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

patient choice

1 2 3 7

About 85% of German children are treated with herbal remedies. Yet, little is known about the effects of such interventions. A new study might tell us more.

This analysis accessed 2063 datasets from the paediatric population in the PhytoVIS data base, screening for information on indication, gender, treatment, co-medication and tolerability. The results suggest that the majority of patients was treated with herbal medicine for the following conditions:

  • common cold,
  • fever,
  • digestive complaints,
  • skin diseases,
  • sleep disturbances
  • anxiety.

The perceived effect of the therapy was rated in 84% of the patients as very good or good without adverse events.

The authors concluded that the results confirm the good clinical effects and safety of herbal medicinal products in this patient population and show that they are widely used in Germany.

If you are a fan of herbal medicine, you will be jubilant. If, on the other hand, you are a critical thinker or a responsible healthcare professional, you might wonder what this database is, why it was set up and how exactly these findings were produced. Here are some details:

The data were collected by means of a retrospective, anonymous, one-off survey consisting of 20 questions on the user’s experience with herbal remedies. The questions included complaints/ disease, information on drug use, concomitant factors/diseases as well as basic patient data. Trained interviewers performed the interviews in pharmacies and doctor’s offices. Data were collected in the Western Part of Germany between April 2014 and December 2016. The only inclusion criterion was the intake of herbal drugs in the last 8 weeks before the individual interview. The primary endpoint was the effect and tolerability of the products according to the user.

And who participated in this survey? If I understand it correctly, the survey is based on a convenience sample of parents using herbal remedies. This means that those parents who had a positive experience tended to volunteer, while those with a negative experience were absent or tended to refuse. (Thus the survey is not far from the scenario I often use where people in a hamburger restaurant are questioned whether they like hamburgers.)

So, there are two very obvious factors other than the effectiveness of herbal remedies determining the results:

  1. selection bias,
  2. lack of objective outcome measure.

This means that conclusions about the clinical effects of herbal remedies in paediatric patients are quite simply not possible on the basis of this survey. So, why do the authors nevertheless draw such conclusions (without a critical discussion of the limitations of their survey)?

Could it have something to do with the sponsor of the research?

The PhytoVIS study was funded by the Kooperation Phytopharmaka GbR Bonn, Germany.

Or could it have something to do with the affiliations of the paper’s authors:

1 Institute of Pharmacy, University of Leipzig, Brüderstr. 34, 04103, Leipzig, Germny. nieberkaren@gmx.de.

2 Kooperation Phytopharmaka GbR, Plittersdorfer Str. 218, 573, Bonn, Germany. nieberkaren@gmx.de.

3 Institute of Medical Statistics and Computational Biology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Cologne, Kerpener Str. 62, 50937, Cologne, Germany.

4 ClinNovis GmbH, Genter Str. 7, 50672, Cologne, Germany.

5 Bayer Consumer Health, Research & Development, Phytomedicines Supply and Development Center, Steigerwald Arzneimittelwerk GmbH, Havelstr. 5, 64295, Darmstadt, Germany.

6 Kooperation Phytopharmaka GbR, Plittersdorfer Str. 218, 53173, Bonn, Germany.

7 Institute of Pharmaceutical Biology, Goethe University Frankfurt, Max-von-Laue-Str. 9, 60438, Frankfurt, Germany.

8 Chair of Naturopathy, University Medicine Rostock, Ernst-Heydemann Str. 6, 18057, Rostock, Germany.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Even the NEW SCIENTIST seems alarmed about Gwyneth and her activities:

Psychic readings, energy healing and vampire facials are just a few of the adventures had by actor and alternative health guru Gwyneth Paltrow and her team in her forthcoming Netflix series The Goop Lab. Goop, Paltrow’s natural health company, has already become a byword for unrestrained woo, but the TV series takes things to the next level.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can stick your fingers in your ears and pretend it isn’t happening. There is unlikely to be any escape from The Goop Lab after it is released on 24 January, judging by the current explosion of interest in Goop’s latest offering, a candle scented like Paltrow’s vagina, which has reportedly sold out…

Yet, I am sure we got her all wrong!

Good old Gwennie is really one of us – she is a true sceptic!

Think about it; it’s the only explanation.

When she first started dabbling in woo, she only wanted to test us. I’ll just display a few cupping marks and see how they react, she thought.

Image result for gwyneth paltrow, cupping

Then she saw that most people were so gullible that they bought it. Of course, she thought, if they buy it, I might as well take their money. In her attempt to see how far she can push her boat out, she decided to conduct a sceptical experiment and went further and further. This is when she started to focus on her vagina – jade eggs, steaming it, etc. Surely, she thought, eventually they must realise that I am a sceptic taking the Mikey!

But they never did realise it; at least not so far.

So, she decided to do something even more brazen and sell candles to dispense the smell of her vagina in the homes of her fans. That will do it, she felt, now they will realise what I want to achieve with all this.

But what happened? They sold out in no time (actually, both the candles and the gullible public)! That was a surprise even to our Gwennie. She thought she had seen it all, but she was wrong.

Image result for gwenyth paltro, vagina

Now she is trying to think of something even more outrageous – but she admits, it’s not easy. What can be a more obvious and disgusting hoax than filling people’ homes with the smell of my genitals and let them pay through their noses for the pleasure? she asks herself.

Yes, poor old Gwennie is at loss! Stuck in her own vagina, so to speak.

Perhaps you can help her? Please suggest what vaginal gimmick she might sell next to make her position inescapably clear to even the dumbest of the gullible. Just mention your ideas in the comment section below; I have a feeling she is an avid reader of this blog. Gwennie might even show herself generous; if she likes your innovation, she will certainly make it worth your while.

Because, by Jove, she can afford to be generous. Apparently her business is now worth a quarter of a billion US$. But we must not be envious. Knowing that she did all this merely to stimulate sceptical thinking in the general public, you will not be surprised to learn what she intends to do with all this dosh: once she has succeeded in demonstrating to all the gullible pin heads and devotees that she really is on the side of the angles, she will donate all of it to sceptic organisations across the globe.

So, sceptics of the world: stop snarling at my friend Gwennie, rejoice and prepare for a major windfall.

 

As reported previously the NHS NATURAL HEALTH SCHOOL in Harrogate, is a service that offered a range of free complementary therapy treatments to patients and their relatives who are affected by a cancer diagnosis and are either receiving their cancer treatment at Harrogate or live in the Harrogate and Rural District.

This NHS school offered alternative treatments to cancer patients and claim that they know from experience, that when Complementary Therapies are integrated into patient care we are able to deliver safe, high quality care which fulfils the needs of even the most complex of patients.

In addition, they also ran courses for alternative practitioners. Their reflexology course, for instance, covered all of the following:

  • Explore the history and origins of Reflexology
  • Explore the use of various mediums used in treatment including waxes, balms, powders and oils
  • Explore the philosophy of holism and its role within western bio medicine
  • Reading the feet/hands and mapping the reflex points
  • Relevant anatomy, physiology and pathology
  • Managing a wide range of conditions
  • Legal implications
  • Cautions and contraindications
  • Assessment and client care
  • Practical reflexology skills and routines
  • Treatment planning

I imagine that the initiators of the school are full of the very best, altruistic intentions. I therefore had considerable difficulties in criticising them. Yet, I do strongly feel that the NHS should be based on good evidence; and that much of the school’s offerings seemed to be the exact opposite. In fact, the NHS-label was being abused for giving undeserved credibility to outright quackery.

Therefore, I did something I do rarely: I filed an official complaint in September 2019.

What happened next?

Nothing!

I sent several reminders; and what happened then?

Almost nothing!

I got several assurances that a response was imminent.

And then I forgot all about it.

So, I was surprised to receive this email yesterday from the chief executive of the HARROGATE AND DISTRICT NHS FOUNDATION TRUST (I did not change or correct anything):

Dear Professor Ernst

Thank you for contacting our Chair about the Natural Health School and my apologies for the extended delay in replying to you.   We have reflected on the points you raised and I have set out a summary of this below in respect of the key issues.

  1. As a result of colleagues who set up the service having moved on to other posts outside of the Trust we have not been able to understand how the service was named.  However, I agree that the terminology “NHS Natural Health School” could be interpreted in a certain way and as such we have agreed it should instead be referred to as the Natural Health School only to avoid any interpretation that it has national NHS endorsement.  We will amend the information on the website and other material to reflect that the service is endorsed by the Trust.
  1. The service is hosted by HDFT, in that staff are employed by the Trust, but it is funded through charitable contributions.  No NHS resources are used in providing the school, or the complementary therapies which are provided to patients receiving treatment at the Sir Robert Ogden Centre.
  1. There is no intention to assert that the services provided (ie the complementary therapies) are treatment for cancer.  The ‘treatments’ referred to are complementary therapy treatments and are described as such.  They are focused on wellbeing concurrently to the medical treatment of cancer, and we are satisfied that this is clear in the current description.
  1. Whilst recognising the differences of views on the complementary therapy treatments, the service regularly secures feedback from patients and this has been positive and as such we continue to offer it to those patients who would wish to take it up.
  1. The school provides training to allow participants to achieve a qualification which is awarded at level 3 by the International Therapies Examination Council.

I hope this provides clarity on the context to the service.

Best wishes

… … …

___________________________________________________________________

I find this response more than a little unsatisfactory; here are just a few points I find worth mentioning:

  • As far as I can see, apart of the actual name of the school (it is now called ‘NATURAL HEALTH SCHOOL’), very little has changed. In particular, a NHS link is still implied in multiple different ways.
  • To claim that ‘we have not been able to understand how the service was named’ seems like someone is taking the Mikey.
  • So is the remark that ‘the terminology “NHS Natural Health School” could be interpreted in a certain way’.
  • The statement ‘there is no intention to assert that the services provided (ie the complementary therapies) are treatment for cancer’ is simply untrue; symptomatic treatment of cancer is still a treatment for cancer!
  • If the treatments are focussed on wellbeing, they nevertheless should be backed by evidence to show that they improve wellbeing. The label ‘complementary’ does not absolve a therapy from the need to be evidence-based.
  • There may be ‘different views’ on complementary therapies; yet, there is only one set of evidence – and that fails to support several of the treatments on offer.
  • Positive feedback from patients is no substitute for evidence.

I am not sure whether I should reply to the above letter. I take little pleasure in embarrassing chief excecutives.

WHAT DO YOU THINK I SHOULD DO?

 

 

I published this article 20 years ago! Yet, it is, I think, still relevant today. For the purpose of this blog, I have altered it marginally (mainly by using the acromym SCAM):

Whatever SCAM is, it is not an alternative to conventional medicine. Nevertheless, one might still ask why so many people pay for ‘unproven’ SCAM when they can have scientifically backed medicine at no extra expense. Chandola et al suggest that 44% who use CM hope for a cure, 30% fear adverse effects of mainstream drugs, and 27% are dissatisfied with conventional care. In a much larger survey conducted in the USA, Astin found that dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine was prevalent but did not predict use of SCAM. SCAM users tended to be better educated and to subscribe to a more ‘holistic’ philosophy of healthcare. Interestingly, they reported poorer health status than non-users. Moreover, SCAM attracts patients because it offers more personal autonomy or control and is less impersonal or high-tech than mainstream medicine. Finally patients, particularly those with chronic conditions, may simply try SCAM so as to leave no stone unturned.

‘Scientifically backed’ medicine may not be quite as helpful as one tends to assume at least not in the eyes of the patient. A survey of 1420 (mostly musculoskeletal) pain sufferers suggested that SCAMs were perceived as more successful than mainstream drugs. In fact, orthodox therapies such as parenteral injections and oral medications ranked only 8th and 11th, respectively. Perhaps more disturbingly, patients seem to experience the therapeutic encounter with SCAM practitioners as more satisfying, empathetic and informative than that with their general practitioners. While many physicians (rightly or wrongly) continue to see SCAM as a nuisance, maybe we should think again: SCAM’s popularity amounts to a biting criticism of mainstream medicine that ought to be taken seriously.

How are clinicians to reconcile the public demand for SCAM with the new zeal for evidence-based medicine? The apparently easy answer is to pursue a strategy of evidence-based SCAM. This is precisely what my department is doing. There are now about 2000 clinical trials in this diverse area. But clinical trials are often full of contradictions and seldom clarify clinical questions adequately. A US study, for instance, has contributed to increasing doubts about whether chiropractic is helpful for acute uncomplicated low back pain in a clinically relevant way. What we really need for informing clinicians’ decisions are systematic reviews incorporating the totality of the available data. For the past 5 years this has been the focus of my department’s work, and we have published a considerable number of such papers. The notion that SCAM is totally devoid of evidence is a cliché which, like many clichés, is not entirely true.

Undoubtedly, vast areas of uncertainty do remain. The more difficult question is, therefore, how should clinicians deal with their patients’ desire for SCAM in the absence of evidence? Embarrassingly few convincing answers are on offer. Physicians have become experts in dealing with uncertainty in many aspects of their work. A dose of common sense will usually go quite far. At the very least, doctors should know what type of treatments their patients are trying. Taking a detailed history should nowadays include asking specifically about use of SCAM. In order not to alienate patients, one should resist the temptation to be dismissive. If there are good reasons to warn of a certain form of SCAM, these are best offered in an objective manner. To give evidence-based advice, clinicians obviously have to be informed about the facts, and impartial information is hard to find. One ray of light in this relative darkness is the Cochrane Collaboration, which now has a ‘field’ working on SCAM. The number of systematic reviews available from the Cochrane database is growing rapidly.

Once a patient is using SCAM (with or against the doctor’s advice), it makes sense to monitor the effects. This increases the safety of the patient and contributes to the physician’s knowledge of and experience with SCAM. There is also a good argument for establishing working relationships with a selection of local SCAM therapists who have a good track record and adequate training. At present, communication between doctors and therapists is often poor or even non-existent. Surely this cannot be to the benefit of the patient.

For SCAM, the best chance of survival in a harsh climate of evidence-based medicine and increasing rationing of resources is to come up with the goods and demonstrate what treatments are effective, safe and cost-effective for which condition. For physicians, the best way of reconciling the ‘two worlds’ is to inform themselves adequately and guide their patients through the ‘SCAM maze’ with a generous helping of good common sense. For patients, last but not least, the best approach is to be cautious and remember that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

END OF QUOTE

Twenty years, and little has changed:

  1. There still are vast areas of uncertainty.
  2. Imparcial information about SCAM is still scarce.
  3. Patient demand for SCAM is still considerable.
  4. The implied criticism of conventional medicine is still not taken seriously.
  5. The communication between doctors and SCAM practitioners is still lamentable.
  6. Most doctors still do not include questions about SCAM in their medical history taking.
  7. Arguably, SCAM has become even less evidence-based.
  8. Most doctors remain blissfully uninformed about SCAM.
  9. Most of the claims made for SCAM are too good to be true.
  10.  …
  11. etc.

I think you get the gist.

According to WebMed, the shark cartilage (tough elastic tissue that provides support, much as bone does) used for medicine comes primarily from sharks caught in the Pacific Ocean. Several types of extracts are made from shark cartilage including squalamine lactate, AE-941, and U-995.

Shark cartilage is most famously used for cancer. Shark cartilage is also used for osteoarthritis, plaque psoriasis, age-related vision loss, wound healing, damage to the retina of the eye due to diabetes, and inflammation of the intestine (enteritis).

A more realistic picture is pained by this abstract:

The promotion of crude shark cartilage extracts as a cure for cancer has contributed to at least two significant negative outcomes: a dramatic decline in shark populations and a diversion of patients from effective cancer treatments. An alleged lack of cancer in sharks constitutes a key justification for its use. Herein, both malignant and benign neoplasms of sharks and their relatives are described, including previously unreported cases from the Registry of Tumors in Lower Animals, and two sharks with two cancers each. Additional justifications for using shark cartilage are illogical extensions of the finding of antiangiogenic and anti-invasive substances in cartilage. Scientific evidence to date supports neither the efficacy of crude cartilage extracts nor the ability of effective components to reach and eradicate cancer cells. The fact that people think shark cartilage consumption can cure cancer illustrates the serious potential impacts of pseudoscience. Although components of shark cartilage may work as a cancer retardant, crude extracts are ineffective. Efficiencies of technology (e.g., fish harvesting), the power of mass media to reach the lay public, and the susceptibility of the public to pseudoscience amplifies the negative impacts of shark cartilage use. To facilitate the use of reason as the basis of public and private decision-making, the evidence-based mechanisms of evaluation used daily by the scientific community should be added to the training of media and governmental professionals. Increased use of logical, collaborative discussion will be necessary to ensure a sustainable future for man and the biosphere.

To be clear: there is no good evidence that the supplements commercially available currently are effective for any condition.

Now, there is more news on this topic:

The objective of this study was to analyse labelling practices and compliance with regulatory standards for shark cartilage supplements sold in the United States. The product labels of 29 commercial shark cartilage supplements were assessed for compliance with U.S. regulations. Claims, including nutrient content, prohibited disease, and nutritional support statements, were examined for compliance and substantiation.

Overall, 48% of the samples had at least one instance of non-compliance with labelling regulations. The most common labelling violations observed were:

  • missing a domestic address/phone number,
  • non-compliant nutrient content claim,
  • missing/incomplete disclaimer,
  • missing statement of identity,
  • prohibited disease claims,
  • incomplete “Supplement Facts” label.

The use of prohibited disease claims and nutritional support statements without the required disclaimer is concerning from a public health standpoint because consumers may delay seeking professional treatment for a disease.

The authors concluded that the results of this study indicate a need for improved labelling compliance among shark cartilage supplements.

In summary, it seems that shark cartilage supplements are bad for all concerned:

  • Patients who rely on them might hasten their death.
  • Sharks are becoming an endangered species.
  • Consumers are being mislead and misinformed.

There is just one party smiling: the supplement manufacturers who make a healthy profit destroying the health of gullible consumers and patients.

We have discussed the tragic case of John Lawler before. Today, the Mail carries a long article about it. Here I merely want to summarise the sequence of events and highlight the role of the GCC.

  • In 2017, Mr Lawler, aged 79 at the time, has a history of back problems, including back surgery with metal implants and suffers from pain in his leg.
  • His GP recommends to consult a physiotherapist.
  • As waiting lists are too long, Mr Lawler sees a chiropractor shortly after his 80th birthday who calls herself ‘doctor’ and who he assumes to be a medic specialising in back pain.
  • The chiropractor uses a spinal manipulation of the neck with the drop table.
  • There is no evidence that this treatment is effective for pain in the leg.
  • No informed consent is obtained from the patient.
  • This is acutely painful and brakes the calcified ligaments of Mr Lawler’s upper spine.
  • Mr Lawler is immediately paraplegic.
  • The chiropractor who had no training in resuscitation is panicked tries mouth to mouth.
  • Bending the patient’s neck backwards the chiropractor further compresses his spinal cord.
  • When ambulance arrives, the chiropractor misleads the paramedics telling them nothing about a forceful neck manipulation with the drop and suspecting a stroke.
  • Thus the paramedics do not stabilise the patient’s neck which could have saved his life.
  • Mr Lawler dies the next day in hospital.
  • The chiropractor is arrested immediately by the police but then released on bail.
  • The expert advising the police is a prominent chiropractor.
  • One bail condition is not to practise, pending a hearing by the GCC.
  • The GCC decide not to take any action.
  • The police therefore release the bail conditions and she goes back to practising.
  • The interim suspension hearing of the GCC is being held in September 2017.
  • The deceased’s son wants to attend but is not allowed to be present at the hearing even though such events are normally public.
  • The coroner’s inquest starts in 2019.
  • In November 2019, a coroner rules that Mr Lawler died of respiratory depression.
  • The coroner also calls on the GCC to bring in pre-treatment imaging to protect vulnerable patients.
  • The GCC announce that they will now continue their inquiry to determine whether or not chiropractor will be struck off the register.

The son of the deceased is today quoted stating that the GCC “seems to be a little self-regulatory chiropractic bubble where chiropractors regulate chiropractors.”

I sympathise with this statement. On this blog, I have repeatedly voiced my concerns about the GCC – see here, for instance – which I therefore do not need to repeat. My opinion of the GCC is also coloured by a personal experience which I will quickly recount now:

A long time ago (I estimate 10 – 15 years), the GCC invited me to give a lecture and I accepted. I do not remember the exact subject they had given me, but I clearly recall elaborating on the risks of spinal manipulation. This was not too well received. When I had finished, a discussion ensued in which I was accused of not knowing my subject and aggressed for daring to ctiticise chiropractic. I had, of couse, given the lecture assuming they wanted to hear my criticism. In the end, I left with the impression that this assumption was wrong and that they really just wanted to lecture, humiliate and punish me for having been a long-term critic of their trade.

I therefore can fully understand of David Lawler’s opinion about the GCC. To me, they certainly behaved as though their aim was not to protect the public, but to defend chiropractors from criticism.

It has been reported that pharmacies in New Zealand continue to ignore a code of ethics that requires them to inform customers, if a product has no evidence of efficacy. The code of ethics states: “Pharmacists must advise patients when scientific support for treatment is lacking.”

Eight Auckland pharmacies were visited to enquire about a homeopathic product for sale. Pharmacy staff were asked what they knew about a homeopathic product on their shelves and if it worked. All failed to share information about the lack of scientific evidence showing the product works. Instead, they claimed that homeopathic solution of arnica sold as a treatment for injuries, bruising and post-surgery trauma “works really, really well”, was “awesome” and could also cure headaches. One salesperson checked with the pharmacist whether the product was suitable for swelling post-surgery and was told it was fine as long as no other medication was being taken at the same time.

There is no credible evidence the highly diluted homeopathic remedies sold by pharmacists work better than a placebo. Homeopathy’s effectiveness has been rejected by many scientists and by large government reviews conducted in the UK, Australia and Europe.

Even if a staff member personally believes a homeopathic product works, guidelines referenced by the code of ethics say this should not sway the information given to the customer: “Patients must be made aware of the likely effectiveness of a given therapy according to recognised peer-reviewed medical publications, in spite of your personal beliefs.”

Shortly after the code was changed in March 2018, Newsroom performed the same secret shopper experiment at four pharmacies and found the new rule was not followed. Eighteen months on, nothing has improved.

The chair of the consumer advocate group the ‘Society for Science Based Healthcare’, Mark Hanna, said there was no excuse for pharmacies to sell this kind of thing without warning. “Pharmacists should know better. Full stop. They should not be misleading their patients, they should not be letting their staff mislead their patients. If they don’t know, that’s incompetence. I would expect to be given reasonable, evidence-based advice, possibly some different options with the reason why I might choose one over the other. I wouldn’t expect to be misled and sold something that wouldn’t work.

Asked why the code was not being followed a spokesperson of the NZ pharmacists said a reminder of the code of ethics had been sent to pharmacies in June. It was recommended all staff be made aware of the code: “We encourage you to share this protocol with your entire team – even though it is a protocol for pharmacists, the reasoning also extends to other staff members in the pharmacy and it is important that all staff ensure that the patient has been provided with sufficient information to make an informed choice.”

By Jove, we have discussed this issue often enough. If you are interested, here are a few of my more recent posts on this subject:

But pharmacists seem utterly reluctant to change – in NZ or elsewhere. Why? Could it have something to do with money?

If doctors violate their code of ethics, they face being reprimanded by their professional body. It is high time that the same happens with pharmacists, I feel.

On 11/11/2019, the York Press reported from coroner’s inquest regarding a chiropractor who allegedly killed a patient. John Lawler suffered a broken neck while being treated by a chiropractor for an aching leg, an inquest has been told. His widow told how her husband was on the treatment table when things started to go wrong. She said he started shouting at chiropractor Dr Arleen Scholten: “You are hurting me. You are hurting me.” Then he began moaning and then said: “I can’t feel my arms.”

Mrs Lawler said Scholten tried to turn him over and then manoeuvred him into a chair next to the treatment table but he had become unresponsive. “He was like a rag doll,” she said. “His lips looked a little bit blue but I knew he was breathing. “I said ‘Has he had a stroke?’ She put his head back and said ‘no, his features are symmetrical’.

When the paramedics arrived, they treated Mr Lawler and to hospital. He had an MRI scan and a doctor told Mrs Lawler that he had suffered a broken neck. She was then informed that her husband was a paraplegic and he could undergo a 14 hour operation which would be traumatic but even before that could happen he “faded away” and died.

__________________________________________

There are, as far as I can see, four issues of interest here:

  1. It could be that Mr Lawler had osteoporosis; we will no doubt hear about this in the course of the inquest. If so, normal force could have led to the fracture, and the chiropractor would claim that she is not to blame for the fracture and the subsequent death of her patient. The question then would be whether she was under an obligation to check whether, in a man of Mr Lawler’s age, his bone density was normal or whether she could just assume that it was. In my view, any clinician applying a potentially harmful therapy has the obligation to make sure there are no contra-indications to it. If that all is so, the chiropractor might have been both negligent and reckless.
  2. Has neck manipulation been shown to be effective for any type of pain in the leg? That’s an easy one: No!
  3. Has the chiropractor obtained informed consent from her patient before commencing the treatment? The inquest will no doubt verify this. As many chiropractors fail to do it, I would not be too surprised if, in the present case, this was also not done. Should that be so, the chiropractor would have been negligent.
  4. One might be surprised to hear that the chiropractor manipulated the neck of a patient who consulted her not because of neck pain but because of a condition seemingly unrelated to the neck. This is an issue that comes up regularly and which is therefore importan; some people might be aware that it is dangerous to see a chiropractor when suffering from neck pain because he/she is bound to manipulate the neck. By contrast, most people would probably think it is ok to consult a chiropractor when suffering from lower back pain, because manipulations in that region is far less risky. The truth, however, is that chiropractors have been taught that the spine is one organ and one entity. Thus they tend to check for subluxations (or whatever name they give to the non-existing condition they all aim to treat) in every region of the spine. If they find one in the neck – and they usually do – they would ‘adjust’ it, meaning they would apply one or more high-velocity, low-amplitude thrusts and manipulate the neck. This could well be, I think, how the chiropractor in the case that is before the court at present came to manipulate the neck of her patient. And this might be how poor Mr Lawler lost his life.

Is there a lesson to be learnt from this tragic case?

Yes, I think there is: if you want to make sure that a chiropractor does not break your neck, don’t go and consult one – whatever your health problem happens to be.

 

 

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.

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