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

patient choice

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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.

The American Dance Therapy Association defines Dance Movement Therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the participant.

Dance/movement therapy is:

  • Focused on movement behavior as it emerges in the therapeutic relationship.  Expressive, communicative, and adaptive behaviors are all considered for group and individual treatment.  Body movement, as the core component of dance, simultaneously provides the means of assessment and the mode of intervention for dance/movement therapy.
  • Practiced in mental health, rehabilitation, medical, educational and forensic settings, and in nursing homes, day care centers, disease prevention, health promotion programs and in private practice.
  • Effective for individuals with developmental, medical, social, physical and psychological impairments.
  • Used with people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds in individual, couples, family and group therapy formats.

This sounds interesting, but does dance therapy work?

The aim of this paper was to perform a systematic review on the effectiveness of dance-based programs in patients with fibromyalgia, as well as calculate the overall effect size of the improvements, through a meta-analysis.

A total of 7 RCTs fulfilled all inclusion criteria. Their methodological quality was low. Duration of dance programs ranged from 12 to 24 weeks. Sessions lasted between 60 and 120 minutes and were performed 1-2 times per week. The overall effect size for pain was -1.64 with a 95% CI from -2.69 to -0.59 which can be interpreted as large. In addition, significant improvements were observed in quality of life, depression, impact of the disease, anxiety, and physical function.

The authors concluded that dance-based intervention programs can be an effective intervention for people suffering from fibromyalgia, leading to a significant reduction of the level of pain with an effect size that can be considered as large. However, findings and conclusions from this meta-analysis must be taken with caution due to the small number of articles and the large heterogeneity.

I don’t doubt that physical activity can ease pain, particularly, if combined with the often positive social interactions of dance. What is unclear to me is whether dance therapy generates results that are better than other forms of physical activity.

And then again, is that question really all that important? Perhaps the best advice to patients is to engage in the type of physical exercise the like best. At the very least, this would minimise the often poor compliance with such programs and might thus maximise their potential benefits.

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 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.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

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.”

——————————————————————————————————————

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!

 

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