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.
So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for animals is popular. A recent survey suggested that 76% of US dog and cat owners use some form of SCAM. Another survey showed that about one quarter of all US veterinary medical schools run educational programs in SCAM. Amazon currently offers more that 4000 books on the subject.
The range of SCAMs advocated for use in animals is huge and similar to that promoted for use in humans; the most commonly employed practices seem to include acupuncture, chiropractic, energy healing, homeopathy (as discussed in the previous post) and dietary supplements. In this article, I will briefly discuss the remaining 4 categories.
Acupuncture is the insertion of needles at acupuncture points on the skin for therapeutic purposes. Many acupuncturists claim that, because it is over 2 000 years old, acupuncture has ‘stood the test of time’ and its long history proves acupuncture’s efficacy and safety. However, a long history of usage proves very little and might even just demonstrate that acupuncture is based on the pre-scientific myths that dominated our ancient past.
There are many different forms of acupuncture. Acupuncture points can allegedly be stimulated not just by inserting needles (the most common way) but also with heat, electrical currents, ultrasound, pressure, bee-stings, injections, light, colour, etc. Then there is body acupuncture, ear acupuncture and even tongue acupuncture. Traditional Chinese acupuncture is based on the Taoist philosophy of the balance between two life-forces, ‘yin and yang’. In contrast, medical acupuncturists tend to cite neurophysiological theories as to how acupuncture might work; even though some of these may appear plausible, they nevertheless are mere theories and constitute no proof for acupuncture’s validity.
The therapeutic claims made for acupuncture are legion. According to the traditional view, acupuncture is useful for virtually every condition. According to ‘Western’ acupuncturists, acupuncture is effective mostly for chronic pain. Acupuncture has, for instance, been used to improve mobility in dogs with musculoskeletal pain, to relieve pain associated with cervical neurological disease in dogs, for respiratory resuscitation of new-born kittens, and for treatment of certain immune-mediated disorders in small animals.
While the use of acupuncture seems to gain popularity, the evidence fails to support this. Our systematic review of acupuncture (to the best of my knowledge the only one on the subject) in animals included 14 randomized controlled trials and 17 non-randomized controlled studies. The methodologic quality of these trials was variable but, on average, it was low. For cutaneous pain and diarrhoea, encouraging evidence emerged that might warrant further investigation. Single studies reported some positive inter-group differences for spinal cord injury, Cushing’s syndrome, lung function, hepatitis, and rumen acidosis. However, these trials require independent replication. We concluded that, overall, there is no compelling evidence to recommend or reject acupuncture for any condition in domestic animals. Some encouraging data do exist that warrant further investigation in independent rigorous trials.
Serious complications of acupuncture are on record and have repeatedly been discussed on this blog: acupuncture needles can, for instance, injure vital organs like the lungs or the heart, and they can introduce infections into the body, e. g. hepatitis. About 100 human fatalities after acupuncture have been reported in the medical literature – a figure which, due to lack of a monitoring system, may disclose just the tip of an iceberg. Information on adverse effects of acupuncture in animals is currently not available.
Given that there is no good evidence that acupuncture works in animals, the risk/benefit balance of acupuncture cannot be positive.
Chiropractic was created by D D Palmer (1845-1913), an American magnetic healer who, in 1895, manipulated the neck of a deaf janitor, allegedly curing his deafness. Chiropractic was initially promoted as a cure-all by Palmer who claimed that 95% of diseases were due to subluxations of spinal joints. Subluxations became the cornerstone of chiropractic ‘philosophy’, and chiropractors who adhere to Palmer’s gospel diagnose subluxation in nearly 100% of the population – even in individuals who are completely disease and symptom-free. Yet subluxations, as understood by chiropractors, do not exist.
There is no good evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulation might be effective for animals. A review of the evidence for different forms of manual therapies for managing acute or chronic pain syndromes in horses concluded that further research is needed to assess the efficacy of specific manual therapy techniques and their contribution to multimodal protocols for managing specific somatic pain conditions in horses. For other animal species or other health conditions, the evidence is even less convincing.
In humans, spinal manipulation is associated with serious complications (regularly discussed in previous posts), usually caused by neck manipulation damaging the vertebral artery resulting in a stroke and even death. Several hundred such cases have been documented in the medical literature – but, as there is no system in place to monitor such events, the true figure is almost certainly much larger. To the best of my knowledge, similar events have not been reported in animals.
Since there is no good evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulations work in animals, the risk/benefit balance of chiropractic fails to be positive.
Energy healing is an umbrella term for a range of paranormal healing practices, e. g. Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Johrei healing, faith healing. Their common denominator is the belief in an ‘energy’ that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Forms of energy healing have existed in many ancient cultures. The ‘New Age’ movement has brought about a revival of these ideas, and today ‘energy’ healing systems are amongst the most popular alternative therapies in many countries.
Energy healing relies on the esoteric belief in some form of ‘energy’ which refers to some life force such as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, or prana in Ayurvedic medicine. Some proponents employ terminology from quantum physics and other ‘cutting-edge’ science to give their treatments a scientific flair which, upon closer scrutiny, turns out to be little more than a veneer of pseudo-science.
Considering its implausibility, energy healing has attracted a surprisingly high level of research activity in the form of clinical trials on human patients. Generally speaking, the methodologically best trials of energy healing fail to demonstrate that it generates effects beyond placebo. There are few studies of energy healing in animals, and those that are available are frequently less than rigorous (see for instance here and here). Overall, there is no good evidence to suggest that ‘energy’ healing is effective in animals.
Even though energy healing is per se harmless, it can do untold damage, not least because it can lead to neglect of effective treatments and it undermines rationality in our societies. Its risk/benefit balance therefore fails to be positive.
Dietary supplements for veterinary use form a category of remedies that, in most countries, is a regulatory grey area. Supplements can contain all sorts of ingredients, from minerals and vitamins to plants and synthetic substances. Therefore, generalisations across all types of supplements are impossible. The therapeutic claims that are being made for supplements are numerous and often unsubstantiated. Although they are usually promoted as natural and safe, dietary supplements do not have necessarily either of these qualities. For example, in the following situations, supplements can be harmful:
- Combining one supplement with another supplement or with prescribed medicines
- Substituting supplements for prescription medicines
- Overdosing some supplements, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, or iron
Examples of currently most popular supplements for use in animals include chondroitin, glucosamine, probiotics, vitamins, minerals, lutein, L-carnitine, taurine, amino acids, enzymes, St John’s wort, evening primrose oil, garlic and many other herbal remedies. For many supplements taken orally, the bioavailability might be low. There is a paucity of studies testing the efficacy of dietary supplements in animals. Three recent exceptions (all of which require independent replication) are:
- A trial showing that the dietary supplementation with Maca increased sperm production in stallions.
- A study demonstrating that curcumin supplementation appeared to reduce arthritis pain in dogs.
- An investigation suggesting that royal jelly supplementation can improve the egg quality of hens.
Dietary supplements are promoted as being free of direct risks. On closer inspection, this notion turns out to be little more than an advertising slogan. As discussed repeatedly on this blog, some supplements contain toxic materials, contaminants or adulterants and thus have the potential to do harm. A report rightly concluded that many challenges stand in the way of determining whether or not animal dietary supplements are safe and at what dosage. Supplements considered safe in humans and other cross-species are not always safe in horses, dogs, and cats. An adverse event reporting system is badly needed. And finally, regulations dealing with animal dietary supplements are in disarray. Clear and precise regulations are needed to allow only safe dietary supplements on the market.
It is impossible to generalise about the risk/benefit balance of dietary supplements; however, caution is advisable.
SCAM for animals is an important subject, not least because of the current popularity of many treatments that fall under this umbrella. For most therapies, the evidence is woefully incomplete. This means that most SCAMs are unproven. Arguably, it is unethical to use unproven medicines in routine veterinary care.
I was invited several months ago to write this article for VETERINARY RECORD. It was submitted to peer review and subsequently I withdrew my submission. The above post is a slightly revised version of the original (in which I used the term ‘alternative medicine’ rather than ‘SCAM’) which also included a section on homeopathy (see my previous post). The reason for the decision to withdraw this article was the following comment by the managing editor of VETERINARY RECORD: A good number of vets use these therapies and a more balanced view that still sets out their efficacy (or otherwise) would be more useful for the readership.
Oscillococcinum is by now well-known to readers of this blog, I am sure (see for instance here, here and here). It seems an important topic, not least because the infamous duck-placebo is the world’s best-selling homeopathic remedy. Just how popular it is was recently shown in a survey by the formidable ‘Office for Science and Society’ of the McGill University in Canada.
The researchers surveyed the five biggest pharmacy chains in Quebec: Jean-Coutu, Familiprix, Uniprix, Proxim, and Pharmaprix. For each chain, a sample of 30 pharmacies was chosen by a random number generator.
The calls started with the following script: “I would like to know if you carry a certain homeopathic remedy. It’s called Oscillococcinum, it’s a homeopathic remedy against the flu made by Boiron.” If they did not have it, the investigator asked if this was something they normally carried. He spoke to either a floor clerk or a member of the pharmacy staff behind the counter, depending on who knew the answer.
Out of the 150 pharmacies on the island of Montreal that were called for this investigation, 66% of them reported carrying Oscillococcinum (30% did not, while 4% could not be reached, often because the listed pharmacy had closed). Some chains were more likely to sell the product, with Jean-Coutu and Pharmaprix being the most likely (80% of their stores had it) and Proxim being the least likely (50% of their stores carried it).
The McGill researcher stated that the fact that two-thirds of Montreal-based pharmacies will sell us a pseudo-treatment for the flu that targets adults, children and infants alike is hard to square with the Quebec Order of Pharmacists’ mission statement. They describe said mission as “ensuring the protection of the public”, but how is the public protected when pharmacies are selling them placebo pills? The harm is partly financial: 30 doses of these worthless globules retail for CAD 36. It is also in the false sense of security parents will gain and the delay in proper treatment if needed. And, ultimately, it is in the legitimization of a pseudoscience the founding principle of which is that the more you add water to something (like alcohol), the more powerful it becomes.
I can only full-heartedly agree. One might even add a few more things, for instance that there are other dangers as well:
- If pharmacists put commercial gain before medical ethics, we might find it hard to trust this profession.
- If people take Oscillococcinum and their condition subsequently disappears (because of the self-limiting nature of the disease), they might believe that homeopathy is effective and consequently use it for much more serious conditions – with grave consequences, I hasten to add.
- If consumers thus start trusting homeopaths, they might also fall for some of their abominable health advice, e. g. that about not vaccinating their children.
- If a sufficiently large percentage of people believe in the magic of shaken water, our rationality will be undermined and we will encounter phenomena like Brexit or fascists as presidents (sorry, I has to get that off my chest).
The claim that homeopathy can cure cancer is so absurd that many people seem to think no homeopaths in their right mind would make it. Sadly, this turns out to be not true. A rather dramatic example is this extraordinary book. Here is what the advertisement says:
The global medical fraternity has been exploring various alternative approaches to cancer treatment. However, this exceptional book, “Healing Cancer: A Homoeopathic Approach” by Dr Farokh J Master, does not endorse a focused methodology, but it paves the way to a holistic homoeopath’s approach. For the last 40 years, the author has been utilising this approach which is in line with the Master Hahnemann’s teachings, where he gives importance to constitution, miasms, susceptibility, and most important palliation. It is a complete handbook, a ready reference providing authentic information on every aspect of malignant diseases. It covers the cancer related topics beginning from cancer archetype, clinical information on diagnosis, prevention, conventional treatment, homoeopathic aspects, therapeutics, polycrest remedies, rare remedies, Indian remedies, wisdom from the repertory, naturopathic and dietary suggestions, Iscador therapy, and social aspects of cancer to the latest researches in the field of cancer. Given the efforts put in by the author in writing this vast book, encompassing decades of clinical experience, this is indeed a valuable addition to the homoeopathic literature. In addition to homoeopaths, this book will indeed be useful for medical doctors of other modalities of therapeutics who also wish to explore a holistic approach to cancer patients since this book is the outcome of author’s successful efforts in introducing and integrating homoeopathy to the mainstream cancer treatment.
END OF QUOTE
I do wonder what goes on in the head of a clinician who spent much of his life convincing himself and others that his placebos cure cancer and then takes it upon him to write a book about this encouraging other clinician to follow his dangerous ideas.
Is he vicious?
Is he in it for the money?
Is he stupid?
Is he really convinced?
Whatever the answer, he certainly is dangerous!
For those who do not know already: homeopathy is totally ineffective as a treatment for cancer; to think otherwise can be seriously harmful.
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.