Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a term created by Mao lumping together various modalities in an attempt to pretend that healthcare in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was being provided despite the most severe shortages of conventional doctors, drugs and facilities. Since then, TCM seems to have conquered the West, and, in the PRC, the supply of conventional medicine has hugely increased. Today therefore, TCM and conventional medicine peacefully co-exist side by side in the PRC on an equal footing.
At least this is what we are being told – but is it true?
I have visited the PRC twice. The first time, in 1980, I was the doctor of a university football team playing several games in the PRC, including one against their national team. The second time, in 1991, I co-chaired a scientific meeting in Shanghai. On both occasions, I was invited to visit TCM facilities and discuss with colleagues issues related to TCM in the PRC. All the official discussions were monitored by official ‘minders’, and therefore fee speech and an uninhibited exchange of ideas are not truly how I would describe them. Yet, on both visits, there were occasions when the ‘minders’ were absent and a more liberal discussion could ensue. Whenever this was the case, I did not at all get the impression that TCM and conventional medicine were peacefully co-existing. The impression that I did get was that their co-existence resembled more a ‘shot-gun marriage’.
During my time running the SCAM research unit at Exeter, I had the opportunity to welcome several visiting researchers from the PRC. This experience seemed to confirm my impression that TCM in the PRC was less than free. As an example, I might cite one acupuncture project I was once working on with a scientist from the PRC. When it was nearing its conclusion and I mentioned that we should now think about writing it up to publish the findings, my Chinese colleague said that being a co-author was unfortunately not an option. Knowing how important publications in Western journals are for researchers from the PRC, I was most surprised by this revelation. The reason, it turned out, was that our findings failed to be favourable for TCM. My friend explained that such a paper would not advance but hinder an academic career, once back in the PRC.
Suspecting that the notion of a peaceful co-existence of TCM and conventional medicine in the PRC was far from true, I have always been puzzled how the myth could survive for so many years. Now, finally, it seems to crumble. This is from a recent journalistic article entitled ‘Chinese Activists Protest the Use of Traditional Treatments – They Want Medical Science’ which states that thousands of science activists in the PRC protest that the state neglects its duty to treat its citizens with evidence-based medicine (here is the scientific article this is based on):
Over a number of years, Chinese researcher Qiaoyan Zhu, who has been affiliated with the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Communication, has collected data on the many thousand science activists in China through observations in Internet forums, on social media and during physical meetings. She has also interviewed hundreds of activists. Together with Professor Maja Horst, who has specialized in research communication, she has analyzed the many data on the activists and their protests in an article that has just been published in the journal Public Understanding of Science:
“The activists are better educated and wealthier than the average Chinese population, and a large majority of them keep up-to-date with scientific developments. The protests do not reflect a broad popular movement, but the activists make an impact with their communication at several different levels,” Maja Horst explained and added: “Many of them are protesting individually by writing directly to family, friends and colleagues who have been treated with – and in some cases taken ill from – Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some have also hung posters in hospitals and other official institutions to draw attention to the dangers of traditional treatments. But most of the activism takes place online, on social media and blogs.
Activists operating in a regime like the Chinese are obviously not given the same leeway as activists in an open democratic society — there are limits to what the authorities are willing to accept in the public sphere in particular. However, there is still ample opportunity to organize and plan actions online.
“In addition to smaller groups and individual activists that have profiles on social media, larger online groups are also being formed, in some cases gaining a high degree of visibility. The card game with 52 criticisms about Traditional Chinese Medicine that a group of activists produced in 37,000 copies and distributed to family, friends and local poker clubs is a good example. Poker is a highly popular pastime in rural China so the critical deck of cards is a creative way of reaching a large audience,” Maja Horst said.
Maja Horst and Qiaoyan Zhu have also found examples of more direct action methods, where local activist groups contact school authorities to complain that traditional Chinese medicine is part of the syllabus in schools. Or that activists help patients refuse treatment if they are offered treatment with Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I am relieved to see that, even in a system like the PRC, sound science and compelling evidence cannot be suppressed forever. It has taken a mighty long time, and the process may only be in its infancy. But there is hope – perhaps even hope that the TCM enthusiasts outside the PRC might realise that much of what came out of China has led them up the garden path!?
When Samuel Hahnemann translated Cullen’s ‘Treatise on Materia Medica’ in 1790, he learnt of Cullen’s explanation of the actions of Peruvian (or China) bark, Cinchona officinalis, a malaria treatment. Hahnemann disagreed with it and decided to conduct experiments of his own. He thus ingested high doses of Cinchona and noticed that subsequently he developed several of the symptoms that are characteristic of malaria. This is how Hahnemann later described his experience:
I took for several days, as an experiment, four drams of good china daily. My feet and finger tips, etc., at first became cold; I became languid and drowsy; my pulse became hard and quick; an intolerable anxiety and trembling (but without rigor); trembling in all limbs; then pulsation in the head, redness in the cheeks, thirst; briefly, all those symptoms which to me are typical of intermittent fever, such as the stupefaction of the senses, a kind of rigidity of all joints, but above all the numb, disagreeable sensation which seems to have its seat in the periosteum over all the bones of the body – all made their appearance. This paroxysm lasted for two or three hours every time, and recurred when I repeated the dose and not otherwise. I discontinued the medicine and I was once more in good health.
Hahnemann described what de facto was the 1st homeopathic proving. Despite the fact that Hahnemann misinterpreted the event, provings thus became the very basis of homeopathy. At Hahnemann’s time, it was highly uncommon for doctors to test their medicines in this way. So, one might wonder: where did the idea come from? Is it his very own innovation, or did he get the idea from someone else?
In 1777, Hahnemann had studied medicine in Vienna. The medical school was at the time strongly influenced by Gerard van Swieten (1700-1772) He was the innovator of a new way of medical thinking and is honoured for this legacy to the present day in Vienna.
Van Swieten’s aim was to put medicine on new scientific foundations based on objective clinical observation, botanical and chemical research, and the introduction of new, powerful remedies.
One of the pupils of this school was Anton Störck (1731-1803). He became the director of Austrian public health and medical education, appointed by Empress Maria Theresia. Störck was the first medical scientist to systematically test the effects of medicines, including poisonous plants (e.g., hemlock, henbane, meadow saffron).
In numerous cases, Störck used himself as a subject in his experiments to determine adverse effects and tolerable dose levels. One of his pupils was Joseph Quarin who fully adopted his teacher’s concepts. He later rose to considerable prominence in the Viennese medical establishment.
Hahnemann’s clinical teacher at Vienna was Joseph Quarin. Hahnemann’s idea of ‘homeopathic provings’ are thus to a significant extent influenced by Störck’s innovation.
A systematic review of the evidence for effectiveness and harms of specific spinal manipulation therapy (SMT) techniques for infants, children and adolescents has been published by Dutch researchers. I find it important to stress from the outset that the authors are not affiliated with chiropractic institutions and thus free from such conflicts of interest.
They searched electronic databases up to December 2017. Controlled studies, describing primary SMT treatment in infants (<1 year) and children/adolescents (1–18 years), were included to determine effectiveness. Controlled and observational studies and case reports were included to examine harms. One author screened titles and abstracts and two authors independently screened the full text of potentially eligible studies for inclusion. Two authors assessed risk of bias of included studies and quality of the body of evidence using the GRADE methodology. Data were described according to PRISMA guidelines and CONSORT and TIDieR checklists. If appropriate, random-effects meta-analysis was performed.
Of the 1,236 identified studies, 26 studies were eligible. In all but 3 studies, the therapists were chiropractors. Infants and children/adolescents were treated for various (non-)musculoskeletal indications, hypothesized to be related to spinal joint dysfunction. Studies examining the same population, indication and treatment comparison were scarce. Due to very low quality evidence, it is uncertain whether gentle, low-velocity mobilizations reduce complaints in infants with colic or torticollis, and whether high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulations reduce complaints in children/adolescents with autism, asthma, nocturnal enuresis, headache or idiopathic scoliosis. Five case reports described severe harms after HVLA manipulations in 4 infants and one child. Mild, transient harms were reported after gentle spinal mobilizations in infants and children, and could be interpreted as side effect of treatment.
The authors concluded that, based on GRADE methodology, we found the evidence was of very low quality; this prevented us from drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of specific SMT techniques in infants, children and adolescents. Outcomes in the included studies were mostly parent or patient-reported; studies did not report on intermediate outcomes to assess the effectiveness of SMT techniques in relation to the hypothesized spinal dysfunction. Severe harms were relatively scarce, poorly described and likely to be associated with underlying missed pathology. Gentle, low-velocity spinal mobilizations seem to be a safe treatment technique in infants, children and adolescents. We encourage future research to describe effectiveness and safety of specific SMT techniques instead of SMT as a general treatment approach.
We have often noted that, in chiropractic trials, harms are often not mentioned (a fact that constitutes a violation of research ethics). This was again confirmed in the present review; only 4 of the controlled clinical trials reported such information. This means harms cannot be evaluated by reviewing such studies. One important strength of this review is that the authors realised this problem and thus included other research papers for assessing the risks of SMT. Consequently, they found considerable potential for harm and stress that under-reporting remains a serious issue.
Another problem with SMT papers is their often very poor methodological quality. The authors of the new review make this point very clearly and call for more rigorous research. On this blog, I have repeatedly shown that research by chiropractors resembles more a promotional exercise than science. If this field wants to ever go anywhere, if needs to adopt rigorous science and forget about its determination to advance the business of chiropractors.
I feel it is important to point out that all of this has been known for at least one decade (even though it has never been documented so scholarly as in this new review). In fact, when in 2008, my friend and co-author Simon Singh, published that chiropractors ‘happily promote bogus treatments’ for children, he was sued for libel. Since then, I have been legally challenged twice by chiropractors for my continued critical stance on chiropractic. So, essentially nothing has changed; I certainly do not see the will of leading chiropractic bodies to bring their house in order.
May I therefore once again suggest that chiropractors (and other spinal manipulators) across the world, instead of aggressing their critics, finally get their act together. Until we have conclusive data showing that SMT does more good than harm to kids, the right thing to do is this: BEHAVE LIKE ETHICAL HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONALS: BE HONEST ABOUT THE EVIDENCE, STOP MISLEADING PARENTS AND STOP TREATING THEIR CHILDREN!
I live (most of my time) in the UK, a country where the media interest in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is considerable. Years ago, the UK press used to be very much in favour of SCAM. In 2000, we showed that the level of interest was huge and the reporting was biased. Here is our short BMJ paper on the subject:
The media strongly influences the public’s view of medical matters.1 Thus, we sought to determine the frequency and tone of reporting on medical topics in daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and Germany. The following eight newspapers were scanned for medical articles on eight randomly chosen working days in the summer of 1999: the Times, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, and the Guardian in the United Kingdom, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, and Die Welt in Germany. All articles relating to medical topics were extracted and categorised according to subject, length, and tone of article (critical, positive, or neutral).
A total of 256 newspaper articles were evaluated. The results of our analysis are summarised in the table. We identified 80 articles in the German newspapers and 176 in the British; thus, British newspapers seem to report on medical topics more than twice as often as German broadsheets. Articles in German papers are on average considerably longer and take a positive attitude more often than British ones. Drug treatment was the medical topic most frequently discussed in both countries (51 articles (64%) in German newspapers and 97 (55%) in British). Surgery was the second most commonly discussed medical topic in the UK newspapers (32 articles; 18%). In Germany professional politics was the second most commonly discussed topic (11 articles; 14%); this category included articles about the standing of the medical profession, health care, and social and economic systems—that is, issues not strictly about treating patients.
Because our particular interest is in complementary medicine, we also calculated the number of articles on this subject. We identified four articles in the German newspapers and 26 in the UK newspapers. In the United Kingdom the tone of these articles was unanimously positive (100%) whereas most (3; 75%) of the German articles on complementary medicine were critical.
This analysis is, of course, limited by its small sample size, the short observation period, and the subjectivity of some of the end points. Yet it does suggest that, compared with German newspapers, British newspapers report more frequently on medical matters and generally have a more critical attitude (table). German newspapers frequently discuss medical professional politics, a subject that is almost totally absent from newspapers in the United Kingdom.
The proportion of articles about complementary medicine seems to be considerably larger in the United Kingdom (15% v 5%), and, in contrast to articles on medical matters in general, reporting on complementary medicine in the United Kingdom is overwhelmingly positive. In view of the fact that both healthcare professionals and the general public gain their knowledge of complementary medicine predominantly from the media, these findings may be important.2,3
Reporting on medical topics by daily newspapers in the United Kingdom and Germany, 1999
|United Kingdom (n=176)||Germany (n=80)|
|Mean No articles/day||5.5||2.5|
|Mean (SD) No words/article||130 (26)||325 (41)|
|Ratio of positive articles to critical articles*||1.0||3.2|
Even though I have no new data on this, my impression is that things have since changed. It seems that the UK press has become more objective and are now reporting more critical comments on SCAM. While this is most welcome, of course, one feature is still deplorable, in my view: journalists’ obsession with ‘balance’.
A recent example might explain this best. The ‘i’ newspaper published an article about homeopathy which was well-written and thoroughly researched. It explained the current best evidence on the subject and made it quite clear why homeopathy is not a reasonable therapy for any condition. But then, towards the end of the article, the journalist added this section:
Dr Lise Hansen, a veterinary homeopath based in London and author of a forthcoming book, The Complete Book of Cat and Dog Health, argues that scientists have shown how homeopathy works. She cites a paper by Luc Montagnier, the French virologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for his role in discovering HIV. The following year, he published evidence of his discovery of “electromagnet signals that are produced by nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA at high aqueous dilutions”. “Mainstream medicine is about chemistry, homeopathy is physics and scientists have only recently begun to study these nanostructures,” Hansen says.
Basically, the reader is left with the impression that homeopathy might be fine after all, and that science will soon be able to catch up with it. In the interest of balance, the journalist thus confused her readers and misled the public.
Journalists are obviously taught to always cover ‘both sides’ of their stories, and they adhere to this dogma no matter what. In most instances, this works out well, because in most cases there are two sides.
But not always!
When there is a strong consensus supported by facts, science and reproducible findings, the other side ceases to have a reasonable point. There simply is no reasonable ‘other side’ when we consider global warming, evolution, the Holocaust, and many other subjects. Of course, one can always find some loon who claims the earth is flat, or that cancer is a Jewish plot against public health. But these arguments lack reason and integrity – to dish them out without anything remotely resembling a ‘fact check’ is not just annoying but harmful.
Journalists should, in my view, be more responsible, check the facts, and avoid false balance. I know this will often entail much more work, but they owe it to their readers and to the reputation of their profession.
The World Federation of Chiropractic (WFC) claim to have been at the forefront of the global development of chiropractic. Representing the interests of the profession in over 90 countries worldwide, the WFC has advocated, defended and promoted the profession across its 7 world regions. Now, the WFC have formulated 20 principles setting out who they are, what they stand for, and how chiropractic as a global health profession can, in their view, impact on nations so that populations can thrive and reach their full potential. Here are the 20 principles (in italics followed by some brief comments by me in normal print):
1. We envision a world where people of all ages, in all countries, can access the benefits of chiropractic.
That means babies and infants! What about the evidence?
2. We are driven by our mission to advance awareness, utilization and integration of chiropractic internationally.
One could almost suspect that the drive is motivated by misleading the public about the risks and benefits of spinal manipulation for financial gain.
3. We believe that science and research should inform care and policy decisions and support calls for wider access to chiropractic.
If science and research truly did inform care, it would soon be chiropractic-free.
4. We maintain that chiropractic extends beyond the care of patients to the promotion of better health and the wellbeing of our communities.
The best example to show that this statement is a politically correct platitude is the fact that so many chiropractors are (educated to become) convinced that vaccinations are undesirable or harmful.
5. We champion the rights of chiropractors to practice according to their training and expertise.
I am not sure what this means. Could it mean that they must practice according to their training and expertise, even if both fly in the face of the evidence?
6. We promote evidence-based practice: integrating individual clinical expertise, the best available evidence from clinical research, and the values and preferences of patients.
So far, I have seen little to convince me that chiropractors care a hoot about the best available evidence and plenty to fear that they supress it, if it does not enhance their business.
7. We are committed to supporting our member national associations through advocacy and sharing best practices for the benefit of patients and society.
Much more likely for the benefit of chiropractors, I suspect.
8. We acknowledge the role of chiropractic care, including the chiropractic adjustment, to enhance function, improve mobility, relieve pain and optimize wellbeing.
Of course, you have to pretend that chiropractic adjustments (of subluxations) are useful. However, evidence would be better than pretence.
9. We support research that investigates the methods, mechanisms, and outcomes of chiropractic care for the benefit of patients, and the translation of research outcomes into clinical practice.
And if it turns out to be to the detriment of the patient? It seems to me that you seem to know the result of the research before you started it. That does not bode well for its reliability.
10. We believe that chiropractors are important members of a patient’s healthcare team and that interprofessional approaches best facilitate optimum outcomes.
Of course you do believe that. Why don’t you show us some evidence that your belief is true?
11. We believe that chiropractors should be responsible public health advocates to improve the wellbeing of the communities they serve.
Of course you do believe that. But, in fact, many chiropractors are actively undermining the most important public health measure, vaccination.
12. We celebrate individual and professional diversity and equality of opportunity and represent these values throughout our Board and committees.
What you should be celebrating is critical assessment of all chiropractic concepts. This is the only way to make progress and safeguard the interests of the patient.
13. We believe that patients have a fundamental right to ethical, professional care and the protection of enforceable regulation in upholding good conduct and practice.
The truth is that many chiropractors violate medical ethics on a daily basis, for instance, by not obtaining fully informed consent.
14. We serve the global profession by promoting collaboration between and amongst organizations and individuals who support the vision, mission, values and objectives of the WFC.
Yes, those who support your vision, mission, values and objectives are your friends; those who dare criticising them are your enemies. It seems far from you to realise that criticism generates progress, perhaps not for the WFC, but for the patient.
15. We support high standards of chiropractic education that empower graduates to serve their patients and communities as high value, trusted health professionals.
For instance, by educating students to become anti-vaxxers or by teaching them obsolete concepts such as adjustment of subluxation?
16. We believe in nurturing, supporting, mentoring and empowering students and early career chiropractors.
You are surpassing yourself in the formulation of platitudes.
17. We are committed to the delivery of congresses and events that inspire, challenge, educate, inform and grow the profession through respectful discourse and positive professional development.
You are surpassing yourself in the formulation of platitudes.
18. We believe in continuously improving our understanding of the biomechanical, neurophysiological, psychosocial and general health effects of chiropractic care.
Even if there are no health effects?!?
19. We advocate for public statements and claims of effectiveness for chiropractic care that are honest, legal, decent and truthful.
Advocating claims of effectiveness in the absence of proof of effectiveness is neither honest, legal, decent or truthful, in my view.
20. We commit to an EPIC future for chiropractic: evidence-based, people-centered, interprofessional and collaborative.
And what do you propose to do with the increasing mountain of evidence suggesting that your spinal adjustments are not evidence-based as well as harmful to the health and wallets of your patients?
What do I take out of all this? Not a lot!
Perhaps mainly this: the WFC is correct when stating that, in the interests of the profession in over 90 countries worldwide, the WFC has advocated, defended and promoted the profession across its 7 world regions. What is missing here is a small but important addition to the sentence: in the interests of the profession and against the interest of patients, consumers or public health in over 90 countries worldwide, the WFC has advocated, defended and promoted the profession across its 7 world regions.
I recently saw a tweet by a German homeopath stating that ‘homeopathy is 100% experienced based medicine’. It made me think and realise that there is not just one EBM, there are, in fact, at least three EBMs!
- Experience based medicine
- Eminence based medicine
- Evidence based medicine
I will start with the type which I encountered first when studying medicine all those years ago.
EMINENCE BASED MEDICINE
German healthcare was at the time – 1970s – deeply steeped in this variety of EBM. What the professor said was right, and there was no discussion about it. I don’t even know how my teachers would have reacted, if we had challenged their wisdom, because nobody ever did; it just did not occur to us.
Personally, I never got along too well with this type of EBM. I found it stifling, and this feeling might have contributed to my first ‘escape’ to England in 1979. In the UK, I felt, things were refreshingly different (see also my recent obituary of my former boss).
EXPERIENCE BASED MEDICINE
So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is almost entirely based on this type of EBM. Practitioners of SCAM pride themselves of their experience and are convinced that it outweighs evidence any time. They rarely miss an occasion to stress that their treatment as stood the test of time. And as such it does not require evidence; if SCAM did not work, it would not have survived all these years.
Little do they know that the appeal to tradition is a logical fallacy. And little do they care that the long tradition of their SCAMs might just signal how obsolete their treatments truly are. Hundreds (homeopathy) or thousands (acupuncture) of years ago, we had little knowledge about physiology, pathology, etc., and clinicians had to make do with the little that got. Seen in this light, experience based medicine is a negative label that indicates the fact that the treatments are likely to be obsolete and out-dated.
EVIDENCE BASED MEDICINE
Providers of SCAM have a deeply rooted dislike for the word evidence. The reason is simple: their SCAMs are usually very shy on evidence; little wonder that they like to focus on experience instead. Yet, try to explain the concept of evidence to someone neutral like a barman, for instance – whenever I made this attempt, I was interrupted by him saying: ‘Hold on, are you saying that before EBM you did not depend on evidence? This is frightening! What on earth did you rely on then?’
It is indeed not logical to rely on eminence or on experience, in my view. And therefore, I have stopped explaining EBM to people who have common sense, like my barman. Let’s try something else instead: imagine you are seriously ill and are able to chose between three clinician who are each the leading head in their type of EMB.
THE EMINENCE IS A PROFESSOR MANY TIMES OVER AND SIMPLY KNOWS THAT HE IS ALWAYS RIGHT
Personally, I would run a mile. I have seen too many of those blundering through the wards of university hospitals. He never makes a mistake, except that things do go wrong quite often; and when they do, it is the fault of some underling, of course.
THE EXPERIENCED CLINICIAN WITH YEARS OF PRACTICE WHO HAS SEEN IT ALL AND HAS ALL THE ANSWERS
With a bit of bad luck, he might be a homeopath. He will tell you endlessly of cases that were similar to yours. Occasionally, there was an aggravation (which, of course, is a good sign in his view), but in the end he cured them all with his treatments that had stood the test of time. He has excellent bedside manners, a lot of charisma, and is a good listener. Who was it that said: “the three most dangerous words in medicine are IN MY EXPERIENCE”?
Yes, you guessed it: run and don’t turn back!
THE CLINICIAN WHO KNOWS WHAT THE CURRENT BEST EVIDENCE HAS TO OFFER
He might not be all that charismatic, perhaps he even is a bit abrupt. But he will know the latest developments and weigh the risks of all therapeutic options against their benefits.
But hold on, my barman would interrupt at this point, this is not either or. One can have both experience and evidence!
I told you my barman was clever. The definition of evidence based medicine is not healthcare based on up-to date knowledge, it is the integration of best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values. It thus rests on three pillars: external evidence, ideally from systematic reviews, the clinician’s experience, and the patient’s preferences.
Therefore, my barman and I agree that eminence based medicine is highly questionable, experience based medicine can be outright dangerous, and evidence based medicine is the only EBM version that does make sense.
I have often discussed the fact that many proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) have in recent years adopted the following argument: even if our SCAM were just a placebo, it would still be useful. After all, placebo effects are real and increasingly backed by sound science. The argument is deeply flawed, yet it convinces many lay people.
A recent article by Fabrizio Benedetti, the leading researcher in the area of placebo, is addressing exactly this issue. I feel that it is sufficiently important to quote it extensively here:
… a number of biochemical pathways, such as endogenous opioids and cannabinoids,5,6 and brain regions, like the prefrontal cortex, have been found to be involved in placebo analgesia. Likewise, dopamine and the basal ganglia circuitry have been found to mediate placebo responses in Parkinson’s disease. Although this is wonderful news for science, this may not be the case for society. The number of nonmedical organizations and healers that rely on this hard science, and actually justify their odd and bizarre procedures, has increased over the past few years. The main claim is that any procedure boosting patients’ expectations, which represent the main mediator of placebo effects, is acceptable because it can activate the same biochemical pathways and neural networks that have been made credible by hard science…
The crucial point here is that when hard science started investigating placebo effects, it unconsciously produced a shift in quackery thinking. In fact, charlatans are becoming more and more aware that their bizarre interventions could work through a placebo effect. Indeed, whereas hard science has so far denied any scientific basis for nonconventional therapies, now the very same hard science certifies that the placebo effect has scientific grounds. Therefore, quacks are no longer interested in showing that their pseudo-interventions work; rather, they justify their use on the basis of the possibility that these bizarre interventions may induce strong placebo effects…
… A first point that should be emphasized is that placebos do not cure, but rather, they may sometimes improve quality of life. There is plenty of confusion on this point, and unfortunately, many claim that they can cure virtually all illnesses with placebos. Hard science tells us that placebos can reduce symptoms such as pain and muscle rigidity in Parkinson’s disease, yet the progression of the disease is not affected; for example, in Parkinson’s disease, neurons keep degenerating even though some symptoms can be reduced for a short time.4 The second point is related to the first. The type of disease is crucial, and we need to make people understand that pain is different from cancer and that anxiety differs from infectious diseases. The psychological component of some illnesses can indeed be modulated by placebos, but placebos cannot stop cancer growth, nor can they kill the bacteria of pneumonia. The third point is related to the difference between real placebo effects and spontaneous remissions. So far, hard science has studied the placebo effect within a time span of hours/days, thereby limiting our knowledge to short-lasting effects. Consequently, long-lasting effects can be often attributed to spontaneous remissions.
In addition to these three important points, we should also make patients understand that a diagnosis is required before any sort of therapy. An apparently trivial pain may conceal a danger; thus, it must never be treated unless a diagnosis has been made before, and this can be made only by physicians. Moreover, not only should we discuss and consider the positive effects of placebos and the impact they may have in clinical trials and medical practice, but we should also pay much of our attention to the negative counterpart, that is, the misuse and abuse by quacks, charlatans, shamans, and nonmedical organizations. Thus, we need to inform the whole society that the benefits following a nonconventional healing procedure are attributable to a placebo effect in most of the cases. Last but not least, we need to be more honest on the real efficacy of many pharmacological and nonpharmacological treatments, acknowledging that some of them are useful whereas some others are not: This will boost patients’ trust and confidence in medicine further, which I believe are the best foes of quackery…
…Unfortunately, quackery has today one more weapon on its side, which is paradoxically represented by the hard science–supported placebo mechanisms. This new “scientific quackery” can do a lot of damage; thus, we must be very cautious and vigilant as to how the findings of hard science are exploited. The study of the biology of these vulnerable aspects of mankind may unravel new mechanisms of how our brain works, but it may have a profound negative impact on our society as well. We cannot accept a world where expectations can be enhanced with any means and by anybody. This is a perspective that would surely be worrisome and dangerous. I believe that some reflections are necessary in order to avoid a regression of medicine to past times, in which quackery and shamanism were dominant. Unfortunately, the new knowledge about placebos by hard science is now backfiring on it. What we need to do is to stop for a while and reflect on what we are doing and how we want to move forward. A crucial question to answer is, Does placebo research boost pseudoscience?
I am immensely thankful to Prof Benedetti to make such clear and long-overdue statements. They will be most helpful in refuting the myth that homeopathy, para-normal healing, reflexology, acupuncture, chiropractic, etc., etc. are legitimate and uselful therapies, even if they are not better than a placebo. Using placebo therapies in routine care is not in the best interest of either the patient or progress.
These days, I am often not sure what puzzles me more, Boris Johnson or homeopathy. Come to think of it, our PM seems, in fact, to have a lot in common with homeopathy/homeopaths. With my tongue lodged firmly in my cheek, I can see some communalities:
- They are both popular in the UK but have their origins elsewhere.
- They were both laughed at by people who are serious.
- They have both been around for far too long.
- They both are useless.
- They both have plenty of charisma.
- They both, however, have little more than that.
- They have a long history of misleading the public.
- They have both been taken to court.
- They both failed to accept the judgement when it went against them.
- They are both particularly successful with the female section of the population.
- They both thrive on personal attacks.
- They both make far-reaching claims which turn out to be false.
- They both claim to want only the best for the public.
- They both consider themselves as progressive.
- In truth, however, they are both deeply regressive.
- They both do not to think that ethics are all that important.
- They both irritate people who are rational thinkers.
- They both negate the evidence and act in overt contradiction to the evidence.
- They both tend to think that popularity is a measure of efficacy.
- They both managed to mislead even the Queen.
- Nevertheless, they both enjoy royal support (at least for the time being).
- They both seem to think that the laws (of the land/of nature) do not apply to them.
- They are both only bearable when highly diluted.
- They are both a complete waste of money.
- They are both dangerous when the public follow their advice.
Have I forgotten anything?
Do tell me, please.
On this blog, we have often noted that (almost) all TCM trials from China report positive results. Essentially, this means we might as well discard them, because we simply cannot trust their findings. While being asked to comment on a related issue, it occurred to me that this might be not so much different with Korean acupuncture studies. So, I tried to test the hypothesis by running a quick Medline search for Korean acupuncture RCTs. What I found surprised me and eventually turned into a reminder of the importance of critical thinking.
Even though I found pleanty of articles on acupuncture coming out of Korea, my search generated merely 3 RCTs. Here are their conclusions:
The results of this study show that moxibustion (3 sessions/week for 4 weeks) might lower blood pressure in patients with prehypertension or stage I hypertension and treatment frequency might affect effectiveness of moxibustion in BP regulation. Further randomized controlled trials with a large sample size on prehypertension and hypertension should be conducted.
The results of this study show that acupuncture might lower blood pressure in prehypertension and stage I hypertension, and further RCT need 97 participants in each group. The effect of acupuncture on prehypertension and mild hypertension should be confirmed in larger studies.
Bee venom acupuncture combined with physiotherapy remains clinically effective 1 year after treatment and may help improve long-term quality of life in patients with AC of the shoulder.
So yes, according to this mini-analysis, 100% of the acupuncture RCTs from Korea are positive. But the sample size is tiny and I many not have located all RCTs with my ‘rough and ready’ search.
But what are all the other Korean acupuncture articles about?
Many are protocols for RCTs which is puzzling because some of them are now so old that the RCT itself should long have emerged. Could it be that some Korean researchers publish protocols without ever publishing the trial? If so, why? But most are systematic reviews of RCTs of acupuncture. There must be about one order of magnitude more systematic reviews than RCTs!
Why so many?
Perhaps I can contribute to the answer of this question; perhaps I am even guilty of the bonanza.
In the period between 2008 and 2010, I had several Korean co-workers on my team at Exeter, and we regularly conducted systematic reviews of acupuncture for various indications. In fact, the first 6 systematic reviews include my name. This research seems to have created a trend with Korean acupuncture researchers, because ever since they seem unable to stop themselves publishing such articles.
So far so good, a plethora of systematic reviews is not necessarily a bad thing. But looking at the conclusions of these systematic reviews, I seem to notice a worrying trend: while our reviews from the 2008-2010 period arrived at adequately cautious conclusions, the new reviews are distinctly more positive in their conclusions and uncritical in their tone.
Let me explain this by citing the conclusions of the very first (includes me as senior author) and the very last review (does not include me) currently listed in Medline:
penetrating or non-penetrating sham-controlled RCTs failed to show specific effects of acupuncture for pain control in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. More rigorous research seems to be warranted.
Electroacupuncture was an effective treatment for MCI [mild cognitive impairment] patients by improving cognitive function. However, the included studies presented a low methodological quality and no adverse effects were reported. Thus, further comprehensive studies with a design in depth are needed to derive significant results.
Now, you might claim that the evidence for acupuncture has overall become more positive over time, and that this phenomenon is the cause for the observed shift. Yet, I don’t see that at all. I very much fear that there is something else going on, something that could be called the suspension of critical thinking.
Whenever I have asked a Chinese researcher why they only publish positive conclusions, the answer was that, in China, it would be most impolite to publish anything that contradicts the views of the researchers’ peers. Therefore, no Chinese researcher would dream of doing it, and consequently, critical thinking is dangerously thin on the ground.
I think that a similar phenomenon might be at the heart of what I observe in the Korean acupuncture literature: while I always tried to make sure that the conclusions were adequately based on the data, the systematic reviews were ok. When my influence disappeared and the reviews were done exclusively by Korean researchers, the pressure of pleasing the Korean peers (and funders) became dominant. I suggest that this is why conclusions now tend to first state that the evidence is positive and subsequently (almost as an after-thought) add that the primary trials were flimsy. The results of this phenomenon could be serious:
- progress is being stifled,
- the public is being misled,
- funds are being wasted,
- the reputation of science is being tarnished.
Of course, the only right way to express this situation goes something like this:
BECAUSE THE QUALITY OF THE PRIMARY TRIALS IS INADEQUATE, THE EFFECTIVENESS OF ACUPUNCTURE REMAINS UNPROVEN.
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:
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!