The integration of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) into cancer care may reduce the adverse effects of anti-neoplastic treatment but also cause new problems and non-adherence to conventional treatment. Therefore, its net benefit is questionable.
The aim of this randomized controlled study was to investigate the impact of integrative open dialogue about SCAM on cancer patients’ health and quality of life (QoL).
Patients undergoing curative or palliative anti-neoplastic treatment were randomly assigned to standard care (SC) plus SCAM or SC alone. A nurse specialist facilitated SCAM in one or two sessions. The primary endpoint was the
frequency of grade 3–4 adverse events (AE) eight weeks after enrollment. Secondary endpoints were the frequency of grade 1–4 AE and patient-reported QoL, psychological distress, perceived information, attitude towards and use of SCAM 12 and 24 weeks after enrollment. Survival was analyzed post-hoc.
Fifty-seven patients were randomized to SCAM and 55 to SC. No significant differences were found in terms of AEs of cancer patients. A trend towards better QoL, improved survival, and a lower level of anxiety was found in the SCAM group.
The authors concluded that integration of SCAM into daily oncology care is feasible. IOD-CAM was not superior to SC in reducing the frequency of grade 3-4 AEs, but it did not compromise patient safety. Implementation of SCAM
may improve the QoL, anxiety, and emotional well-being of the patients by reducing the level of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Finally, SCAM potentially improves the patients’ self-care, which contributes to
increased treatment adherence and improved survival.
This is an interesting paper with a very odd conclusion. The positive trends found failed to be statistically significant. Why employ statistics only to ignore them in our interpretation of the findings?
I can well imagine that the integration of effective treatments into cancer care improves the outcome. I have no problem with this at all – except it is not called INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE but EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE!!! If we integrate dubious treatments into cancer care, it’s called INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE, and it’s unlikely to do any good.
In my view, this small study showed just one thing:
Integrative medicine does not reduce adverse effects in cancer patients.
Prince Charles has claimed that people struggling to return to full health after having the coronavirus should practice yoga. This is what the GUARDIAN reported about it on Friday:
In a video statement on Friday to the virtual yoga and healthcare symposium Wellness After Covid, the heir apparent said doctors should work together with “complementary healthcare specialists” to “build a roadmap to hope and healing” after Covid. “This pandemic has emphasised the importance of preparedness, resilience and the need for an approach which addresses the health and welfare of the whole person as part of society, and which does not merely focus on the symptoms alone,” Charles said. “As part of that approach, therapeutic, evidenced-informed yoga can contribute to health and healing. By its very nature, yoga is an accessible practice which provides practitioners with ways to manage stress, build resilience and promote healing…”
… Charles, who has previously espoused the benefits of yoga, is not the only fan in the royal family. His wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, has said “it makes you less stiff” and “more supple”, while Prince William has also been pictured doing yogic poses. In 2019, the Prince of Wales said yoga had “proven beneficial effects on both body and mind”, and delivered “tremendous social benefits” that help build “discipline, self-reliance and self-care”.
END OF QUOTE
Yoga is a complex subject because it entails a host of different techniques, attitudes, and life-styles. There have been numerous clinical trials of various yoga techniques. They tend to suffer from poor study design as well as incomplete reporting and are thus no always reliable. Several systematic reviews have summarised the findings of these studies. A 2010 overview included 21 systematic reviews relating to a wide range of conditions. Nine systematic reviews arrived at positive conclusions, but many were associated with a high risk of bias. Unanimously positive evidence emerged only for depression and cardiovascular risk reduction. There is no evidence that yoga speeds the recovery after COVID-19 or any other severe infectious disease, as Charles suggested.
Yoga is generally considered to be safe. However, a large-scale survey found that approximately 30% of yoga class attendees had experienced some type of adverse event. Although the majority had mild symptoms, the survey results indicated that patients with chronic diseases were more likely to experience adverse events. It, therefore, seems unlikely that yoga is suited for many patients recovering from a COVID-19 infection.
The warning by the Vatican’s chief exorcist that yoga leads to ‘demonic possession’ might not be taken seriously by rational thinkers. Yet, experts have long warned that many yoga teachers try to recruit their clients into the more cult-like aspects of yoga.
Perhaps the most remarkable expression in Charles’ quotes is the term ‘EVIDENCE-INFORMED‘. It crops up regularly when Charles (or his advisor Dr. Michael Dixon) speaks or writes about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). It is a clever term that sounds almost like ‘evidence-based’ but means something entirely different. If a SCAM is not evidence-based, it can still be legitimately put under the umbrella of ‘evidence-informed’: we know the evidence is not positive, we were well-informed of this fact, we nevertheless conclude that yoga (or any other SCAM) might be a good idea!
In my view, the regular use of the term ‘evidence-informed’ in the realm of SCAM discloses a lack of clarity that suits all snake-oil salesmen very well.
 Ernst E, Lee MS: Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Volume 15(4) December 2010 274–27
 Matsushita T, Oka T. A large-scale survey of adverse events experienced in yoga classes. Biopsychosoc Med. 2015 Mar 18;9:9. doi: 10.1186/s13030-015-0037-1. PMID: 25844090; PMCID: PMC4384376.
On 17/2/2020 I posted this article:
The drop in cases and deaths due to COVID-19 infections in India has been attributed to India’s national policy of using homeopathy. Early in the epidemic, the national “Ministry of AYUSH, recommended the use of Arsenic album 30 as preventive medicine against COVID-19. Its prophylactic use has been advised in states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Maharashtra. The ‘OFFICIAL HOMEOPATHY RESOURCE’ is now claiming that homeopathy is the cause of the observed outcome…
If you click on the link, you will find that the OFFICIAL HOMEOPATHY RESOURCE has now removed the original. No problem! Thanks to Alan Henness, we can still access it; he announced in a tweet that he has archived a copy. So, here is the full article again:
A dramatic plunge in cases and deaths of COVID in India can be attributed to India’s national policy of using homeopathy.
Early in the epidemic, the national “Ministry of AYUSH, (medical alternatives), in its guidelines, issued an advisory to states across India recommending the use of a traditional homeopathic drug, Arsenic album 30 as a form of preventive medicine against COVID-19. Its prophylactic use has been advised in states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra and in some places, it has been used in high-risk areas. In places like Bhopal, claims were raised when doctors said that mild COVID cases were successfully treated with homeopathy.” [Times of India]
And now the results of that policy and use are clear, even though scientists in the conventional paradigm are mystified as to why the drop is so dramatic. They know nothing about homeopathy and its history of successfully treating epidemics.
India has a population of 1 billion, 300 million people. Relative to this massive population the number of cases per day and especially the number of deaths per day are now exceptionally low. According to the Daily Mail:
“Scientists are trying to work out why coronavirus cases in India are falling when at one point it looked like the country might overtake the US as the worst-hit nation.
In September the country was reporting some 100,00 new cases per day, but that went into decline in October and is now sitting at around 10,000 per day – leaving experts struggling to explain why.”
Why did the original disappear?
The reason seems obvious:
Saturday’s official toll recorded another 2,600 deaths and 340,000 new infections in India, bringing the total number of cases to 16.5 million, second only to the US. There have been 190,000 deaths attributed to Covid in India since the start of the pandemic. These figures are dramatic but most likely they are gross underestimates of the truth.
The egg on the face of homeopathy gets bigger if we consider things like the COVID-19 advice from ‘HOMEOPATHY INTERNATIONAL’, or the fact that UK’s biggest provider of homeopathy training encouraged the use of homeopathic potions made with phlegm to protect against and treat Covid-19. The egg finally turns into a veritable omelette, once we learn that the leading academic journal in homeopathy, HOMEOPATHY, promoted the idea that homeopathic have a place in the fight against the pandemic – not just once but repeatedly – and that the leading UK homeopath, Elizabeth Thompson, recommended homeopathy for COVID-19 infections after herself falling ill with the virus.
No, I do not feel the slightest tinge of Schadenfreude, about all this. I am writing about it because I still hope that it will prevent some people from risking their health with useless therapies and perhaps even stop some charlatans to make ridiculously irresponsible claims about them. So, please do me a favor and heed my message:
The promotion of homeopathy and other ineffective therapies costs many lives!
In staunch defiance of the evidence and common sense, Prince Charles has long defended homeopathy. Apparently, he not only uses it himself but also employs it for his animals. Claiming that his cattle don’t know about placebo effects, he seems convinced it works better than a placebo. Homeopaths are naturally delighted to have his royal support, not least the ones from India where homeopathy has been hugely popular for many years.
From the beginning of the pandemic, many Indian enthusiasts have claimed that homeopathy can effectively prevent and treat COVID-19 infections. In parts of India, homeopathy was thus employed on a population basis in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease. There were voices that warned of a disaster but the Indian enthusiasm for homeopathy as an effective anti-COVID-19 therapy won the day.
When Prince Charles fell ill with COVID-19, Indian officials did not hesitate to claim that his quick recovery was due to the homeopathic treatment he had received. Charles’ officials denied this but in India, the story was reported widely and lent crucial support to the myth that homeopathy would provide a solution to the pandemic. Subsequently, Indian officials began to rely even more on the alleged power of homeopathy.
Today, the consequences of these actions are becoming tragically visible: With more than 15 million confirmed cases, India is experiencing a catastrophic tsunami of COVID-19 infections. Its healthcare system is close to collapse, and the high prevalence of the virus provides dangerously fertile grounds for the development of mutants. One does not need to be a clairvoyant to predict that, in turn, these will cause problems on a global basis.
Why am I telling you all this?
I think this depressing sequence of events shows in exemplary fashion what damage ill-informed VIP support for an ineffective therapy can do. Many people tend to feel that Charles’ passion for homeopathy might perhaps be laughable but is essentially harmless. I beg to differ. I am not saying that Charles instructed Indian officials to employ homeopathy the way they did. I am even emphasizing that Charles’ officials denied that homeopathy had anything to do with his speedy recovery after his illness. But I am saying that Charles’ life-long promotion of homeopathy combined with his quick recovery motivated Indian officials, even more, to ignore the evidence and decide to heavily rely on homeopathy.
This decision has cost uncounted lives and will cause many more in the near future. I submit that the seemingly harmless promotion of unproven or disproven treatments such as homeopathy can be a deadly dangerous game indeed.
Like all my books, the new one (this one is in German) is dividing opinions sharply. That has to be expected in the realm of so-called alternative medicine, I suppose. Even though I had hoped to avoid such divisions by discussing the 20 best and the 20 most concerning modalities, there seems to be very little middle ground.
We already discussed the review of our regular Heinrich Huemmer. It was withdrawn by Amazon presumably because it was too offensive and later replaced by his second attempt. Now we have a new review which arguably is even more insulting:
Edzard Ernst ist ein verbitterter, älterer Ex-Wissenschaftler, der in seiner nachuniversitären Ruhestandszeit die Privatfehde mit seinem Erzfeind Prince Charles, wie im Film “Und täglich grüsst das Murmeltier” wieder und wieder aufarbeiten muss. Das letzte traurige Ergebnis gibt’s jetzt hier.
Here is the translation:
Edzard Ernst is an embittered, elderly ex-scientist who, in his post-university retirement, has to rehash the private feud with his nemesis Prince Charles over and over again, as in the movie “And Every Day the Groundhog Greets.” The latest sad result is now available here.
The review was posted on 21/3/2021 by an anonymous person who had not bought or read the book. As it might also be withdrawn by Amazon for being offensive, I thought I better keep it here for posterity. I find it quite nice because it shows the lack of reason that shines through so often when my critics try to form a coherent argument.
So, please allow me to do a quick analysis:
- I cannot very well judge whether I am embittered. Those around me would deny it, however.
- Yes, I suppose I am elderly; the same age as Charles, actually. If ‘elderly’ is used in a derogatory sense, it gets rather unpleasant, if you ask me.
- I am not an ex-scientist. I still do quite a bit of science which, by any standards, makes me a scientist.
- I don’t think I have a ‘private feud’ with Charles. A feud is an argument that has existed for a long time between two people or groups, causing a lot of anger or violence. If anything I am a critic of Charles’ actions related to SCAM. He has never argued back which means that this does not amount to a feud. If it were a feud, it would also not be private. I have always made my criticism public.
- Is Charles my nemesis? Someone’s nemesis is a person or thing that is very difficult for them to defeat. Charles would indeed be very difficult to defeat because he never discusses with people who are not of his opinion. So, perhaps this point is correct? Yes, except, I never expected to ‘defeat’ Charles; I would be entirely happy to make him realise that some of his notions are ill-conceived.
- Do I really have to rehash whatever it is over and over again? I fear that here the book reviewer is mistaken. Charles is one of the world’s most influential proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). I am one of the leading experts in this field. Therefore it is only to be expected that I regularly come across his activities.
- “The latest sad result is now available here.” This implies that my new book is full of mentions of Charles. The truth is that Charles or his activities are not mentioned even once (at least I did not find anything when checking just mow).
I do find the book review quite revealing. It shows that there must be some (I fear many) people out there who are not willing to even consider an argument deemed to be contrary to their conviction. They close their eyes and ears in motivated ignorance. The funny thing is that this happens even in relation to a book in which I really did try to show some positive sides of SCAM.
In other words, even when I evidently write about the positive aspects of SCAM, the opposition remains stubbornly, closed-minded, and accuses me of closed-mindedness.
Not without irony, that!
I am currently working on a project that involves studying a lot of what our heir to the throne – or is the ‘the heir to our throne? – as done, said and written about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Unavoidably, this meant reading his 2010 book HARMONY, A NEW WAY OF LOOKING AT OUR WORLD. In it, Prince Charles states that “… I cannot bear to see people suffer unnecessarily when, so often, a complementary treatment can be beneficial…” This is a statement that Charles has made several times before.
Each time I come across it, I have to think of some of my own patients. It’s a long time since I was a clinician, yet one patient, in particular, often comes to my mind.
He had been a young man healthy, happily married, nice kids, good job, etc. Then one day, he was inattentive or distracted and drove his car full with his wife and kids across a red signal at an unguarded railway crossing. They were all killed instantly.
But almost miraculously, he survived and had just relatively minor injuries which we hoped to put right. So, his body was about to be fine, but his mind was not. Just before being dismissed from the hospital, he tried to commit suicide by jumping out of the 4th-floor window of his room. He survived that too, and we were looking after him and his multiple injuries. As he had lost a lot of blood, he received several blood transfusions. One had been infected and he contracted HIV. He did not survive.
Does Charles know what he is talking about?
How often does he see truly suffering patients?
Does he know that faked empathy might be seen as offensive?
On what evidential basis does he assume that so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) would bring any benefit to severely ill patients?
Does he assume to know better than the clinicians treating the ‘people suffering unnecessarily?
Does he realize that his words are an insult to those who actually do see patients suffer and empathize with them?
Does he know what it means to do everything possible to help patients?
Does he realize that this is achieved by employing the most effective treatments currently available?
Does he know that the most effective treatments would almost never include SCAM?
I am sorry, but sometimes Charles’s musings about SCAM do get under my skin.
When I yesterday reported about Charles’ new paper in a medical journal, I omitted to go into any sort of detail. Merely mumbling ‘this is bait and switch‘ and ‘there is no good evidence that social prescribing is effective‘, is not good enough. Charles deserves better! That’s why today I provide a more detailed analysis of what he wrote on social prescribing.
Social prescribing is a concept that emerged in the UK more than a decade ago . It aims to connect patients to different types of community support, including social events, fitness classes, and social services. Trained professionals, often called link workers or community connections, work with healthcare providers to offer referrals to these types of support. Social prescribing largely exists to fill in healthcare treatment gaps. The basic medical treatment cannot address every concern. Primary care providers don’t always have enough time to get to know their patients and understand the complete picture of their lives.
For example, loneliness can cause stress, which can eventually affect sleep, nutrition, and physical health. Doctors may not be able to offer much help for this problem. That’s where link workers step in. They can provide more specialized support if someone struggles to meet basic wellness or social needs. They get to know a patient’s unique needs and help you take action to meet those needs by referring him or her to helpful resources in the community.
Charles elaborated on social prescribing (or social prescription, as he calls it for some reason) as follows [the numbers in square brackets were added me and refer to my comments below]:
… For a long time, I have been an advocate of what is now called social prescription and this may just be the key to integrating the biomedical, the psychosocial and the environmental, as well as the nature of the communities within which we live and which have such an enormous impact on our health and wellbeing . In particular, I believe that social prescription can bring together the aims of the health service, local authorities, and the voluntary and volunteer sector. Biomedicine has been spectacularly successful in treating and often curing disease that was previously incurable. Yet it cannot hold all the answers, as witnessed, for instance, by the increasing incidence of long-term disease, antibiotic resistance and opiate dependence . Social prescription enables medicine to go beyond pills and procedures and to recognise the enormous health impact of the lives we lead and the physical and social environment within which we live . This is precisely why I have spent so many years trying to demonstrate the vitally important psychosocial, environmental and financial added value of genuinely, sustainable urban planning, design and construction .
There is research from University College London, for instance, which shows that you are almost three times more likely to overcome depression if you have a hobby . Social prescription enables doctors to provide their patients with a bespoke prescription that might help them at a time of need …
When we hear that a quarter of 14–16-year-old girls are self-harming and almost a third of our children are overweight or obese, it should make us realise that we will have to be a bit more radical in addressing these problems . And though social prescription cannot do everything, I believe that, used imaginatively, it can begin to tackle these deep-rooted issues . As medicine starts to grapple with these wider determinants of health , I also believe that medicine will need to combine bioscience with personal beliefs, hopes, aspirations and choices .
Many patients choose to see complementary practitioners for interventions such as manipulation, acupuncture and massage . Surely in an era of personalised medicine, we need to be open-minded about the choices that patients make and embrace them where they clearly improve their ability to care for themselves?  Current NHS guidelines on pain that acknowledge the role of acupuncture and mindfulness may lead, I hope, to a more fruitful discussion on the role of complementary medicine in a modern health service . I have always advocated ‘the best of both worlds’ , bringing evidence-informed  conventional and complementary medicine together and avoiding that gulf between them, which leads, I understand, to a substantial proportion of patients feeling that they cannot discuss complementary medicine with their doctors .
I believe it is more important than ever that we should aim for this middle ground . Only then can we escape divisions and intolerance on both sides of the conventional/complementary equation where, on the one hand, the appropriate regulation of the proven therapies of acupuncture and medical herbalism  is opposed while, on the other, we find people actually opposing life-saving vaccinations. Who would have thought, for instance, that in the 21st century that there would be a significant lobby opposing vaccination, given its track record in eradicating so many terrible diseases and its current potential to protect and liberate some of the most vulnerable in our society from coronavirus?  …
My comments are as follows:
- Is Charles not a little generous to his own vision? Social prescribing is not nearly the same as the concept of integrated medicine which he has been pushing for years.
- There is no good evidence that social prescribing will reduce ‘of long-term disease, antibiotic resistance, and opiate dependence’.
- Here Charles produces a classic ‘strawman fallacy’. Medicine is much more than pills and procedures, and I suspect he knows it (not least because he uses proper medicine as soon as he is really ill).
- Charles has not so much ‘demonstrated’ the importance of ‘psychosocial, environmental and financial added value of genuinely, sustainable urban planning, design, and construction’ as talked about it.
- That does not necessarily mean that social prescribing is effective; correlation is not causation!
- There is no good evidence that social prescribing is effective against self-harm or obesity.
- Medicine has been trying to grapple with ‘wider issues’ for centuries.
- Medicine has done that for many years but we always had to be mindful of the evidence base. It would be unwise to adopt interventions without evidence demonstrating that they do more good than harm.
- Many patients also choose to smoke, drink, or sky-dive. Patient choice is no indicator of efficacy or harmlessness.
- Yes, we should embrace them where they clearly improve their ability to care for themselves. However, the evidence all too often fails to show that they improve anything.
- As we have seen, this discussion has been going on for decades and was not always helped by Charles.
- The best of both worlds can only be treatments that demonstrably generate more good than harm – and that’s called evidence-based medicine. Or, to put it bluntly: in medicine ‘best’ does not signify royal approval.
- ‘Evidence-informed’ is an interesting term. Proper medicine thrives to be evidence-based; royal medicine merely needs to be ‘evidence-informed’? This new term seems to imply that evidence is not all that important. Why? Perhaps because, for alternative medicine, it is largely not based on good evidence?
- If we want to bridge the gulf, we foremost require sound evidence. Today, plenty of such evidence is available. The problem is that it does often not show what Charles seems to think it shows.
- Even the best regulation of nonsense must result in nonsense.
- The anti-vaccination sentiments originate to an alarmingly large extent from the realm of alternative medicine.
 Brandling J, House W. Social prescribing in general practice: adding meaning to medicine. Br J Gen Pract. (2009) 59:454–6. doi: 10.3399/bjgp09X421085
 Schmidt K, Ernst E. MMR vaccination advice over the Internet. Vaccine. 2003 Mar 7;21(11-12):1044-7. doi: 10.1016/s0264-410x(02)00628-x. PMID: 12559777.
Prince Charles has published his views on integrated health several times before in medical journals. In 2001, authored an editorial in the BMJ promoting his ideas around integrative medicine. Its title: THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS. This was followed in 2012 by an article in the JRSM where he expressed his views even more clearly. Here is an excerpt:
… By integrated medicine, I mean the kind of care that integrates the best of new technology and current knowledge with ancient wisdom. More specifically, perhaps, it is an approach to care of the patient which includes mind, body and spirit and which maximizes the potential of conventional, lifestyle and complementary approaches in the process of healing. Integrated health, on the other hand, represents an approach to individual and population health which respects and includes all health-related areas, such as the physical and social environment, education, agriculture and architecture…
… I have been attempting to suggest that it might be beneficial to develop truly integrated systems of providing health and care. That is, not simply to treat the symptoms of disease, but actively to create health and to put the patient at the heart of this process by incorporating those core human elements of mind, body and spirit…
This whole area of work – what I can only describe as an ‘integrated approach’ in the UK, or ‘integrative’ in the USA – takes what we know about appropriate conventional, lifestyle and complementary approaches and applies them to patients. I cannot help feeling that we need to be prepared to offer the patient the ‘best of all worlds’ according to a patient’s wishes, beliefs and needs. This requires modern science to understand, value and use patient perspective and belief rather than seeking to exclude them – something which, in the view of many professionals in the field, occurs too often and too readily…
Now, surely, is the time for us all to concentrate some real effort in these areas. We will need to do so by deploying approaches which, at their heart, retain the crucial bedrock elements of traditional and modern civilized health care – of empathy, compassion and the enduring values of the caring professions.
Now Charles has used the current health crisis to do it again. His new article has just been published in the RCP’s ‘Future Healthcare Journal’ . Allow me to show you a crucial section from it:
For a long time, I have been an advocate of what is now called social prescription and this may just be the key to integrating the biomedical, the psychosocial and the environmental, as well as the nature of the communities within which we live and which have such an enormous impact on our health and wellbeing. In particular, I believe that social prescription can bring together the aims of the health service, local authorities, and the voluntary and volunteer sector. Biomedicine has been spectacularly successful in treating and often curing disease that was previously incurable. Yet it cannot hold all the answers, as witnessed, for instance, by the increasing incidence of long-term disease, antibiotic resistance and opiate dependence. Social prescription enables medicine to go beyond pills and procedures and to recognise the enormous health impact of the lives we lead and the physical and social environment within which we live. This is precisely why I have spent so many years trying to demonstrate the vitally important psychosocial, environmental and financial added value of genuinely, sustainable urban planning, design and construction.
There is research from University College London, for instance, which shows that you are almost three times more likely to overcome depression if you have a hobby. Social prescription enables doctors to provide their patients with a bespoke prescription that might help them at a time of need (such as advice on housing and benefits) but which may also provide them with opportunities, hope and meaning by being able to engage in a range of physical, environmental and artistic activities, which resonate with where they are in their lives. Furthermore, social prescription has the potential not only to transform our understanding of what medicine is and does, but also to change the communities in which we all live. I understand, for instance, that alongside social-prescription link workers, there are now people responsible for redesigning and increasing the capacity of the local volunteer and voluntary sector, who can help to create a new social infrastructure and eventually, one might hope, communities that make us healthier rather than making us ill.
When we hear that a quarter of 14–16-year-old girls are self-harming and almost a third of our children are overweight or obese, it should make us realise that we will have to be a bit more radical in addressing these problems. And though social prescription cannot do everything, I believe that, used imaginatively, it can begin to tackle these deep-rooted issues. As medicine starts to grapple with these wider determinants of health, I also believe that medicine will need to combine bioscience with personal beliefs, hopes, aspirations and choices.
Many patients choose to see complementary practitioners for interventions such as manipulation, acupuncture and massage. Surely in an era of personalised medicine, we need to be open-minded about the choices that patients make and embrace them where they clearly improve their ability to care for themselves? Current NHS guidelines on pain that acknowledge the role of acupuncture and mindfulness may lead, I hope, to a more fruitful discussion on the role of complementary medicine in a modern health service. I have always advocated ‘the best of both worlds’, bringing evidence-informed conventional and complementary medicine together and avoiding that gulf between them, which leads, I understand, to a substantial proportion of patients feeling that they cannot discuss complementary medicine with their doctors.
I believe it is more important than ever that we should aim for this middle ground. Only then can we escape divisions and intolerance on both sides of the conventional/complementary equation where, on the one hand, the appropriate regulation of the proven therapies of acupuncture and medical herbalism is opposed while, on the other, we find people actually opposing life-saving vaccinations. Who would have thought, for instance, that in the 21st century that there would be a significant lobby opposing vaccination, given its track record in eradicating so many terrible diseases and its current potential to protect and liberate some of the most vulnerable in our society from coronavirus?
The new article has, I think, all the hallmarks of having been written by Dr Michael Dixon (who has featured many times on this blog). Like the previous papers under Charles’ name, it is a simple ‘BAIT AND SWITCH’ affaire (Bait and switch is a morally suspect sales tactic that lures customers in with specific claims about the quality or low prices on items that turn out to be unavailable in order to upsell them on a similar, pricier item. It is considered a form of retail sales fraud, though it takes place in other contexts).
The bait, in this case, is ‘social prescribing’ (the new hobby horse of Dixon) and the switch is the good old so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). I have discussed social prescribing before, looked at the evidence, and concluded as follows:
The way I see it, it will be (and perhaps already is) used to smuggle bogus alternative therapies into the mainstream. In this way, it could turn out to serve the same purpose as did the boom in integrative/integrated medicine/healthcare: a smokescreen to incorporate treatments into medical routine which otherwise would not pass muster. If advocates of this approach, like Michael Dixon, subscribe to it, the danger of this happening is hard to deny.
The disservice to patients (and medical ethics) would then be obvious: diabetics unquestionably can benefit from a change of life-style (and to encourage them is part of good conventional medicine), but I very much doubt that they should replace their anti-diabetic medications with auto-hypnosis or other alternative therapies.
So, was I right with my prediction that social prescribing will be used to smuggle bogus alternative therapies into the mainstream?
Sadly, the answer seems to be YES.
 Hrh. Integrated health and post modern medicine. J R Soc Med. 2012 Dec;105(12):496-8. doi: 10.1258/jrsm.2012.12k095. Epub 2012 Dec 21. PMID: 23263785; PMCID: PMC3536513. HRH The Prince of Whales: A message from HRH The Prince of Wales, honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Future Healthcare Journal 2021 Vol 8, No 1: 5–7
Charles new article has a footnote: Address for correspondence: Clarence House, London SW1A 1BA, UK
If you feel strongly about his message, please do write to him and let us know what his response is.
As I don’t live in the UK at present, I miss much of what the British papers report about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Therefore, I am a bit late to stumble over an article on the business activities of our Royals. It brought back into memory a little tiff I had with Prince Charles.
The article in the Express includes the following passage:
The UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst, dubbed the Duchy Originals detox tincture — which was being sold on the market at the time — “outright quackery”.
The product, called Duchy Herbals’ Detox Tincture, was advertised as a “natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s elimination processes” and a “food supplement to help eliminate toxins and aid digestion”.
The artichoke and dandelion mix cost £10 for a 50ml bottle.
Yet, Professor Ernst said Charles and his advisers seemed to be ignoring the science in favour of relying on “make-believe” and “superstition”, and said the suggestion that such products could remove bodily toxins was “implausible, unproven and dangerous”.
He noted: “Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.”
This passage describes things accurately but not completely. What actually happened was this:
Unbeknown to me and with the help of some herbalists, Duchy Originals had developed the ‘detox tincture’ during a time when I was researching the evidence about ‘detox’. Eventually, my research was published as a review of the detox concept:
Background: The concept that alternative therapies can eliminate toxins and toxicants from the body, i.e. ‘alternative detox’ (AD) is popular.
Sources of data: Selected textbooks and articles on the subject of AD.
Areas of agreement: The principles of AD make no sense from a scientific perspective and there is no clinical evidence to support them.
Areas of controversy: The promotion of AD treatments provides income for some entrepreneurs but has the potential to cause harm to patients and consumers.
Growing points: In alternative medicine, simplistic but incorrect concepts such as AD abound. AREAS TIMELY FOR RESEARCH: All therapeutic claims should be scientifically tested before being advertised-and AD cannot be an exception.
When I was asked by a journalist what I thought about Charles’ new ‘detox tincture’, I told her that it was not supported by evidence which clearly makes it quackery. I also joked that Duchy Originals could thus be called ‘Dodgy Originals’. The result was this newspaper article and a subsequent media storm in the proverbial teacup.
At Exeter University, I had just fallen out of favor because of the ‘Smallwood Report’ and the complaint my involvement in it prompted by Charles’ first private secretary (full story in my memoir). After the ‘Dodgy Originals story’ had hit the papers, I was summoned ominously to my dean, Prof John Tooke, who probably had intended to give me a dressing down of major proportions. By the time we were able to meet, a few weeks later, the MHRA had already reprimanded Duchy Originals for misleading advertising which took most of the wind out of Tooke’s sail. The dressing down thus turned into something like “do you have to be so undiplomatic all the time?”.
Several months later, I was invited by the Science Media Centre, London, to give a lecture on the occasion of my retirement (Fiona Fox, the head of the SMC, had felt that, since my own University does not have the politeness to run a valedictory lecture for me, she will organize one for journalists). In that short lecture, I tried to summarize 19 years of research which inevitably meant briefly mentioning Charles and his foray into detox.
When I had finished, there were many questions from the journalists. Jenny Hope from the Daily Mail asked, “You mentioned snake-oil salesmen in your talk, and you also mentioned Prince Charles and his tinctures. Do you think that Prince Charles is a snake-oil salesman?” My answer was brief and to the point: “Yes“. The next day, this was all over the press. The Mail’s article was entitled ‘Charles? He’s just a snake-oil salesman: Professor attacks prince on ‘dodgy’ alternative remedies‘.
The advice of Tooke (who by then had left Exeter) to be more diplomatic had evidently not borne fruits (but the tinctures were discreetly taken off the market).
Diplomatic or honest?
This has been a question that I had to ask myself regularly during my 19 years at Exeter. For about 10 years, I had tried my best to walk the ‘diplomatic route’. When I realised that, in alternative medicine, the truth is much more important than diplomacy, I gradually changed … and despite all the hassle and hardship it brought me, I do not regret the decision.
Research into both receptivity to falling for bullshit and the propensity to produce it have recently emerged as active, independent areas of inquiry into the spread of misleading information. However, it remains unclear whether those who frequently produce bullshit are inoculated from its influence. For example, both bullshit receptivity and bullshitting frequency are negatively related to cognitive ability and aspects of analytic thinking style, suggesting that those who frequently engage in bullshitting may be more likely to fall for bullshit. However, separate research suggests that individuals who frequently engage in deception are better at detecting it, thus leading to the possibility that frequent bullshitters may be less likely to fall for bullshit.
Canadian psychologists conducted three studies (N = 826) attempting to distinguish between these competing hypotheses, finding that frequency of persuasive bullshitting (i.e., bullshitting intended to impress or persuade others) positively predicts susceptibility to various types of misleading information and that this association is robust to individual differences in cognitive ability and analytic cognitive style.
This seems to make sense – at least in the contest of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). Those promoting bullshit are the ones that fall for bullshit.
Think of Prince Charles, for instance. In his book HARMONY and on many other occasions he insists on promoting homeopathy and other SCAM, like for example iridology, osteopathy or detox. He even advocates homeopathy for animals and he proudly tells us that, on his farms, he has instructed the personnel to give his cows homeopathy. Thus he is a good example of someone who is frequently bullshitting with the intend to impress or persuade others while, at the same time, being highly susceptible to various other types of misleading information, such as iridology.
Charles is a good example because we all know about the alternative bee under the royal bonnet. But he is certainly not alone, quite to the contrary. If you look around you, I am sure you will find that there are no end of bullshitters who fall for bullshit. Before bullshit became a term used even in scientific journals, they used to say ‘one can never kid a kidder’, but the new research by the Canadian psychologists seems to suggest that the assumption is not entirely correct.