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

prevention

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The use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are claimed to be associated with preventive health behaviors. However, the role of SCAM use in patients’ health behaviors remains unclear.

This survey aimed to determine the extent to which patients report that SCAM use motivates them to make changes to their health behaviours. For this purpose, a secondary analysis of the 2012 National Health Interview Survey data was undertaken. It involved 10,201 SCAM users living in the US who identified up to three SCAM therapies most important to their health. Analyses assessed the extent to which participants reported that their SCAM use motivated positive health behaviour changes, specifically: eating healthier, eating more organic foods, cutting back/stopping drinking alcohol, cutting back/quitting smoking cigarettes, and/or exercising more regularly.

Overall, 45.4% of SCAM users reported being motivated by SCAM to make positive health behaviour changes, including exercising more regularly (34.9%), eating healthier (31.4%), eating more organic foods (17.2%), reducing/stopping smoking (16.6% of smokers), or reducing/stopping drinking alcohol (8.7% of drinkers). Individual SCAM therapies motivated positive health behaviour changes in 22% (massage) to 81% (special diets) of users. People were more likely to report being motivated to change health behaviours if they were:

  • aged 18-64 compared to those aged over 65 years;
  • of female gender;
  • not in a relationship;
  • of Hispanic or Black ethnicity, compared to White;
  • reporting at least college education, compared to people with less than high school education;
  • without health insurance.

The authors concluded that a sizeable proportion of respondents were motivated by their SCAM use to undertake health behavior changes. CAM practices and practitioners could help improve patients’ health behavior and have potentially significant implications for public health and preventive medicine initiatives; this warrants further research attention.

This seems like an interesting finding! SCAM might be ineffective, but it motivates people to lead a healthier life. Thus SCAM has something to show for itself after all.

Great!

Except, there is another explanation of the results, one that might be much more plausible.

What if some consumers, particularly females who are well-educated and have no health insurance, one day decide that it’s time to do something for their health. Thus they initiate several things:

  • they start using SCAM;
  • they exercise more regularly;
  • they eat more healthily;
  • they consume organic food;
  • they stop smoking;
  • they stop boozing.

The motivation common to all these changes is their determination to do something about their health. Contrary to the authors’ wishful thinking, SCAM has little or even nothing to do with it. The notion was induced by SCAM practitioners who like to think that they play a role in disease prevention, by the leading questions of the interviewer, by recall bias, or by other factors..

What did the wise man say once upon a time?

CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION!

 

 

Professor Anthony Pelosi just published an intriguing paper. Here is the abstract:

During the 1980s and 1990s, Hans J Eysenck conducted a programme of research into the causes, prevention and treatment of fatal diseases in collaboration with one of his protégés, Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. This led to what must be the most astonishing series of findings ever published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature with effect sizes that have never otherwise been encounterered in biomedical research. This article outlines just some of these reported findings and signposts readers to extremely serious scientific and ethical criticisms that were published almost three decades ago. Confidential internal documents that have become available as a result of litigation against tobacco companies provide additional insights into this work. It is suggested that this research programme has led to one of the worst scientific scandals of all time. A call is made for a long overdue formal inquiry.

The Guardian reported further details on this story sating that the work of one of the most famous and influential British psychologists of all time, Hans Eysenck, is under a cloud following an investigation by King’s College London, which has found 26 of his published papers “unsafe”.

In relation to so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), it is foremost this claim of Eysenck that is relevant:

It is argued that there is now suficient evidence to regard psychosocial variables, in
particular personality and stress, as important risk factors for cancer and coronary heart
disease (CHD), equal in importance to smoking, heredity, cholesterol level, blood pressure,
and other physical variables. Furthermore, it is now clear that both types of factors act
synergistically; that is, each by itself is relatively benign, but their effects multiply to produce
high levels of disease…

The claim (which Eysenck published many times over, for instance here) was picked up and promoted by many believers in SCAM. This might have been helped by Eysenck’s bizarre openness to all things paranormal. Today his belief of a link between personality/stress and cancer is deeply engrained in SCAM.

King’s College says the results and conclusions of the papers “were not considered scientifically rigorous” by its committee of inquiry. Prof Sir Robert Lechler, the provost at King’s, has contacted the editors of the 11 journals where the papers appeared, recommending they should be retracted.

Prof Anthony Pelosi, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital, Glasgow, whose own investigation prompted the inquiry by King’s, said their work “led to what must be the most astonishing series of findings ever published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, with effect sizes that have never otherwise been encountered in biomedical research”.

Among more than 3,000 people in the studies, Eysenck and his colleague claimed people with a “cancer-prone” personality were 121 times more likely to die of the disease than those without. Cancer-prone personalities were described as generally passive in the face of stress from outside.

Eysenck and Grossarth-Maticek apparently even had a cure for cancer. In one study, they gave 600 “cancer-prone” individuals a leaflet on how to be more “autonomous” and take control of their destiny. It contained such advice as: “Your aim should always be to produce conditions which make it possible for you to lead a happy and contented life.” It appeared to deliver miracles. Over 13 years, the 600 people randomly assigned to bibliotherapy, as it was called, had all-cause mortality of 32%, compared with 82% of 600 people not fortunate enough to receive a leaflet.

“I honestly believe, having read it so carefully and tried to find alternative interpretations, that this is fraudulent work,” said Pelosi, who is concerned Eysenck’s ideas still have a following. “His acolytes always bragged he was the most cited psychologist of all time… In the social sciences citation index, he was number three. Number two was Freud. Number one was Karl Marx. He was hugely prolific, widely cited and very influential… Many fringe medical practitioners hold the same conviction.”

Four speakers have been announced for next year’s conference (25-26 April 2020) of the UK ‘Society of Homeopaths’ (SoH). It has the theme ‘All About Men’ (which is surprising considering the majority of homeopathy fans are women). The meeting will aim to provide a better understanding of men’s lives and illnesses in order for practitioners to help them seek homeopathic treatments with confidence.

One of the 4 speakers will be California-based chiropractor, homeopath and health coach Joel Kriesberg. The SoH’s announcement proudly states that “Joel Kreisberg is going to bring the very interesting tool, the Enneagram, which was originally devised by the famous philosopher, George Gurdjieff. This is the first time Joel has lectured in the UK and he is well respected and highly thought of by the likes of Karen Allen and Dana Ullman.”

(A note to the SoH: Gurdjieff did not devise the Enneagram, he popularised it; perhaps you want to correct this statement?)

But, what is the ENNEAGRAM?

According to Wikipedia, the Enneagram (from the Greek words ἐννέα [ennéa, meaning “nine”] and γράμμα [grámma, meaning something “written” or “drawn”[1]]), is a model of the human psyche which is principally understood and taught as a typology of nine interconnected personality types. Although the origins and history of many of the ideas and theories associated with the Enneagram of Personality are a matter of dispute, contemporary Enneagram claims are principally derived from the teachings of Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo. Naranjo’s theories were partly influenced by some earlier teachings of George Gurdjieff. As a typology the Enneagram defines nine personality types (sometimes called “enneatypes”), which are represented by the points of a geometric figure called an enneagram,[2] which indicate connections between the types. There are different schools of thought among Enneagram teachers, therefore their ideas are not always in agreement.

The Enneagram of Personality has been widely promoted in both business management and spirituality contexts through seminars, conferences, books, magazines, and DVDs.[3][4] In business contexts it is generally used as a typology to gain insights into workplace interpersonal-dynamics; in spirituality it is more commonly presented as a path to higher states of being, essence, and enlightenment. Both contexts say it can aid in self-awareness, self-understanding and self-development.[3]

 

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In a nutshell, the Enneagram is an obsolete personality test that has never been properly validated and is today used mostly by quacks and other dubious characters and institutions. Yet, this is what Kriesberg has to say on his website about the use of the Enneagram in homeopathy:

The Enneagram’s application to homeopathy and health coaching makes a dramatic difference as it allows practitioner to identify the client’s learning style quickly. As we engage the Enneagram, we are able to provide specific developmental paths and activities based on their Enneagram style. Healing is faster, deeper, and has longer-lasting results.

To teach all this, Kriesberg is offering classes that are grounded in Tinus Smits’ method for studying universal healing with homeopathy, in which direct experience of the Enneagram types is enhanced by the use of homeopathic remedies. 

Tinus Smits! … where have I heard this name before?

Ah yes, this is the homeopath who invented CEASE!

Smits became convinced that autism is caused by a child’s exposure to an accumulation of toxic substances and published several books about his theory. In his experience (as far as I can see, Smits never published a single scientific paper in the peer-reviewed literature) autism is caused by an accumulation of different toxins. About 70% is due to vaccines, 25% to toxic medication and other toxic substances, 5% to some diseases. According to the ‘like cures like’ principle of homeopathy, Smits claimed that autism must be cured by applying homeopathic doses of the substances which caused autism. Step by step all assumed causative factors (vaccines, regular medication, environmental toxic exposures, effects of illness, etc.) are detoxified with the homeopathically prepared substances that has been administered prior to the onset of autism. Smits and his followers believe that this procedure clears out the energetic field of the patient from the imprint of toxic substances or diseases.

I herewith congratulate the SoH on their forthcoming conference – an event that must not be missed! They have managed to pack an unprecedented amount of unethical nonsense into just one lecture!

 

On Twitter, I recently found this remarkable advertisement:

Naturally, it interested me. The implication seemed to be that we can boost our immune system and thus protect ourselves from colds, the flu and other infections by using this supplement. With the flu season approaching, this might be important. On the other hand, the supplement might be unsafe for many other patients. As I had done a bit of research in this area, I needed to know more.

According to the manufacturer’s information sheet, Viracid

  • Provides Support for Immune Challenges
  • Strengthens Immune Function
  • Maintains Normal Inflammatory Balance

The manufacurer furthermore states the following:

Our body’s immune system is a complex and dynamic defense system that comes to our rescue at the first sign of exposure to an outside invader. The dynamic nature of the immune system means that all factors that affect health need to be addressed in order for it to function at peak performance. The immune system is very sensitive to nutrient deficiencies. While vitamin deficiencies can compromise the immune system, consuming immune enhancing nutrients and botanicals can support and strengthen your body’s immune response. Viracid’s synergistic formula significantly boosts immune cell function including antibody response, natural killer (NK) cell activity, thymus hormone secretions, and T-cell activation. Viracid also helps soothe throat irritations and nasal secretions, and maintains normal inflammatory balance by increasing antioxidant levels throughout the body.

This sounds impressive. Viracid could thus play an important role in keeping us healthy. It could also be contra-indicated to lots of patients who suffer from autoimmune and other conditions. In any case, it is worth having a closer look at this dietary supplement. The ingredients of the product include:

  • Vitamin A,
  • Vitamin C,
  • Vitamin B12,
  • Pantothenic Acid,
  • Zinc,
  • L-Lysine Hydrochloride,
  • Echinacea purpurea Extract,
  • Acerola Fruit,
  • Andrographis paniculata,
  • European Elder,
  • Berry Extract,
  • Astragalus membranaceus Root Extract

Next, I conducted several literature searches. Here is what I did NOT find:

  • any clinical trial of Viracid,
  • any indication that its ingredients work synergistically,
  • any proof of Viracid inducing an antibody response,
  • or enhancing natural killer (NK) cell activity,
  • or thymus hormone secretions,
  • or T-cell activation,
  • or soothing throat irritations,
  • or controlling nasal secretions,
  • or maintaining normal inflammatory balance,
  • any mention of contra-indications,
  • any reliable information about the risks of taking Viracid.

There are, of course, two explanations for this void of information. Either I did not search well enough, or the claims that are being made for Viracid by the manufacturer are unsubstantiated and therefore bogus.

Which of the two explanations apply?

Please, someone – preferably the manufacturer – tell me.

It is hard to deny that many practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) advise their patients to avoid ‘dangerous chemicals’. By this they usually mean prescription drugs. If you doubt how strong this sentiment often is, you have not followed the recent posts and the comments that regularly followed. Frequently, SCAM practitioners will suggest to their patients to not take this or that drug and predict that patients would then see for themselves how much better they feel (usually, they also administer their SCAM at this point).

Lo and behold, many patients do indeed feel better after discontinuing their ‘chemical’ medicines. Of course, this experience is subsequently interpreted as a proof that the drugs were dangerous: “I told you so, you are much better off not taking synthetic medicines; best to use the natural treatments I am offering.”

But is this always interpretation correct?

I seriously doubt it.

Let’s look at a common scenario: a middle-aged man on several medications for reducing his cardiovascular risk (no, it’s not me). He has been diagnosed to have multiple cardiovascular risk factors. Initially, his GP told him to change his life-style, nutrition and physical activity – to which he was only moderately compliant. Despite the patient feeling perfectly healthy, his blood pressure and lipids remained elevated. His doctor now strongly recommends drug treatment and our chap soon finds himself on statins, beta-blockers plus ACE-inhibitors.

Our previously healthy man has thus been turned into a patient with all sorts of symptoms. His persistent cough prompts his GP to change the ACE-inhibitor to a Ca-channel blocker. Now the patients cough is gone, but he notices ankle oedema and does not feel in top form. His GP said that this is nothing to worry about and asks him to grin and bear it. But the fact is that a previously healthy man has been turned into a patient with reduced quality of life (QoL).

This fact takes our man to a homeopath in the hope to restore his QoL (you see, it certainly isn’t me). The homeopath proceeds as outlined above: he explains that drugs are dangerous chemicals and should therefore best be dropped. The homeopath also prescribes homeopathics and is confident that they will control the blood pressure adequately. Our man complies. After just a few days, he feels miles better, his QoL is back, and even his sex-life improves. The homeopath is triumphant: “I told you so, homeopathy works and those drugs were really nasty stuff.”

When I was a junior doctor working in a homeopathic hospital, my boss explained to me that much of the often considerable success of our treatments was to get rid of most, if not all prescription drugs that our patients were taking (the full story can be found here). At the time, and for many years to come, this made a profound impression on me and my clinical practice. As a scientist, however, I have to critically evaluate this strategy and ask: is it the correct one?

The answer is YES and NO.

YES, many (bad) doctors over-prescribe. And there is not a shadow of a doubt that unnecessary drugs must be scrapped. But what is unnecessary? Is it every drug that makes a patient less well than he was before?

NO, treatments that are needed should not be scrapped, even if this would make the patient feel better. Where possible, they might be altered such that side-effects disappear or become minimal. Patients’ QoL is important, but it is not the only factor of importance. I am sure this must sound ridiculous to lay people who, at this stage of the discussion, would often quote the ethical imperative of FIRST DO NO HARM.

So, let me use an extreme example to explain this a bit better. Imagine a cancer patient on chemo. She is quite ill with it and QoL is a thing of the past. Her homeopath tells her to scrap the chemo and promises she will almost instantly feel fine again. With some side-effect-free homeopathy see will beat the cancer just as well (please, don’t tell me they don’t do that, because they do!). She follows the advice, feels much improved for several months. Alas, her condition then deteriorates, and a year later she is dead.

I know, this is an extreme example; therefore, let’s return to our cardiovascular patient from above. He too followed the advice of his homeopath and is happy like a lark for several years … until, 5 years after discontinuing the ‘nasty chemicals’, he drops dead with a massive myocardial infarction at the age of 62.

I hope I made my message clear: those SCAM providers who advise discontinuing prescribed drugs are often impressively successful in improving QoL and their patients love them for it. But many of these practitioners haven’t got a clue about real medicine, and are merely playing dirty tricks on their patients. The advise to stop a prescribed drug can be a very wise move. But frequently, it improves the quality, while reducing the quantity of life!

The lesson is simple: find a rational doctor who knows the difference between over-prescribing and evidence-based medicine. And make sure you start running when a SCAM provider tries to meddle with necessary prescribed drugs.

Some people seem to think that all so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is ineffective, harmful or both. And some believe that I am hell-bent to make sure that this message gets out there. I recommend that these guys read my latest book or this 2008 article (sadly now out-dated) and find those (admittedly few) SCAMs that demonstrably generate more good than harm.

The truth, as far as this blog is concerned, is that I am constantly on the lookout to review research that shows or suggests that a therapy is effective or a diagnostic technique is valid (if you see such a paper that is sound and new, please let me know). And yesterday, I have been lucky:

This paper has just been presented at the ESC Congress in Paris.

Its authors are: A Pandey (1), N Huq (1), M Chapman (1), A Fongang (1), P Poirier (2)

(1) Cambridge Cardiac Care Centre – Cambridge – Canada

(2) Université Laval, Faculté de Pharmacie – Laval – Canada

Here is the abstract in full:

Introduction: Regular physical activity may modulate the inflammatory process and be cardio-protective. Yoga is a form of exercise that may have cardiovascular benefits. The effects of yoga on global cardiovascular risk have not been adequately described. The purpose of this study is to determine whether the addition of yoga to a regular exercise regimen reduces global cardiovascular risk.
Methods: Sixty consecutive individuals with essential hypertension were recruited in a lifestyle intervention program. All individuals with known hypertensive end organ damage, known cardiovascular diseases, as well as those taking medications/supplements that affected blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol or vascular inflammation were excluded. Participants were randomized to either a yoga group or similar duration stretching control group. Participants, over the 3-month intervention regimen, performed 15 minutes of either yoga or stretching in addition to 30 minutes of aerobic exercises thrice weekly. Blood pressure, cholesterol levels and hs-CRP were measured, and Reynold’s Global Cardiovascular Risk Score was calculated at baseline and at the end of the 3-month intervention program.
Results: At screening, there were no statistically significant differences between the groups in any measured parameters or the 10-year risk of a cardiovascular event as measured by the Reynolds Risk Score. (8.2 vs. 9.0%; yoga vs. control group) After the 3-month intervention period, there was a statistically significantly greater decrease in the Reynold’s Risk Score in the yoga vs. the control group. (7.0 vs. 8.4%, p=0.003, relative reduction 13.2 vs. 6.5%, p<0.0001)
Conclusions: In patients with essential hypertension on no medications and with no known end organ damage, the practice of yoga incorporated into a 3-month exercise intervention program was associated with significant greater improvement in the Reynold’s Risk of a 10-year cardiovascular event, when compared to the control stretching group. If these results are validated in more diverse populations over a longer duration of follow up, yoga may represent an important addition to traditional cardiovascular disease prevention programs.

Yes, this study was small, too small to draw far-reaching conclusions. And no, we don’t know what precisely ‘yoga’ entailed (we need to wait for the full publication to get this information plus all the other details needed to evaluate the study properly). Yet, this is surely promising: yoga has few adverse effects, is liked by many consumers, and could potentially help millions to reduce their cardiovascular risk. What is more, there is at least some encouraging previous evidence.

But what I like most about this abstract is the fact that the authors are sufficiently cautious in their conclusions and even state ‘if these results are validated…’

SCAM-researchers, please take note!

I have often felt that practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) tend to be foolishly overconfident, often to the point of being dangerous. In a word, they are plagued by hubris.

Here is an example of osteopathic hubris:

The aim of this study was to determine the impact of visceral osteopathy on the incidence of nausea/vomiting, constipation and overall quality of life (QoL) in women operated for breast cancer and undergoing adjuvant chemotherapy in Centre Georges François Leclerc, CGFL.

Ninety-four women operated for a breast cancer stage 1-3, in complete resection and to whom a 3 FEC 100 chemotherapy was prescribed, were randomly allocated to experimental or placebo group. Experimental group underwent a visceral osteopathic technique and placebo group was subjected to a superficial manipulation after each chemotherapy cycle. Rate of grade ≥1 nausea/vomiting or constipation, on the first 3 cycles of FEC 100, were reported. QoL was evaluated using the EORTC QLQ-C30 questionnaire.

Rate of nausea/vomiting episodes of grade ≥1 was high in both experimental and placebo group. Constipation episodes of grade ≥1 were also frequent. No significant differences were found between the two groups concerning the rate of nausea/vomiting (p = 0.569) or constipation (p = 0.204) according to clinician reported side-effects but patient reported impact of constipation and diarrhoea on quality of life was significantly lower in experimental group (p = 0.036 and p = 0.038, respectively).

The authors concluded that osteopathy does not reduce the incidence of nausea/vomiting in women operated for breast cancer and undergoing adjuvant chemotherapy. In contrast, patient reported digestive quality of life was significantly ameliorated by osteopathy.

Visceral osteopathy has been discussed here several times already (for instance here and here). In my new book, I summarise the evidence as follows:

Several studies have assessed the diagnostic reliability of the techniques involved. The totality of this evidence fails to show that they are sufficiently reliable to be of practical use.

Other studies have tested whether the therapeutic techniques used in visceral osteopathy are effective in curing disease or alleviating symptoms. The totality of this evidence fails to show that visceral osteopathy works for any condition.

The treatment itself is probably safe, yet the risks of visceral osteopathy are nevertheless considerable: if a patient suffers from symptoms related to her inner organs, a visceral osteopath is likely to misdiagnose them and subsequently mistreat them. If the symptoms are due to a serious disease, this would amount to medical neglect and could, in extreme cases, cost the patient’s life.

PLAUSIBILITY negative
EFFICACY negative
SAFETY debatable
COST negative
RISK/BENEFIT BALANCE negative

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The key message here should be that visceral osteopathy lacks plausibility. So why test its effectiveness for any condition, especially chemo-induced nausea where there is no conceivable mechanism of action and no hint that it might work?

The answer, I am afraid, might be quite simple: osteopathic hubris!

It is hardly surprising that Gwyneth Paltrow’s obsession with so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for the vagina is motivating women to try some of it. The consequences can be dramatic; not only for the wallet but also for the vagina!

Vaginal steaming made global headlines in 2015 after its promotion by celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow. One of many female genital modification practices currently on offer in Anglo-Western nations – practices both heavily promoted and critiqued – vaginal steaming is claimed to offer benefits for fertility and overall reproductive, sexual or even general health and wellbeing. We analysed a selection of online accounts of vaginal steaming to determine the sociocultural assumptions and logics within such discourse, including ideas about women, women’s bodies and women’s engagement with such ‘modificatory’ practices. Ninety items were carefully selected from the main types of website discussing vaginal steaming: news/magazines; health/lifestyle; spa/service providers; and personal blogs. Data were analysed using thematic analysis, within a constructionist framework that saw us focus on the constructions and rationalities that underpin the explicit content of the texts. Within an overarching theme of ‘the self-improving woman’ we identified four themes: (1) the naturally deteriorating, dirty female body; (2) contemporary life as harmful; (3) physical optimisation and the enhancement of health; and (4) vaginal steaming for life optimisation. Online accounts of vaginal steaming appear both to fit within historico-contemporary constructions of women’s bodies as deficient and disgusting, and contemporary neoliberal and healthist discourse around the constantly improving subject.

A recent case-report tells a cautionary tale. Here is its abstract:

BACKGROUND:

Vaginal steaming has gained increased popularity as a method to achieve empowerment by providing vaginal tightening and to “freshen” the vagina.

CASE:

A 62-year-old woman sustained second-degree burns following vaginal steaming in an attempt to reduce vaginal prolapse.

CONCLUSION:

Clinicians need to be aware of alternative treatments available to women so that counselling may mitigate any potential harm.

As the full paper is not available to me, I had to rely on another report for further information.

The woman had been suffering from a prolapsed vagina and had been led to believe the vaginal steaming could help avoid surgery. Spas advertising “v-steaming” claim it has been used throughout history in countries in Asia and Africa. They claim the practice, which is sometimes called Yoni steaming, acts to “detox” the vagina, can ease period pains, help with fertility and much more. Experts, however, warn that it can be dangerous and point out that there is no good evidence for the health claims being made.

Dr Vanessa Mackay, a consultant and spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, says it is a “myth” that the vagina requires extensive cleaning or treatment. She recommends using plain, unperformed soaps on the external vulva area only. “The vagina contains good bacteria, which are there to protect it,” she said in a statement. “Steaming the vagina could affect this healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels and cause irritation, infection (such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush) and inflammation. It could also burn the delicate skin around the vagina (the vulva).”

Dr Magali Robert, who authored the case-report, said the injured woman attempted to steam her vagina on the advice of a traditional Chinese doctor. The woman, who gave permission for her case to be shared, sat over the boiling water for 20 minutes on two consecutive days before presenting at an emergency department with injuries. She sustained second-degree burns and had to delay reconstructive surgery while she healed.

Dr Robert, who works in pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery in Calgary, said word of unconventional therapies like steaming can spread through channels like the internet and word-of-mouth. “Health care providers need to be aware of alternative therapies so that they can help women make informed choices and avoid potential harm,” she says in the article.

Facebook and YouTube have in the past been Eldorados for quacks who used it to promote their nonsensical products, false messages, and bogus treatments. A recent article in the Washington Post explained that this might be about to change.

Hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) persuade each other on Facebook that baking soda, apple cider vinegar, frankincense, apricot kernels, tiger bones, Essiac, bleach, homeopathics, Bach flower remedies etc. are cures that doctors don’t want you to know about. But recently Facebook announced that it is taking steps to limit the reach of false and sometimes dangerous therapeutic claims by treating them similar to clickbait or spam.

Facebook will “down-rank” posts that contain certain types of health misinformation, meaning those posts will appear in the news feeds of fewer users, and less prominently. The down-ranking process will use keywords and phrases that commonly appear in posts containing exaggerated or false health claims, but tend to be absent in posts containing accurate information on the same topics. Facebook’s News Feed algorithms will use those suspicious phrases, which the company has identified with the help of health-care professionals, to predict which posts might contain sensational health claims.

“Misleading health content is particularly bad for our community,” Travis Yeh, a Facebook product manager, wrote in a blog post. “So, last month we made two ranking updates to reduce (1) posts with exaggerated or sensational health claims and (2) posts attempting to sell products or services based on health-related claims.”

In a media statement, YouTube said: “Misinformation is a difficult challenge and any misinformation on medical topics is especially concerning … We’ve taken a number of steps to address this, including surfacing more authoritative content across our site. Our systems are not perfect, but we’ve seen progress within this space.”

Without question, these moves are a steps in the right direction. Whether they amount to more than a lip-service, whether they are able to out-smart the quacks, and whether they will make a real difference to the ubiquitous promotion of quackery, has to be seen.

One of the favourite arguments of proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is that conventional medicine is amongst the world’s biggest killers. The argument is used cleverly to discredit conventional medicine and promote SCAM. It has been shown to be wrong many times, but it nevertheless is much-loved by SCAM enthusiasts and thus refuses to disappear. Perhaps this new and important review might help instilling some realism into this endless discussion? Here is its abstract:

Objective To systematically quantify the prevalence, severity, and nature of preventable patient harm across a range of medical settings globally.

Design Systematic review and meta-analysis.

Data sources Medline, PubMed, PsycINFO, Cinahl and Embase, WHOLIS, Google Scholar, and SIGLE from January 2000 to January 2019. The reference lists of eligible studies and other relevant systematic reviews were also searched.

Review methods Observational studies reporting preventable patient harm in medical care. The core outcomes were the prevalence, severity, and types of preventable patient harm reported as percentages and their 95% confidence intervals. Data extraction and critical appraisal were undertaken by two reviewers working independently. Random effects meta-analysis was employed followed by univariable and multivariable meta regression. Heterogeneity was quantified by using the I2 statistic, and publication bias was evaluated.

Results Of the 7313 records identified, 70 studies involving 337 025 patients were included in the meta-analysis. The pooled prevalence for preventable patient harm was 6% (95% confidence interval 5% to 7%). A pooled proportion of 12% (9% to 15%) of preventable patient harm was severe or led to death. Incidents related to drugs (25%, 95% confidence interval 16% to 34%) and other treatments (24%, 21% to 30%) accounted for the largest proportion of preventable patient harm. Compared with general hospitals (where most evidence originated), preventable patient harm was more prevalent in advanced specialties (intensive care or surgery; regression coefficient b=0.07, 95% confidence interval 0.04 to 0.10).

Conclusions Around one in 20 patients are exposed to preventable harm in medical care. Although a focus on preventable patient harm has been encouraged by the international patient safety policy agenda, there are limited quality improvement practices specifically targeting incidents of preventable patient harm rather than overall patient harm (preventable and non-preventable). Developing and implementing evidence-based mitigation strategies specifically targeting preventable patient harm could lead to major service quality improvements in medical care which could also be more cost effective.

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One in 20 patients is undoubtedly an unacceptably high proportion, but it is nowhere close to some of the extraordinarily alarming claims by SCAM enthusiasts. And, as I try regularly to remind people, the harm must be viewed in relation to the benefit. For the vast majority of conventional treatments, the benefits outweigh the risks. But, if there is no benefit at all – as with some form of SCAM – a risk/benefit balance can never be positive. Moreover, many experts work hard and do their very best to improve the risk/benefit balance of conventional healthcare by educating clinicians, maximising the benefits, minimising the risks, and filling the gaps in our current knowledge. Do equivalent activities exist in SCAM? The answer is VERY FEW?

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