Robert Verkerk, Executive & scientific director, Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), seems to adore me (maybe that’s why I kept this post for Valentine’s Day?). In 2006, he published this article about me (it is lengthy, and I therefore shortened a bit, but feel free to study it in its full beauty):
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PROFESSOR EDZARD ERNST, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, gets lots of exposure for his often overtly negative views on complementary medicine. He’s become the media’s favourite resource for a view on this controversial subject…
The interesting thing about Prof Ernst is that he seems to have come a long way from his humble beginnings as a recipient of the therapies that he now seems so critical of. Profiled by Geoff Watts in the British Medical Journal, the Prof tells us: ‘Our family doctor in the little village outside Munich where I grew up was a homoeopath. My mother swore by it. As a kid I was treated homoeopathically. So this kind of medicine just came naturally. Even during my studies I pursued other things like massage therapy and acupuncture. As a young doctor I had an appointment in a homeopathic hospital, and I was very impressed with its success rate. My boss told me that much of this success came from discontinuing main stream medication. This made a big impression on me.’ (BMJ Career Focus 2003; 327:166; doi:10.1136/bmj.327.7425.s166)…
After his early support for homeopathy, Professor Ernst has now become, de facto, one of its main opponents. Robin McKie, science editor for The Observer (December 18, 2005) reported Ernst as saying, ‘Homeopathic remedies don’t work. Study after study has shown it is simply the purest form of placebo. You may as well take a glass of water than a homeopathic medicine.’ Ernst, having done the proverbial 180 degree turn, has decided to stand firmly shoulder to shoulder with a number of other leading assailants of non-pharmaceutical therapies, such as Professors Michael Baum and Jonathan Waxman. On 22 May 2006, Baum and twelve other mainly retired surgeons, including Ernst himself, bandied together and co-signed an open letter, published in The Times, which condemned the NHS decision to include increasing numbers of complementary therapies…
As high profile as the Ernsts, Baums and Waxmans of this world might be—their views are not unanimous across the orthodox medical profession. Some of these contrary views were expressed just last Sunday in The Sunday Times (Lost in the cancer maze, 10 December 2006)…
The real loser in open battles between warring factions in healthcare could be the consumer. Imagine how schizophrenic you could become after reading any one of the many newspapers that contains both pro-natural therapy articles and stinging attacks like that found in this week’s Daily Mail. But then again, we may misjudge the consumer who is well known for his or her ability to vote with the feet—regardless. The consumer, just like Robert Sandall, and the millions around the world who continue to indulge in complementary therapies, will ultimately make choices that work for them. ‘Survival of the fittest’ could provide an explanation for why hostile attacks from the orthodox medical community, the media and over-zealous regulators have not dented the steady increase in the popularity of alternative medicine.
Although we live in a technocratic age where we’ve handed so much decision making to the specialists, perhaps this is one area where the might of the individual will reign. Maybe the disillusionment many feel for pharmaceutically-biased healthcare is beginning to kick in. Perhaps the dictates from the white coats will be overruled by the ever-powerful survival instinct and our need to stay in touch with nature, from which we’ve evolved.
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Elsewhere, Robert Verkerk even called me the ‘master trickster of evidence-based medicine’ and stated that Prof Ernst and his colleagues appear to be evaluating the ‘wrong’ variable. As Ernst himself admitted, his team are focused on exploring only one of the variables, the ‘specific therapeutic effect’ (Figs 1 and 2). It is apparent, however, that the outcome that is of much greater consequence to healthcare is the combined effect of all variables, referred to by Ernst as the ‘total effect’ (Fig 1). Ernst does not appear to acknowledge that the sum of these effects might differ greatly between experimental and non-experimental situations.
Adding insult to injury, Ernst’s next major apparent faux pas involves his interpretation, or misinterpretation, of results. These fundamental problems exist within a very significant body of Prof Ernst’s work, particularly that which has been most widely publicised because it is so antagonistic towards healing cultures that have in many cases existed and evolved over thousands of years.
By example, a recent ‘systematic review’ of individualised herbal medicine undertaken by Ernst and colleagues started with 1345 peer-reviewed studies. However, all but three (0.2%) of the studies (RCTs) were rejected. These three RCTs in turn each involved very specific types of herbal treatment, targeting patients with IBS, knee osteoarthritis and cancer, the latter also undergoing chemotherapy, respectively. The conclusions of the study, which fuelled negative media worldwide, disconcertingly extended well beyond the remit of the study or its results. An extract follows: “Individualised herbal medicine, as practised in European medical herbalism, Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, has a very sparse evidence base and there is no convincing evidence that it is effective in any [our emphasis] indication. Because of the high potential for adverse events and negative herb-herb and herb-drug interactions, this lack of evidence for effectiveness means that its use cannot be recommended (Postgrad Med J 2007; 83: 633-637).
Robert Verkerk has recently come to my attention again – as the main author of a lengthy report published in December 2018. Its ‘Executive Summary’ makes the following points relevant in the context of this blog (the numbers in his text were added by me and refer to my comments below):
- This position paper proposes a universal framework, based on ecological and sustainability principles, aimed at allowing qualified health professionals (1), regardless of their respective modalities (disciplines), to work collaboratively and with full participation of the public in efforts to maintain or regenerate health and wellbeing. Accordingly, rather than offering ‘fixes’ for the NHS, the paper offers an approach that may significantly reduce the NHS’s current and growing disease burden that is set to reach crisis point given current levels of demand and funding.
- A major factor driving the relentlessly rising costs of the NHS is its over-reliance on pharmaceuticals (2) to treat a variety of preventable, chronic disorders. These (3) are the result — not of infection or trauma — but rather of our 21st century lifestyles, to which the human body is not well adapted. The failure of pharmaceutically-based approaches to slow down, let alone reverse, the dual burden of obesity and type 2 diabetes means wider roll-out of effective multi-factorial approaches are desperately needed (4).
- The NHS was created at a time when infectious diseases were the biggest killers (5). This is no longer the case, which is why the NHS must become part of a wider system that facilitates health regeneration or maintenance. The paper describes the major mechanisms underlying these chronic metabolic diseases, which are claiming an increasingly large portion of NHS funding. It identifies 12 domains of human health, many of which are routinely thrown out of balance by our contemporary lifestyles. The most effective way of treating lifestyle disorders is with appropriate lifestyle changes that are tailored to individuals, their needs and their circumstances. Such approaches, if appropriately supported and guided, tend to be far more economical and more sustainable as a means of maintaining or restoring people’s health (6).
- A sustainable health system, as proposed in this position paper, is one in which the individual becomes much more responsible for maintaining his or her own health and where more effort is invested earlier in an individual’s life prior to the downstream manifestation of chronic, degenerative and preventable diseases (7). Substantially more education, support and guidance than is typically available in the NHS today will need to be provided by health professionals (1), informed as necessary by a range of markers and diagnostic techniques (8). Healthy dietary and lifestyle choices and behaviours (9) are most effective when imparted early, prior to symptoms of chronic diseases becoming evident and before additional diseases or disorders (comorbidities) have become deeply embedded.
- The timing of the position paper’s release coincides not only with a time when the NHS is in crisis, but also when the UK is deep in negotiations over its extraction from the European Union (EU). The paper includes the identification of EU laws that are incompatible with sustainable health systems, that the UK would do well to reject when the time comes to re-consider the British statute books following the implementation of the Great Repeal Bill (10).
- This paper represents the first comprehensive attempt to apply sustainability principles to the management of human health in the context of our current understanding of human biology and ecology, tailored specifically to the UK’s unique situation. It embodies approaches that work with, rather than against, nature (11). Sustainability principles have already been applied successfully to other sectors such as energy, construction and agriculture.
- It is now imperative that the diverse range of interests and specialisms (12) involved in the management of human health come together. We owe it to future generations to work together urgently, earnestly and cooperatively to develop and thoroughly evaluate new ways of managing and creating health in our society. This blueprint represents a collaborative effort to give this process much needed momentum.
My very short comments:
- I fear that this is meant to include SCAM-practitioners who are neither qualified nor skilled to tackle such tasks.
- Dietary supplements (heavily promoted by the ANH) either have pharmacological effects, in which case they too must be seen as pharmaceuticals, or they are useless, in which case we should not promote them.
- I think ‘some of these’ would be more correct.
- Multifactorial yes, but we must make sure that useless SCAMs are not being pushed in through the back-door. Quackery must not be allowed to become a ‘factor’.
- Only, if we discount cancer and arteriosclerosis, I think.
- SCAM-practitioners have repeatedly demonstrated to be a risk to public health.
- All we know about disease prevention originates from conventional medicine and nothing from SCAM.
- Informed by…??? I would prefer ‘based on evidence’ (evidence being one term that the report does not seem to be fond of).
- All healthy dietary and lifestyle choices and behaviours that are backed by good evidence originate from and are part of conventional medicine, not SCAM.
- Do I detect the nasty whiff a pro-Brexit attitude her? I wonder what the ANH hopes for in a post-Brexit UK.
- The old chestnut of conventional medicine = unnatural and SCAM = natural is being warmed up here, it seems to me. Fallacy galore!
- The ANH would probably like to include a few SCAM-practitioners here.
Call me suspicious, but to me this ANH-initiative seems like a clever smoke-screen behind which they hope to sell their useless dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies to the unsuspecting British public. Am I mistaken?
If so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) ever were to enter the Guinness Book of Records, it would most certainly be because it generates more surveys than any other area of medical inquiry. I have long been rather sceptical about this survey-mania. Therefore, I greet any major new survey with some trepidation.
The aim of this new survey was to obtain up-to-date general population figures for practitioner-led SCAM use in England, and to discover people’s views and experiences regarding access. The researchers commissioned a face-to-face questionnaire survey of a nationally representative adult quota sample (aged ≥15 years). Ten questions were included within Ipsos MORI’s weekly population-based survey. The questions explored 12-month practitioner-led SCAM use, reasons for non-use, views on NHS-provided SCAM, and willingness to pay.
Of 4862 adults surveyed, 766 (16%) had seen a SCAM practitioner. People most commonly visited SCAM practitioners for manual therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic) and acupuncture, as well as yoga, pilates, reflexology, and mindfulness or meditation. Women, people with higher socioeconomic status (SES) and those in south England were more likely to access SCAM. Musculoskeletal conditions (mainly back pain) accounted for 68% of use, and mental health 12%. Most was through self-referral (70%) and self-financing. GPs (17%) or NHS professionals (4%) referred and/or recommended SCAM to users. These SCAM users were more often unemployed, with lower income and social grade, and receiving NHS-funded SCAM. Responders were willing to pay varying amounts for SCAM; 22% would not pay anything. Almost two in five responders felt NHS funding and GP referral and/or endorsement would increase their SCAM use.
The authors concluded that SCAM is commonly used in England, particularly for musculoskeletal and mental health problems, and by affluent groups paying privately. However, less well-off people are also being GP-referred for NHS-funded treatments. For SCAM with evidence of effectiveness (and cost-effectiveness), those of lower SES may be unable to access potentially useful interventions, and access via GPs may be able to address this inequality. Researchers, patients, and commissioners should collaborate to research the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of SCAM, and consider its availability on the NHS.
I feel that a few critical thoughts are in order:
- The authors call their survey an ‘up-date’. The survey ran between 25 September and 18 October 2015. That is more than three years ago. I would not exactly call this an up-date!
- Authors (several of whom are known SCAM-enthusiasts) also state that practitioner-led SCAM use was about 5% higher than previous national (UK and England) surveys. This may relate to the authors’ wider SCAM definition, which included 11 more therapies than Hunt et al (a survey from my team), or increased SCAM use since 2005. Despite this uncertainty, the authors write this: Figures from 2005 reported that 12% of the English population used practitioner-led CAM. This 2015 survey has found that 16% of the general population had used practitioner-led CAM in the previous 12 months. Thus, they imply that SCAM-use has been increasing.
- The main justification for running yet another survey presumably was to determine whether SCAM-use has increased, decreased or remained the same (virtually everything else found in the new survey had been shown many times before). To not answer this main question conclusively by asking the same questions as a previous survey is just daft, in my view. We have used the same survey methods at two points one decade apart and found little evidence for an increase, on the contrary: overall, GPs were less likely to endorse CAMs than previously shown (38% versus 19%).
- The main reason why I have long been critical about such surveys is the manner in which their data get interpreted. The present paper is no exception in this respect. Invariably the data show that SCAM is used by those who can afford it. This points to INEQUALITY that needs to be addressed by allowing much more SCAM on the public purse. In other words, such surveys are little more that very expensive and somewhat under-hand promotion of quackery.
- Yes, I know, the present authors are more clever than that; they want the funds limited to SCAM with evidence of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. So, why do they not list those SCAMs together with the evidence for effectiveness and cost-effectiveness? This would enable us to check the validity of the claim that more public money should fund SCAM. I think I know why: such SCAMs do not exist or, at lest, they are extremely rare.
But otherwise the new survey was excellent.
The PGIH (currently chaired by the Tory MP David Tredinnick) was founded in 1992 (in the mid 1990, they once invited me to give a lecture which I did with pleasure). Its overriding aim is to bring about improvements in patient care. The PGIH have conducted a consultation that involved 113 SCAM-organisations and other stakeholders. The new PGIH-report is based on their feedback and makes 14 recommendations. They are all worth studying but, to keep this post concise, I have selected the three that fascinated me most:
Evidence Base and Research
NICE guidelines are too narrow and do not ﬁt well with models of care such as complementary, traditional and natural therapies, and should incorporate qualitative evidence and patient outcomes measures as well as RCT evidence. Complementary, traditional and natural healthcare associations should take steps to educate and advise their members on the use of Measure Yourself Medical Outcome Proﬁles (MYMOP), and patient outcome measures should be collated by an independent central resource to identify for what conditions patients are seeking treatment, and with what outcomes.
Every cancer patient and their families should be offered complementary therapies as part of their treatment package to support them in their cancer journey. Cancer centres and hospices providing access to complementary therapies should be encouraged to make wider use of Measure Yourself Concerns and Wellbeing (MYCaW) to evaluate the beneﬁts gained by patients using complementary therapies in cancer support care. Co-ordinated research needs to be carried out, both clinical trials and qualitative studies, on a range of complementary, traditional and natural therapies used in cancer care support.
The government should run NHS pilot projects which look at non-conventional ways of treating patients with long-term and chronic conditions affected by Effectiveness Gaps, such as stress, arthritis, asthma and musculoskeletal problems, and audit these results against conventional treatment options for these conditions to determine whether cost savings and better patient outcomes could be achieved.
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Here are a few brief comments on those three recommendations.
Evidence base and research
NICE guidelines are based on rigorous assessments of efficacy, safety and costs. Such evaluations are possible for all interventions, including SCAM. Qualitative data are useless for this purpose. Outcome measures like the MYMOP are measures that can and are used in clinical trials. To use them outside clinical trials would not provide any relevant information about the specific effects of SCAM because this cannot account for confounding factors like the natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean, etc. The entire paragraph disclosed a remarkable level of naivety and ignorance about research on behalf of the PGIH.
There is already a significant amount of research on SCAM for cancer (see for instance here). It shows that no SCAM is effective in curing any form of cancer, and that only very few SCAMs can effectively improve the quality of life of cancer patients. Considering these facts, the wholesale recommendation of offering SCAM to cancer patients can only be characterised as dangerous quackery.
Such a pilot project has already been conducted at the behest of Price Charles (see here). Its results show that flimsy research will generate flimsy findings. If anything, a rigorous trial would be needed to test whether more SCAM on the NHS saves or costs money. The data currently available suggests that the latter is the case (see also here, here, here, here, etc.).
Altogether, one gets the impression that the PGIH need to brush up on their science and knowledge (if they invite me, I’d be delighted to give them another lecture). As it stands, it seems unlikely that their approach will, in fact, bring about improvements in patient care.
An article alerted me to a new report on alternative medicine in the NHS. The report itself is so monumentally important that I cannot find it anywhere (if someone finds a link, please let us know). Behind it is our homeopathy-loving friend David Tredinnick MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group. I am sure you remember him; he is ‘perhaps the worst example of scientific illiteracy in government’. And what has David been up to now?
His new report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated Healthcare is urging the NHS to embrace more medicine to ease the mounting burden on service provision. It claims that more patients suffer from two or more long-term health conditions than ever before, and that their number will amount to 18 million by 2025.
And the solution?
Isn’t it obvious?
David Tredinnick MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, insists that the current approach being taken by the government is unsustainable for the long-term future of the country. “Despite positive signs that ministers are proving open to change, words must translate into reality. For some time our treasured NHS has faced threats to its financial sustainability and to common trust in the system. Multimorbidity is more apparent now in the UK than at any time in our recent history. As a trend it threatens to swamp a struggling NHS, but the good news is that many self-limiting conditions can be treated at home with the most minimal of expert intervention. Other European governments facing similar challenges have considered the benefits of exploring complementary, traditional and natural medicines. If we are to hand on our most invaluable institution to future generations, so should we.”
Hold on, this sounds familiar!
Wasn’t there something like it before?
Yes, of course, the ‘Smallwood Report‘, commissioned over a decade ago by Prince Charles. It also proclaimed that the NHS could save plenty of money, if it employed more bogus therapies. But it was so full of errors and wrong conclusions that its impact on the NHS was close to zero. At the time, I concluded that the ‘Smallwood report’ is one of the strangest examples of an attempt to review CAM that I have ever seen. One gets the impression that its conclusions were written before the authors had searched for evidence that might match them. Both Mr Smallwood and the ‘Freshminds’ team told me that they understand neither health care nor CAM. Mr Smallwood stressed that this is positive as it prevents him from being ‘accused of bias’. My response was that ‘severely flawed research methodology almost inevitably leads to bias’.
And which other European countries might the Tory Brexiter David refer to?
Sadly, I have not seen Tredinnick’s new oeuvre and do not know its precise content. What I do know, however, that the evidence, for alternative medicine’s cost effectiveness has not improved; if anything, it has become more negative. From that, one can safely conclude that Tredinnick’s notions of NHS-savings through more use of alternative medicine are erroneous. Therefore, I suspect the new report will swiftly and deservedly go the same way as its predecessor, the ‘Smallwood Report’: straight into the bins of Westminster.
The Spanish Ministries of Health and Sciences have announced their ‘Health Protection Plan against Pseudotherapies’. Very wisely, they have included chiropractic under this umbrella. To a large degree, this is the result of Spanish sceptics pointing out that alternative therapies are a danger to public health, helped perhaps a tiny bit also by the publication of two of my books (see here and here) in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, such delelopments alarm Spanish chiropractors who fear for their livelihoods. A quickly-written statement of the AEQ (Spanish Chiropractic Association) is aimed at averting the blow. It makes the following 11 points (my comments are below):
1. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines chiropractic as a healthcare profession. It is independent of any other health profession and it is neither a therapy nor a pseudotherapy.
2. Chiropractic is statutorily recognised as a healthcare profession in many European countries including Portugal, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom10, as well as in the USA, Canada and Australia, to name a few.
3. Chiropractic members of the AEQ undergo university-level training of at least 5 years full-time (300 ECTS points). Chiropractic training is offered within prestigious institutions such as the Medical Colleges of the University of Zurich and the University of Southern Denmark.
4. Chiropractors are spinal health care experts. Chiropractors practice evidence-based, patient-centred conservative interventions, which include spinal manipulation, exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice.
5. The use of these interventions for the treatment of spine-related disorders is consistent with guidelines and is supported by high quality scientific evidence, including multiple systematic reviews undertaken by the prestigious Cochrane collaboration15, 16, 17.
6. The Global Burden of Disease study shows that spinal disorders are the leading cause of years lived with disability worldwide, exceeding depression, breast cancer and diabetes.
7. Interventions used by chiropractors are recommended in the 2018 Low Back Pain series of articles published in The Lancet and clinical practice guidelines from Denmark, Canada, the European Spine Journal, American College of Physicians and the Global Spine Care Initiative.
8. The AEQ supports and promotes scientific research, providing funding and resources for the development of high quality research in collaboration with institutions of high repute, such as Fundación Jiménez Díaz and the University of Alcalá de Henares.
9. The AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based, patient-centred care, consistent with a biopsychosocial model of health.
10. The AEQ demands the highest standards of practice and professional ethics, by implementing among its members the Quality Standard UNE-EN 16224 “Healthcare provision by chiropractors”, issued by the European Committee of Normalisation and ratified by AENOR.
11. The AEQ urges the Spanish Government to regulate chiropractic as a healthcare profession. Without such legislation, citizens of Spain cannot be assured that they are protected from unqualified practitioners and will continue to face legal uncertainties and barriers to access an essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service.
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I think that some comments might be in order (they follow the numbering of the AEQ):
- The WHO is the last organisation I would consult for information on alternative medicine; during recent years, they have published mainly nonsense on this subject. How about asking the inventor of chiropractic? D.D. Palmer defined it as “a science of healing without drugs.” Chiropractors nowadays prefer to be defined as a profession which has the advantage that one cannot easily pin them down for doing mainly spinal manipulation; if one does, they indignantly respond “but we also use many other interventions, like life-style advice, for instance, and nobody can claim this to be nonsense” (see also point 4 below).
- Perfect use of a classical fallacy: appeal to authority.
- Appeal to authority, plus ignorance of the fact that teaching nonsense even at the highest level must result in nonsense.
- This is an ingenious mix of misleading arguments and lies: most chiros pride themselves of treating also non-spinal conditions. Very few interventions used by chiros are evidence-based. Exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice are hardy typical for chiros and can all be obtained more authoratively from other healthcare professionals.
- Plenty of porkies here too. For instance, the AEQ cite three Cochrane reviews. The first concluded that high-quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between SMT and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain. The second stated that combined chiropractic interventions slightly improved pain and disability in the short term and pain in the medium term for acute/subacute LBP. However, there is currently no evidence that supports or refutes that these interventions provide a clinically meaningful difference for pain or disability in people with LBP when compared to other interventions. And the third concluded that, although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and QoL, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse. Publication bias cannot be ruled out. Research designed to protect against various biases is needed. Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up. Since the risk of rare but serious adverse events for manipulation exists, further high-quality research focusing on mobilisation and comparing mobilisation or manipulation versus other treatment options is needed to guide clinicians in their optimal treatment choices. Hardly the positive endorsement implied by the AEQ!
- Yes, but that is not an argument for chiropractic; in fact, it’s another fallacy.
- Did they forget the many guidelines, institutions and articles that do NOT recommend chiropractic?
- I believe the cigarette industry also sponsors research; should we therefore all start smoking?
- I truly doubt that the AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based healthcare; if they did, they would have to discourage spinal manipulation!
- The ‘highest standards of practice and professional ethics’ are clearly not compatible with chiropractors’ use of spinal manipulation. In our recent book, we explained in full detail why this is so.
- An essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service? Chiropractic is certainly not essential, rarely high-quality, and clearly not evidence-based.
Nice try AEQ.
But not good enough, I am afraid.
Many people seem to be amazed at my continued activities (e. g. blog, books, lectures, interviews) aimed at telling the truth about homeopathy and other alternative modalities. They ask themselves: why does he do it? And sometimes I ask myself the same question. I certainly don’t do it because I receive any money for my work (as many of my critics have assumed in the past).
Let me briefly offer just 7 of the most obvious reasons why I feel it is important to tell the truth about homeopathy and similar treatments:
1. The truth is invaluable
I probably do not need to explain this at all. For any responsible person the truth has an intrinsic value that cannot be doubted. In our book, we conclude that “the truth-violating nature of CAM renders it immoral in both theory and practice.”
2. Untruths make a mockery of EBM
If we accept that, in the realm of alternative medicine, it is permissible to apply a different standard than in evidence-based medicine (EBM), we make a mockery of EBM. Double standards are hugely counter-productive and not in the interest of patients.
3. The truth promotes rationality
If the proponents of a modality such as homeopathy promote concepts that fly in the face of science, they undermine rational thinking. Believing in a vital force or energy is just one of many examples for this phenomenon. Undermining rationality can have negative effects far beyond healthcare and reminds me of Voltaire’s bon mot: “Those who make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
4. It is ethical
Healthcare have the ethical duty to work towards patients receiving the best treatments available. If a therapy like homeopathy fails to be demonstrably effective, it cannot possibly fall into this category. Therefore, responsible healthcare professionals must help to improve healthcare by disclosing the evidence against homeopathy.
5. It might save money
The money spent on homeopathy and other ineffective alternative treatments is considerable. Disclosing the fact that they are not effective will help stopping people to waste their money on them. Telling the truth about homeopathy and similarly ineffective therapies would therefore save funds that can be used more efficiently elsewhere.
6. It might save lives
Because they usually are free of active molecules, homeopathic remedies are often seen as a safe treatments. However, homeopathy can nevertheless harm and even kill patients, if they use it as an alternative medicines in cases of severe illness. It follows that telling the truth about homeopathy’s ineffectiveness can save lives.
7. It could counter-balance the multiple lies that are being told.
We all have seen the multitude of untruths that are being told about the value of homeopathy (if you haven’t, you ought to read SCAM). The multitude of falsehoods seriously misleads many consumers into believing that homeopathy is a valuable therapeutic option for many conditions. I feel strongly that it is my moral duty as an independent expert to counter-balance this plethora of lies in order to minimise the harm it is doing.
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:
- Someone dreams up a ‘cure’ for all cancers that is cheap and free of side-effects.
- This appeals to many desperate cancer patients who are fighting for their lives.
- It also attracts several entrepreneurs who are hoping to make a fast buck.
- The story is picked up by the press and consequently a sizable grass-roots movement of support emerges.
- Populist politicians jump on the vote-winning band-waggon.
- The experts caution that the bogus cancer ‘cure’ is devoid of evidence and might put patients’ lives at risk.
- The legislators get involved.
- Law suits start left, right and centre.
- Eventually, the cancer ‘cure’ is scientifically tested and confirmed to be bogus.
- Eventually, the law rules against the bogus ‘cure’.
- A conspiracy theory emerges stating that the cancer ‘cure’ was unjustly suppressed to protect the interests of Big Pharma.
- 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.
Professor Frass is well known to most people interested in homeopathy. He has also featured several times on this blog (see here, here and here). Frass has achieved what few homeopaths have: he has integrated homeopathy into a major medical school, the Medical School of the University of Vienna (my former faculty). In 2002, he started teaching homeopathy to medical students, and in 2004, he opened an out-patient clinic ‘Homeopathy for malignant diseases’ at the medical school.
This achievement was widely used for boosting the reputation of homeopathy; the often heard argument was that ‘homeopathy must be good and evidence-based, because a major medical school has adopted it’. This argument is now obsolete: Frass’ lectures have recently been axed!
Apparently, several students*** filed complaints with their dean about Frass’ lectures. This prompted the dean, Prof Mueller, to look into the matter and take drastic action. He is quoted stating that “the medical faculty rejects unscientific methods and quackery”.
Frass had repeatedly been seen on television claiming that homeopathy could be an effective adjuvant therapy for cancer, and that he had studies to prove it. Such statements had irritated Mueller who then instructed Frass in writing to abstain from such claims and to close his homeopathic out-patient clinic at the University. The matter was also brought to the attention of the University’s ethics committee which decided that Frass’ studies were not suited to provide a scientific proof.
Frass commented saying that he is not surprised about criticism because homeopathy is difficult to understand. He will retire next year from the University and will probably continue his homeopathic practice in a private setting.
(If you can read German, this article in the Austrian paper DER STANDARD has more details)
***as they had invited me to give a lecture on homeopathy some time ago, I like to think that I might have something to do with all this.
The inventor of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was a German physician. It is therefore not surprising that homeopathy quickly took hold in Germany. After its initial success, homeopathy’s history turned out to be a bit of a roller coaster. But only recently, a vocal and effective opposition has come to the fore (see my previous post).
Despite the increasing opposition, the advent of EBM, and the much-publicised fact that the best evidence fails to show homeopathy’s effectiveness, there are many doctors who still practice it. According to one website, there are 4330 doctor homeopaths in Germany (plus, of course, almost the same number of Heilpraktiker who also use homeopathy). This figure is, however, out-dated. The German Medical Association told a friend that, at the end of 2017, there were 5612 doctors practising in Germany who hold the additional qualification (‘Zusatz-Weiterbildung’) homeopathy.
That’s a lot, I find.
Why so many?
Whenever I give lectures on the subject, this is the question that comes up with unfailing regularity. Many people who ask would also imply that, if so many doctors use it, homeopathy must be fine, because doctors have studied and know what they are doing.
My answer usually is that the phenomenon is due to many factors:
- powerful lobby groups,
- patient demand,
- homeopathy’s image of being gentle, safe and holistic,
- patients’ need to believe in something more than ‘just science’,
- the fact that most German health insurances reimburse it,
- political support,
But, in fact, the true explanation, as I have learnt recently, might be much simpler and more profane: MONEY!
A German GP gets 4.36 Euros for taking a conventional history.
If he is a homeopath taking an initial homeopathic history, (s)he gets 130 € according to the ‘Selektivvertrag’.
So, yes, doctors have studied and know that the difference between the two amounts is significant.
The UK media have often disappointed me when reporting about matters related to alternative medicine. Yet, this is ‘small fry’ compared to their coverage of the EU during the last decades. Here I have selected 50 (there are plenty more) headlines from a long list of ‘alternative truths’ and Euromyths of their invented or misleading healthcare-related stories:
- New EU sulphur rules will cause problems with oil-fired Aga’s, Dec 2009
- EU ‘bans boozing’, Feb 2005
- UK diners will face £200m for EU allergen rules, Nov 2014
- False alarm over 999 calls, Dec 2006
- Ambulances turn yellow for Europe, Mar 2002
- EU to force St Johns Ambulances to replace its entire fleet, Apr 2002
- Human medicines to be forbidden for use on animals, Feb/Mar 1995
- Taxpayers money used to rehabilitate Peruvian drug addicts, Jul 2014
- EU bans children from blowing up balloons, Oct 2011
- EU health directive to prevent barmaids from showing cleavage, Nov 2005
- “EU red tape” is denying cancer patients access to new treatments, Jun 2016
- EC rules on levels of listeria threaten British cheeses, Feb 1995
- Sales of cigars to fall due to be sold individually with a health warning, Jan 1994
- Circus performers required to wear hard hats, Jul 2003
- EU responsible for your hay fever, May 2015
- Condom dimensions to be harmonised, Mar 2000
- Fishing boats obliged to carry condoms, Nov 1992
- EU to push for standard condom size, Oct 1994
- EU plans to liquify corpses and pour them down the drain, July 2010
- Traditional cricket teas will be subjected to random hygiene checks, Apr 1993
- EC to ban prawn cocktail crisps, Jan 1993
- Smoky bacon crisps to be banned, May 2003
- EU outlaws teeth whitening products, Feb 2003
- EU blocking vital checks on doctors’ qualifications, Apr 2016
- EU doctors in UK a threat to patients, Sep 2016
- UK hospital have to employ people who do not speak English, Apr 2012
- Hundreds of GPs to be forced to acquire additional qualifications, Sep 1994
- 58 hour working week will ground hospitals to a halt, Aug 2004
- UK doctors unable to treat off shore patients at night, Feb 1999
- HGV drivers not permitted to wear glasses, Feb 1996
- Regulators to set maximum heat of electric blankets, leaving pensioners cold, Oct 1993
- Organic farmers ordered by EU to use homeopathic medicine, Apr 2015
- Small inshore fishing boats to be forced to carry extensive medical kits, Dec 1994
- Rare meat to be banned due to “too much bacteria”, Sep 1993
- Street vendors face closure due to an EC food hygiene Directive, Nov 1992
- EC to stop UK citizens taking extra strong multi-vitamin pills, Feb 1993
- EU rights to reside in another member state, EU benefit claimants and NHS treatment entitlement, Feb 2013
- Brussels to ban herbal cures, Mar 1999
- License to be required to sell herbal medicines, Oct 1994
- Update on whether license to be required to sell herbal medicines, Nov 1994
- Horses to no longer receive medicine that would make them unsafe for consumption, Jan 1994
- Hysteria about listeria, Feb 1995
- European Commission approve unsafe high-risk medical devices, Jul 2016
- Medicines to receive Latin labelling, May 1999
- Soya milk indistinguishable from cow milk and thus to be banned, April 1995
- Scotch whisky must be handled as a dangerous chemical, Nov 1995
- EC hygiene rules force closure of abattoirs, Nov 1992
- EU ban on ciggie breaks? Just hot air, Jun 2007
- Brussels to reinstate tobacco subsidies, Feb 2013
- EU to ban vitamin supplements, Mar 2002
Yes, some of this is so nonsensically idiotic that it could be quite funny.
But sadly, it is also very annoying, even infuriating. I am sure these relentless lies are partly the cause why Brexit is currently dividing the UK and threatening to become a monumental exercise in self-destruction.