The most frequent of all potentially serious adverse events of acupuncture is pneumothorax. It happens when an acupuncture needle penetrates the lungs which subsequently deflate. The pulmonary collapse can be partial or complete as well as one or two sided. This new case-report shows just how serious a pneumothorax can be.
A 52-year-old man underwent acupuncture and cupping treatment at an illegal Chinese medicine clinic for neck and back discomfort. Multiple 0.25 mm × 75 mm needles were utilized and the acupuncture points were located in the middle and on both sides of the upper back and the middle of the lower back. He was admitted to hospital with severe dyspnoea about 30 hours later. On admission, the patient was lucid, was gasping, had apnoea and low respiratory murmur, accompanied by some wheeze in both sides of the lungs. Because of the respiratory difficulty, the patient could hardly speak. After primary physical examination, he was suspected of having a foreign body airway obstruction. Around 30 minutes after admission, the patient suddenly became unconscious and died despite attempts of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Whole-body post-mortem computed tomography of the victim revealed the collapse of the both lungs and mediastinal compression, which were also confirmed by autopsy. More than 20 pinprick injuries were found on the skin of the upper and lower back in which multiple pinpricks were located on the body surface projection of the lungs. The cause of death was determined as acute respiratory and circulatory failure due to acupuncture-induced bilateral tension pneumothorax.
The authors caution that acupuncture-induced tension pneumothorax is rare and should be recognized by forensic pathologists. Postmortem computed tomography can be used to detect and accurately evaluate the severity of pneumothorax before autopsy and can play a supporting role in determining the cause of death.
The authors mention that pneumothorax is the most frequent but by no means the only serious complication of acupuncture. Other adverse events include:
- central nervous system injury,
- epidural haematoma,
- subarachnoid haemorrhage,
- cardiac tamponade,
- gallbladder perforation,
No other possible lung diseases that may lead to bilateral spontaneous pneumothorax were found. The needles used in the case left tiny perforations in the victim’s lungs. A small amount of air continued to slowly enter the chest cavities over a long period. The victim possibly tolerated the mild discomfort and did not pay attention when early symptoms appeared. It took 30 hours to develop into symptoms of a severe pneumothorax, and then the victim was sent to the hospital. There he was misdiagnosed, not adequately treated and thus died. I applaud the authors for nevertheless publishing this case-report.
This case occurred in China. Acupuncturists might argue that such things would not happen in Western countries where acupuncturists are fully trained and aware of the danger. They would be mistaken – and alarmingly, there is no surveillance system that could tell us how often serious complications occur.
Many people seem to be amazed at my continued activities (e. g. blog, books, lectures, interviews) aimed at telling the truth about homeopathy and other alternative modalities. They ask themselves: why does he do it? And sometimes I ask myself the same question. I certainly don’t do it because I receive any money for my work (as many of my critics have assumed in the past).
Let me briefly offer just 7 of the most obvious reasons why I feel it is important to tell the truth about homeopathy and similar treatments:
1. The truth is invaluable
I probably do not need to explain this at all. For any responsible person the truth has an intrinsic value that cannot be doubted. In our book, we conclude that “the truth-violating nature of CAM renders it immoral in both theory and practice.”
2. Untruths make a mockery of EBM
If we accept that, in the realm of alternative medicine, it is permissible to apply a different standard than in evidence-based medicine (EBM), we make a mockery of EBM. Double standards are hugely counter-productive and not in the interest of patients.
3. The truth promotes rationality
If the proponents of a modality such as homeopathy promote concepts that fly in the face of science, they undermine rational thinking. Believing in a vital force or energy is just one of many examples for this phenomenon. Undermining rationality can have negative effects far beyond healthcare and reminds me of Voltaire’s bon mot: “Those who make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
4. It is ethical
Healthcare have the ethical duty to work towards patients receiving the best treatments available. If a therapy like homeopathy fails to be demonstrably effective, it cannot possibly fall into this category. Therefore, responsible healthcare professionals must help to improve healthcare by disclosing the evidence against homeopathy.
5. It might save money
The money spent on homeopathy and other ineffective alternative treatments is considerable. Disclosing the fact that they are not effective will help stopping people to waste their money on them. Telling the truth about homeopathy and similarly ineffective therapies would therefore save funds that can be used more efficiently elsewhere.
6. It might save lives
Because they usually are free of active molecules, homeopathic remedies are often seen as a safe treatments. However, homeopathy can nevertheless harm and even kill patients, if they use it as an alternative medicines in cases of severe illness. It follows that telling the truth about homeopathy’s ineffectiveness can save lives.
7. It could counter-balance the multiple lies that are being told.
We all have seen the multitude of untruths that are being told about the value of homeopathy (if you haven’t, you ought to read SCAM). The multitude of falsehoods seriously misleads many consumers into believing that homeopathy is a valuable therapeutic option for many conditions. I feel strongly that it is my moral duty as an independent expert to counter-balance this plethora of lies in order to minimise the harm it is doing.
The ‘CANADIAN COLLEGE OF HOMEOPATHIC MEDICINE’ has posted an interesting announcement:
Homeopathic Treatment of Asthma with Homeopath Kim Elia www.wholehealthnow.com/bios/kim-elia
In asthma, bronchial narrowing results in coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and a sense of tightness in the chest. Traditional treatments, such as bronchodilator and steroidal inhalers, reasonably control the condition, but cure is elusive. Side effects and long-term use can eventually be quite damaging, including impairment of immune function and growth rate in children. Homeopathy has an excellent track record in treating this debilitating illness, and offers the hope of weaning off of traditional injurious treatments, replacing them with a far gentler and deeper-acting solution.
About Kim Elia
Students from around the world have expressed appreciation and admiration for Kim’s superb knowledge of the history of homeopathy, his deep understanding of homeopathic prescribing, and his extensive knowledge of materia medica. He is known for his dynamic and distinctive teaching methods which reflect his immense knowledge of the remedies and his genuine desire to educate everyone about this affordable and effective healing modality.
END OF QUOTE
There a few facts that the college seems to have forgotten to mention or even deliberately distorted:
- Asthma is a potentially lethal disease; each year, hundreds of patients die during acute asthma attacks.
- The condition can be controlled with conventional treatments.
- The best evidence fails to show that homeopathy is an effective treatment of asthma.
- Therefore, encouraging homeopathy as an alternative for asthma, risks the unnecessary, premature death of many patients.
And who is Kim Elia?
- Apparently, he was inspired to study homeopathy when he read Gandhi’s quote about homeopathy, “Homeopathy cures a greater percentage of cases than any other method of treatment. Homeopathy is the latest and refined method of treating patients economically and non-violently.” He has been studying homeopathy since 1987 and graduated from the New England School of Homeopathy.
- Kim is the former Director of Nutrition at Heartwood Institute, California.
- He was the Director of Fasting at Heartwood.
- Kim was a trainer at a company providing whole food nutritional supplements.
- Kim serves as CEO of WholeHealthNow, the distributors of OPUS Homeopathic Software and Books in North America.
- Kim provides and coordinates software training and support, and oversees new software development with an international team of homeopaths and software developers.
- He was inspired to create the Historic Homeopathic Timeline, and is responsible for a growing library of recorded interviews and presentations with today’s world renowned homeopaths.
- Kim was the principal instructor and developer of the four year classical homeopathy program at the Hahnemann Academy in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan.
- He is currently developing new homeopathy projects.
What the site does not reveal is his expertise in treating asthma.
The Canadian College of Homeopathic Medicine claims to be dedicated to the training of homeopaths according to the highest standard of homeopathic education, emphasizing the art and practice of homeopathy as outlined in Hahnemanns’s Organon of the Medical Art. We aim to further the field of homeopathy as a whole through the provision of quality, primary homeopathic care.
If that is what the highest standard of homeopathic education looks like, I would prefer an uneducated homeopath any time!
Twenty years ago (5 years into my post at Exeter), I published this little article (BJGP, Sept 1998). It was meant as a sort of warning – sadly, as far as I can see, it has not been heeded. Oddly, the article is unavailable on Medline, I therefore take the liberty of re-publishing it here without alterations (if I had to re-write it today, I would not change much) or comment:
Once the omnipotent heroes in white, physicians today are at risk of losing the trust of their patients. Medicine, some would say, is in a deep crisis. Shouldn’t we start to worry?
The patient-doctor relationship, it seems, is at the heart of this argument. Many patients are deeply dissatisfied with this aspect of medicine. A recent survey on patients consulting GPs and complementary practitioners in parallel and for the same problem suggested that most patients are markedly more happy with all facets of the therapeutic encounter as offered by complementary practitioners. This could explain the extraordinary rise of complementary medicine during recent years. The neglect of the doctor-patient relationship might be the gap in which complementary treatments build their nest.
Poor relationships could be due to poor communication. Many books have been written about communications skills with patients. But never mind the theory, the practice of all this may be less optimal than we care to believe. Much of this may simply relate to the usage of language. Common terms such as ‘stomach’, ‘palpitations’, ‘lungs’, for instance, are interpreted in different ways by lay and professional people. Words like ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’, and ‘irritability’ are well defined for doctors, while patients view them as more or less interchangeable. At a deeper level, communication also relates to concepts and meanings of disease and illness. For instance, the belief that a ‘blockage of the bowel’ or an ‘imbalance of life forces’ lead to disease is as prevalent with patients as it is alien to doctors. Even on the most obvious level of interaction with patients, physicians tend to fail. Doctors often express themselves unclearly about the nature, aim or treatment schedule of their prescriptions.
Patients want to be understood as whole persons. Yet modern medicine is often seen as emphazising a reductionistic and mechanistic approach, merely treating a symptom or replacing a faulty part, or treating a ‘case’ rather than an individual. In the view of some, modern medicine has become an industrial behemoth shifted from attending the sick to guarding the economic bottom line, putting itself on a collision course with personal doctoring. This has created a deeply felt need which complementary medicine is all too ready to fill. Those who claim to know the reason for a particular complaint (and therefore its ultimate cure) will succeed in satisfying this need. Modern medicine has identified the causes of many diseases while complementary medicine has promoted simplistic (and often wrong) ideas about the genesis of health and disease. The seductive message usually is as follows: treating an illness allopathically is not enough, the disease will simply re-appear in a different guise at a later stage. One has to tackle the question – why the patient has fallen ill in the first place. Cutting off the dry leaves of a plant dying of desiccation won’t help. Only attending the source of the problem, in the way complementary medicine does, by pouring water on to the suffering plant, will secure a cure. This logic is obviously lop-sided and misleading, but it creates trust because it is seen as holistic, it can be understood by even the simplest of minds, and it generates a meaning for the patient’s otherwise meaningless suffering.
Doctors, it is said, treat diseases but patients suffer from illnesses. Disease is something an organ has; illness is something an individual has. An illness has more dimensions than disease. Modern medicine has developed a clear emphasis on the physical side of disease but tends to underrate aspects like the patient’s personality, beliefs and socioeconomic environment. The body/mind dualism is (often unfairly) seen as a doctrine of mainstream medicine. Trust, it seems, will be given to those who adopt a more ‘holistic’ approach without dissecting the body from the mind and spirit.
Empathy is a much neglected aspect in today’s medicine. While it has become less and less important to doctors, it has grown more and more relevant to patients. The literature on empathy is written predominantly by nurses and psychologists. Is the medical profession about to delegate empathy to others? Does modern, scientific medicine lead us to neglect the empathic attitude towards our patients? Many of us are not even sure what empathy means and confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy with the patient can be described as a feeling of ‘I want to help you’. Empathy, on these terms, means ‘I am (or could be) you’; it is therefore some sort of an emotional resonance. Empathy has remained somewhat of a white spot on the map of medical science. We should investigate it properly. Re-integrating empathy into our daily practice can be taught and learned. This might help our patients as well as us.
Lack of time is another important cause for patients’ (and doctors’) dissatisfaction. Most patients think that their doctor does not have enough time for them. They also know from experience that complementary medicine offers more time. Consultations with complementary practitioners are appreciated, not least because they may spend one hour or so with each patient. Obviously, in mainstream medicine, we cannot create more time where there is none. But we could at least give our patients the feeling that, during the little time available, we give them all the attention they require.
Other reasons for patients’ frustration lie in the nature of modern medicine and biomedical research. Patients want certainty but statistics provides probabilities at best. Some patients may be irritated to hear of a 70% chance that a given treatment will work; or they feel uncomfortable with the notion that their cholesterol level is associated with a 60% chance of suffering a heart attack within the next decade. Many patients long for reassurance that they will be helped in their suffering. It may be ‘politically correct’ to present patients with probability frequencies of adverse effects and numbers needed to treat, but anybody who (rightly or wrongly) promises certainty will create trust and have a following.
Many patients have become wary of the fact that ‘therapy’ has become synonymous with ‘pharmacotherapy’ and that many drugs are associated with severe adverse reactions. The hope of being treated with ‘side-effect-free’ remedies is a prime motivator for turning to complementary medicine.
Complementary treatments are by no means devoid of adverse reactions, but this fact is rarely reported and therefore largely unknown to patients. Physicians are regularly attacked for being in league with the pharmaceutical industry and the establishment in general. Power and money are said to be gained at the expense of the patient’s well-being. The system almost seems to invite dishonesty. The ‘conspiracy theory’ goes as far as claiming that ‘scientific medicine is destructive, extremely costly and solves nothing. Beware of the octopus’. Spectacular cases could be cited which apparently support it. Orthodox medicine is described as trying to ‘inhibit the development of unorthodox medicine’, in order to enhance its own ‘power, status and income’. Salvation, it is claimed, comes from the alternative movement which represents ‘… the most effective assault yet on scientific biomedicine’. Whether any of this is true or not, it is perceived as the truth by many patients and amounts to a serious criticism of what is happening in mainstream medicine today.
In view of such criticism, strategies for overcoming problems and rectifying misrepresentations are necessary. Mainstream medicine might consider discovering how patients view the origin, significance, and prognosis of the disease. Furthermore, measures should be considered to improve communication with patients. A diagnosis and its treatment have to make sense to the patient as much as to the doctor – if only to enhance adherence to therapy. Both disease and illness must be understood in their socio-economic context. Important decisions, e.g. about treatments, must be based on a consensus between the patient and the doctor. Scientists must get better in promoting their own messages, which could easily be far more attractive, seductive, and convincing than those of pseudo-science.These goals are by no means easy to reach. But if we don’t try, trust and adherence will inevitably deteriorate further. I submit that today’s unprecedented popularity of complementary medicine reflects a poignant criticism of many aspects of modern medicine. We should take it seriously
The investigators wanted to find out what patient characteristics are associated with use of SCAM for cancer and what is the association of SCAM with treatment adherence and survival. They thus compared the overall survival between patients with cancer receiving conventional treatments with or without SCAM and the adherence to treatment and characteristics of patients in both groups.
Their retrospective observational study used data from the National Cancer Database on 1 901 815 patients from 1500 Commission on Cancer–accredited centers across the United States who were diagnosed with nonmetastatic breast, prostate, lung, or colorectal cancer between January 1, 2004, and December 31, 2013. Patients were matched on age, clinical group stage, Charlson-Deyo comorbidity score, insurance type, race/ethnicity, year of diagnosis, and cancer type. Overall survival, adherence to treatment, and patient characteristics were the study endpoints.
The cohort comprised 1 901 815 patients with cancer (258 patients in the SCAM group and 1 901 557 patients in the control group). In the main analyses following matching, 258 patients were in the SCAM group, and 1032 patients were in the control group. Patients who chose SCAM did not have a longer delay to initiation of conventional therapies, but had higher refusal rates of surgery, radiotherapy, and hormone therapy. Use of SCAM was associated with poorer 5-year overall survival compared with no SCAM (82.2% [95% CI, 76.0%-87.0%] vs 86.6% [95% CI, 84.0%-88.9%]; P = .001) and was independently associated with greater risk of death (hazard ratio, 2.08; 95% CI, 1.50-2.90) in a multivariate model that did not include treatment delay or refusal. However, there was no significant association between SCAM and survival once treatment delay or refusal was included in the model.
The authors concluded that patients who received CM were more likely to refuse additional CCT, and had a higher risk of death. The results suggest that mortality risk associated with CM was mediated by the refusal of CCT.
This new evidence confirms previous papers: SCAM-use is associated with shorter survival of cancer patients. As it is based on a large sample size, its results are more compelling. They indicate that it is not SCAM per se, but the attitude of SCAM-users to conventional therapies that is the cause of the effect. As I have said and written hundreds of times: the most serious risk of SCAM is not a direct but an indirect one: the risk of neglecting effective therapies. Essentially, this means that better information targeted at vulnerable patients must be the way forward (one of the main ambitions of this blog, I hasten to add).
This study examined websites of naturopathic clinics and practitioners in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, looking for the presence of discourse that may contribute to vaccine hesitancy, and for recommendations for ‘alternatives’ to vaccines or flu shots.
Of the 330 naturopath websites analysed, 40 included vaccine hesitancy discourse and 26 offered vaccine or flu shot alternatives. Using these data, the authors explored the potential impact such statements could have on the phenomenon of vaccine hesitancy.
Next the researchers considered these misrepresentations in the context of Canadian law and policy, and outlined various legal methods of addressing them. They concluded that tightening advertising law, reducing CAM practitioners’ ability to self-regulate, and improving enforcement of existing common and criminal law standards would help limit naturopaths’ ability to spread inaccurate and science-free anti-vaccination and vaccine-hesitant perspectives.
The paper listed some poignant examples of vaccine hesitancy discourse:
1) ‘…children are now being given increasing numbers of vaccinations containing potentially harmful derivatives and substances such as mercury, thimerisol [sic], aluminum and formaldehydes. These harmful derivatives can become trapped in our tissues, clogging our filters and diminishing one’s ability of further toxins out.’ — www.evolvenaturopathic.com
2) ‘Vaccines given to children and adults contain mercury and aluminum. Babies are especially susceptible to small amounts of mercury injected directly into their tiny bodies. It is now suspected that the increase in autism and Asperger Syndrome is related to the mercury in childhood vaccinations.’ — www.vancouvernaturopathicclinic.com
3) ‘The conventional Flu Shot is a mixture of 3 strains of flu viruses mixed with a number of chemical preservatives and these strains are based on a prediction of what flu viruses some medical experts think will be the most problematic this season. This is really an impossible prediction to make when we have thousands of different strains of viruses that are continuously mutating.’ — www.advancednaturopathic.com
4) ‘A [sic] epidemiologist researcher from British Columbia, Dr. Danuta Skowronski, published a study earlier this year showing that people who were vaccinated consecutively in 2012, 2013 and 2014 appeared to have a higher risk of being infected with new strains of the flu.’ — www.drtas.ca
5) ‘Increasing evidence suggests that injecting a child with nearly three dozen doses of 10 different viral and bacterial vaccines before the age of five, while the immune system is still developing, can cause chronic immune dysfunction. The most that vaccines can do is lead to an increase in antibodies to a specific disease.’ — www.evolvevitality.com
6) ‘The bugs in question (on the Canadian Vaccine List) can enter our systems and depending on our bodies, our histories, and mostly the bugs’ propensity, they can cause serious harm. There are certainly questionable ingredients in vaccines that have the potential to do the same.’ — www.tharavayali.ca
The authors also considered that, in Canada, a naturopath who recommends homeopathic vaccines or who counsels against conventional vaccination could potentially be criminally negligent. Section 219 of the Criminal Code of Canada [Code] states that ‘[e]very one is criminally negligent who, in doing anything, or in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons’. Subsection (2) goes on to state that, for the purposes of criminal negligence, ‘duty’ means a duty imposed by law; a legal duty in this context is one arising from statute or from the common law. The Code creates a legal duty for anyone ‘who undertakes to administer surgical or medical treatment to another person or to do any other lawful act that may endanger the life of another person’ to ‘have and to use reasonable knowledge, skill and care in so doing’. This duty is a uniform standard, meaning the requirement of reasonable knowledge, care, and skill is based on the treatment or lawful act in question, not on the level of experience of the person administering it. As such, naturopaths offering services similar to medical doctors will be held to the same standards under the Code.
Criminal negligence occurs due to the ‘failure to direct the mind to a risk of harm which [a] reasonable person would have appreciated’. Fault is premised on the wrongful act involved, rather than the guilty mind of the perpetrator. Naturopaths counseling patients against vaccination are arguably undertaking a lawful act that endangers the life of another person (especially in the case of a young child, elderly individual, or immunocompromised person), breaching s.216 of the Code. In addition, since relevant legal duties include those arising through the common law, naturopaths could alternatively be criminally negligent for failing to satisfy the aforementioned duty of reasonable disclosure inherent to standard of care in tort. In the context of a community with diminished vaccination rates, either failure could be considered wanton or reckless, as it may greatly and needlessly endanger the patient. However, under the standard for criminal negligence, the trier of fact must ‘assess whether the accused’s conduct, in view of his or her perception of the facts, constituted a marked and substantial departure from what would be reasonable in the circumstances’. This is similar to the standard of gross negligence, so ultimately a finding of criminal negligence would require meeting a rather onerous threshold.
This, of course, is according to Canadian law; but I imagine that the law in other countries must be similar.
Therefore, this is a legal opinion which might be worth considering also outside Canada.
If there is a legal expert amongst my readers, please do post a comment.
It has been reported that, between 1 January 2018 and 31 May 2018, there have been 587 laboratory confirmed measles cases in England. They were reported in most areas with London (213), the South East (128), West Midlands (81), South West (62), and Yorkshire/Humberside (53). Young people and adults who missed out on MMR vaccine when they were younger and some under-vaccinated communities have been particularly affected.
Public Health England (PHE) local health protection teams are working closely with the NHS and local authorities to raise awareness with health professionals and local communities. Anyone who is not sure if they are fully vaccinated should check with their GP practice who can advise them.
Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at PHE, said:
“The measles outbreaks we are currently seeing in England are linked to ongoing large outbreaks in Europe. The majority of cases we are seeing are in teenagers and young adults who missed out on their MMR vaccine when they were children. Anyone who missed out on their MMR vaccine in the past or are unsure if they had 2 doses should contact their GP practice to catch-up. This serves as an important reminder for parents to take up the offer of MMR vaccination for their children at 1 year of age and as a pre-school booster at 3 years and 4 months of age. We’d also encourage people to ensure they are up to date with their MMR vaccine before travelling to countries with ongoing measles outbreaks. The UK recently achieved WHO measles elimination status and so the overall risk of measles to the UK population is low, however, we will continue to see cases in unimmunised individuals and limited onward spread can occur in communities with low MMR coverage and in age groups with very close mixing.”
And what has this to do with alternative medicine?
More than meets the eye, I fear.
The low vaccination rates are obviously related to Wakefield’s fraudulent notions of a link between MMR-vaccinations and autism. Such notions were keenly lapped up by the SCAM-community and are still being trumpeted into the ears of parents across the UK. As I have discussed many times, lay-homeopaths are at the forefront of this anti-vaccination campaign. But sadly the phenomenon is not confined to homeopaths nor to the UK; many alternative practitioners across the globe are advising their patients against vaccinations, e. g.:
- Governments take action to prevent vaccination-rates from falling
- Use of alternative medicine is associated with low vaccination rates
- Integrative medicine physicians tend to harbour anti-vaccination views
- Vaccination: chiropractors “espouse views which aren’t evidence based”
- Faith-healing as an alternative to vaccination?
- Recommending homeoprophylaxis is unethical, irresponsible and possibly even criminal
- Chiropractors are undermining public health
- CAM use is risk factor for the failure to immunize children
- Let’s be blunt: homeopathy is bogus – but homeoprophylaxis is worse, much worse!
- Are mothers being taught by homeopaths to become anti-vaxers?
- Some naturopaths are clearly a danger to public health
Considering these facts, I wish Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at PHE, would have had the courage to add to her statement: IT IS HIGH TIME THAT ALTERNATIVE PRACTITIONERS DO MORE THAN A MEEK LIP SERVICE TO THE FACT THAT VACCINATIONS SAVE LIVES.
Our good friend Dana Ullman commented on my last post that doctors are being unethical by NOT prescribing homeopathic medicines because they are breaking one of the most important medical guidelines: “First, do no harm.” Here I do not want to discuss in-depth the nonsense about homeopathy in his sentence, rather I want to focus on the notion that doctors are obliged to foremost do no harm.
The sentence ‘first do no harm’ is supposed to originate from the Hippocratic oath which allegedly all doctors have to take when finishing medical school. This is twice wrong:
- we don’t take this oath – I have read it, and it is something utterly non-applicable to today;
- the famous sentence does not appear in the oath.
But never mind the history and all that! Doctors are nevertheless obliged to ‘first do no harm’ because it is an important principle of medical ethics.
This is also not true, I’m afraid.
If it were true, doctors would have to stop practicing much of medicine instantly. Clinicians do harm all the time. Their injections hurt, their diagnostic procedures can be unpleasant and painful, their medications cause adverse effects, their surgical interventions are full of risks, etc., etc. None of this would be remotely acceptable, if it did not also some good.
And that is why the ethical imperative of doing no harm has sensibly been changed to the imperative of doing more good than harm. Of course, doctors must be allowed to do even quite serious harm, as long as their actions can be expected to generate even more good. In more common medical terms, we speak of the risk/benefit balance of an intervention:
- if the known risks of a treatment are greater than the expected benefits, we cannot ethically prescribe it;
- if the benefits outweigh the risks, we can consider it as a reasonable option.
That is all very well, but it can only apply to treatments where both the risks and the benefits are well-understood. What about the many treatments where there is uncertainty regarding either or both of these factors? This question is impossible to answer in the abstract. We need to look at the best evidence we have for each specific case and, together with the patient, try to make an informed judgement.
Now, let’s please our good friend Dana and do such an evaluation for homeopathy, as one of many examples of an alternative therapy:
- The best evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies have any specific effects.
- As these remedies contain nothing, they also cannot cause any harm.
Therefore, one might argue that the balance of risk versus benefit might not look all that bad. Dana and his colleagues would thus feel that it ethically legitimate to routinely use homeopathy. But this line of thought would ignore an important issue: harm can be done not just by the remedy itself. The harm caused by applying an ineffective treatment for conditions that are otherwise effectively treatable (usually referred to as neglect) can be considerable, even fatal. So, for homeopathy the true situation presents itself as follows:
- no benefit beyond placebo;
- high risk of neglect.
This results in a negative risk/benefit balance which means, as outlined above, we cannot ethically use homeopathy.
… and, of course, Dana’s statement (doctors are being unethical by NOT prescribing homeopathic medicines because they are breaking one of the most important medical guidelines: “First, do no harm.” ) turns out to be wrong on several levels.