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

patient choice

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The use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are claimed to be associated with preventive health behaviors. However, the role of SCAM use in patients’ health behaviors remains unclear.

This survey aimed to determine the extent to which patients report that SCAM use motivates them to make changes to their health behaviours. For this purpose, a secondary analysis of the 2012 National Health Interview Survey data was undertaken. It involved 10,201 SCAM users living in the US who identified up to three SCAM therapies most important to their health. Analyses assessed the extent to which participants reported that their SCAM use motivated positive health behaviour changes, specifically: eating healthier, eating more organic foods, cutting back/stopping drinking alcohol, cutting back/quitting smoking cigarettes, and/or exercising more regularly.

Overall, 45.4% of SCAM users reported being motivated by SCAM to make positive health behaviour changes, including exercising more regularly (34.9%), eating healthier (31.4%), eating more organic foods (17.2%), reducing/stopping smoking (16.6% of smokers), or reducing/stopping drinking alcohol (8.7% of drinkers). Individual SCAM therapies motivated positive health behaviour changes in 22% (massage) to 81% (special diets) of users. People were more likely to report being motivated to change health behaviours if they were:

  • aged 18-64 compared to those aged over 65 years;
  • of female gender;
  • not in a relationship;
  • of Hispanic or Black ethnicity, compared to White;
  • reporting at least college education, compared to people with less than high school education;
  • without health insurance.

The authors concluded that a sizeable proportion of respondents were motivated by their SCAM use to undertake health behavior changes. CAM practices and practitioners could help improve patients’ health behavior and have potentially significant implications for public health and preventive medicine initiatives; this warrants further research attention.

This seems like an interesting finding! SCAM might be ineffective, but it motivates people to lead a healthier life. Thus SCAM has something to show for itself after all.

Great!

Except, there is another explanation of the results, one that might be much more plausible.

What if some consumers, particularly females who are well-educated and have no health insurance, one day decide that it’s time to do something for their health. Thus they initiate several things:

  • they start using SCAM;
  • they exercise more regularly;
  • they eat more healthily;
  • they consume organic food;
  • they stop smoking;
  • they stop boozing.

The motivation common to all these changes is their determination to do something about their health. Contrary to the authors’ wishful thinking, SCAM has little or even nothing to do with it. The notion was induced by SCAM practitioners who like to think that they play a role in disease prevention, by the leading questions of the interviewer, by recall bias, or by other factors..

What did the wise man say once upon a time?

CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION!

 

 

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.

It is hardly surprising that Gwyneth Paltrow’s obsession with so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for the vagina is motivating women to try some of it. The consequences can be dramatic; not only for the wallet but also for the vagina!

Vaginal steaming made global headlines in 2015 after its promotion by celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow. One of many female genital modification practices currently on offer in Anglo-Western nations – practices both heavily promoted and critiqued – vaginal steaming is claimed to offer benefits for fertility and overall reproductive, sexual or even general health and wellbeing. We analysed a selection of online accounts of vaginal steaming to determine the sociocultural assumptions and logics within such discourse, including ideas about women, women’s bodies and women’s engagement with such ‘modificatory’ practices. Ninety items were carefully selected from the main types of website discussing vaginal steaming: news/magazines; health/lifestyle; spa/service providers; and personal blogs. Data were analysed using thematic analysis, within a constructionist framework that saw us focus on the constructions and rationalities that underpin the explicit content of the texts. Within an overarching theme of ‘the self-improving woman’ we identified four themes: (1) the naturally deteriorating, dirty female body; (2) contemporary life as harmful; (3) physical optimisation and the enhancement of health; and (4) vaginal steaming for life optimisation. Online accounts of vaginal steaming appear both to fit within historico-contemporary constructions of women’s bodies as deficient and disgusting, and contemporary neoliberal and healthist discourse around the constantly improving subject.

A recent case-report tells a cautionary tale. Here is its abstract:

BACKGROUND:

Vaginal steaming has gained increased popularity as a method to achieve empowerment by providing vaginal tightening and to “freshen” the vagina.

CASE:

A 62-year-old woman sustained second-degree burns following vaginal steaming in an attempt to reduce vaginal prolapse.

CONCLUSION:

Clinicians need to be aware of alternative treatments available to women so that counselling may mitigate any potential harm.

As the full paper is not available to me, I had to rely on another report for further information.

The woman had been suffering from a prolapsed vagina and had been led to believe the vaginal steaming could help avoid surgery. Spas advertising “v-steaming” claim it has been used throughout history in countries in Asia and Africa. They claim the practice, which is sometimes called Yoni steaming, acts to “detox” the vagina, can ease period pains, help with fertility and much more. Experts, however, warn that it can be dangerous and point out that there is no good evidence for the health claims being made.

Dr Vanessa Mackay, a consultant and spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says it is a “myth” that the vagina requires extensive cleaning or treatment. She recommends using plain, unperformed soaps on the external vulva area only. “The vagina contains good bacteria, which are there to protect it,” she said in a statement. “Steaming the vagina could affect this healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels and cause irritation, infection (such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush) and inflammation. It could also burn the delicate skin around the vagina (the vulva).”

Dr Magali Robert, who authored the case-report, said the injured woman attempted to steam her vagina on the advice of a traditional Chinese doctor. The woman, who gave permission for her case to be shared, sat over the boiling water for 20 minutes on two consecutive days before presenting at an emergency department with injuries. She sustained second-degree burns and had to delay reconstructive surgery while she healed.

Dr Robert, who works in pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery in Calgary, said word of unconventional therapies like steaming can spread through channels like the internet and word-of-mouth. “Health care providers need to be aware of alternative therapies so that they can help women make informed choices and avoid potential harm,” she says in the article.

Guest post by Toby Katz

Who am I?

I’m a final-year graduate medic (also hold an Economics degree) studying at St George’s University. I founded the Integrative Medicine Society at the university, with the aim of hosting talks on evidence-based CAM. My interest in evidence-based CAM arose as many of my family members have benefitted from different CAM interventions (mostly due to chronic MSk pain), where conventional interventions (physiotherapy and chronic pain teams) have failed to resolve their issues.

When it comes to the CAM debate, I see myself as a centrist. I am both a CAM apologist and sceptic and in recent years I have looked to educate myself around this subject. I have read Ernst’s Desktop Guide to CAM and Moral Maze books, spoken to Professor Colquhoun and most recently I undertook the Foundation Course in CAM run by the College of Medicine. My review of the course follows.

Overall, there’s a lot to learn from both sides of the debate and the debate continues due to systematic issues in the UK. Ad hominem attacks don’t help anyone, but conversation can. I hope I can converse with many of you in the future.

The Foundation Course

Two days of fast-paced talks on Integrative/Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The topics included: Resilience, nutritional therapy, medical acupuncture, MSk methods for non-osteopaths, homeopathy, herbs and spices, imagery and relaxation, cancer, hypnotherapy and social prescribing.

The speakers included: Professor David Peters, Dr Catherine Zollman (Medical Director for Penny Brohn), Heather Richards (Nutritional Therapist), Dr Elizabeth Thompson (GP and homeopath), Trevor Hoskisson (Hypnotherapist), Dr Mike Cummings (BMAS), Simon Mills (Medical Herbalist) – at least two of these are already in the infamous Alt Med Hall of Fame!

Initial feelings

My initial feelings upon hearing the talks were that most of these individuals are inherently good people, who want the best outcomes for their patients. Their aim is to operate in the areas of medicine where conventional medicine doesn’t hold the answers – chronic pain, idiopathic headache, IBS etc. But there were also people who were advocating the use of unproven alternative therapies.

These were some of my thoughts I jotted down during the two days:

Professor Peters – Constantly speaking in generalisations. Uses historic references, romantic and philosophical language to entice listeners but generally has little point to what he says. Suffers from tangential thinking. Loses track of his own point. Very Freudian-like thinking (everyone has gone through childhood trauma according to him).

Dr Catherine Zollman – Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. The doctor I resonate most closely with out of everyone speaking. Promoting the holistic management of a cancer diagnosis; integrating (not undermining) conventional medicine with complementary ways of dealing with the stress surrounding the diagnosis and much more. Works for a non-for-profit organisation. She has many years of oncology experience and strives to create a patient-centred approach to management.

Dr Mike Cummings – promoting medical acupuncture mainly for myofascial pain syndrome. I volunteered to receive acupuncture in my shoulder (have had post-op muscular pain since April). He dry-needled one of my trigger points and it helped, for a few days – this is better than anything a physio has done for me so far. I don’t know why dry-needling isn’t taught at medical school to help with myofascial pain syndrome.

Dr Elizabeth Thompson – Very respectable but I do feel the homeopathy ship has well and truly sailed. Provided ‘evidence’ on how ‘succussion’ changes the make-up of water molecules. Though Dr Thompson is medically trained, there are many non-medical homeopaths who promote things such as homeoprophylaxis and anti-vaccine views and I’m more worried about these such homeopaths. I do respect Dr Thompson and believe her when she says she has helped many patients. Whether this is due to placebo or the get-better-anyway effect I don’t know.

What they were promoting

On reflection, it’s clear that there was a real mix in promoting evidence-based therapies and eyebrow-raising alternatives – this is often difficult for those with an untrained eye to spot the difference. There was a general air of distrust with modern science and EBM floating around the room at all times. Sure, there are things wrong with it, but I think it’s done us pretty well over the last few decades!

I irritated a few speakers when I asked about the evidence behind their claims!

What to take away

There were many GPs present, who stated they’re often in a difficult position in the current system of healthcare we have in the UK. Around half of all consultations are MSk based, many of which are associated with chronic, muscular pain. The WHO analgesic pathway does little for these patients (unless you want to knock them for six with oxycodone) and physiotherapists struggle to make a real difference in a 30-minute appointment. The truth is, we are not providing GPs with the right toolkit to cope with these “difficult” patients.

Going forward

– Get a copy of Ernst et al.’s Desktop Guide for CAM

– Release more formal guidelines using this book as a base for any positive evidence

– Engage in conversation with those from both sides. We have a lot to learn from one another

– SCRAP the forms of CAM that have no plausibility

Food for thought

– If a patient’s pain improves after a session of acupuncture and not from physiotherapy, does it fit with a utilitarian ethical model to deny this person access to acupuncture if EBM shows acupuncture has rates similar to placebo?

– Chronic myofascial pain syndrome. Can we manage it better in primary care? Why not teach dry needling to healthcare professionals? (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4107879/ – Desai et al suggest it works)

– What is the alternative for no CAM for many patients who suffer? If patient’s choice is reduced, does that not reduce their autonomy?

If anyone wishes to contact me, you can at tkatz@live.co.uk

The NHS England has stopped paying for homeopathy in 2017. France has just announced to do likewise. What about Germany, the homeland of homeopathy?  

In Germany there are about 150,000 doctors, and around 7,000 specialize in homeopathy. Multiple surveys confirm that Germans do like their SCAMs, particularly homeopathy. Two examples:

  • A 2016 cross-sectional analysis conducted among all patients being referred to the Department of Internal and Integrative Medicine at Essen, Germany, over a 3-year period showed that 35% of the 2,045 respondents reported having used homeopathy for their primary medical complaint.  359 (50.2%) patients reported benefits and 15 (2.1%) reported harm.
  • More recently, a questionnaire survey concerning current and lifetime use of SCAM was distributed to German adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The results suggested that 45% of the respondents were currently using or had used at least one SCAM modality in their life. Homeopathy and acupuncture were most frequently used SCAMs, followed by mind-body interventions.

But since a few years, the German opposition to homeopathy has become much more active. In particular the INH, the GWUP, and the Muensteraner Kreis have been instrumental in informing the public about the uselessness and dangers of homeopathy. The press has now taken up this message and, as this article explains, now the debate about homeopathy has finally reached the political level.

The head of the main doctors’ association and the SPD’s health specialist have called for an end to refunds for homeopathy treatments in Germany. The head of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians (KBV), which represents 150,000 doctors and psychotherapists in Germany, recently urged health insurance companies to stop funding homeopathic services. “There is insufficient scientific evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic procedures,” Andreas Gassen told the Rheinische Post. “If people want homeopathic remedies, they should have them — but not at the expense of the community.

Gassen’s comments follow those of the Social Democrat (SPD) health issues specialist and lawmaker Karl Lauterbach who has pressed for a law banning refunds for homeopathy. “We have to talk about it in GroKo,” Lauterbach said earlier this month, suggesting a discussion in the government grand coalition. He said the benefits paid for by insurers should be medically and economically sensible. He has the support of the Federal Joint Committee which decides on what is covered by payments from the statutory health funds.

So, what is going to happen?

As I have written previously, one can only be sure of this:

  • The German homeopathy lobby will not easily give up; after all, they have half a billion Euros per year to lose.
  • They will not argue on the basis of science or evidence, because they know that neither are in their favour.
  • They will fight dirty and try to defame everyone who stands in their way.
  • They will use their political influence and their considerable financial power.

AND YET THEY WILL LOSE!

Not because we are so well organised or have great resources – in fact, as far as I can see, we have none – but because, in medicine, the evidence is invincible and will eventually prevail. Progress might be delayed, but it cannot be halted by those who cling to an obsolete dogma.

 

 

In Switzerland, so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is officially recognised within the healthcare system and mainly practised in conjunction with conventional medicine. So far no research has been published into the attitude towards, training in and offer of SCAM among paediatricians in Switzerland. This survey addresses this gap by investigating these topics with an online survey of paediatricians in Switzerland.

It employed a 19-item, self-reporting questionnaire among all ordinary and junior members of the Swiss Society of Paediatrics (SSP). A comparison of the study sample with the population of all paediatricians registered with the Swiss Medical Association (FMH) allowed an assessment of the survey’s representativeness. The data analysis was performed on the overall group level as well as for predefined subgroups (e.g. sex, age, language, workplace and professional experience).

A total of 1890 paediatricians were approached and 640, from all parts of Switzerland, responded to the survey (response rate 34%). Two thirds of respondents were female, were aged between 35 and 55 years, trained as paediatric generalist and worked in a practice. Apart from young paediatricians in training, the study sample was representative of all Swiss paediatricians.

According to the authors’ statistics, the results suggest that

  • 23% had attended training in SCAM, most frequently in phytotherapy, homeopathy, acupuncture/traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and anthroposophic medicine
  • 8% had a federal certificate in one or more SCAM methods.
  • 44% did not routinely ask their patients about their use of SCAM.
  • 84% did not offer SCAM.
  • 65% were interested in SCAM courses and training.
  • 16% provided SCAM services to their patients.
  • 97% were asked by patients/parents about SCAM therapies.
  • More than half of the responding paediatricians use SCAM for themselves or their families.
  • 42% were willing to contribute to paediatric SCAM research.

The authors concluded that in a representative sample of paediatricians in Switzerland, the overall attitude towards SCAM was positive, emphasised by great interest in SCAM training, willingness to contribute to SCAM research and, in particular, by the high rate of paediatricians using SCAM for themselves and their families. However, given the strong demand for SCAM for children, the rate of paediatricians offering SCAM is rather low, despite the official recognition of SCAM in Switzerland. Among the various reasons for this, insufficient knowledge and institutional barriers deserve special attention. The paediatricians’ great interest in SCAM training and support for SCAM research offer key elements for the future development of complementary and integrative medicine for children in Switzerland.

SCAM suffers from acute survey mania. I am anxiously waiting for a survey of SCAM use in left-handed, diabetic policemen in retirement from Devon. But every other variation of the theme has been exploited. And why not? It provides the authors with a most welcome addition to their publication list. And, of course, it lends itself very nicely to SCAM-promotion. Sadly, there is not much else that such surveys offer.

Except perhaps for an opportunity to do an alternative evaluation of their results. Here is an assessment the devil’s advocate in me proposes. Based on the reasonable assumption that those 34% of paediatricians who responded did so because they had an interest in SCAM, and the 64% who did not reply couldn’t care less, it is tempting to do an analysis of the entire population of Swiss paediatricians. Here are my findings:

  • Hardly anyone had attended training in SCAM.
  • Hardly anyone had a federal certificate in one or more SCAM methods.
  • Very few did not routinely ask their patients about their use of SCAM.
  • Hardly anyone offered SCAM.
  • Very few were interested in SCAM courses and training.
  • Hardly anyone provided SCAM services to their patients.
  • Quite a few were asked by patients/parents about SCAM therapies.
  • Very few paediatricians use SCAM for themselves or their families.
  • Few were willing to contribute to paediatric SCAM research.

These results might be closer to the truth but they have one very important drawback: they do not lend themselves to drawing the SCAM-promotional conclusions formulated by the authors.

Oh Yes, reality can be a painful thing!

I have reported about the French activities against homeopathy before (see here and here). Yesterday, this article brought considerable more clarity into the situation. Here is my (not entirely literal) translation and below the French original:

Unsurprisingly, the French health regulator (HAS) has voted on Wednesday with a very large majority (only one vote against) for the discontinuation of the reimbursement of homeopathic products. This decision, which is not denied by the health ministry, will be officially announced this Friday morning by the president of the authority, Prof Dominique Le Guludec, during a press conference. Then it will be up to the health minister, Agnès Buzyn, to decide or not on the discontinuation of reimbursement.

I will follow the advice of the health authority‘ the health minister declared only recently. This advice is the direct consequence of a first meeting of the commission which took place in Mid May and gave an opinion that already went into that direction. The laboratories concerned had the right to be heard and to present their view. Obviously this was not convincing.

______________________________________________________________

Sans surprise, la Commission de la transparence de la Haute autorité de santé a voté ce mercredi à la très grande majorité (une seule voix contre) le déremboursement des produits homéopathiques. Cette décision, que ne dément pas le ministère de la Santé, sera annoncée officiellement vendredi matin par la présidente de la Haute Autorité de santé, la professeur Dominique Le Guludec, au cours d’une conférence de presse. A charge ensuite à la ministre de la Santé, Agnès Buzyn, de décider ou non ce déremboursement.

«Je me tiendrai à l’avis de la Haute Autorité de santé», a encore récemment déclarée la ministre. Cet avis est la conséquence directe d’une première réunion, qui s’est tenue à la mi mai, de la dite Commission, qui avait alors rendu un avis transitoire, allant clairement dans ce sens. Comme le stipule le processus, les laboratoires concernées avaient le droit d’être entendus et de se défendre. Manifestement, ces derniers n’ont pas convaincus.

Whenever there are discussions about homeopathy (currently, they have reached fever-pitch both in France and in Germany), one subject is bound to emerge sooner or later: its cost. Some seemingly well-informed person will exclaim that USING MORE HOMEOPATHY WILL SAVE US ALL A LOT OF MONEY.

The statement is as predictable as it is wrong.

Of course, homeopathic remedies tend to cost, on average, less than conventional treatments. But that is beside the point. A car without an engine is also cheaper than one with an engine. Comparing the costs of items that are not comparable is nonsense.

What we need are proper analyses of cost-effectiveness. And these studies clearly fail to prove that homeopathy is a money-saver.

Even researchers who are well-known for their pro-homeopathy stance have published a systematic review of economic evaluations of homeopathy. They included 14 published assessments, and the more rigorous of these investigations did not show that homeopathy is cost-effective. The authors concluded that “although the identified evidence of the costs and potential benefits of homeopathy seemed promising, studies were highly heterogeneous and had several methodological weaknesses. It is therefore not possible to draw firm conclusions based on existing economic evaluations of homeopathy“.

Probably the most meaningful study in this area is an investigation by another pro-homeopathy research team. Here is its abstract:

OBJECTIVES:

This study aimed to provide a long-term cost comparison of patients using additional homeopathic treatment (homeopathy group) with patients using usual care (control group) over an observation period of 33 months.

METHODS:

Health claims data from a large statutory health insurance company were analysed from both the societal perspective (primary outcome) and from the statutory health insurance perspective (secondary outcome). To compare costs between patient groups, homeopathy and control patients were matched in a 1:1 ratio using propensity scores. Predictor variables for the propensity scores included health care costs and both medical and demographic variables. Health care costs were analysed using an analysis of covariance, adjusted for baseline costs, between groups both across diagnoses and for specific diagnoses over a period of 33 months. Specific diagnoses included depression, migraine, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and headache.

RESULTS:

Data from 21,939 patients in the homeopathy group (67.4% females) and 21,861 patients in the control group (67.2% females) were analysed. Health care costs over the 33 months were 12,414 EUR [95% CI 12,022-12,805] in the homeopathy group and 10,428 EUR [95% CI 10,036-10,820] in the control group (p<0.0001). The largest cost differences were attributed to productivity losses (homeopathy: EUR 6,289 [6,118-6,460]; control: EUR 5,498 [5,326-5,670], p<0.0001) and outpatient costs (homeopathy: EUR 1,794 [1,770-1,818]; control: EUR 1,438 [1,414-1,462], p<0.0001). Although the costs of the two groups converged over time, cost differences remained over the full 33 months. For all diagnoses, homeopathy patients generated higher costs than control patients.

CONCLUSION:

The analysis showed that even when following-up over 33 months, there were still cost differences between groups, with higher costs in the homeopathy group.

A recent analysis confirms this situation. It concluded that patients who use homeopathy are more expensive to their health insurances than patients who do not use it. The German ‘Medical Tribune’ thus summarised the evidence correctly when stating that ‘Globuli are m0re expensive than conventional therapies’. This quote mirrors perfectly the situation in Switzerland which as been summarised as follows: ‘Globuli only cause unnecessary healthcare costs‘.

But homeopaths (perhaps understandably) seem reluctant to agree. They tend to come out with ever new arguments to defend the indefensible. They claim, for instance, that prescribing a homeopathic remedy to a patient would avoid giving her a conventional treatment that is not only more expensive but also has side-effects which would cause further expense to the system.

To some, this sounds perhaps reasonable (particularly, I fear, to some politicians), but it should not be reasonable argument for responsible healthcare professionals.

Why?

Because it could apply only to the practice of bad and unethical medicine: if a patient is ill and needs a medical treatment, she does certainly not need something that is ineffective, like homeopathy. If she is not ill and merely wants a placebo, she needs assurance, compassion, empathy, understanding and most certainly not an expensive and potentially harmful conventional therapy.

To employ the above analogy, if someone needs transport, she does not need a car without an engine!

So, whichever way we twist or turn it, the issue turns out to be quite simple:

WHITHOUT EFFECTIVENESS, THERE CAN BE NO COST-EFFECTIVENESS!

Simply put, in the realm of SCAM, we seem to have two types of people:

  1. those who don’t care a hoot about evidence;
  2. those who try their best to follow the evidence.

The first group is replete with SCAM enthusiasts who make their decisions based purely on habit, emotion, intuition etc. They are beyond my reach, I fear. It is almost exclusively the second group for whom I write this blog.

And that could be relatively easy, if the evidence were always accessible, understandable, straight forward, conclusive and convincing. But sadly, in SCAM (as in most other areas of healthcare), the evidence is full of apparent and real contradictions. In this situation, it is often difficult even for experts to understand what is going on; for lay people this must be immeasurably more confusing. Yet, it is the lay consumers who often will take the decision to use or not use this or that SCAM. They therefore need our help.

What can consumers do when they are confronted with contradictory evidence?

How can they distinguish right from wrong?

  • Some articles claim that homeopathy works – others say it is just a placebo therapy.
  • Some experts claim that chiropractic is safe – others say it can do serious harm.
  • Some articles claim that SCAM-practitioners are competent – others say this is not true.
  • Some experts claim that SCAM is the future – others stress that it is obsolete.

What can a lay person with no or very little understanding of science do to see through this fog of contradictions?

Let me try to provide consumers with a step by step approach to get closer to the truth by asking a few incisive questions:

  1. WHERE DID YOU READ THE CLAIM? If it was in a newspaper, magazine, website, etc. take it with a pinch of salt (double the dose of salt, if it’s from the Daily Mail).
  2. CAN YOU RETRACE THE CLAIM TO A SCIENTIFIC PAPER? This might challenge you skills as a detective, but it is always well-worth finding the original source of a therapeutic claim in order to judge its credibility. If no good source can be found, I advise caution.
  3. IN WHICH MEDICAL JOURNAL WAS THE CLAIM PUBLISHED? Be aware of the fact that there are dozens of SCAM-journals that would publish virtually any rubbish.
  4. WHO ARE THE AUTHORS OF THE SCIENTIFIC PAPER? It might be difficult for a lay person to evaluate their credibility. But there might be certain pointers; for instance, authors affiliated to a university tend to be more credible than SCAM-practitioners who have no such affiliations or authors working for a lobby-group.
  5. WHAT SORT OF ARTICLE IS THE ORIGINAL SOURCE OF THE CLAIM? Is it a proper experimental study or a mere opinion piece? If possible, try to find a good-quality (perhaps even a Cochrane) review on the subject.
  6. ARE THERE OTHER RESEARCHERS WHO HAVE ARRIVED AT SIMILAR CONCLUSIONS? If the claim is based on just one solitary piece of research or opinion, it clearly weighs less than a consensus of experts.
  7. DO PUBLICATIONS EXIST THAT DISAGREE WITH THE CLAIM? Even if there are several scientific papers from different teams of researchers supporting the claim, it is important to find out whether the claim is shared by all experts in the field.

Eventually, you might get a good impression about the veracity of the claim. But sometimes you also might end up with a bunch of systematic reviews of which several support, while others reject the claim. And all of them could look similarly credible to your untrained eyes. Does that mean your attempt to find the truth of the matter has been frustrated?

Not necessarily!

In this case, you would probably consider the following options:

  1. You could do a simple ‘pea count’; this would tell you whether the majority of reviews is pro or contra the claim. However, this might be your worst bet for arriving at a sound conclusion. The quantity of the evidence usually is far less important than its quality.
  2. If you have no training to judge the quality of a review, you might just go with the most recent and up-to-date review. This, however, would also be fraught with problems, as you can, of course, not be sure that the most recent one is also the least biased assessment.
  3. Perhaps you can somehow get an impression about the respectability of the source. If, for instance, there is a recent Cochrane review, I advise to go with that one.
  4. Look up the profession of the authors of the review. The pope is unlikely to condemn Catholicism; likewise, you will find very few homeopaths who are critical of homeopathy, or chiropractors who are critical of chiropractic, etc. I know this is a very crude ‘last resort’ for replacing an authorative evaluation of the claim. But, if that’s all you have, it is better than nothing. Ask yourself who can normally be trusted more, the SCAM-practitioner or lobbyist who makes a living from the claim or an independent academic who has no such conflict of interest?

If all of this does not help you to decide whether a therapeutic claim is trustworthy or not, my advice has always been to reflect on this: IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, IT PROBABLY IS.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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