So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) could easily be described as a business that exists mainly because it profits from the flaws of conventional medicine. I know, this is not a good definition, and I don’t want to suggest it as one, but I think it highlights an important aspect of SCAM.
Let me explain.
If we ask ourselves why consumers feel attracted to SCAM, we can identify a range of reasons, and several of them relate to the weaknesses of conventional medicine as it is practised today. For instance:
- People feel the need to have more time with their clinician in order to discuss their problems more fully. This means that their GP does not offer them sufficient time, empathy and compassion they crave.
- Patients are weary of the side-effects of drugs and prefer treatments that are gentle and safe. This shows that they realise that conventional medicine can cause harm and they hope to avoid this risk.
- Patients find it often hard to accept that their symptoms are ‘nothing to worry about’ and does not require any treatment at all. They prefer to hear that the clinician knows exactly what is wrong and can offer a therapy that puts it right.
Conventional medicine and the professionals who administer it have many flaws. Most doctors have such busy schedules that there is little time for building an empathetic therapeutic relationship with their patients. Thus they often palm them off with a prescription and fail to discuss the risks in sufficient detail. Even worse, they sometimes prescribe drugs in situations where none are needed and where a reassuring discussion would be more helpful. It is too easy to excuse such behaviours with work pressures; such flaws are serious and cannot be brushed under the carpet in this way.
Recently, the flawed behaviour of doctors has become the focus of media attention in the form of
- opioid over-prescribing
- over-use of anti-biotics.
In both cases, SCAM providers were quick to offer the solution.
- Acupuncturists and chiropractors claim that their treatments are sensible alternatives to opioids. Yet, there is no good evidence that either acupuncture or chiropractic have analgesic effects that are remotely comparable to those of opioids. They only are seemingly successful in cases where opioids were not needed in the first place.
- Homeopaths claim that their remedies can easily replace antibiotics. Yet, there is not a jot of evidence that homeopathics have antibiotic activity. They only are seemingly successful in cases where the antibiotic was not needed in the first place.
In both instances, SCAM is trying to profit from the weaknesses of conventional medicine. In both cases, the offered solutions are clearly bogus. Yet, in both cases, scientifically illiterate politicians are seriously considering the alleged solutions. Few seem to be smart enough to take a step backwards and contemplate the only viable solution to these problems. If doctors over-prescribe, they need to be stopped; and the best way to stop them is to give them adequate support, more time with their patients and adequate recognition of the importance of reassuring and talking to patients when they need it.
To put it differently:
The best way to reduce the use of bogus SCAMs is to make conventional medicine less flawed.
Arianne Shahvisi is a lecturer in Ethics and Medical Humanities at the Brighton & Sussex Medical School. She has long had an interest is so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – see here, for instance. Now she has published another most intriguing paper.
In it, she explains that scientific medicine (SM) neglects the needs of women relative to those of men. Subsequently she discusses the many limitations of SCAM and describe concerns about its use. Despite SCAM’s shortcommings, it is the domain of women who not only use it more frequently than men but also tend to be the practitioners practising SCAM. Arianne Shahvisi argues that, despite being chosen by women in reaction to the shortcomings of SM, SCAM cannot offer greater patient autonomy and is more liable to be exploitative.
Here conclusions are unusually long and I provide them here in full (after changing her abbreviation ‘AM’ to mine ‘SCAM’):
Within this paper I have made the following argument: SM is patriarchal and under-serves women; women dominate SCAM, both as users and service providers; women who choose SCAM often cite dissatisfaction with SM and the desire for greater autonomy and personalization within the clinical encounter. Based on these premises, it is likely that women use SCAM because it promises to offer greater autonomy and personalization than SM. This segues into a second argument: autonomy in healthcare requires informed consent; informed consent is not possible for SCAM therapies since mechanisms are either not known or not plausible, and there is no evidence base. These premises entail that SCAM cannot help patients to realize autonomy. Combining these two conclusions, it seems that SCAM does not offer the control and autonomy that is sought. Whilst it may be argued that SCAM offers personalization and a satisfactory therapeutic encounter, it must also be noted that forfeiting an evidence base, plausible mechanisms, and the ability to make autonomous decisions is a heavy loss to patients and one for which SM must take some responsibility.
I have attempted to motivate each of the above premises in the preceding sections. In this section I reflect on the implications of these conclusions and make recommendations to ensure that women’s health needs are more adequately met.
First, to the extent that rejection of SM may be seen as a form of resistance, the cost of that resistance is borne largely by the resistors themselves. Those who begin witha sense of dissatisfaction with SM—in many cases stemming from SM’s failure to provide them with adequate healthcare or to inspire trust in its own decency—end up with healthcare that is on many counts less adequate.
With the ascendance of a post-factual culture, arguments relying on evidence, reproducibility, and consistency are liable to have ever less traction. By corollary, the features that have typically worked against SCAM—its lack of an evidence base—are likely to pose less of a barrier to its uptake. This ought to be a grave public health concern, since the well-being of entire populations depends on medicine earning and retaining the trust of all. To see this, one need only consider how easily herd immunity is lost when trust in vaccination is undermined, putting entire populations at risk of disease outbreaks (Casidayetal.2006). Recommending against vaccination is common amongst SCAM practitioners (especially within chiropractic, homoeopathy, and naturopathy) whose philosophies so often rely on emphasizing, and in many cases overstating, iatrogenic risk (Ernst 2001).
Not much can be done now to atone for medicine’s history except to openly accept its shortcomings and under take particular effortS to re-engage marginal health populations. While it is easy to suggest that researchers should be devoting more time to women’s health issues and their treatments, the bench-to-bedside timeline is long, and more immediate efforts are also necessary. As Ernst (2010) has noted, concentrating on the therapeutic relationship within SM seems like the most constructive way forward. Although patients often look to SM for the ‘science of medicine’, clearly many are turning to SCAM for the ‘art of medicine^ (Ernst 2010, 1473)—for a compassionate clinical encounter in which patients are humanized and power differentials are flattened. While SM may have the upper hand in terms of mechanisms, an evidence base, and social capital, there are inadequacies in the patient–practitioner relationship, and in this respect there is much to learn from SCAM modalities, where the therapeutic relationship is key to their appeal. Even the most resolute SCAM user inevitably encounters SM professionals on occasion. Provided broader pressures on health workers permit them the time and space, those encounters present the possibility of demonstrating that SM can be person-centred, equitable, and sensitive to the differential needs of marginalized patient groups.
As I described in section 4, many of those who choose SCAM do so following a long period of unsatisfactory encounters with medical professionals as they pursue the treatment or resolution of long-term chronic ailments (Furnham and Vincent 2000; Cant and Sharma 2004). The majority of these patients are women. While SCAM practitioners are unlikely to offer therapies that are effective beyond placebo, they are able to offer consultations which are longer, more participatory, and more personalized. It is likely that most of the placebo effect is interpersonal and stems from the ritual of healing within encounters with practitioners, rather than from any specific therapy (Miller et al. 2009). There is some evidence that open label placebos still confer a placebo effect, which suggests that the therapeutic relationship plays a significant role (Kaptchuk et al. 2010). In light of these insights, Blease (2012) suggests that the placebo effect instead be referred to as the ‘positive care effect’. Given the importance of communication and autonomy amongst patients choosing SCAM, it is interesting to note that a surgical study shows that the extent of the positive care effect is contingent on the quality of the clinical encounter, with communication skills aimed at empowering patients being predictive of better clinical outcomes (Trummer et al. 2006).
Focusing on the U.K. healthcare system, I therefore recommend that general practitioners, who are the gatekeepers of the medical profession, make efforts to address the inadequacies in the clinical encounter, specifically for those with long-term health conditions or medically unexplained symptoms. As it stands, general practitioners in the United Kingdom spend ten minutes with each patient and are encouraged to focus on a single health issue. It is therefore unsurprising to note that dissatisfaction with the clinical encounter is shared by clinicians. In a recent survey, 55 per cent of general practice surgeries in the United Kingdom reported concerns about the quality of care they could provide and described their workload as unmanageable most of the time; 13 per cent reported that it was unmanageable all of the time (Iacobucci 2016). In another study, 68 percent of general practitioners expressed the view that care could be improved by longer, higher-quality consultations, while 67 percent felt that patients with long-term conditions should be afforded longer consultations (Rimmer 2015). It has been demonstrated that longer consultation times correlate with a greater likelihood of taking a thorough medical history and conducting examinations in accordance with good practice, a lower prescribing rate, a greater likelihood of offering advice about preventative healthcare, and fewer follow-up consultations (Wilson and Childs 2002).
General practitioners are currently able to make referrals to specialists in various clinical disciplines. In addition to lengthening standard consultation times, the option of making general referrals may be a constructive way forward, i.e. arranging for the patient to have a lengthier consultation with a general practitioner rather than being siloed into a specialist referral (which is liable to be an even less holistic encounter) or sent away. Given the importance of the therapeutic encounter, it is also worth considering increasing the number of talking therapies referrals for long-term physical health problems. As it stands, talking therapies are recommended within the U.K. National Health Service for a range of social, mental, and physical conditions. This could be broadened, so that those whose physical symptoms are not being satisfactorily resolved within the biomedical paradigm are able to benefit from a personalized therapeutic relationship which does not rely on implausible mechanisms (NHS Choices 2016).
That women may be less likely to benefit from medicine and therefore more likely to spend time and money seeking therapies whose claims are questionable, whose benefits are negligible, and whose potential for exploitation is considerable, is a grave matter. Researchers and clinicians must take responsibility by consciously modernizing biomedicine to ensure that its goods are accessible to all and that the benefits of a positive therapeutic encounter are acknowledged and prioritized in the delivery of care.
One does not need to be a feminist to see that Arianne Shahvisi is correct in her line of arguing. Her insights are important and very well-put. Yet, they represent merely one aspect of SCAM, and there are many others. For instance, many consumers are not motivated to try SCAM by a disenchantment with SM. In fact, most of the research shows that this is not the main reason for becoming a SCAM proponent.
But, whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that those who subscribe to SCAM are getting a poor bargain. Arianne Shahvisi is therefore entirely correct in demanding that SM has to get its act together to avoid this from happening. I must have written and said it hundreds of times: whatever SCAM is, it is a poignant criticism of SM which must be used constructively for improving SM.
I almost forgot!
This would have been no good, after all, Charles has for decades been the most influential supporter of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) in the UK. He is one of SCAM’s greatest proponent.
So, here is my up-dated, extended and illustrated summary of his achievements in this area.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHARLES!
Charles went on a journey of ‘spiritual discovery’ into the wilderness of northern Kenya. His guru and guide at the time was Laurens van der Post (later discovered to be a fraud and compulsive fantasist and to have fathered a child with a 14-year old girl entrusted to him during a sea voyage).
Van der Post wanted to awake Charles’ mind and attune it to the vitalistic ideas of Carl Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’, and it is this belief in vitalism that provides the crucial link to alternative medicine: virtually every form of alternative therapies is based on the assumption that some sort of vital force exists. Charles was so taken by van der Post that he made him the godfather of Prince William. After Post’s death, he established an annual lecture in his honour (the lecture series was discontinued after Van der Post was discovered to be a fraud).
Some time in the 1970s, Charles met Jimmy Saville and befriended him. Apparently, Saville later advised Charles on several occasions in various health-related matters.
Throughout the 1980s, Charles lobbied for the statutory regulation of chiropractors and osteopaths in the UK. In 1993, this finally became reality. These two SCAM professions are to this day the only ones regulated by statute in the UK.
Osteopathy has strong Royal links: Prince Charles is the President of the GOsC; Princess Diana was the President of the GCRO; and Princess Anne is the patron of the British School of Osteopathy (statement dated 2011).
In 1982, Prince Charles was elected as President of the British Medical Association (BMA) and promptly challenged the medical orthodoxy by advocating alternative medicine. In a speech at his inaugural dinner as President, the Prince lectured the medics: ‘Through the centuries healing has been practised by folk healers who are guided by traditional wisdom which sees illness as a disorder of the whole person, involving not only the patient’s body, but his mind, his self-image, his dependence on the physical and social environment, as well as his relation to the cosmos.’ The BMA-officials ordered a full report on alternative medicine which promptly condemned this area as implausible nonsense.
Six years later, a second report, entitled Complementary Medicine – New Approaches to Good Practice, heralded an astonishing about-turn stating that: “the demand for non-conventional therapies had become so pressing that organised medicine in Britain could no longer ignore its contribution”. At the same time, however, the BMA set in motion a further chapter in the history of SCAM by insisting that it was “unacceptable” to allow the unrestricted practice of non-conventional therapies, irrespective of training or experience.
In 1993, Charles founded his lobby group which, after being re-named several times, ended up being called the ‘Foundation for Integrated Health’ (FIH). It was closed down in 2010 amidst allegations of money laundering and fraud. Its chief executive, George Gray, was later convicted and went to jail. The FIH had repeatedly been a little economical with the truth.
In 2000, Charles wrote an open letter to The Times stating that…It makes good sense to evaluate complementary and alternative therapies. For one thing, since an estimated £1.6 billion is spent each year on them, then we want value for our money. The very popularity of the non-conventional approaches suggests that people are either dissatisfied with their orthodox treatment, or they find genuine relief in such therapies. Whatever the case, if they are proved to work, they should be made more widely available on the NHS…But there remains the cry from the medical establishment of “where’s the proof?” — and clinical trials of the calibre that science demands cost money…The truth is that funding in the UK for research into complementary medicine is pitiful…So where can funding come from?…Figures from the department of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter show that less than 8p out of every £100 of NHS funds for medical research was spent on complementary medicine. In 1998-99 the Medical Research Council spent no money on it at all, and in 1999 only 0.05 per cent of the total research budget of UK medical charities went to this area…
In 2001, Charles worked on plans to help build a model hospital of integrated medicine. It was to train doctors to combine conventional medicine and alternative treatments, such as homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine and acupuncture, and was to have up to 100 beds. The prince’s intervention marked the culmination of years of campaigning by him for the NHS to assign a greater role to alternative medicine. Teresa Hale, founder of the Hale Clinic in London, said: “Twenty-five years ago people said we were quacks. Now several branches, including homeopathy, acupuncture and osteopathy, have gained official recognition.” The proposed hospital, which was due to open in London in 2003/4, was to be overseen by Mosaraf Ali, who runs the Integrated Medical Centre (IMC) in London. But the hospital never materialised.
This might be due to Mosaraf Ali falling in disrepute: Raj Bathija, 69 and from India, went for a massage at the clinic of Dr Mosaraf Ali and his brother Imran in 2005 after suffering from two strokes. However, he claims that shortly after the treatment, his legs became pale and discoloured. Four days afterwards, Mr Bathija was admitted to hospital, where he had to have both legs amputated below the knee due to a shortage of blood. According to Mr Bathija, Dr Ali and his brother were negligent in that they failed to diagnose his condition and neglected to advise him to go to hospital. His daughter Shibani said: “My father was in a wheelchair but was making progress with his walking. He hoped he might become a bit more independent. With the amputations, that’s all gone.” Dr Ali was sued (if anyone knows the outcome of this case, please let me know).
At the age of 53, Mrs Parker Bowles went on a trek to the Himalayas to ‘re-energise’ her spirits and encourage her to give up smoking. She was in a party of 12 accompanied by the Prince of Wales’s favourite health guru, Dr Mosaraf Ali. Mrs Parker Bowles subsequently became a regular visitor to Dr Ali’s London practice where she has been encouraged to take up yoga both to combat her back pain and to help her give up smoking.
In the same year, Charles published an editorial in the BMJ promoting his ideas around integrative medicine. Its title: THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS.
In 2003, Prince Charles’ FIH launched a five-year plan which outlined how to improve access to alternative therapies.
In 2004, Charles publicly supported the Gerson diet as a treatment for cancer and Prof Baum, an eminent oncologist, was invited to respond in an open letter to the British Medical Journal: …Over the past 20 years I have treated thousands of patients with cancer and lost some dear friends and relatives to this dreaded disease…The power of my authority comes with knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I don’t begrudge you that authority but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.
In 2005, the ‘Smallwood-Report’ was published; it had been commissioned by Charles and paid for by Dame Shirley Porter to inform health ministers. It stated that up to 480 million pounds could be saved, if one in 10 family doctors offered homeopathy as an “alternative” to standard drugs for asthma. Savings of up to 3.5 billion pounds could be achieved by offering spinal manipulation rather than drugs to people with back pain. Because I had commented on this report, Prince Charles’ first private secretary asked my vice chancellor to investigate my alleged indiscretion; even though I was found to be not guilty of any wrong-doing, all local support at Exeter stopped which eventually led to my early retirement. ITV later used this incident in a film entitled THE MEDDLING PRINCE, I later published a full account of this sad story in my memoir.
In a 2006 speech, Prince Charles told the World Health Organisation in Geneva that alternative medicine should have a more prominent place in health care and urged every country to come up with a plan to integrate conventional and alternative medicine into the mainstream. But British science struck back. Anticipating Prince Charles’s sermon in Geneva, 13 of Britain’s most eminent physicians and scientists wrote an “Open Letter” which expressed concern over “ways in which unproven or disproved treatments are being encouraged for general use in Britain’s National Health Service.” The signatories argued that “it would be highly irresponsible to embrace any medicine as though it were a matter of principle.”
In 2008, The Times published my letter asking the FIH to withdraw two guides promoting alternative medicine, stating: “the majority of alternative therapies appear to be clinically ineffective, and many are downright dangerous.” A speaker for the FIH countered the criticism by stating: “We entirely reject the accusation that our online publication Complementary Healthcare: A Guide contains any misleading or inaccurate claims about the benefits of complementary therapies. On the contrary, it treats people as adults and takes a responsible approach by encouraging people to look at reliable sources of information… so that they can make informed decisions. The foundation does not promote complementary therapies.”
In 2009, the Prince held talks with the health Secretary to persuade him to introduce safeguards amid a crackdown by the EU that could prevent anyone who is not a registered health practitioner from selling remedies. This, it seems, was yet another example of Charles’ disregard of his constitutional role.
In the same year, Charles urged the government to protect alternative medicine because “we fear that we will see a black market in herbal products”, as Dr Michael Dixon (LVO,2015; OBE 2001), then medical director of Charles’ FIH, put it.
In 2009, the health secretary wrote to the prince suggesting a meeting on the possibility of a study on integrating complementary and conventional healthcare approaches in England. The prince had written to Burnham’s predecessor, Alan Johnson, to demand greater access to complementary therapies in the NHS alongside conventional medicine. The prince told him that “despite waves of invective over the years from parts of the medical and scientific establishment” he continued to lobby “because I cannot bear people suffering unnecessarily when a complementary approach could make a real difference”. He opposed “large and threatened cuts” in the funding of homeopathic hospitals and their possible closure. He complained that referrals to the Royal London homeopathic hospital were increasing “until what seems to amount to a recent ‘anti-homeopathic campaign’”. He warned against cuts despite “the fact that these homeopathic hospitals deal with many patients with real health problems who otherwise would require treatment elsewhere, often at greater expense”.
In 2009, it was announced that the ‘College of Integrated Medicine’ (the name was only later changed to ‘College of Medicine’, see below) was to have a second base in India. An Indian spokesman commented: “The second campus of the Royal College will be in Bangalore. We have already proposed the setting up of an All India Institute of Integrated Medicine to the Union health ministry. At a meeting in London last week with Prince Charles, we finalized the project which will kick off in July 2010”.
In 2010, Charles publicly stated that he was proud to be perceived as ‘an enemy of the enlightenment’.
In 2010, ‘Republic’ filed an official complaint about FIH alleging that its trustees allowed the foundation’s staff to pursue a public “vendetta” against a prominent critic of the prince’s support for complementary medicines. It also suggested that the imminent closure of Ernst’s department may be partly down to the charity’s official complaint about him after he publicly attacked its draft guide to complementary medicines as “outrageous and deeply flawed”.
In 2010, former fellows of Charles’ disgraced FIH launched a new organisation, The College of Medicine’ supporting the use of integrated treatments in the NHS. One director of the college is Michael Dixon, a GP in Cullompton, formerly medical director of the Foundation for Integrated Health. My own analysis of the activities of the new college leaves little doubt that it is promoting quackery.
In 2011, after the launch of Charles’ range of herbal tinctures, I had the audacity to publicly criticise Charles for selling the Duchy Herbals detox tincture which I named ‘Dodgy Originals Detox Tincture’.
In 2011, Charles forged a link between ‘The College of Medicine’ and an Indian holistic health centre (see also above). The collaboration was reported to include clinical training to European and Western doctors in ayurveda and homoeopathy and traditional forms of medicine to integrate them in their practice. The foundation stone for the extended campus of the Royal College known as the International Institution for Holistic and Integrated Medicine was laid by Dr Michael Dixon in collaboration with the Royal College of Medicine.
In 2012, Charles was nominated for ‘THE GOLDEN DUCK AWARD’ for his achievements in promoting quackery. However, Andrew Wakefield beat him to it; Charles certainly was a deserving runner-up.
In 2013, Charles called for society to embrace a broader and more complex concept of health. In his article he described a vision of health that includes the physical and social environment, education, agriculture and architecture.
In 2013, Charles’ Highgrove enterprise offered ‘baby-hampers’ for sale at £195 a piece and made a range of medicinal claims for the products it contained. As these claims were not supported by evidence, there is no way to classify them other than quackery.
By 2013, the ‘Association of Osteomyologists’ were seeking to become regulated by statute, with the help of Prince Charles as their patron. The chairman and founder of this organisation was knighted for services to alternative medicine. Osteomyologists encourage the use of techniques including cranio-sacral therapy and claim that “we all know that Colleges, Institutions, and Medical Practitioners, are brain washed from the very outset into believing that their discipline is the only way to go.”
In November 2013, Charles invited alternative medicine proponents from across the world, including Dean Ornish, Michael Dixon, chair of College of Medicine, UK and Issac Mathai of Soukya Foundation, Bangalore, to India for a ‘brain storm’ and a subsequent conference on alternative medicine. The prince wanted the experts to collaborate and explore the possibilities of integrating different systems of medicines and to better the healthcare delivery globally, one of the organisers said.
In June 2014, BBC NEWS published the following text about a BBC4 broadcast entitled ‘THE ROYAL ACTIVIST’ aired on the same day: Prince Charles has been a well-known supporter of complementary medicine. According to a… former Labour cabinet minister, Peter Hain, it was a topic they shared an interest in. He had been constantly frustrated at his inability to persuade any health ministers anywhere that that was a good idea, and so he, as he once described it to me, found me unique from this point of view, in being somebody that actually agreed with him on this, and might want to deliver it. Mr Hain added: “When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2005-7, he was delighted when I told him that since I was running the place I could more or less do what I wanted to do.*** I was able to introduce a trial for complementary medicine on the NHS, and it had spectacularly good results, that people’s well-being and health was vastly improved. And when he learnt about this he was really enthusiastic and tried to persuade the Welsh government to do the same thing and the government in Whitehall to do the same thing for England, but not successfully,” added Mr Hain. On this blog, I have pointed out that the research in question was fatally flawed and that Charles, once again, overstepped the boundaries of his constitutional role.
In 2015, two books were published which are relevant in this context. My memoir A SCIENTIST IN WONDERLAND recounts most of my dealings with Charles and his sycophants, including how an intervention from his first private secretary eventually led to the closure of my department. The book by Catherine Meyer CHARLES, THE HEART OF A KING is far less critical about our heir to the throne; it nevertheless severely criticises his stance on alternative medicine.
In October 2015, the Guardian obtained the infamous “black spider memos” which revealed that Charles had repeatedly lobbied politicians in favour of alternative medicine (see also above).
In 2016, speaking at a global leaders summit on antimicrobial resistance, Prince Charles warned that Britain faced a “potentially disastrous scenario” because of the “overuse and abuse” of antibiotics. The Prince explained that he had switched to organic farming on his estates because of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance and now treats his cattle with homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medication. “As some of you may be aware, this issue has been a long-standing and acute concern to me,” he told delegates from 20 countries “I have enormous sympathy for those engaged in the vital task of ensuring that, as the world population continues to increase unsustainably and travel becomes easier, antibiotics retain their availability to overcome disease… It must be incredibly frustrating to witness the fact that antibiotics have too often simply acted as a substitute for basic hygiene, or as it would seem, a way of placating a patient who has a viral infection or who actually needs little more than patience to allow a minor bacterial infection to resolve itself.”
In 2017, the ‘College of Medicine’ mentioned above was discretely re-named ‘College of Medicine and Integrated Health’
In the same year, Charles declared that he will open a centre for alternative medicine in the recently purchased Dumfries House in Scotland. Currently, the College of Medicine and Integrated Health is offering two-day Foundation Courses at this iconic location. Gabriel Chiu, a US celebrity cosmetic and reconstructive surgeon, and his wife Christine, joined the Prince of Wales as he opened the integrated health and wellbeing centre on the Dumfries House Estate in East Ayrshire in 2019. As he unveiled a plaque at the event, Prince Charles said: “I’m so glad that all of you have been able to get here today, particularly because I could not be more proud to see the opening of this new integrated health centre at Dumfries House. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for the last 35 years. I’m also so proud of all the team at Dumfries House who built it, an all in-house team.
“To reach this point where we can now offer a range of social prescribing opportunities is enormously encouraging and I hope it will be able to make some difference to a lot of the health issues that exist in this area.”
Also in 2017, ‘Country News’ published an article about our heir to the throne stating that Prince of Wales has revealed he uses homeopathic treatments for animals on his organic farm at Highgrove to help reduce reliance on antibiotics, the article stated. He said his methods of farming tried wherever possible to ‘‘go with the grain of nature’’ to avoid dependency on antibiotics, pesticides and other forms of chemical intervention.
In 2018, The Prince of Wales accompanied the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, to the Science Museum in London, and praised Asian medicine practices. The heir to the throne and the Indian Prime Minister then jointly unveiled a plaque for the UK’s first centre of excellence for Indian traditional medicine.
In the same year, it was revealed that UK farmers are being taught how to treat their livestock with homeopathy “by kind permission of His Royal Highness, The Prince Of Wales”
In 2019, the Faculty of Homeopathy announced that His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales had accepted to become Patron of the Faculty of Homeopathy. Dr Gary Smyth, President of the Faculty of Homeopathy comments, “As the Faculty celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, it is an enormous honour for us to receive the Patronage of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and I am delighted to announce this news today.” Charles’ move amazed observers who saw it as a deliberate protest against the discontinuation of reimbursement of homeopathy by the NHS.
In 2019, Prince Charles said that yoga had “proven beneficial effects on both body and mind,” and has “tremendous social benefits” that help build “discipline, self-reliance and self-care.”
So again, Happy Birthday Your Royal Highness – and please don’t forget: it’s not too late to start doing good in the realm of healthcare by supporting good science, critical thinking and evidence-based medicine.
The medical literature is currently swamped with reviews of acupuncture (and other forms of TCM) trials originating from China. Here is the latest example (but, trust me, there are hundreds more of the same ilk).
The aim of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of scalp, tongue, and Jin’s 3-needle acupuncture for the improvement of post-apoplectic aphasia. PubMed, Cochrane, Embase databases were searched using index words to identify qualifying randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Meta-analyses of odds ratios (OR) or standardized mean differences (SMD) were performed to evaluate the outcomes between investigational (scalp / tongue / Jin’s 3-needle acupuncture) and control (traditional acupuncture; TA and/or rehabilitation training; RT) groups.
Thirty-two RCTs (1310 participants in investigational group and 1270 in control group) were included. Compared to TA, (OR 3.05 [95% CI: 1.77, 5.28]; p<0.00001), tongue acupuncture (OR 3.49 [1.99, 6.11]; p<0.00001), and Jin’s 3-needle therapy (OR 2.47 [1.10, 5.53]; p = 0.03) had significantly better total effective rate. Compared to RT, scalp acupuncture (OR 4.24 [95% CI: 1.68, 10.74]; p = 0.002) and scalp acupuncture with tongue acupuncture (OR 7.36 [3.33, 16.23]; p<0.00001) had significantly better total effective rate. In comparison with TA/RT, scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture, scalp acupuncture with tongue acupuncture, and Jin’s three-needling significantly improved ABC, oral expression, comprehension, writing and reading scores.
The authors concluded that compared to traditional acupuncture and/or rehabilitation training, scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture, and Jin’ 3-needle acupuncture can better improve post-apoplectic aphasia as depicted by the total effective rate, the ABC score, and comprehension, oral expression, repetition, denomination, reading and writing scores. However, quality of the included studies was inadequate and therefore further high-quality studies with lager samples and longer follow-up times and with patient outcomes are necessary to verify the results presented herein. In future studies, researchers should also explore the efficacy and differences between scalp acupuncture, tongue acupuncture and Jin’s 3-needling in the treatment of post-apoplectic aphasia.
I’ll be frank: I find it hard to believe that sticking needles in a patient’s tongue restores her ability to speak. What is more, I do not believe a word of this review and its conclusion. And now I better explain why.
- All the primary studies originate from China, and we have often discussed how untrustworthy such studies are.
- All the primary studies were published in Chinese and cannot therefore be checked by most readers of the review.
- The review authors fail to provide the detail about a formal assessment of the rigour of the included studies; they merely state that their methodological quality was low.
- Only 6 of the 32 studies can be retrieved at all via the links provided in the articles.
- As far as I can find out, some studies do not even exist at all.
- Many of the studies compare acupuncture to unproven therapies such as bloodletting.
- Many do not control for placebo effects.
- Not one of the 32 studies reports findings that are remotely convincing.
I conclude that such reviews are little more than pseudo-scientific propaganda. They seem aim at promoting acupuncture in the West and thus serve the interest of the People’s Republic of China. They pollute our medical literature and undermine the trust in science.
I seriously ask myself, are the editors and reviewers all fast asleep?
The journal ‘BMC Complement Altern Med‘ has, in its 18 years of existence, published almost 4 000 Medline-listed papers. They currently charge £1690 for handling one paper. This would amount to about £6.5 million! But BMC are not alone; as I have pointed out repeatedly, EBCAM is arguably even worse.
And this is, in my view, the real scandal. We are being led up the garden path by people who make a very tidy profit doing so. BMC (and EBCAM) must put an end to this nonsense. Alternatively, PubMed should de-list these publications.
This has been going on for far too long; urgent action is required!
The UK-based homeopathic pharmacy AINSWORTH has attracted my attention several times already. Amongst other things, Tony Pinkus, the director of the firm, once accused me of having faked my research and I suspected him of violating the basic principles of research ethics in his study of homeopathy for autism.
In a big article, the Mail informs the reader that:
- AINSWORTH sell a guide (entitled ‘The Mother & And Child Remedy Prescriber’ and decorated with the codes of arms of both the Queen and Prince Charles) informing young mothers that homeopathy ‘will strengthen a child’s immune system more ably than any vaccine’.
- The guide also claims that infections like mumps and measles can be treated homeopathically.
- AINSWORTH sells homeopathic remedies used as vaccines against serious infections such as polio, measles, meningitis, etc.
- AINSWORTH’s guide claim that homeopathy ‘offers the clearest answer as to how to deal with the prevention of disease’.
- The guide claims furthermore that homeopathy is ‘a complete alternative to vaccination’.
- It even lists 7 homeopathic remedies for measles.
- AINSWORTH claim that homeopathy provides ‘natural immunity’.
- AINSWORTH sell products called ‘polio nosode’, and ‘meningeoma nosode’.
The Mail quotes several experts – including myself – who do not mince their words in condemning AINSWORTH for jeopardising public health. The paper also calls for AINSWORTH’s two royal warrants to be removed.
AINSWORTH, Buckingham Palace, and Clarence House all declined to comment.
I must have published well over two dozen articles in the peer-reviewed literature (and many more on this blog) warning of the indirect risks of homeopathy. The most obvious example of such risks is the advice many homeopaths give about vaccinations. Here is, for instance, a quote from an abstract I published in 1996:
… the question whether the homeopath is risk-free in all cases needs discussing. As a case in point, the attitude of some homeopaths towards immunization is quoted as an example of particular concern… the notion of totally risk-free homeopathy is untenable.
Almost a quarter of a century later, it seems that my cautions might finally be heeded. Several of today’s daily papers –THE GUARDIAN, THE DAILY MAIL, THE TIMES and THE DAILY TELEGRAPH – report that the message seems to have reached the higher echelons of the NHS in England. Here are a few short excerpts of what the TELEGRAPH tells its readers.
NHS leaders have gone to war on homeopathy by attempting to have the practice blacklisted amid fears it is fuelling anti-vax propaganda. The chief executive and medical director of NHS England have written to the Professional Standards Authority (PSA), the statutory body that oversees healthcare regulation, urging it to strip accreditation from the Society of Homeopaths (SoH). They argue that endorsing the society affords it a “veneer of credibility” that lures vulnerable patients towards “bogus treatments”.
In particular, the health chiefs accuse homeopaths of propagating “mis-information” about vaccines. It follows the release of a major report last week which showed the uptake of pre-school vaccines is declining…
Mr Stevens said last night: “Anything that gives homeopathy a veneer of credibility risks chancers being able to con more people into parting with their hard-earned cash in return for bogus treatments which at best do nothing, and at worst can be potentially dangerous. Whether touted as a miracle cure or as protection from serious diseases – like so-called homeopathic vaccines – homeopathy is no replacement for rigorously tried and tested medical treatments delivered or prescribed by properly-qualified professionals, and by stopping people seeking expert help, misinformation and ineffective remedies pose a significant risk to people’s health.” His letter points out that both the NHS and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), take the position that homeopathic remedies are not scientifically valid.
What can I say?
I am, of course, tempted to say: I told you so!
But, on second thought, I prefer: BETTER LATE THAN NEVER.
And then I am bound to add: next, have a look at some other SCAM providers. Perhaps start with:
In the name of public health, I thank you.
We have discussed the association between chiropractic an opioid use before. But the problem of causality remained unresolved. Perhaps this new paper can help? This retrospective cohort study with new onset back pain patients (2008-20013) examined the association of initial provider treatment with early and long-term opioid use in a national sample of patients with new-onset low back pain (LBP).
The researchers evaluated outpatient and inpatient claims from patient visits, pharmacy claims and inpatient and outpatient procedures with initial providers seen for new-onset LBP. The 216 504 patients were aged 18 years or older and had been diagnosed with new-onset LBP and were opioid-naïve were included. Participants had commercial or Medicare Advantage insurance. The primary independent variable was the type of initial healthcare provider including physicians and conservative therapists (physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists). The main outcome measures were short-term opioid use (within 30 days of the index visit) following new LBP visit and long-term opioid use (starting within 60 days of the index date and either 120 or more days’ supply of opioids over 12 months, or 90 days or more supply of opioids and 10 or more opioid prescriptions over 12 months).
Short-term use of opioids was 22%. Patients who received initial treatment from chiropractors or physical therapists had decreased odds of short-term and long-term opioid use compared with those who received initial treatment from primary care physicians (PCPs) (adjusted OR (AOR) (95% CI) 0.10 (0.09 to 0.10) and 0.15 (0.13 to 0.17), respectively). Compared with PCP visits, initial chiropractic and physical therapy also were associated with decreased odds of long-term opioid use in a propensity score matched sample (AOR (95% CI) 0.21 (0.16 to 0.27) and 0.29 (0.12 to 0.69), respectively).
The authors concluded that initial visits to chiropractors or physical therapists is associated with substantially decreased early and long-term use of opioids. Incentivising use of conservative therapists may be a strategy to reduce risks of early and long-term opioid use.
Like in previous papers, the nature of the association remains unclear. Is it correlation or causation? It is not correct to conclude that initial visits to chiropractors or physical therapists is associated with substantially decreased early and long-term use of opioids, because this implies a causal relationship. Likewise, it is odd to claim that incentivising the use of chiros or physios may reduce the risk of opioid use. The only thing that reduces opioid use is opioid perscribing. The way to achieve this is to teach and train doctors adequately, I think.
These days, I am often not sure what puzzles me more, Boris Johnson or homeopathy. Come to think of it, our PM seems, in fact, to have a lot in common with homeopathy/homeopaths. With my tongue lodged firmly in my cheek, I can see some communalities:
- They are both popular in the UK but have their origins elsewhere.
- They were both laughed at by people who are serious.
- They have both been around for far too long.
- They both are useless.
- They both have plenty of charisma.
- They both, however, have little more than that.
- They have a long history of misleading the public.
- They have both been taken to court.
- They both failed to accept the judgement when it went against them.
- They are both particularly successful with the female section of the population.
- They both thrive on personal attacks.
- They both make far-reaching claims which turn out to be false.
- They both claim to want only the best for the public.
- They both consider themselves as progressive.
- In truth, however, they are both deeply regressive.
- They both do not to think that ethics are all that important.
- They both irritate people who are rational thinkers.
- They both negate the evidence and act in overt contradiction to the evidence.
- They both tend to think that popularity is a measure of efficacy.
- They both managed to mislead even the Queen.
- Nevertheless, they both enjoy royal support (at least for the time being).
- They both seem to think that the laws (of the land/of nature) do not apply to them.
- They are both only bearable when highly diluted.
- They are both a complete waste of money.
- They are both dangerous when the public follow their advice.
Have I forgotten anything?
Do tell me, please.
On this blog, we have often noted that (almost) all TCM trials from China report positive results. Essentially, this means we might as well discard them, because we simply cannot trust their findings. While being asked to comment on a related issue, it occurred to me that this might be not so much different with Korean acupuncture studies. So, I tried to test the hypothesis by running a quick Medline search for Korean acupuncture RCTs. What I found surprised me and eventually turned into a reminder of the importance of critical thinking.
Even though I found pleanty of articles on acupuncture coming out of Korea, my search generated merely 3 RCTs. Here are their conclusions:
The results of this study show that moxibustion (3 sessions/week for 4 weeks) might lower blood pressure in patients with prehypertension or stage I hypertension and treatment frequency might affect effectiveness of moxibustion in BP regulation. Further randomized controlled trials with a large sample size on prehypertension and hypertension should be conducted.
The results of this study show that acupuncture might lower blood pressure in prehypertension and stage I hypertension, and further RCT need 97 participants in each group. The effect of acupuncture on prehypertension and mild hypertension should be confirmed in larger studies.
Bee venom acupuncture combined with physiotherapy remains clinically effective 1 year after treatment and may help improve long-term quality of life in patients with AC of the shoulder.
So yes, according to this mini-analysis, 100% of the acupuncture RCTs from Korea are positive. But the sample size is tiny and I many not have located all RCTs with my ‘rough and ready’ search.
But what are all the other Korean acupuncture articles about?
Many are protocols for RCTs which is puzzling because some of them are now so old that the RCT itself should long have emerged. Could it be that some Korean researchers publish protocols without ever publishing the trial? If so, why? But most are systematic reviews of RCTs of acupuncture. There must be about one order of magnitude more systematic reviews than RCTs!
Why so many?
Perhaps I can contribute to the answer of this question; perhaps I am even guilty of the bonanza.
In the period between 2008 and 2010, I had several Korean co-workers on my team at Exeter, and we regularly conducted systematic reviews of acupuncture for various indications. In fact, the first 6 systematic reviews include my name. This research seems to have created a trend with Korean acupuncture researchers, because ever since they seem unable to stop themselves publishing such articles.
So far so good, a plethora of systematic reviews is not necessarily a bad thing. But looking at the conclusions of these systematic reviews, I seem to notice a worrying trend: while our reviews from the 2008-2010 period arrived at adequately cautious conclusions, the new reviews are distinctly more positive in their conclusions and uncritical in their tone.
Let me explain this by citing the conclusions of the very first (includes me as senior author) and the very last review (does not include me) currently listed in Medline:
penetrating or non-penetrating sham-controlled RCTs failed to show specific effects of acupuncture for pain control in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. More rigorous research seems to be warranted.
Electroacupuncture was an effective treatment for MCI [mild cognitive impairment] patients by improving cognitive function. However, the included studies presented a low methodological quality and no adverse effects were reported. Thus, further comprehensive studies with a design in depth are needed to derive significant results.
Now, you might claim that the evidence for acupuncture has overall become more positive over time, and that this phenomenon is the cause for the observed shift. Yet, I don’t see that at all. I very much fear that there is something else going on, something that could be called the suspension of critical thinking.
Whenever I have asked a Chinese researcher why they only publish positive conclusions, the answer was that, in China, it would be most impolite to publish anything that contradicts the views of the researchers’ peers. Therefore, no Chinese researcher would dream of doing it, and consequently, critical thinking is dangerously thin on the ground.
I think that a similar phenomenon might be at the heart of what I observe in the Korean acupuncture literature: while I always tried to make sure that the conclusions were adequately based on the data, the systematic reviews were ok. When my influence disappeared and the reviews were done exclusively by Korean researchers, the pressure of pleasing the Korean peers (and funders) became dominant. I suggest that this is why conclusions now tend to first state that the evidence is positive and subsequently (almost as an after-thought) add that the primary trials were flimsy. The results of this phenomenon could be serious:
- progress is being stifled,
- the public is being misled,
- funds are being wasted,
- the reputation of science is being tarnished.
Of course, the only right way to express this situation goes something like this:
BECAUSE THE QUALITY OF THE PRIMARY TRIALS IS INADEQUATE, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF ACUPUNCTURE REMAINS UNPROVEN.
Apparently, Hahnemann gave a lecture on the subject of veterinary homeopathy in the mid-1810s. Ever since, homeopathy has been used for treating animals. Von Boennighausen was one of the first influential proponents of veterinary homeopathy. However, veterinary medical schools tended to reject homoeopathy, and the number of veterinary homeopaths remained small. In the 1920ies, veterinary homoeopathy was revived in Germany. Members of the “Studiengemeinschaft für tierärztliche Homöopathie” (Study Group for Veterinary Homoeopathy) which was founded in 1936 started to investigate this approach systematically.
Today, veterinary homeopathy is still popular in some countries. Prince Charles has become a prominent advocate who claims to treat his own life stock with homeopathy. In many countries, veterinary homeopaths have their own professional organisations. Elsewhere, however, veterinarians are banned from practicing homeopathy. In the UK, only veterinarians are allowed to use homeopathy on animals (but anyone regardless of background can use it on human patients) and there is a British Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy. In the US, homeopathic vets are organised in the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy.
If this sounds promising, we should not forget that, as discussed so often on this blog, homeopathy lacks plausibility the evidence for veterinary homeopathy fails to be positive (see for instance here). But, hold on, there is a new study, perhaps it will change everything?
This ‘study‘ was aimed at providing an initial insight into the existing prerequisites on dairy farms for the use of homeopathy (i.e. the consideration of homeopathic principles) and on homeopathic treatment procedures (including anamnesis, clinical examination, diagnosis, selection of a remedy, follow-up checks, and documentation) on 64 dairy farms in France, Germany and Spain.
The use of homeopathy was assessed via a standardised questionnaire during face-to-face interviews. The results revealed that homeopathic treatment procedures were applied very heterogeneously and differed considerably between farms and countries. Farmers also use human products without veterinary prescription as well as other prohibited substances.
The authors of this ‘study’ concluded that the subjective treatment approach using the farmers’ own criteria, together with their neglecting to check the outcome of the treatment and the lack of appropriate documentation is presumed to substantially reduce the potential for a successful recovery of the animals from diseases. There is, thus, a need to verify the effectiveness of homeopathic treatments in farm practices based on a lege artis treatment procedure and homeopathic principles which can be achieved by the regular monitoring of treatment outcomes and the prevailing rate of the disease at herd level. Furthermore, there is a potential risk to food safety due to the use of non-veterinary drugs without veterinary prescription and the use of other prohibited substances.
So did this ‘study’ change the evidence on veterinary homeopathy?
This ‘study’ is hardly worth the paper it is printed on.
Who conceives such nonsense?
And who finances such an investigation?
The answer to the latter question is one of the few provided by the authors: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under Grant Agreement No 311824 (IMPRO).
Time for a constructive suggestion! Could the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme with their next research project in veterinary homeopathy please evaluate the question why farmers in the EU are allowed to use disproven therapies on defenceless animals?