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

patient choice

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The UK Royal Pharmaceutical Society have published a quick reference guide on homeopathy. In it, they make the following 5 ‘key points’:

  • The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) does not endorse homeopathy as a form of treatment because there is no scientific basis for homeopathy nor any evidence to support the clinical efficacy of homeopathic products beyond a placebo effect.
  • The RPS does not support the prescribing of homeopathic products on the NHS.
  • Pharmacists should ensure, wherever possible, that patients do not stop taking their prescribed conventional medication, if they are taking or are considering taking a homeopathic product.
  • Pharmacists must be aware that patients requesting homeopathic products may have serious underlying undiagnosed medical conditions which may require referral to another healthcare professional.
  • Pharmacists must advise patients considering a homeopathic product about their lack of efficacy beyond that of a placebo.

This publication is a few months old, but I only saw it recently. It could not be clearer and it is much more to the point than the General Pharmaceutical Council’s ‘Standards for Pharmacy Professionals‘ which state:

People receive safe and effective care when pharmacy professionals reflect on the application of their knowledge and skills and keep them up-to-date, including using evidence in their decision making. A pharmacy professional’s knowledge and skills must develop over the course of their career to reflect the changing nature of healthcare, the population they provide care to and the roles they carry out. There are a number of ways to meet this standard and below are examples of the attitudes and behaviours expected.

People receive safe and effective care when pharmacy professionals:

  • recognise and work within the limits of their knowledge and skills, and refer to others when needed
  • use their skills and knowledge, including up-to-date evidence, to deliver care and improve the quality of care they provide
  • carry out a range of continuing professional development (CPD) activities relevant to their practice
  • record their development activities to demonstrate that their knowledge and skills are up to date
  • use a variety of methods to regularly monitor and reflect on their practice, skills and knowledge

The two statements together should suffice to finally get some sense into UK pharmacies when it comes to the sale of homeopathic remedies. What is needed now, I think, is an (under-cover?) investigation to see how many UK community pharmacists abide by this guidance.

If anyone has the means to conduct it, I would be delighted to advise them on the best methodology.

A few days ago, I published an article in the ‘Sueddeutsche Zeitung’ (a truly rare event, as I have never done this before) where I argued that German pharmacists should consider stopping the sale of homeopathic remedies. It violates their ethical code, I suggested.

While this discussion has been going on for a while in the UK (British pharmacists have stopped inviting me to their gatherings because I get on their nerves with banging on about this!), it is relatively novel in Germany.

After I had submitted my copy to the SZ, an article was published which is highly relevant to this subject. Here I first copy an extract of the German original, and below I try to briefly explain its content to those who do not read German.

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In vielen Apotheken werden Kunden nicht hinreichend gut zu Homöopathika beraten. Zu diesem Ergebnis kommt Professor Tilmann Betsch, an der Universität Erfurt Leiter der Professur für Sozial-, Organisations- und Wirtschaftspsychologie, der mit seinem Team 100 zufällig ausgewählte Apotheken in Stuttgart, Erfurt, Leipzig und Frankfurt auf Herz und Nieren geprüft hat. Im Mittelpunkt der Kundengespräche stand eine Beratung zu einem erkälteten Familienmitglied.

“Zum einen zeigen unsere Ergebnisse, dass im Falle eines grippalen Infektes die überwiegende Mehrzahl von ihnen zu schulmedizinischen Präparaten rät, die mit hoher Wahrscheinlichkeit zu einer Linderung der Symptome führen”, erläutert Betsch. Was die Wirkung von Homöopathika betreffe, so zeichne das Untersuchungsergebnis ein eher düsteres Bild, ergänzt er. Denn in nur fünf Prozent aller Beratungsgespräche sei gesagt worden, dass es für die Wirkung von Homöopathie keine wissenschaftlichen Belege gäbe. In 30 Prozent sei dagegen behauptet worden, die Wirkung von Homöopathie sei entweder in Studien nachgewiesen oder ergebe sich aus dem Erfahrungswissen.

“Nach den Leitlinien der Bundesapothekenkammer soll jedoch die Beurteilung der Wirksamkeit von Präparaten nach pharmakologisch-toxikologischen Kriterien erfolgen. Zumindest was die Begründung ihrer Empfehlungen betrifft, folgte die überwiegende Mehrheit der von uns befragten Apotheker diesen Leitlinien nicht”, so Betschs Fazit. Während die Empfehlungen der Apotheker in der Regel nachweislich wirksame Medikamente enthalten hätten, habe sich ihr Wissen über die Wirkung von Homöopathie mehrheitlich nicht von Laien-Meinungen unterschieden.

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Professor Tilmann Betsch has conducted a study showing that German pharmacists fail their customers when advising them on homeopathy. His team went under cover as patients with flue-like symptoms to 100 randomly selected pharmacists. Only 5% of the pharmacists admitted that homeopathics have no proven efficacy, while 30% claimed homeopathics have been proven to work in studies and through experience. This behaviour, Betsch explains, violates the current guidelines for pharmacists.

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I am delighted with these findings; they confirm my arguments perfectly.

Since, in Germany, homeopathics are sold only in pharmacies, German pharmacists have a pivotal role here. They are ethically bound to inform their customers based on the current best evidence. So, in my day-dreams, I imagine a dialogue between a customer and an ethical pharmacist:

CUSTOMER: I have a flu, is there a homeopathic remedy against it?

PHARMACIST: Yes, there is.

CUSTOMER: Can I have it please?

PHARMACIST: If you insist; but I must warn you: it has been shown not to work, and there is absolutely nothing in it that could possibly work.

CUSTOMER: What? Why do you sell it then?

PHARMACIST: Because some people like it.

CUSTOMER: Even though it does not work?

PHARMACIST: Yes.

CUSTOMER: Is it expensive?

PHARMACIST: Yes.

CUSTOMER: And some people still buy it?

PHARMACIST: Yes.

CUSTOMER: Well, not I! I am not a fool. But thank you for your honest information. Can I have something else that alleviates my symptoms?

PHARMACIST: With pleasure!

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The fate of homeopathy in Germany is largely in the hands of pharmacists, it seems.

But, is it in good, ethical hands? Is there hope that progress can be made?

We will see – so far, I have heard of just one!!! pharmacy that has stopped displaying homeopathics on its shelves.

The wishes of a patient do not over-rule medical knowledge!” (Patientenwunsch steht nicht über medizinischem Wissen)

This was one brave conclusion drawn in a discussion about homeopathy during a recent German radio programme. Specifically, the discussion was about the pros and cons of a leading paediatric hospital of the Ludwig Maximilian Universitaet (LMU) Munich offering homeopathy to its patients (they also run a course in homeopathy which we discussed previously).

The wishes of a patient does not over-rule medical knowledge!

This sentence made me think.

Is it correct?

An interesting question with ethical dimensions!

The short answer is NO, I believe..

Patients can always refuse to have a given therapy, if they so wish. Or they might opt for one evidence-based therapy instead of another. And in certain circumstances such wishes may well be completely against the current best medical knowledge.

But this is probably where the dominance of the patient’s wishes over medical knowledge ends — at least, if we only consider wishes paid for by the public purse (otherwise, anyone can, of course, buy almost any rubbish).

And that was not what the above-mentioned discussion was about. It focussed on the arguments by the LMU to justify their offer of homeopathy to sick children. Essentially, they seem to say:

  • We believe in evidence-based medicine (EBM) and are fully dedicated to its principles.
  • We know that homeopathy is not evidence-based.
  • Yet, many of the parents want us to use homeopathy in the treatment of their kids.
  • And the wish of a patient over-rules the medical evidence.

This is, of course, a flawed argument. One cannot subscribe to EBM and, at the same time, administer overt nonsensical, disproven treatments. A patient’s wish does not render a nonsensical treatment evidence-based. If one would follow the LMU logic, one would have to use any idiotic therapy … and could still pride oneself to follow EBM practice. In England, we call this ‘having the cake and eat it’; once you eat the cake, it’s gone and you cannot have it any longer.

What follows is simple: the decision makers at the LMU have been found out with (homeopathically potentised) egg on their faces (for some reason they had this homeopathy enclave for years, it is well-established and, I suspect, even better protected by some people of influence). They quickly tried to find a way out of their dilemma. Unfortunately, they did not think hard enough; the solution to bank on patient choice turns out to be a non-solution.

I therefore suggest they get in line with the role of a University hospital, with today’s medical thinking and medical ethics. This would mean re-considering their homeopathy course as well as their inclusion of homeopathy in publicly-funded routine care.

The ‘Pharmaceutical Journal’ just published a ‘pro/contra’ piece discussing whether UK community pharmacists should be selling homeopathic remedies to the public. Here are the essential parts of both arguments:

PRO

… I do not believe there is good scientific evidence to validate homeopathic remedies as medicines, but it is important to provide patients with choice in an informed environment — pharmacists and pharmacy teams are able to provide this expertise.

It is better for the public to buy these products from a reputable source where the community pharmacist — the expert on medicines — can provide professional advice, which is not available from unregulated online suppliers or other non-healthcare outlets…

So, I’m not here to argue the science: I argue that some people can benefit from homeopathy.

We ought to explore homeopathy’s placebo effect. Placebos are often dismissed as fakes, but they seem to act on the same brain pathways that are targeted by ‘real’ treatments. I wonder whether, through the placebo effect, homeopathy has a role to play in mental health treatment and pain relief. Whether for anxiety, mild-to-moderate depression, sleeplessness or stress, taking a little white tablet may benefit the patient, have fewer side effects than conventional medication, cause no harm, and is better than an excess of alcohol or illegal drugs.

Of course, homeopathy should not replace conventional medicines, and people should continue to be vaccinated, should use their inhalers and take their insulin. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS, but we do not live in a nanny state.

The clinical efficacy of many other products sold in the pharmacy is also questionable, but we still provide them. One example is guaifenesin for chesty coughs, which, at over-the-counter strength, provides a suboptimal dose. Many people are sceptical of the benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements. Bach flower remedies claim to tackle stress. We drink herbal tea for its ‘health’ benefits or buy fortified cereals because they are ‘better for you’, but these benefits are not clinically proven.

If the public finds comfort in a complementary therapy — whether it is acupuncture, reflexology, vitamins or homeopathy — I am happy to offer that choice, as long as the chosen therapies do no harm, and people continue to take their prescribed medicines.

If the patient wants my professional advice, I will explain that homeopathic medicines are not clinically proven but they may help certain conditions. I will probably recommend a different product, but at least I am there to do so.

You will not find a pharmacist in a health shop or on the internet, but in the community pharmacy you will find a highly qualified medicines expert, who will advise and inform, and who truly cares about the public’s health.

 

CONTRA

… given pharmacy’s heavy promotion of homeopathy, I feared that the profession was in danger of losing science as its bedrock.

… in 2009, a London-based pharmacy was supplying homeopathic ‘swine flu formula’. This was a dangerous practice but government agencies failed to regulate it effectively or to close it down.

In 2010, the then professional standards director at Boots, Paul Bennett (now chief executive, Royal Pharmaceutical Society), appeared before the Science and Technology Committee in its discussion of homeopathy’s availability on the NHS. Bennett stood by the sale of homeopathic remedies in Boots’ stores: “It is about consumer choice for us,” he said. I disagree with this argument.

Like the sale of cigarettes in US pharmacies, homeopathy threatens to fatally damage the reputation of community pharmacy. Pharmacies that sell homeopathic remedies give them unjustified credibility. Informed patient choice should be king; if pharmacists, pharmacy staff and shelf-barkers fail to clearly inform customers that homeopathic remedies are no more effective than placebo, we have acted unethically.

Yet Boots, perhaps alarmed by the number of subsequent protests against homeopathy outside its stores, got the message. Its website now reflects a more scientific approach: the homeopathic remedies it supplies state that they are “without approved therapeutic indications”. Boots also seems to have modified its range and offering of homeopathic remedies. So there is hope for community pharmacy.

Homeopathic remedies are still sold in pharmacies only because they make a profit. Sales in pharmacy are nonsense because, as most homeopathic practitioners claim, it is not possible to sell homeopathic remedies in isolation of a homeopathic consultation. The consultation determines the remedy. Off-the-shelf homeopathy is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The remedies are no more effective compared with placebo, anyway. Systematic reviews from the Cochrane Library — the gold standard of medical science — have considered homeopathy in the treatment of dementia, asthma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, all of which have confirmed the placebo effect. Irritatingly, supporters of homeopathy will always, in any debate, quote a bunkum study that shows some possible efficacy. Some might argue that placebo, or suggestion, is effective therapy, so why not use it? We must question the ethics of this approach.

Pharmacists act immorally when they sell the products without making clients aware that homeopathy does not work.

… I find that most pharmacists, when asked, appreciate that homeopathy has no scientific basis and provides merely a placebo effect. I sincerely hope that with this insight, pharmacy will finally clear its shelves of this expensive hocus pocus for good.

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I find both pieces quite weak and poorly argued. In fact, the ‘pro’ – arguments are quite laughable and could easily be used for teaching students the meaning and use of logical fallacies. In my view, all that needs to be pointed out here is this:

  1. Homeopathy is based on implausible assumptions.
  2. Despite 200 years of research and around 500 clinical trials, there is still no proof that highly diluted homeopathic remedies have effects beyond placebo.
  3. Therefore, selling them to the naïve public, while pretending they are real medicines, is dishonest, arguably fraudulent and certainly not the behaviour one would expect of a healthcare professional.
  4. Pharmacists who nevertheless sell these remedies as medicines are in breach of their very own regulations.

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Strangely enough, when trying to find the relevant passage from the code of ethics for UK pharmacists, I struggled. The General Pharmaceutical Council’s ‘Standards fro Pharmacy Professionals‘ merely states this:

People receive safe and effective care when pharmacy professionals reflect on the application of their knowledge and skills and keep them up-to-date, including using evidence in their decision making. A pharmacy professional’s knowledge and skills must develop over the course of their career to reflect the changing nature of healthcare, the population they provide care to and the roles they carry out. There are a number of ways to meet this standard and below are examples of the attitudes and behaviours expected.

People receive safe and effective care when pharmacy professionals:

  • recognise and work within the limits of their knowledge and skills, and refer to others when needed
  • use their skills and knowledge, including up-to-date evidence, to deliver care and improve the quality of care they provide
  • carry out a range of continuing professional development (CPD) activities relevant to their practice
  • record their development activities to demonstrate that their knowledge and skills are up to date
  • use a variety of methods to regularly monitor and reflect on their practice, skills and knowledge

This, I admit, is not as clear as I had hoped (if my memory serves me right, this used to be much more explicit; in case anyone knows of a more suitable section in the code of ethics, please let me know); but it does preclude selling placebos, while pretending they are effective medicines.

I am not a regular reader of the ‘HALTERNER ZEITUNG’, I have to admit; but this article from the paper came to me because of my interest in homeopathy. It tells a tragic story of a German women who paid dearly for consulting a homeopath.

Here is an excerpt – as it is in German, I will sum up the essence of the story below in English.

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…Die traurige Geschichte beginnt im Jahr 2012. Die später verstorbene Frau aus Haltern lässt sich von ihrer Ärztin wegen Heiserkeit behandeln und bekommt homöopathische Mittel. Rund zehn Monate später wechselt die Seniorin den Arzt und muss umgehend ins Krankenhaus: Luftröhrenschnitt, Kehlkopf-Entfernung, Krebs. Die Frau verstirbt nach vierjähriger Leidenszeit.

Für Schwester und Tochter war das nicht nur ein Schock, sie machen der Ärztin nun auch schwere Vorwürfe. Aus ihrer Sicht hätte praktisch sofort eine Überweisung zu einem HNO-Arzt und damit eine schulmedizinische Behandlung erfolgen müssen.

Genau das habe die Patientin aber nicht gewollt, sagte die Ärztin. „Sie hat sich immer dagegen gewehrt.“ Angeblich soll das auch dokumentiert sein. Doch auch das ist umstritten. Die Hinterbliebenen werfen der Ärztin nämlich vor, die Unterlagen gefälscht zu haben.

150.000 Euro haben sie als Schmerzensgeld eingeklagt. Dafür sah die Medizinkammer zum jetzigen Zeitpunkt jedoch keine Grundlage. „Die Haftung ist vollkommen offen“, sagte Richter Norbert Schalla.

Man wolle die Leiden der Frau zwar nicht in Abrede stellen. Die Frage sei jedoch, inwieweit die Behandlung eines krankheitsbedingten Leidens tatsächlich verzögert worden sei. „Wir müssten erstens eine Pflichtverletzung und zweitens die Kausalität feststellen“, so Schalla. Beides sei aber außerordentlich schwierig, weil es außer der Ärztin keine Zeugen gebe.

Trotzdem hatten die Richter am Essener Landgericht am Ende eine „Goodwill-Zahlung“ vorgeschlagen, um einen möglicherweise jahrelangen Rechtsstreit zu verhindern. „Manchmal ist es besser, zu einem Abschluss zu kommen, damit man seinen inneren Frieden wiederfinden kann.“

Genau so hat es die Ärztin am Ende wohl auch gesehen. Ob die 10.000 Euro aber wirklich gezahlt werden, hängt allerdings noch von ihrer Haftpflicht-Versicherung ab. Die kann in den nächsten zwei Wochen noch ihr Veto einlegen.

Auch die Hinterbliebenen können die Einigung noch immer widerrufen. Sie müssen von dem Geld nämlich 94 Prozent der Prozesskosten tragen.

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Here is my summary:

  • An elderly woman with a sore throat consults her doctor who happens to be a homeopath.
  • The doctor prescribes homeopathic remedies.
  • The homeopathic treatment continues for months, evidently without success.
  • 10 months later, the patient changes her doctor, and her new physician sends her straight away into hospital.
  • There she is diagnosed with throat cancer.
  • After 4 years of suffering, the woman dies.
  • The patients relatives sue the homeopath for the relatively modest sum of 150 000 Euros.
  • The homeopath claims that the old woman had refused to be referred to a specialist and that the case notes provide proof for that claim.
  • The relatives suspect that the case notes have been altered retrospectively.
  • The judge suggest a ‘good will’ payment of 10 000 Euro.
  • The homeopath accepts, but it remains unclear whether the insurance agrees to pay this sum.
  • The relatives have to pay 94% of the costs for the court proceedings.

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Anyone who claims that homeopathy is harmless should remember this story. Similar (but hopefully less dramatic) things happen almost every time a homeopath treats a patient, we argue in our book. The practice of homeopathy is by and large medical neglect. Because homeopathy is employed mostly for minor, self-limiting conditions, the neglect usually remains invisible. However, as soon as homeopath venture to treat serious diseases, the neglect (the deliberate treatment of a disease with an ineffective therapy) becomes obvious.

In Germany, homeopathy had been an undisputed favourite for a very long time. Doctors prescribed it, Heilpraktiker recommended it, patients took it and consumers, politicians, journalists, etc. hardly ever questioned it. But recently, this has changed; thanks not least to the INH and the ‘Muensteraner Kreis‘, some Germans are finally objecting to paying for the homeopathic follies of others. Remarkably, this might even have led to a dent in the sizable profits of homeopathy producers: while in 2016 the industry sold about 55 million units of homeopathic preparations, the figure had decreased to ‘just’ ~53 million in 2017.

Enough reason, it seems, for some manufacturers to panic. The largest one is the DHU (Deutsche Homoeopathische Union), and they recently decided to go on the counter attack by investing into a large PR campaign. This article (in German, I’m afraid) explains:

…Unter dem Hashtag #MachAuchDuMit lädt die Initiative Anwenderinnen und Anwender ein, ihre guten Erfahrungen in Sachen Homöopathie zu teilen. “Über 30 Millionen zufriedene Menschen setzen für ihre Gesundheit auf Homöopathie und vertrauen ihr. Mit unserer Initiative wollen wir das Selbstbewusstsein der Menschen stärken, sich für die Homöopathie zu entscheiden oder mindestens für eine freie Wahl einzustehen,” so Peter Braun, Geschäftsführer der DHU…

“Die Therapiefreiheit, die in unserem Slogan mit “Meine Entscheidung!” zum Ausdruck kommt, ist uns das wichtigste in dieser Initiative”, unterstreicht Peter Braun. Und dafür lohnt es sich aktiv zu werden, wie der Schweizer weiß. 2017 haben sich die Menschen in der Schweiz per Volksabstimmung für das Konzept einer integrativen Medizin entschieden. Neben der Schulmedizin können dort auch weitere Therapieverfahren wie Homöopathie oder Naturmedizin zum Einsatz kommen.

In Deutschland will die DHU mit ihrer Initiative Transparenz schaffen und die Homöopathie hinsichtlich Fakten und Erfolge realistisch darstellen. Dafür besteht offensichtlich Bedarf: “Wir als DHU haben in der jüngsten Vergangenheit dutzende spontane Anfragen bekommen, für die Homöopathie Flagge zu zeigen”.

Was die Inhalte der Initiative angeht betont Peter Braun, dass es dabei nie um ein “Entweder-Oder” zwischen Schulmedizin und anderen Therapieverfahren gehen soll: “Die Kombination der jeweils am besten für den Patienten passenden Methode im Sinne von “Hand-in-Hand” ist das Ziel der modernen integrativen Medizin. In keiner Art und Weise ist eine Entscheidung für die Homöopathie eine Entscheidung gegen die Schulmedizin. Beides hat seine Berechtigung und ergänzt sich in vielen Fällen.”

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For those who do not read German, I will pick out a few central themes from the text.

Amongst other things, the DHU proclaim that:

  1. Homeopathy has millions of satisfied customers in Germany.
  2. The campaign aims at defending customers’ choice.
  3. The campaign declares to present the facts realistically.
  4. The decision is “never an ‘either or’ between conventional medicine (Schulmedizin) and other methods”; combining those therapies that suit the patient best is the aim of modern Integrative Medicine.

It is clear to anyone who is capable of critical thinking tha
t these 4 points are fallacious to the extreme. For those to whom it isn’t so clear, let me briefly explain:

  1. The ‘appeal to popularity’ is a classical fallacy.
  2. Nobody wants to curtail patients’ freedom to chose the therapy they want. The discussion is about who should pay for ineffective remedies. Even if homeopathy will, one day, be no longer reimbursable in Germany, consumers will still be able to buy it with their own money.
  3. The campaign has so far not presented the facts about homeopathy (i. e. the remedies contain nothing, homeopathy relies on implausible assumptions, the evidence fails to show that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are effective beyond placebo).
  4. Hahnemann called all homeopaths who combined his remedies with conventional treatments ‘traitors’ (‘Verraeter’) and coined the term ‘Schulmedizin’ to defame mainstream medicine.

The DHU campaign has only started recently, but already it seems to backfire big way. Social media are full with comments pointing out how pathetic it truly is, and many Germans have taken to making fun at it on social media. Personally, I cannot say I blame them – not least because the latest DHU campaign reminds me of the 2012 DHU-sponsored PR campaign. At the time, quackometer reported:

A consortium of pharmaceutical companies in Germany have been paying a journalist €43,000 to run a set of web sites that denigrates an academic who has published research into  their products.

These companies, who make homeopathic sugar pills, were exposed in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in an article, Schmutzige Methoden der sanften Medizin (The Dirty Tricks of Alternative Medicine.)

This story has not appeared in the UK media. And it should. Because it is a scandal that directly involves the UK’s most prominent academic in Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The newspaper accuses the companies of funding the journalist, Claus Fritzsche, to denigrate critics of homeopathy. In particular, the accusation is that Fritzsche wrote about UK academic Professor Edzard Ernst on several web sites and then linked them together in order to raise their Google ranking. Fritzsche continually attacks Ernst of being frivolous, incompetent and partisan…

This story ended tragically; Fritzsche committed suicide.

My impression is that the PR-campaigns of homeopaths in general and the DHU in particular are rather ill-fated. Perhaps they should just forget about PR and do what responsible manufacturers should aim at doing: inform the public according to the best evidence currently available, even if this might make a tiny dent in their huge profits.

I have written about the use of homeopathy in France before (as I now live half of my time in France, this is a subject of considerable interest to me). After decades of deafening silence and uncritical acceptance by the French public, it seems that finally some change to the better might be on its way. Recently, a sizable number of prominent doctors protested publicly against the fact that, despite its implausibility and the lack of proof of efficacy, homeopathy continues to be reimbursed in France and scarce funds are being wasted on it. This action seems to have put pressure on officials to respond.

Yesterday (just in time for the ‘HOMEOPATHIC AWARENESS WEEK’) the French minister of health was quoted making a statement on homeopathy. Here is my translation of what Agnès Buzyn was quoted saying:

“There is a continuous evaluation of the medicines we call complementary. A working group* at the head office of my department checks that all these practices are not dangerous. If a therapy continues to be beneficial without being harmful, it continues to be reimbursed… The French are very attached [to homeopathy]; it’s probably a placebo effect. If it can prevent the use of toxic medicine, I think that we all win. I does not hurt.”

Agnès Buzyn

  • I would like to know who they are, how they can be contacted, and whether they would consider recruiting my assistance in evaluating alternative therapies.

So, if I understand her correctly, Agnès Buzyn believes that:

  1. the French people are fond of homeopathy;
  2. homeopathy is a placebo-therapy;
  3. homeopathy does no harm;
  4. homeopathy can even prevent harm from conventional medicine;
  5. on balance, therefore, homeopathy should continue to be reimbursed in France.

My views of this type of reasoning have been expressed repeatedly. Nevertheless, I will briefly state them again:

  1. true but not relevant; healthcare is not a popularity contest; and the current popularity is essentially the result of decades of systematic misinformation of consumers;
  2. correct;
  3. wrong: we have, on this blog, discussed ad nauseam how homeopathy can cause serious harm; for instance, whenever it replaces effective treatments, it can cause serious harm and might even kill patients;
  4. if doctors harm patients by needlessly prescribing harmful treatments, we need to re-train them and stop this abuse; using homeopathy is not the solution to bad medicine;
  5. wrong: the reimbursement of homeopathy is a waste of money and undermines evidence-based medicine.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Politicians are usually not good at understanding science or scientific evidence. They (have to?) think in time spans from one election to the next. And they are, of course, keenly aware that, in order to stay in power, they rely on the vote of the people. Therefore, the popularity of homeopathy (even though it is scientifically irrelevant) is a very real factor for them. This means that, on a political level, homeopathy is sadly much more secure than it should be. In turn, this means we need to:

  • use different arguments when arguing with politicians (for instance, the economic impact of wasting money on placebo-therapies, or the fact that systematically misinforming the public is highly unethical and counter-productive),
  • and make politicians understand science better than they do at present, perhaps even insist that ministers are experts in their respective areas (i. e. a minister of health fully understands the fundamental issues of healthcare).

Does that mean the new developments in the realm of French homeopathy are all doomed to failure?

No, I don’t think so – at least (and at last) we have a vocal group of doctors protesting against wasteful nonsense, and a fairly sound and accurate statement from a French minister of health:

HOMEOPATHY, IT’S PROBABLY A PLACEBO EFFECT!

 

This is a question most clinicians must have asked themselves. The interest of patients in this area is enormous, and many do seek advice from their doctor, nurse, pharmacist, midwife etc. In a typical scenario, a patient might plug up her courage (yes, for many it does take courage) and ask:

What about therapy xy for my condition? My friend suffers from the same problem, and she says the treatment works very well.

The way I see it, there are essentially 4 options for formulating a reply:

1.       Uncompromisingly negative

2.       Evidence-based

3.       Open-minded

4.       Uncritically promotional

Let me explain and address these 4 options in turn.

1.       Uncompromisingly negative

I know that it can be tempting to be wholly dismissive and simply state that all alternative medicine is rubbish; if it were any good, it would have been adopted by conventional medicine. Therefore, alternative medicine is never an alternative; it is by definition implausible, ineffective and often dangerous.

Even if all of this were true, the uncompromisingly negative approach is not helpful, in my experience. Patients need and deserve some empathy and understanding of their position. If we brusque them, they feel insulted and go elsewhere. Not only would we then lose a patient, but we would run a high risk of exposing her to a practitioner who promotes quackery. The disservice seems obvious.

2.       Evidence-based

Clinicians might consider their patient’s question and reply to it by explaining what the current best available evidence tells us about the therapy in question. This can be done with empathy and compassion. For instance (if that is true), the clinician can explain that the treatment in question lacks a scientific basis, that it has nevertheless been tested in clinical trials which sadly do not show that it works. Crucially, the clinician should subsequently explain what effective treatments do exist and discuss a viable treatment plan with the patient.

The problem with this approach is that many, if not most conventional clinicians are fairly clueless about the evidence as it relates to the plethora of alternative therapies. Therefore, an honest discussion around the current best evidence is often difficult or impossible.

3.       Open-minded

This is the approach many clinicians today use as a default position. They basically tell their patient that there is not a lot of evidence for the treatment in question. However, it seems harmless, and therefore – if the patient is really keen on going down this route – why not? This type of response is, I fear, given regardless of the therapy in question and it largely ignores the evidence – some alternative treatments do work, some don’t, some are fairly safe, some aren’t.

Condoning alternative medicine in this way gives the impression of being ‘open-minded’ and ‘patient-centred’. It has the considerable advantage that it does not require any hard work, such as informing oneself about the current best evidence. It’s disadvantage is that it neither correct nor ethical.

4.       Uncritically promotional

Many clinicians go even one decisive step further. Under the banner of ‘integrative medicine’, they openly recommend using ‘the best of both worlds’ as being ‘holistic’, ’empathetic’, ‘patient-centred’, etc. By this, they usually mean employing as many unproven or disproven treatments as alternative medicine has to offer.

This approach gives the impression of being ‘modern’ and in tune with the wishes of patients. Its disadvantages are, however, obvious. Introducing bogus treatments into clinical routine can only render it less effective, more expensive, and less safe. Integrative medicine is therefore not in the best interest of patients and arguably unethical.

Conclusion

So, how should we advise patients on alternative medicine? I know what I would say and probably most of my readers can guess. But I do not want to prejudge the issue; I prefer to hear your views, please.

If you ask me, the field of alternative medicine is plagued with surveys; too many are published and most are complete, meaningless rubbish which serve merely the purpose of being misinterpreted as a means of popularising bogus treatments. Yet, every now and then, a decent and informative article appears – like this survey from Canada.

It yields a number of fascinating findings:

  • More than three-quarters of Canadians (79%) had used at least one from of CAM sometime in their lives in 2016 (74% in 2006 and 73% in 1997). British Columbians were most likely to have used an alternative therapy during their lifetime (89%), followed by Albertans (84%) and Ontarians (81%).
  • More than half (56%) of Canadians had used at least one CAM therapy in the year prior to the 2016 survey, compared to 54% in 2006 and 50% in 1997.
  • In 2016, massage was the most common type of therapy that Canadians used over their lifetime with 44 percent having tried it, followed by chiropractic care (42%), yoga (27%), relaxation techniques (25%), and acupuncture (22%).
  • The most rapidly expanding therapies over the past two decades were massage, yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic care, osteopathy, and naturopathy.
  • High dose/mega vitamins, herbal therapies, and folk remedies were in declining use over that same time period.
  • The most likely users of CAM over the past 12 months in 2016 were from the 35- to 44-year-old age group (61%). The use of CAM diminished with age, and generally rose with both income and education. These trends are similar to those observed in 2006 and 1997.
  • The majority of people choosing to use CAM in the 12 months preceding the 2016 survey did so for “wellness”.
  • Canadians spent an estimated $8.8 billion on CAM in the last 12 months ($8.0 billion in 2005/06 and $6.3 billion in 1996/97.
  • Of the $8.8 billion spent in 2016, more than $6.5 billion was spent on providers of CAM, while another $2.3 billion was spent on herbs, vitamins, special diet programs, books, classes, and equipment.
  • The majority of Canadians believe that CAM should be paid for privately and not by provincial health.

The strengths of this survey are that it is methodologically rigorous, and that it provides longitudinal data (this is in sharp contrast to the plethora of CAM surveys published recently). Many of its findings confirm what has already been known. Yet some results are new and noteworthy.

To many readers of this blog, the high CAM-usage will be disturbing. However, I am mildly encouraged by the results of this survey.

  • Firstly, the choice of CAM by Canadians seems rather more reasonable than that by other nations. Canadians seem to avoid the more ridiculous types of CAM, such as homeopathy or para-normal healing.
  • Secondly, many Canadians seem to view CAM not as medicine, but as a sort of luxurious pampering that they use to relax and feel well. Consequently, most are not pushing to get it reimbursed which I find more sensible than consumers’ attitudes in many other countries.

An article in the medical magazine ‘GP’ caught my eye. In it, a GP from Southampton argues that it is counter-productive for the NHS to ban ineffective treatments. Here are a few excerpts (my comments are inserted in brackets and are in bold print):

START OF QUOTES

NHS England’s recent decision requiring GPs stop prescribing a list of 18 medicines will reinforce the fears of many doctors that healthcare rationing is being introduced by the back door (all finite NHS resources need to be and always have been rationed). I would also argue that it is an illogical and ill-informed decision that will not achieve the professed aim of saving NHS resources (perhaps the decision is not purely based on the need to save money but also on a matter of principle and an attempt to make the NHS evidence-based?).

The decision to impose a blanket ban on these items will disproportionately affect those patients who currently receive free prescriptions: the young, the poor and the elderly (where is the evidence for this statement?). The conditions these patients are suffering from will persist (treating them with ineffective medications would also make them persist).

If in future these vulnerable patients want to continue with their medicines, they will be forced to pay for them. While wealthier patients will have the option to pay for their medications, those unable to do so will return to their GP for an alternative medication or procedure that has not been prohibited by NHS England’s recommendations. GPs will then find themselves prescribing other more costly medications. How this is helping NHS England to reduce prescribing costs is difficult to see (really? I don’t find it difficult to see that spending money on effective treatments is a better investment than wasting it on ineffective stuff)…

… ‘evidence-informed practice’… not only includes scientific research, but also evidence from clinical practice acquired over many years and endorsed by numerous clinicians. Yet this type of evidence, from the front line of medicine, is being dismissed as ‘unscientific’ or ‘anecdotal’ (no, it has never been considered to be evidence; remember: the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not evidence)…

We all want the NHS to operate cost effectively… (as long as the NHS continues to pay for homeopathy?). Of course, treatments that have no good evidence of benefit to patients should be questioned (as long as the NHS continues to pay for homeopathy?)…

NHS England needs to conduct a review of how it evaluates treatments and take far more notice of the experiences of doctors and patients. Then perhaps we will see a more financially efficient health service, healthier patients and an end to the injustice of healthcare rationing (the author forgot to tell her readers that she is a homeopath – in fact, she did not even once use the word ‘homeopathy’ in her diatribe. Because of her extreme views, she has featured on this blog before. [“homeopathy can be helpful for pretty much any condition”] Dr Day also forgot to declare conflicts of interest in her most recent vituperation [easy mistake to make; I know I am being petty).

 

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If I were a fan of homeopathy and a believer in the magical healing power of shaken water, I would be very worried. While homeopaths put forward such embarrassingly daft arguments, the future of homeopathy looks bleak indeed.

 

 

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