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

progress

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On their website, the UK ‘ROYAL COLLEGE OF CHIROPRACTORS (RCC) published a short statement regarding the safety of chiropractic. Here it is in full:

Experiencing mild or moderate adverse effects after manual therapy, such as soreness or stiffness, is relatively common, affecting up to 50% of patients. However, such ‘benign effects’ are a normal outcome and are not unique to chiropractic care.

Cases of serious adverse events, including spinal or neurological problems and strokes caused by damage to arteries in the neck, have been associated with spinal manipulation. Such events are rare with estimates ranging from 1 per 2 million manipulations to 13 per 10,000 patients; furthermore, due to the nature of the underlying evidence in relation to such events (case reports, retrospective surveys and case-control studies), it is very difficult to confirm causation (Swait and Finch, 2017).

For example, while an association between stroke caused by vertebral artery damage or ‘dissection’ (VAD) and chiropractor visits has been reported in a few case-control studies, the risk of stoke has been found to be similar after seeing a primary care physician (medical doctor). Because patients with VAD commonly present with neck pain, it is possible they seek therapy for this symptom from a range of practitioners, including chiropractors, and that the VAD has occurred spontaneously, or from some other cause, beforehand (Biller et al, 2014). This highlights the importance of ensuring careful screening for known neck artery stroke risk factors, or signs or symptoms that there is an ongoing problem, is performed prior to manual treatment of patients (Swait and Finch, 2017). Chiropractors are well trained to do this on a routine basis, and to urgently refer patients if necessary.

END OF QUOTE

The statement reads well but it might not be entirely free from conflicts of interest. Yet, in the name of accuracy, completeness and truthfulness, I take the liberty of making a few slight alterations. Here is my revised version:

Experiencing mild or moderate adverse effects after chiropractic spinal manipulations, such as pain or stiffness (usually lasting 1-3 days and strong enough to impair patients’ quality of life), is very common. In fact, it affects around 50% of all patients. 

Cases of serious adverse events, including spinal or neurological problems and strokes often caused by damage to arteries in the neck, have been reported after spinal manipulation. Such events are probably not frequent (several hundred are on record including about 100 fatalities).  But, as we have never established proper surveillance systems, nobody can tell how often they occur. Furthermore, due to our reluctance of introducing such surveillance, some of us are able to question causality.

An association between stroke caused by vertebral artery damage or ‘dissection’ (VAD) and chiropractic spinal manipulation has been reported in about 20 independent investigations. Yet one much-criticised case-control study found the risk of stoke to be similar after seeing a primary care physician (medical doctor). Because patients with VAD commonly have neck pain, it is possible they seek therapy for this symptom from chiropractors, and that the VAD has occurred spontaneously, or from some other cause, beforehand (Biller et al, 2014). Ensuring careful screening for known neck artery stroke risk factors, or signs that there is an ongoing problem would therefore be important (Swait and Finch, 2017). Sadly, no reliable screening tests exist, and neck pain (the symptom that might be indicative of VAD) continues to be one of the conditions most frequently treated by chiropractors.

I do not expect the RCC to adopt my improved version. In case I am wrong, let me state this: I am entirely free of conflicts of interest and will not charge a fee for my revision. In the interest of advancing public health, I herewith offer it for free.

The Spanish Ministries of Health and Sciences have announced their ‘Health Protection Plan against Pseudotherapies’. Very wisely, they have included chiropractic under this umbrella. To a large degree, this is the result of Spanish sceptics pointing out that alternative therapies are a danger to public health, helped perhaps a tiny bit also by the publication of two of my books (see here and here) in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, such delelopments alarm Spanish chiropractors who fear for their livelihoods. A quickly-written statement of the AEQ (Spanish Chiropractic Association) is aimed at averting the blow. It makes the following 11 points (my comments are below):

1. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines chiropractic as a healthcare profession. It is independent of any other health profession and it is neither a therapy nor a pseudotherapy.

2. Chiropractic is statutorily recognised as a healthcare profession in many European countries including Portugal, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom10, as well as in the USA, Canada and Australia, to name a few.

3. Chiropractic members of the AEQ undergo university-level training of at least 5 years full-time (300 ECTS points). Chiropractic training is offered within prestigious institutions such as the Medical Colleges of the University of Zurich and the University of Southern Denmark.

4. Chiropractors are spinal health care experts. Chiropractors practice evidence-based, patient-centred conservative interventions, which include spinal manipulation, exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice.

5. The use of these interventions for the treatment of spine-related disorders is consistent with guidelines and is supported by high quality scientific evidence, including multiple systematic reviews undertaken by the prestigious Cochrane collaboration15, 16, 17.

6. The Global Burden of Disease study shows that spinal disorders are the leading cause of years lived with disability worldwide, exceeding depression, breast cancer and diabetes.

7. Interventions used by chiropractors are recommended in the 2018 Low Back Pain series of articles published in The Lancet and clinical practice guidelines from Denmark, Canada, the European Spine Journal, American College of Physicians and the Global Spine Care Initiative.

8. The AEQ supports and promotes scientific research, providing funding and resources for the development of high quality research in collaboration with institutions of high repute, such as Fundación Jiménez Díaz and the University of Alcalá de Henares.

9. The AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based, patient-centred care, consistent with a biopsychosocial model of health.

10. The AEQ demands the highest standards of practice and professional ethics, by implementing among its members the Quality Standard UNE-EN 16224 “Healthcare provision by chiropractors”, issued by the European Committee of Normalisation and ratified by AENOR.

11. The AEQ urges the Spanish Government to regulate chiropractic as a healthcare profession. Without such legislation, citizens of Spain cannot be assured that they are protected from unqualified practitioners and will continue to face legal uncertainties and barriers to access an essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service.

END OF QUOTE

I think that some comments might be in order (they follow the numbering of the AEQ):

  1. The WHO is the last organisation I would consult for information on alternative medicine; during recent years, they have published mainly nonsense on this subject. How about asking the inventor of chiropractic? D.D. Palmer defined it as “a science of healing without drugs.” Chiropractors nowadays prefer to be defined as a profession which has the advantage that one cannot easily pin them down for doing mainly spinal manipulation; if one does, they indignantly respond “but we also use many other interventions, like life-style advice, for instance, and nobody can claim this to be nonsense” (see also point 4 below).
  2. Perfect use of a classical fallacy: appeal to authority.
  3. Appeal to authority, plus ignorance of the fact that teaching nonsense even at the highest level must result in nonsense.
  4. This is an ingenious mix of misleading arguments and lies: most chiros pride themselves of treating also non-spinal conditions. Very few interventions used by chiros are evidence-based. Exercise prescription, patient education and lifestyle advice are hardy typical for chiros and can all be obtained more authoratively from other healthcare professionals.
  5. Plenty of porkies here too. For instance, the AEQ cite three Cochrane reviews. The first concluded that high-quality evidence suggests that there is no clinically relevant difference between SMT and other interventions for reducing pain and improving function in patients with chronic low-back pain. The second stated that combined chiropractic interventions slightly improved pain and disability in the short term and pain in the medium term for acute/subacute LBP. However, there is currently no evidence that supports or refutes that these interventions provide a clinically meaningful difference for pain or disability in people with LBP when compared to other interventions. And the third concluded that, although support can be found for use of thoracic manipulation versus control for neck pain, function and QoL, results for cervical manipulation and mobilisation versus control are few and diverse. Publication bias cannot be ruled out. Research designed to protect against various biases is needed. Findings suggest that manipulation and mobilisation present similar results for every outcome at immediate/short/intermediate-term follow-up. Multiple cervical manipulation sessions may provide better pain relief and functional improvement than certain medications at immediate/intermediate/long-term follow-up. Since the risk of rare but serious adverse events for manipulation exists, further high-quality research focusing on mobilisation and comparing mobilisation or manipulation versus other treatment options is needed to guide clinicians in their optimal treatment choices. Hardly the positive endorsement implied by the AEQ!
  6. Yes, but that is not an argument for chiropractic; in fact, it’s another fallacy.
  7. Did they forget the many guidelines, institutions and articles that do NOT recommend chiropractic?
  8. I believe the cigarette industry also sponsors research; should we therefore all start smoking?
  9. I truly doubt that the AEQ strenuously promotes among its members the practice of evidence-based healthcare; if they did, they would have to discourage spinal manipulation!
  10. The ‘highest standards of practice and professional ethics’ are clearly not compatible with chiropractors’ use of spinal manipulation. In our recent book, we explained in full detail why this is so.
  11. An essential, high-quality, evidence-based healthcare service? Chiropractic is certainly not essential, rarely high-quality, and clearly not evidence-based.

Nice try AEQ.

But not good enough, I am afraid.

Many people seem to be amazed at my continued activities (e. g. blog, books, lectures, interviews) aimed at telling the truth about homeopathy and other alternative modalities. They ask themselves: why does he do it? And sometimes I ask myself the same question. I certainly don’t do it because I receive any money for my work (as many of my critics have assumed in the past).

So, why?

Let me briefly offer just 7 of the most obvious reasons why I feel it is important to tell the truth about homeopathy and similar treatments:

1. The truth is invaluable

I probably do not need to explain this at all. For any responsible person the truth has an intrinsic value that cannot be doubted. In our book, we conclude that “the truth-violating nature of CAM renders it immoral in both theory and practice.”

2. Untruths make a mockery of EBM

If we accept that, in the realm of alternative medicine, it is permissible to apply a different standard than in evidence-based medicine (EBM), we make a mockery of EBM. Double standards are hugely counter-productive and not in the interest of patients.

3. The truth promotes rationality

If the proponents of a modality such as homeopathy promote concepts that fly in the face of science, they undermine rational thinking. Believing in a vital force or energy is just one of many examples for this phenomenon. Undermining rationality can have negative effects far beyond healthcare and reminds me of Voltaire’s bon mot: “Those who make you believe in absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

4. It is ethical

Healthcare have the ethical duty to work towards patients receiving the best treatments available. If a therapy like homeopathy fails to be demonstrably effective, it cannot possibly fall into this category. Therefore, responsible healthcare professionals must help to improve healthcare by disclosing the evidence against homeopathy.

5. It might save money

The money spent on homeopathy and other ineffective alternative treatments is considerable. Disclosing the fact that they are not effective will help stopping people to waste their money on them. Telling the truth about homeopathy and similarly ineffective therapies would therefore save funds that can be used more efficiently elsewhere.

6. It might save lives

Because they usually are free of active molecules, homeopathic remedies are often seen as a safe treatments. However, homeopathy can nevertheless harm and even kill patients, if they use it as an alternative medicines in cases of severe illness. It follows that telling the truth about homeopathy’s ineffectiveness can save lives.

7. It could counter-balance the multiple lies that are being told.

We all have seen the multitude of untruths that are being told about the value of homeopathy (if you haven’t, you ought to read SCAM). The multitude of falsehoods seriously misleads many consumers into believing that homeopathy is a valuable therapeutic option for many conditions. I feel strongly that it is my moral duty as an independent expert to counter-balance this plethora of lies in order to minimise the harm it is doing.

Professor Frass is well known to most people interested in homeopathy. He has also featured several times on this blog (see here, here and here). Frass has achieved what few homeopaths have: he has integrated homeopathy into a major medical school, the Medical School of the University of Vienna (my former faculty). In 2002, he started teaching homeopathy to medical students, and in 2004, he opened an out-patient clinic ‘Homeopathy for malignant diseases’ at the medical school.

This achievement was widely used for boosting the reputation of homeopathy; the often heard argument was that ‘homeopathy must be good and evidence-based, because a major medical school has adopted it’. This argument is now obsolete: Frass’ lectures have recently been axed!

How come?

Apparently, several students*** filed complaints with their dean about Frass’ lectures. This prompted the dean, Prof Mueller, to look into the matter and take drastic action. He is quoted stating that “the medical faculty rejects unscientific methods and quackery”.

Frass had repeatedly been seen on television claiming that homeopathy could be an effective adjuvant therapy for cancer, and that he had studies to prove it. Such statements had irritated Mueller who then instructed Frass in writing to abstain from such claims and to close his homeopathic out-patient clinic at the University. The matter was also brought to the attention of the University’s ethics committee which decided that Frass’ studies were not suited to provide a scientific proof.

Frass commented saying that he is not surprised about criticism because homeopathy is difficult to understand. He will retire next year from the University and will probably continue his homeopathic practice in a private setting.

(If you can read German, this article in the Austrian paper DER STANDARD has more details)

***as they had invited me to give a lecture on homeopathy some time ago, I like to think that I might have something to do with all this.

On this blog and elsewhere, I have repeatedly criticised the concepts of ‘integrative medicine’ (IM). But criticising is easy, improving would be better. Today, I want to re-visit and revise the idea of IM and propose the concept of a ‘reformed integrated medicine’ (RIM).

Proponents of IM suggest that we should use ‘the best of both worlds’ for the benefit of our patients. This seems to be a progressive and ethical approach to improving healthcare. Therefore, I fully accept this idea. However, I suggest to not stop here; if we are serious about wanting the best for our patients, we must not just integrate, we should also disintegrate! We also need to think about disintegrating (discarding) modalities that are not fit for purpose. This, in a nutshell, is the concept of RIM.

In order to make real progress, we need to have a critical look at all the diagnostic, preventive, therapeutic and rehabilitative practices available to date and:

  1. integrate those into routine care that demonstrably generate more good than harm,
  2. disintegrate those that do not meet this criterion.

THE BEST, AND ONLY THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS!!!

This means, we use must throw overboard those that are not best. In healthcare ‘best’ can, of course, only mean effective and safe.

I am aware that this is only a very rough sketch of what RIM stands for. But even in this preliminary form, it is easy to see that, although IM and RIM seem to differ only marginally, their effects on healthcare would differ dramatically. Let me demonstrate this by providing 5 examples from my area of expertise:

Iridology embraced by IM discarded by RIM
Homeopathy embraced by IM discarded by RIM
Chiropractic embraced by IM discarded by RIM
Reiki embraced by IM discarded by RIM
Reflexology embraced by IM discarded by RIM

I am sure, you get the gist of it. In RIM, we no longer employ things that don’t work. They are of no real use to patients and possibly even cause harm. RIM not only is the only ethical approach, it also generates progress.

So, RIM – just a tiny adaptation of IM – is the solution.

Gosh, I am proud of my splendid innovation.

Progress at last!

 

 

__________________________________________________________________

Ooops …  I just realised, RIM has one little flaw: it already exists.

It’s called evidence-based medicine.

 

A survey was commissioned in 2015 to obtain general population figures for practitioner-led CAM use in England, and to discover people’s views and experiences regarding access.

Of 4862 adults surveyed, 766 (16%) had seen a CAM practitioner. People most commonly visited CAM practitioners for manual therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic) and acupuncture, as well as yoga, pilates, reflexology, and mindfulness or meditation. Women, people with higher socioeconomic status (SES) and those in south England were more likely to access CAM. Musculoskeletal conditions (mainly back pain) accounted for 68% of use, and mental health 12%. Most was through self-referral (70%) and self-financing. GPs (17%) or NHS professionals (4%) referred and/or recommended CAM to users. These CAM users were more often unemployed, with lower income and social grade, and receiving NHS-funded CAM. Responders were willing to pay varying amounts for CAM; 22% would not pay anything. Almost two in five responders felt NHS funding and GP referral and/or endorsement would increase their CAM use.

The authors concluded that CAM use in England is common for musculoskeletal and mental health problems, but varies by sex, geography, and SES. It is mainly self-referred and self-financed; some is GP-endorsed and/or referred, especially for individuals of lower SES. Researchers, patients, and commissioners should collaborate to research the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of CAM and consider its availability on the NHS.

The table below shows the percentage figures for specific CAMs (right column).

Type of CAM practitioner n %
Massage practitioner 143 19
Osteopath 91 12
Acupuncturist 88 11
Chiropractor 87 11
Yoga teacher 52 7
Physiotherapist-delivered CAM 41 5
Pilates teacher 28 4
Reflexologist 22 3
Meditation and/or mindfulness teacher 20 3
Homeopath 20 3
Reiki practitioner 17 2
Hypnotherapist 15 2
Herbalist 14 2
Chinese herbal medical practitioner 12 2
Other 74 10

Our own survey suggested that, in 2005, the 1-year prevalence of CAM-use in England was 26.3 % and the practitioner-led CAM-use was 12.1 %. The two surveys are, however, not comparable because they did use different methodologies; for instance, they included different types of CAM. I therefore think that any conclusion of an increase in practitioner-led CAM-use between 2005 and 2015 is not warranted. It also follows that the graphic below is misleading.

In the discussion, the authors of the new survey make the following point: Ability to pay may be a factor in accessing CAM (indicated by the association of CAM use with higher SES; lower SES responders being more likely to be GP-referred to CAM; and responders stating that they may use more CAM if the NHS provided services, and GPs endorsed and/or referred them). Integration of CAM into the NHS through primary care could promote continuity of care, safety, and balance of power. An integrative medicine approach includes many of the values recently included in UK health policy documents; for example, Five Year Forward View. It is patient-centred, as discussed in 2010, focuses on prevention, and emphasises patient self-management and person- and community-centred approaches to health and wellbeing. Many of these values underpin social prescribing, which is an increasingly popular model of health care. There seems to be significant patient demand for CAM and more holistic approaches, and a view that CAM may improve patient satisfaction.

I have in a previous post commented on prevalence surveys: the argument that is all too often spun around such survey data goes roughly as follows: a large percentage of the population uses alternative medicine; people pay out of their own pocket for these treatments; they are satisfied with them (if not, they would not pay for them). BUT THIS IS GROSSLY UNFAIR! Why should only those individuals who are rich enough to afford alternative medicine benefit from it? ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE SHOULD BE MADE AVAILABLE FOR ALL.

To me, it is obvious that this line of argument is dangerously wrong. It lends itself to the promotion of unproven therapies to the detriment of good healthcare and progress. Sadly, I fear that the new survey is going to be misused in this way.

Today is Charles’ 70th birthday! On previous occasions, I have published a detailed review of Charles’ outstanding achievements in the realm of alternative medicine. For his 70th, I feel that something else is required. How about a personal birthday card?

HAPPY BIRTHDAY YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS!

I know, it is not easy to become 70, but you must look on the bright side: you are reasonably healthy, you are not exactly a poor man, and you even managed to change the rules and marry the woman you have always loved. What else could you wish for?

Yes, I know, your big idea of ‘Integrated Medicine’ is not doing all that brilliantly. Your book ‘Harmony‘ was viciously ridiculed, and the ‘best of both worlds’ turns out to be a bit of a strange idea. The thing is that, in healthcare, there is only one real world: the world of reality, facts and evidence. The other is the unreal world of fantasy, wishful thinking and mysticism.

We all know you love homeopathy. After listening to Laurence van der Post in your younger days, it would have been lovely for you, had the notion of a remedy based on a mystical vital force been true. It would have avoided all the complexities of reality. But now, at the age of 70, you must have realised that make belief is a poor substitute for fact.

It has become all but impossible to ignore the truth about homeopathy. Only last year, the European Academies Science Advisory Council concluded that “the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts” and that “there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect”. Such brutal realism must be painful. And now the NHS decided to ditch homeopathy completely. All your homeopathic spider memos for nothing!

Yes, it is tough to grow old. But perhaps it is not too late. You could try to forget about van der Post and all your other ill-advised ‘advisers’. Instead, you could gather a few young, energetic, bright scientists and let them inspire you with the beauty and excitement of reality and science. You could still become a force for real progress in healthcare.

Think about it and keep looking on the bright side.

Many happy returns

Edzard Ernst

 

Acupuncture is a branch of alternative medicine where pseudo-science abounds. Here is yet another example of this deplorable phenomenon.

This study was conducted to evaluate the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of primary dysmenorrhea.

Sixty females aged 17-23 years were randomly assigned to either a study group or a control group.

  • The study group received acupuncture for the duration of 20 minutes/day, for 15 days/month, for the period of 90 days.
  • The control group did not receive acupuncture for the same period.

Both groups were assessed on day 1; day 30 and day 60; and day 90. The results showed a significant reduction in all the variables such as the visual analogue scale score for pain, menstrual cramps, headache, dizziness, diarrhoea, faint, mood changes, tiredness, nausea, and vomiting in the study group compared with those in the control group.

The authors concluded that acupuncture could be considered as an effective treatment modality for the management of primary dysmenorrhea.

These findings contradict those of a recent Cochrane review (authored by known acupuncture-proponents) which included 42 RCTs and concluded that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate whether or not acupuncture or acupressure are effective in treating primary dysmenorrhoea, and for most comparisons no data were available on adverse events. The quality of the evidence was low or very low for all comparisons. The main limitations were risk of bias, poor reporting, inconsistency and risk of publication bias.

The question that I ask myself is this: why do researchers bother to conduct studies that contribute NOTHING to our knowledge and progress? The new study had a no-treatment control group which means it cannot control for the effects of placebo, the extra attention, social desirability etc. In view of the fact that already 42 poor quality trials exist, it is not just useless to add a 43rd but, in my view, it is scandalous! A 43rd useless trial:

  • tells us nothing of value;
  • misleads the public;
  • pollutes the medical literature;
  • is a waste of resources;
  • undermines the trust in clinical research;
  • is deeply unethical.

It is high time to stop such redundant, foolish, wasteful and unethical pseudo-science.

 

According to the 2014 European Social Survey, Spain is relatively modest when it comes to using alternative therapies. While countries such as Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Sweden and Switzerland all have 1-year prevalence figures of over 30%, Spain only boasts a meagre 17%. Yet, its opposition to bogus treatments has recently become acute.

In 2016, it was reported that a master’s degree in homeopathic medicine at one of Spain’s top universities has been scrapped. Remarkably, the reason was “lack of scientific basis”. A university spokesman confirmed the course was being discontinued and gave three main reasons: “Firstly, the university’s Faculty of Medicine recommended scrapping the master’s because of the doubt that exists in the scientific community. Secondly, a lot of people within the university – professors and students across different faculties – had shown their opposition to the course. Thirdly, the postgraduate degree in homeopathic medicine is no longer approved by Spain’s Health Ministry.”

A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being invited to a science festival in Bilbao and was impressed by the buoyant sceptic movement in Spain. At the time, two of my books were published in Spanish and received keen interest by the Spanish press.

 

And now, it has been reported that Spain’s Ministry of Health has released a list of only 2,008 homeopathic products whose manufacturers will have to apply for an official government license for if they wish to continue selling them. The homeopathic producers have until April 2019 to prove that their remedies actually work, which may very well completely slash homeopathic products in Spain.

It’s the latest blow for Spain’s homeopathy industry, once worth an estimated €100 million but which has seen a drop in public trust and therefore sales of around 30 percent in the last five years. Spain’s Health Ministry stopped allowing homeopathy treatments from being prescribed as part of people’s social security benefits, along with acupuncture, herbal medicine and body-based practices such as osteopathy, shiatsu or aromatherapy.

“Homeopathy is an alternative therapy that has not shown any scientific evidence that it works” Spanish Minister of Health Maria Luisa Carcedo is quoted as saying in La Vanguardia in response to the homeopathic blacklist. “I’m committed to combatting all forms of pseudoscience.”

Twenty years ago (5 years into my post at Exeter), I published this little article (BJGP, Sept 1998). It was meant as a sort of warning – sadly, as far as I can see, it has not been heeded. Oddly, the article is unavailable on Medline, I therefore take the liberty of re-publishing it here without alterations (if I had to re-write it today, I would not change much) or comment:

Once the omnipotent heroes in white, physicians today are at risk of losing the trust of their patients. Medicine, some would say, is in a deep crisis. Shouldn’t we start to worry?

The patient-doctor relationship, it seems, is at the heart of this argument. Many patients are deeply dissatisfied with this aspect of medicine. A recent survey on patients consulting GPs and complementary practitioners in parallel and for the same problem suggested that most patients are markedly more happy with all facets of the therapeutic encounter as offered by complementary practitioners. This could explain the extraordinary rise of complementary medicine during recent years. The neglect of the doctor-patient relationship might be the gap in which complementary treatments build their nest.

Poor relationships could be due to poor communication. Many books have been written about communications skills with patients. But never mind the theory, the practice of all this may be less optimal than we care to believe. Much of this may simply relate to the usage of language. Common terms such as ‘stomach’, ‘palpitations’, ‘lungs’, for instance, are interpreted in different ways by lay and professional people. Words like ‘anxiety’, ‘depression’, and ‘irritability’ are well defined for doctors, while patients view them as more or less interchangeable. At a deeper level, communication also relates to concepts and meanings of disease and illness. For instance, the belief that a ‘blockage of the bowel’ or an ‘imbalance of life forces’ lead to disease is as prevalent with patients as it is alien to doctors. Even on the most obvious level of interaction with patients, physicians tend to fail. Doctors often express themselves unclearly about the nature, aim or treatment schedule of their prescriptions.

Patients want to be understood as whole persons. Yet modern medicine is often seen as emphazising a reductionistic and mechanistic approach, merely treating a symptom or replacing a faulty part, or treating a ‘case’ rather than an individual. In the view of some, modern medicine has become an industrial behemoth shifted from attending the sick to guarding the economic bottom line, putting itself on a collision course with personal doctoring. This has created a deeply felt need which complementary medicine is all too ready to fill. Those who claim to know the reason for a particular complaint (and therefore its ultimate cure) will succeed in satisfying this need. Modern medicine has identified the causes of many diseases while complementary medicine has promoted simplistic (and often wrong) ideas about the genesis of health and disease. The seductive message usually is as follows: treating an illness allopathically is not enough, the disease will simply re-appear in a different guise at a later stage. One has to tackle the question – why the patient has fallen ill in the first place. Cutting off the dry leaves of a plant dying of desiccation won’t help. Only attending the source of the problem, in the way complementary medicine does, by pouring water on to the suffering plant, will secure a cure. This logic is obviously lop-sided and misleading, but it creates trust because it is seen as holistic, it can be understood by even the simplest of minds, and it generates a meaning for the patient’s otherwise meaningless suffering.

Doctors, it is said, treat diseases but patients suffer from illnesses. Disease is something an organ has; illness is something an individual has. An illness has more dimensions than disease. Modern medicine has developed a clear emphasis on the physical side of disease but tends to underrate aspects like the patient’s personality, beliefs and socioeconomic environment. The body/mind dualism is (often unfairly) seen as a doctrine of mainstream medicine. Trust, it seems, will be given to those who adopt a more ‘holistic’ approach without dissecting the body from the mind and spirit.

Empathy is a much neglected aspect in today’s medicine. While it has become less and less important to doctors, it has grown more and more relevant to patients. The literature on empathy is written predominantly by nurses and psychologists. Is the medical profession about to delegate empathy to others? Does modern, scientific medicine lead us to neglect the empathic attitude towards our patients? Many of us are not even sure what empathy means and confuse empathy with sympathy. Sympathy with the patient can be described as a feeling of ‘I want to help you’. Empathy, on these terms, means ‘I am (or could be) you’; it is therefore some sort of an emotional resonance. Empathy has remained somewhat of a white spot on the map of medical science. We should investigate it properly. Re-integrating empathy into our daily practice can be taught and learned. This might help our patients as well as us.

Lack of time is another important cause for patients’ (and doctors’) dissatisfaction. Most patients think that their doctor does not have enough time for them. They also know from experience that complementary medicine offers more time. Consultations with complementary practitioners are appreciated, not least because they may spend one hour or so with each patient. Obviously, in mainstream medicine, we cannot create more time where there is none. But we could at least give our patients the feeling that, during the little time available, we give them all the attention they require.

Other reasons for patients’ frustration lie in the nature of modern medicine and biomedical research. Patients want certainty but statistics provides probabilities at best. Some patients may be irritated to hear of a 70% chance that a given treatment will work; or they feel uncomfortable with the notion that their cholesterol level is associated with a 60% chance of suffering a heart attack within the next decade. Many patients long for reassurance that they will be helped in their suffering. It may be ‘politically correct’ to present patients with probability frequencies of adverse effects and numbers needed to treat, but anybody who (rightly or wrongly) promises certainty will create trust and have a following.

Many patients have become wary of the fact that ‘therapy’ has become synonymous with ‘pharmacotherapy’ and that many drugs are associated with severe adverse reactions. The hope of being treated with ‘side-effect-free’ remedies is a prime motivator for turning to complementary medicine.

Complementary treatments are by no means devoid of adverse reactions, but this fact is rarely reported and therefore largely unknown to patients. Physicians are regularly attacked for being in league with the pharmaceutical industry and the establishment in general. Power and money are said to be gained at the expense of the patient’s well-being. The system almost seems to invite dishonesty. The ‘conspiracy theory’ goes as far as claiming that ‘scientific medicine is destructive, extremely costly and solves nothing. Beware of the octopus’. Spectacular cases could be cited which apparently support it. Orthodox medicine is described as trying to ‘inhibit the development of unorthodox medicine’, in order to enhance its own ‘power, status and income’. Salvation, it is claimed, comes from the alternative movement which represents ‘… the most effective assault yet on scientific biomedicine’. Whether any of this is true or not, it is perceived as the truth by many patients and amounts to a serious criticism of what is happening in mainstream medicine today.

In view of such criticism, strategies for overcoming problems and rectifying misrepresentations are necessary. Mainstream medicine might consider discovering how patients view the origin, significance, and prognosis of the disease. Furthermore, measures should be considered to improve communication with patients. A diagnosis and its treatment have to make sense to the patient as much as to the doctor – if only to enhance adherence to therapy. Both disease and illness must be understood in their socio-economic context. Important decisions, e.g. about treatments, must be based on a consensus between the patient and the doctor. Scientists must get better in promoting their own messages, which could easily be far more attractive, seductive, and convincing than those of pseudo-science.These goals are by no means easy to reach. But if we don’t try, trust and adherence will inevitably deteriorate further. I submit that today’s unprecedented popularity of complementary medicine reflects a poignant criticism of many aspects of modern medicine. We should take it seriously

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