific SMT techniques on spinal dysfunction, instead of concluding about SMT as a general treatment approach. Large observational studies could be conducted to monitor the course of complaints/symptoms in children and to gain a greater understanding of potential harms.
The situation regarding spinal manipulation for children might be summarised as follows:
- Spinal manipulations are not demonstrably effective for paediatric conditions.
- They can cause serious direct and indirect harm.
- Chiropractors and osteopaths are not usually competent to treat children.
- They nevertheless treat children regularly.
In my view, this is unethical and can amount to child abuse.
This press-release caught my attention:
Following the publication in Australia earlier this year of a video showing a chiropractor treating a baby, the Health Minster for the state of Victoria called for the prohibition of chiropractic spinal manipulation for children under the age of 12 years. As a result, an independent panel has been appointed by Safer Care Victoria to examine the evidence and provide recommendations for the chiropractic care of children.
The role of the panel is to (a) examine and assess the available evidence, including information from consumers, providers, and other stakeholders, for the use of spinal manipulation by chiropractors on children less than 12 years of age and (b) provide recommendations regarding this practice to the Victorian Minister for Health.
Members of the public and key stakeholders, including the WFC’s member for Australia, the Australia Chiropractors Association (AusCA), were invited to submit observations. The AusCA’s submission can be read here…
This submission turns out to be lengthy and full of irrelevant platitudes, repetitions and nonsense. In fact, it is hard to find in it any definitive statements at all. Here are two sections (both in bold print) which I found noteworthy:
1. There is no need to restrict parental or patient choice for chiropractic care for children under 12 years of age as there is no evidence of harm. There is however, expressed outcome of benefit by parents70 who actively choose chiropractic care for their children …
No evidence of harm? Really! This is an outright lie. Firstly, one has to stress that there is no monitoring system and that therefore we simply do not learn about adverse effects. Secondly, there is no reason to assume that the adverse effects that have been reported in adults are not also relevant for children. Thirdly, adverse effects in children have been reported; see for instance here. Fourthly, we need to be aware of the fact that any ineffective therapy causes harm by preventing effective therapies from being applied. And fifthly, we need to remember that some chiropractors harm children by advising their parents against vaccination.
2. Three recent systematic reviews have focused on the effectiveness of manual therapy for paediatric conditions. For example, Lanaro et al. assessed osteopathic manipulative treatment for use on preterm infants. This systematic review looked at five clinical trials and found a reduction of length of stay and costs in a large population of preterm infants with no adverse events (96).
Carnes et al.’s 2018 systematic review focused on unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants following any type of manual therapy. Of the seven clinical trials included, five involved chiropractic manipulative therapy; however, meta-analyses of outcomes were not possible due to the heterogeneity of the clinical trials. The review also analysed an additional 12 observational studies: seven case series, three cohort studies, one service evaluation survey, and one qualitative study. Overall, the systematic review concluded that small benefits were found. Additionally, the reporting of adverse events was low. Interestingly, when a relative risk analysis was done, those who had manual therapy were found to have an 88% reduced risk of having an adverse event compared to those who did not have manual therapy (97).
A third systematic review by Parnell Prevost et al. in 2019 evaluated the effectiveness of any paediatric condition following manual therapy of any type and summarizes the findings of studies of children 18 years of age or younger, as well as all adverse event information. While mostly inconclusive data were found due to lack of high-quality studies, of the 32 clinical trials and 18 observational studies included, favourable outcomes were found for all age groups, including improvements in suboptimal breastfeeding and musculoskeletal conditions. Adverse events were mentioned in only 24 of the included studies with no serious adverse events reported in them (98).
(96) Lanaro D, Ruffini N, Manzotti A, Lista G. Osteopathic manipulative treatment showed reduction of length of stay and costs in preterm infants: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2017; 96(12):e6408 10.1097/MD.0000000000006408.
(97) Carnes D, Plunkett A, Ellwood J, Miles C. Manual therapy for unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants: a systematic review and meta-analyses. BMJ Open 2018;8:e019040. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019040.
(98) Parnell Prevost et al. 2019.
And here are my comments:
(96) Lanaro et al is about osteopathy, not chiropractic (4 of the 5 primary trials were by the same research group).
(97) The review by Carnes et al has been discussed previously on this blog. This is what I wrote about it at the time:
The authors concluded that some small benefits were found, but whether these are meaningful to parents remains unclear as does the mechanisms of action. Manual therapy appears relatively safe.
For several reasons, I find this review, although technically sound, quite odd.
Why review uncontrolled data when RCTs are available?
How can a qualitative study be rated as high quality for assessing the effectiveness of a therapy?
How can the authors categorically conclude that there were benefits when there were only 4 RCTs of high quality?
Why do they not explain the implications of none of the RCTs being placebo-controlled?
How can anyone pool the results of all types of manual therapies which, as most of us know, are highly diverse?
How can the authors conclude about the safety of manual therapies when most trials failed to report on this issue?
Why do they not point out that this is unethical?
My greatest general concern about this review is the overt lack of critical input. A systematic review is not a means of promoting an intervention but of critically assessing its value. This void of critical thinking is palpable throughout the paper. In the discussion section, for instance, the authors state that “previous systematic reviews from 2012 and 2014 concluded there was favourable but inconclusive and weak evidence for manual therapy for infantile colic. They mention two reviews to back up this claim. They conveniently forget my own review of 2009 (the first on this subject). Why? Perhaps because it did not fit their preconceived ideas? Here is my abstract:
Some chiropractors claim that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for infant colic. This systematic review was aimed at evaluating the evidence for this claim. Four databases were searched and three randomised clinical trials met all the inclusion criteria. The totality of this evidence fails to demonstrate the effectiveness of this treatment. It is concluded that the above claim is not based on convincing data from rigorous clinical trials.
Towards the end of their paper, the authors state that “this was a comprehensive and rigorously conducted review…” I beg to differ; it turned out to be uncritical and biased, in my view. And at the very end of the article, we learn a possible reason for this phenomenon: “CM had financial support from the National Council for Osteopathic Research from crowd-funded donations.”
(98) Parnell et al was easy to find despite the incomplete reference in the submission. This paper has also been discussed previously. Here is my post on it:
This systematic review is an attempt [at] … evaluating the use of manual therapy for clinical conditions in the paediatric population, assessing the methodological quality of the studies found, and synthesizing findings based on health condition.
Of the 3563 articles identified through various literature searches, 165 full articles were screened, and 50 studies (32 RCTs and 18 observational studies) met the inclusion criteria. Only 18 studies were judged to be of high quality. Conditions evaluated were:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
- cerebral palsy,
- cranial asymmetry,
- cuboid syndrome,
- infantile colic,
- low back pain,
- obstructive apnoea,
- otitis media,
- paediatric dysfunctional voiding,
- paediatric nocturnal enuresis,
- postural asymmetry,
- preterm infants,
- pulled elbow,
- suboptimal infant breastfeeding,
- suboptimal infant breastfeeding,
- temporomandibular dysfunction,
- upper cervical dysfunction.
Musculoskeletal conditions, including low back pain and headache, were evaluated in seven studies. Only 20 studies reported adverse events.
The authors concluded that fifty studies investigated the clinical effects of manual therapies for a wide variety of pediatric conditions. Moderate-positive overall assessment was found for 3 conditions: low back pain, pulled elbow, and premature infants. Inconclusive unfavorable outcomes were found for 2 conditions: scoliosis (OMT) and torticollis (MT). All other condition’s overall assessments were either inconclusive favorable or unclear. Adverse events were uncommonly reported. More robust clinical trials in this area of healthcare are needed.
There are many things that I find remarkable about this review:
- The list of indications for which studies have been published confirms the notion that manual therapists – especially chiropractors – regard their approach as a panacea.
- A systematic review evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy that includes observational studies without a control group is, in my view, highly suspect.
- Many of the RCTs included in the review are meaningless; for instance, if a trial compares the effectiveness of two different manual therapies none of which has been shown to work, it cannot generate a meaningful result.
- Again, we find that the majority of trialists fail to report adverse effects. This is unethical to a degree that I lose faith in such studies altogether.
- Only three conditions are, according to the authors, based on evidence. This is hardly enough to sustain an entire speciality of paediatric chiropractors.
Allow me to have a closer look at these three conditions.
- Low back pain: the verdict ‘moderate positive’ is based on two RCTs and two observational studies. The latter are irrelevant for evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy. One of the two RCTs should have been excluded because the age of the patients exceeded the age range named by the authors as an inclusion criterion. This leaves us with one single ‘medium quality’ RCT that included a mere 35 patients. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
- Pulled elbow: here the verdict is based on one RCT that compared two different approaches of unknown value. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
- Preterm: Here we have 4 RCTs; one was a mere pilot study of craniosacral therapy following the infamous A+B vs B design. The other three RCTs were all from the same Italian research group; their findings have never been independently replicated. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
So, what can be concluded from this?
I would say that there is no good evidence for chiropractic, osteopathic or other manual treatments for children suffering from any condition.
The ACA’s submission ends with the following conclusion:
The Australian Chiropractors Association (ACA) intent is to improve the general health of all Australians and the ACA supports the following attributes to achieve this:
- The highest standards of ethics and conduct in all areas of research, education and practise
- Chiropractors as the leaders in high quality spinal health and wellbeing
- A commitment to evidence-based practice – the integration of best available research evidence, clinical expertise and patient values
- The profound significance and value of patient-centred chiropractic care in healthcare in Australia.
- Inclusiveness and collaborative relationships within and outside the chiropractic profession…
After reading through the entire, tedious document, I arrived at the conclusion that
THIS SUBMISSION CAN ONLY BE A CALL FOR THE PROHIBITION OF CHIROPRACTIC SPINAL MANIPULATION FOR CHILDREN.
The fact that homeopathy is under siege in France, has been discussed before. Now even the international media have picked up the story. Here are some excerpts from an interesting article in Bloomberg:
… The looming brawl gets to the heart of conflicting visions of the state’s involvement in the country’s health system at a time of eroding quality and services. Jobs are also at stake: France is home to Boiron SA, the leader in a global homeopathy market estimated at more than $30 billion.
Boiron’s pills and tinctures have long coexisted with conventional care in France, prescribed by regular doctors and dispensed in almost every pharmacy. Ending public support for the remedies would discredit homeopathy and “send a shock wave” through the industry worldwide, says Boiron’s chief executive officer, Valerie Poinsot. “We’ve been caught in this storm for the past year,” Poinsot says. “Why the hostility, when we contribute to caring for patients?”
Facing a possible backlash, Boiron, based in Lyon, teamed with rivals Weleda AG of Switzerland and closely held family group Lehning to fund a campaign called MyHomeoMyChoice. The push has garnered just over 1 million signatures in an online petition and placed bright-colored posters framed with the recognizable little white pills at pharmacies across the country. “Homeopathy has treated generations of French patients,” says one slogan. “Why deprive future generations?”
For now, French people can walk into any pharmacy and buy a tube of Arnica granules — recommended for shocks and bruises — or roughly a thousand other similar remedies for 1.6 euros ($1.80) with a prescription, because the state health system shoulders about 30% of its cost. In some cases, private insurers cover the remainder and patients pay nothing. That may all soon change. A science agency is wrapping up a study of the relative benefits of alternative medicine that will inform the government’s position: Keep the funding, trim it or scrap it altogether.
If the government cuts funding, Boiron would instantly feel the pain. Poinsot estimates that sales of reimbursed treatments could plummet by 50% in France, where the company brings in almost half its revenue. The company’s stock price has lost about 13% since May 15, when a French newspaper wrote that the panel reviewing homeopathy funding would probably rule against it…
In France, the controversy first erupted last year when the influential Le Figaro newspaper published a letter from a doctor’s collective called FakeMed lambasting alternative medicines. The authors called for ending support of “irrational and dangerous” therapies with “no scientific foundation.” The ensuing debate prompted Health Minister Agnes Buzyn to place funding under review and ask the country’s High Authority for Health to rule on homeopathy’s scientific merits…
David Beausire, a doctor in palliative care at the hospital in Mont de Marsan, in southwest France, is among those who signed the FakeMed letter. Beausire, who sees many terminally ill patients, said he regularly gets people who consult too late because they first explored alternative medicine paths that include homeopathy. “I am not an extremist,” he says. But homeopathy’s reimbursement by the state health system gives it legitimacy when “there’s no proof that it works.”…
Stung by accusations of quackery, Antoine Demonceaux, a doctor and homeopath in Reims, founded a group called SafeMed last November to relay the message that homeopathy has a role to play alongside standard care. He points to the growing number of cancer centers offering consultations to relieve treatment-related symptoms, such as nausea, with homeopathic medicine. Demonceaux says neither he nor his colleagues would ever use homeopathy as a substitute for treatments intended to, say, shrink tumors. “A general practitioner or a specialist who’d claim to be a homeopath and to cure cancer with homeopathy? Just sack him,” he says. “Let’s get real. We are doctors.”
On the whole, this is a good report which – as far as I can see – describes the situation quite well and provides interesting details. What, however, with this articles and many like it is this: journalists (and others) are too often too lethargic or naïve to check the veracity of the claims that are being made during these disputes. For instance, it would not have been all that difficult to discover that:
- Hahnemann called clinicians who used homeopathy alongside conventional treatments ‘traitors‘! He categorically forbade it and denied that such an approach merits the name ‘HOMEOPATHY’. In other words, let’s get real and let’s not pull wool over the eyes of the public (and let’s be honest, it is not possible to practice homeopathy within the boundaries of medical ethics).
- Many homeopaths do advocate homeopathy as a sole treatment for cancer and other serious conditions (see for instance here, here and here).
The obvious risk of such lack of critical thinking is that homeopathy might be kept refundable on the basis of big, fat lies. And clearly, that would not be in the interest of anyone (with the exception of family Boiron, of course).
A new paper reminds us that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has been increasing in the United States and around the world, particularly at medical institutions known for providing rigorous evidence-based care. The use of SCAM may cause harm to patients through interactions with prescribed medications or by patients choosing to forego evidence-based care. SCAM may also put financial strain on patients as most SCAM expenditures are paid out-of-pocket.
Despite these drawbacks, patients continue to use SCAM due to a range of reasons, e.g. media promotion of SCAM therapies, dissatisfaction with conventional healthcare, a desire for more holistic care. Given the increasing demand for SCAM, many medical institutions now offer SCAM services. Several leaders of SCAM centres based at a highly respected academic medical institution have publicly expressed anti-vaccination views, and non-evidence-based philosophies run deep within SCAM.
Although there are financial incentives for institutions to provide SCAM, it is important to recognize that this legitimizes SCAM and may cause harm to patients. The poor regulation of SCAM allows for the continued distribution of products and services that have not been rigorously tested for safety and efficacy.
As I have tried to point out many times, the potential for harm caused by the increasing integration of SCAM can thus be summarised as follows:
- direct harm due to adverse effects such as toxicity of an herbal remedy, stroke after chiropractic manipulation, pneumothorax after acupuncture;
- direct harm through the use of bogus diagnostic techniques;
- direct harm by using materials from endangered species;
- indirect harm through incompetent advice such as recommendation not to immunize or discontinue prescribed medications;
- neglect due to using SCAM instead of an effective therapy for a serious condition;
- harm due to medicalising trivial states of reduced well-being;
- financial harm due to the costs of SCAM;
- harm through making a mockery of evidence-based medicine;
- harm caused by undermining rational thinking in the society at large;
- harm caused by inhibiting medical progress and research.
In case you see other ways in which SCAM can cause harm, please let me know by posting a comment.
One of the most difficult things in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) can be having a productive discussion with patients about the subject, particularly if they are deeply pro-SCAM. The task can get more tricky, if a patient is suffering from a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. Arguably, the discussion would become even more difficult, if the SCAM in question is relatively harmless but supported only by scarce and flimsy evidence.
An example might be the case of a cancer patient who is fond of mindfulness cognitive therapy (MBCT), a class-based program designed to prevent relapse or recurrence of major depression. To contemplate such a situation, let’s consider the following hypothetical exchange between a patient (P) and her oncologist (O).
P: I often feel quite low, do you think I need some treatment for depression?
O: That depends on whether you are truly depressed or just a bit under the weather.
P: No, I am not clinically depressed; it’s just that I am worried and sometimes see everything in black.
O: I understand, that’s not an unusual thing in your situation.
P: Someone told me about MBCT, and I wonder what you think about it.
O: Yes, I happen to know about this approach, but I’m not sure it would help you.
P: Are you sure? A few years ago, I had some MBCT; it seemed to work and, at least, it cannot do any harm.
O: Yes, that’s true; MBCT is quite safe.
P: So, why are you against it?
O: I am not against it; I just doubt that it is the best treatment for you.
O: Because there is little evidence for it and even less for someone like you.
P: But I have seen some studies that seem to show it works.
O: I know, there have been trials but they are not very reliable.
P: But the therapy has not been shown to be ineffective, has it?
O: No, but the treatment is not really for your condition.
P: So, you admit that there is some positive evidence but you are still against it because of some technicalities with the science?
O: No, I am telling you that this treatment is not supported by good evidence.
P: And therefore you want me to continue to suffer from low mood? I don’t call that very compassionate!
O: I fully understand your situation, but we ought to find the best treatment for you, not just one that you happen to be fond of.
P: I don’t understand why you are against giving MBCT a try; it’s safe, as you say, and there is some evidence for it. And I have already had a good experience with it. Is that not enough?
O: My role as your doctor is to provide you with advice about which treatments are best in your particular situation. There are options that are much better than MBCT.
P: But if I want to try it?
O: If you want to try MBCT, I cannot prevent you from doing so. I am only trying to tell you about the evidence.
P: Fine, in this case, I will give it a go.
Clearly this discussion did not go all that well. It was meant to highlight the tension between the aspirations of a patient and the hope of a responsible clinician to inform his patient about the best available evidence. Often the evidence is not in favour of SCAM. Thus there is a gap that can be difficult to breach. (Instead of using MBCT, I could, of course, have used dozens of other SCAMs like homeopathy, chiropractic, Reiki, etc.)
The pro-SCAM patient thinks that, as she previously has had a good experience with SCAM, it must be fine; at the very minimum, it should be tried again, and she wants her doctor to agree. The responsible clinician thinks that he ought to recommend a therapy that is evidence-based. The patient feels that scientific evidence tells her nothing about her experience. The clinician insists that evidence matters. The patient finds the clinician lacks compassion. The clinician feels that the most compassionate and ethical strategy is to recommend the most effective therapy.
As the discussion goes on, the gap is not closing but seems to be widening.
What can be done about it?
I wish I knew the answer!
The three-year old Noah was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, a blood cancer with a very good prognosis when treated (~85% of all children affected can be completely cured and expect to live a normal life). The child was admitted to hospital and, initially, chemotherapy was started. But the treatment was not finished, because the parents took their child home prematurely. The mother, a 22-year-old ‘holistic birth attendant’, had been against conventional treatments from the start. She nevertheless agreed to the first two rounds of chemotherapy — “because they can get a medical court order to force you to do it anyways for a child with his diagnosis”.
Noah’s parent treated their sons with a number of home remedies:
- colloidal silver,
- Reishi mushroom tea,
- Apricot seeds,
- and other forms of SCAM.
After the child had gone missing, the police issued an alert:
“On April 22, 2019 the parents failed to bring in the child to a medically necessary hospital procedure. The parents have further refused to follow up with the life saving medical care the child needs.”
In a matter of hours, the parents and their child were found. Noah was then taken from his parents and was “now being medically treated,” the sheriff’s office stated. The parents, meanwhile, were being investigated on suspicion of child neglect.
They insist that they were merely trying to give their son alternative medical care, accusing the police and medical officials of stripping them of the right to choose their own treatment plan for their son. Their supporters call the state’s decision to take custody of Noah a “medical kidnapping”. Medical kidnapping is defined as the State taking away children from their parents so that the children can receive medical or surgical care which the parents would otherwise not allow to be administered.
“We’re not trying to refuse any kind of treatment,” the parents told reporters. “They think we’re refusing treatment all around, putting him in danger, trying to kill him. But not at all. We’re trying to save him.” An organization fighting on behalf of the parents, the Florida Freedom Alliance, which also supports “vaccine freedom,” argues that the couple should be entitled to “medical freedom” and freedom from “medical kidnappings.”
Who is right and who is wrong?
Are medical kidnappings legal?
I am, of course, not sure about the legalities. But I am fairly certain about the evidence in the above case:
- Noah’s condition is treatable, and in all likelihood he would be cured, if treated according to current oncological standards. This view was also confirmed by the oncologist who is in charge of treating him in hospital.
- None of the treatments mentioned by the parents are effective. In fact, alternative cancer cures are a myth; they do not exist and they will never exist. Once a treatment shows promise, it would be scientifically investigated. And, if the results are positive, it would become mainstream quicker than I can climb a tree.
Ethically Noah’s case could not be clearer: the child’s life must be saved, whether with the support of his parents or not. However strongly parents might feel about their under-age kids’ care, they do not own their children and must not be allowed to cause them significant harm.
I stared my Exeter post in October 1993. It took the best part of a year to set up a research team, find rooms etc. So, our research began in earnest only mid 1994. From the very outset, it was clear to me that investigating the risks of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) should be our priority. The reason, I felt, was simple: SCAM was being used a million times every day; therefore it was an ethical imperative to check whether these treatments were as really safe as most people seemed to believe.
In the course of this line of investigation, we did discover many surprises (and lost many friends). One of the very first revelation was that homeopathy might not be harmless. Our initial results on this topic were published in this 1995 article. In view of the still ongoing debate about homeopathy, I’d like to re-publish the short paper here:
Homoeopathic remedies are believed by doctors and patients to be almost totally safe. Is homoeopathic advice safe, for example on the subject of immunization? In order to answer this question, a questionnaire survey was undertaken in 1995 of all 45 homoeopaths listed in the Exeter ‘yellow pages’ business directory. A total of 23 replies (51%) were received, 10 from medically qualified and 13 from non-medically qualified homoeopaths.
The homoeopaths were asked to suggest which conditions they perceived as being most responsive to homoeopathy. The three most frequently cited conditions were allergies (suggested by 10 respondents), gynaecological problems (seven) and bowel problems (five).
They were then asked to estimate the proportion of patients that were referred to them by orthodox doctors and the proportion that they referred to orthodox doctors. The mean estimated percentages were 1 % and 8%, respectively. The 23 respondents estimated that they spent a mean of 73 minutes on the first consultation.
The homoeopaths were asked whether they used or recommended orthodox immunization for children and whether they only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization. Seven of the 10 homoeopaths who were medically qualified recommended orthodox immunization but none of the 13 non-medically qualified homoeopaths did. One non-medically qualified homoeopath only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization.
Homoeopaths have been reported as being against orthodox immunization’ and advocating homoeopathic immunization for which no evidence of effectiveness exists. As yet there has been no attempt in the United Kingdom to monitor homoeopaths’ attitudes in this respect. The above findings imply that there may be a problem. The British homoeopathic doctors’ organization (the Faculty of Homoeopathy) has distanced itself from the polemic of other homoeopaths against orthodox immunization, and editorials in the British Homoeopathic Journal call the abandonment of mass immunization ‘criminally irresponsible’ and ‘most unfortunate, in that it will be seen by most people as irresponsible and poorly based’.’
Homoeopathic remedies may be safe, but do all homoeopaths merit this attribute?
This tiny and seemingly insignificant piece of research triggered debate and research (my group must have published well over 100 papers in the years that followed) that continue to the present day. The debate has spread to many other countries and now involves numerous forms of SCAM other than just homeopathy. It relates to many complex issues such as the competence of SCAM practitioners, their ethical standards, education, regulation, trustworthiness and the risk of neglect.
Looking back, it feels odd that, at least for me, all this started with such a humble investigation almost a quarter of a century ago. Looking towards the future, I predict that we have so far merely seen the tip of the iceberg. The investigation of the risks of SCAM has finally started in earnest and will, I am sure, continue thus leading to a better protection of patients and consumers from charlatans and their bogus claims.