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

progress

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The bad news for German homeopathy just keeps on coming. As I reported, recent events must be depressing for homeopaths, e.g.:

And now this:

After heated debates in the run-up, the Bavarian Medical Association decided yesterday to ditch the postgraduate education program in homeopathy for its doctors. This means that, of the 17 regional medical associations in Germany, 12 have now discontinued their further education efforts in homeopathy. The ones that have not yet done so are:

  • Baden-Württemberg,
  • Rhineland-Palatinate,
  • Saxony,
  • Thuringia,
  • Westphalia-Lippe.

In the past months, homeopaths had collected 11,597 signatures in favor of maintaining the additional qualification of homeopathy. The ~ 400 doctors in Bavaria, who have acquired ‘homeopathy’ as an additional title, will be permitted to continue to use it.

The spokesperson of the Information Network Homeopathy, Dr. Christian Lübbers, welcomed the decision of the Medical Association. It was a “landslide victory for patient safety”, he said. The Bavarian regional chairman of the German Central Association of Homeopathic Doctors, Dr. Ulf Riker, regretted the outcome of the vote and added: “We will consider legal steps very seriously.” I would advise against such a step which would only render homeopaths more ridiculous than they already are.

Yes, it’s bad news for German homeopaths – very bad news indeed. Of course, homeopathy fans will claim that it is all a sinister conspiracy against them. Sadly, they are unable to realize that the only driving force behind the long-overdue decline of German homeopathy is the evidence: HOMEOPATHY DOES NOT WORK BEYOND PLACEBO and therefore it has no place in the evidence-based medicine of the 21st century.

One argument that we hear regularly in the comment sections of this blog and elsewhere goes something like this:

“Why worry about a bit of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM like homeopathy or chiropractic, or Reiki, or Bach flower remedies, or detox, etc.)? Why should it bother us? Why not let everyone use what they want? Why not be a bit more tolerant?”

Tolerance is defined as sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own. It is, of course, a quality that normally should be welcomed, taught, and celebrated. So, why not be more tolerant with enthusiasts of pseudoscientific SCAM?

In my view, there are several reasons.

  1. Ineffective therapies harm patients. The public tends to believe that SCAM is inherently safe. This is, of course, not true – think of chiropractic, for instance. But some treatments seem entirely harmless. Homeopathy might be a good example; its remedies contain nothing and therefore homeopathy can do no harm. Sadly, this is not true either. If a patient uses homeopathy to treat a serious condition, she is likely to harm herself by not treating that condition effectively. In extreme cases, this course of action can be fatal.
  2. Ineffective therapies are a waste of resources. It seems obvious that the money spent on something that does not work is money wasted. This is true whether we buy a car that is beyond repair or a SCAM that does not work beyond placebo.
  3. Pseudoscience makes a mockery of evidence-based medicine. If we are tolerant towards useless SCAM and accept that some people make money on, and mislead the public about SCAM, we basically send out a message that evidence is of secondary importance. This would weaken the trust in evidence-based medicine which, in turn, is bound to render healthcare less effective and stand in the way of progress.
  4. Pseudoscience undermines rationality and one form of irrationality begets another. Perhaps the biggest danger of tolerating promoters of quackery is that this undermines rational thinking far beyond the realm of healthcare. “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” wrote Voltaire. I fear that he might have been correct.

In my view, tolerance about pseudoscientific, implausible, ineffective, or harmful SCAMs is misplaced. On the contrary, I feel that it is our duty to limit the harm they do to the public, patients, and progress by exposing them for what they are.

A second look at old research suggested that the recommended dose for vitamin C is far too low. Here is the abstract of the recently published  paper:

A double-blind controlled trial initiated in 1944 has led to the common narrative that a 10-mg daily vitamin C intake is adequate to prevent and treat impaired wound healing, and by inference, other collagen-related diseases such as heart disease or stroke. The WHO relies on this narrative to set the recommended nutrient intake for vitamin C. This narrative, however, is based on what is known as the eyeball method of data assessment. The 1944 trial published individual participant data on scar strength providing an opportunity to statistically probe the validity of the 10-mg narrative, something which has not yet been done. The findings show that a vitamin C intake that averages to 10 mg/d over a mean follow-up of 11.5 mo was associated with a 42% weakened scar strength when compared with 80 mg vitamin C intake/d (P < 0.001). The observed dose-response curve between scar strength and vitamin C intake suggests that the daily vitamin C intake needed to prevent collagen-related pathologies is in the range recommended by the National Academy of Medicine and the European Food Safety Authority (75 to 110 mg/d), not the WHO recommendation (45 mg/d). The findings also show that a vitamin C intake that averages to 65 mg/d over a mean follow-up of 6.5 mo failed to restore the normal wound-healing capacity of vitamin C-depleted tissues; such tissues had a 49% weaker scar strength when compared with nondepleted tissues (P < 0.05). Thus, average daily vitamin C intakes ∼50% higher than the WHO recommends may fail to treat existing collagen-related pathologies. It is concluded that the prior lack of statistical analyses of a landmark trial may have led to a misleading narrative on the vitamin C needs for the prevention and treatment of collagen-related pathologies.

The lead author of the recent re-analysis, Professor Philippe Hujoel from the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Washington, Seattle, said: “The vitamin C experiment is a shocking study. They depleted people’s vitamin C levels long-term and created life-threatening emergencies. It would never fly now. The findings of the re-analyses of the Sorby data suggest that the WHO’s recommendation is too low to prevent weak scar strength. Robust parametric analyses of the trial data reveal that an average daily vitamin C intake of 95mg is required to prevent weak scar strength for 97.5 percent of the population. Such a vitamin C intake is more than double the daily 45mg vitamin C intake recommended by the WHO but is consistent with the writing panels for the National Academy of Medicine and (other) countries.”

The original research of 1944 was headed by the British-German biologist and Nobel-prize winner Sir Hans Adolf Krebs. At the time, researchers conducted an experiment that controlled and monitored vitamin C consumption of just 20 volunteers. They were each given varying amounts of vitamin C,  which helps the body to produce collagen – and given wounds to observe how quickly their scar tissue healed. The research aimed to ascertain how much vitamin C navy members living off rations is required in order to prevent them from developing scurvy, rather than how much is needed to boost health overall.

Prof Hujoel concluded that: “The failure to reevaluate the data of a landmark trial with novel statistical methods as they became available may have led to a misleading narrative on the vitamin C needs for the prevention and treatment of collagen-related pathologies.”

So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) use has been increasingly prevalent among Americans, whereas its relationship with medical non-adherence is unknown. Using the National Health Interview Survey, this analysis evaluated the use of SCAM modalities and their association with cost-related nonadherence to medical care (CRN) among older Americans by gender strata.

Americans, aged 50 or above in the 2012 National Health Interview Survey, were included to evaluate the use of SCAM modalities and their association with CRN. SCAM modalities were categorized as the use of the following in the past 12 months:

  • 1) herbal supplements;
  • 2) chiropractic or osteopathic manipulations;
  • 3) massage;
  • 4) Yoga, tai chi, or qigong;
  • 5) Mantra/mindfulness/spiritual meditation,
  • 6) acupuncture;
  • 7) mind-body therapy;
  • 8) other SCAM modalities including homeopathy, naturopathy, traditional healers, energy healing therapy, biofeedback, hypnosis, and craniosacral therapy.

CRN was defined as needing medical care but not receiving it due to costs and/or having medical care delayed due to costs in the past 12 months. The investigators developed a multivariable logit model to assess the association of the use of SCAM modalities and CRN controlling for patients age, gender, race, ethnicity, insurance status (Medicare, Medicaid, VA/Tri-care, no-insurance, or private insurance), and comorbid conditions (diabetes, arthritis, back and neck problems, heart condition, stroke, lung and breathing problems, and cancer).

A total of 16,360 older Americans were included in the analysis, with 11,278 (68.9%) reporting at least one SCAM modality use, and 1,992 (12.2%) of them reported CRN. Among the 8 SCAM modalities, compared to those not using SCAM, those who used chiropractic were 94% more likely (p=0.01), those who used Mantra/mindfulness/spiritual meditation were 106% more likely (p<0.01), and those using other modalities were 42% more likely (p=0.07) to report CRN. In contrast, those who used mind-body therapy were 43% less likely (p=0.04) to report CRN. The other 4 modalities did not achieve statistically significant levels although the odds ratios were mostly greater than 1.

The authors argue that the differential association between the SCAM modality use and CRN suggested a complex relationship between the utilization of SCAM and patients’ non-adherence to medical care. It is possible that the out-of-pocket payments for those services significantly increased patients’ cost burden and thus made the use of other medical care unaffordable, and it’s also possible that those who already had low resources were more likely to seek SCAM to substitute for more expensive conventional care. Either of these scenarios would present a serious challenge.

The authors concluded that both men and women are more likely to report financial distress while using various SCAM modalities.

These findings are not easy to interpret. To me, they suggest that, in the US, many consumers have been persuaded to prioritize SCAM over conventional medicine, even if they can ill afford it. It throws a dim light on the US society where some folks seem to struggle to pay for what is essential while continuing to afford the superfluous.

In my view, in a just and non-decadent society, conventional healthcare must be free for everyone at the point of delivery, and SCAM is at best an extra that those who want it should pay out of their own pocket.

“Edzard and his ilk are not really serious about honoring the Hippocratic tradiiton of “First, do no harm,” and even then, they will spin what seemingly good responses to homeopathic treatment as a placebo.”

This comment came recently from our good friend Dana Ullman, and it made me think again about homeopathy and the ‘first do no harm’ principle.

  • The first thing to note is that the Hippocratic oath does not contain this sentence.
  • And the second thing to stress is that clinicians are doing harm regularly. The ‘first do no harm’ principle has long been understood to mean that clinicians should always take care that their actions generate more benefit than harm.

As we discussed all this in more detail before, I do not intend to dwell on it. Today, I rather consider three exemplary scenarios in order to investigate how the principle of doing more good than harm applies to homeopathy (or indeed any other form of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)).

SCENARIO 1:

PATIENT WITH A SELF-LIMITING CONDITION

Let’s assume our patient has a cold and consults her physician who prescribes a homeopathic remedy. One could argue that no harm is done in such a situation. The treatment will not help beyond a placebo effect, but the cold will disappear in just a few days, and the patient will not suffer any side effects. This attitude is common but it disregards the following potential harms:

  1. The cost for the treatment.
  2. The possibility that our patient suffered for several days needlessly from cold symptoms that might be treatable.
  3. The possibility of our patient getting the erroneous impression that homeopathy is an effective therapy (because the cold did go away quickly) and therefore opts to use it for future, more serious illnesses.

What if the physician only prescribed homeopathy because the patient asked him to do so? Strictly speaking, the above-named issues still apply in this situation. The ethical thing would have been to inform the patient what the best evidence tells us (namely that homeopathy is a placebo therapy), provide assurance about the nature of the condition, and prescribe effective treatments as needed.

And what if the physician does all of these things and, in addition, prescribes homeopathy because the patient wants it? In this case, the possibility of harms 1 and 3 does still apply.

SCENARIO 2

PATIENT WITH A CHRONIC CONDITION

Consider a patient suffering from arthritis who consults her physician who prescribes homeopathic remedies as the sole therapy. In such a situation, the following harms apply:

  1. The cost for the treatment.
  2. The possibility that our patient suffers needlessly from symptoms that are treatable. As the symptoms can be serious, this would often amount to medical negligence.

What if the physician only prescribed homeopathy because the patient asked him to do so and the patient refuses conventional therapies? In such cases, it is the physician’s ethical duty to inform the patient about the best evidence as it pertains to homeopathy and conventional treatments for her condition. Failure to do so would amount to negligence. The patient is then free to decide, of course. But so is the physician; nobody can force him/her to prescribe ineffective treatments. If no consensus can be reached, the patient might have to change physician.

And what if the physician does inform the patient adequately but also prescribes homeopathy because the patient wants it? In this case, the possibility of harms 1 and 3 does still apply.

SCENARIO 3

PATIENT WITH A LIFE-THREATENING CONDITION

Consider a young man with testicular cancer who consults his doctor who prescribes homeopathic remedies as the sole therapy. In such a situation, the physician is grossly negligent and could be struck off because of negligence.

What if the physician prescribed homeopathy because the patient asked him to do so and refuses conventional therapies? In such a case, it is the ethical duty of the physician to inform the patient about the best evidence as it pertains to homeopathy and to the conventional treatment for his cancer. Failure to do so would amount to negligence. The patient is then free to decide, of course. But so is the physician; nobody can force him to prescribe ineffective treatments. If no consensus can be reached between the physician and the patient, the patient might have to change physician.

And what if the physician does inform the patient adequately makes sure he receives effective oncological treatments, but also prescribes homeopathy because the patient insists on it? In this case, the possibility of harms 1 and 3 does still apply.

These scenarios are, of course, rather schematic and, in everyday practice, many other factors might need considering. They nevertheless show that the ‘do more good than harm’ principle does not support homeopathy (or any other ineffective SCAM). In other words, the practice of homeopathy is not ethical.

But what if someone (like Dana Ullman) strongly believes in the effectiveness of homeopathy? In this case, he or she is not acting according to the best available evidence – and that, of course, is also unethical.

 

I have repeatedly likened so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) to a cult – not a religious cult, of course, but to a ‘health cult’. A health cult is defined as a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator. So, are you a member of a health cult?

In case you are a proponent of SCAM, you might be in danger. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Is your SCAM based on dogma, such as ‘LIKE CURES LIKE’ or ‘SUBLUXATIONS ARE THE CAUSE OF DISEASE?
  2. Does the cult demand you accept its dogma or doctrine as truth?
  3. Is it set forth by a single guru or promulgator?
  4. Is your SCAM supposed to cure all ills?
  5. Is belief used by proponents of your SCAM as a substitute for evidence?
  6. Does the SCAM determine your diet and/or lifestyle?
  7. Does the SCAM exploit you financially?
  8. Does your SCAM impose rigid rules and regulations?
  9. Does your SCAM practice deception?
  10. Does your SCAM have its own sources of information/propaganda?
  11. Does your SCAM cultivate its own lingo?
  12. Does your SCAM discourage or inhibit critical thinking?
  13. Are questions about the values of your SCAM discouraged or forbidden?
  14. Do the proponents of your SCAM reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words?
  15. Do they assume that health problems are the result of not adhering to the dogma?
  16. Does your SCAM instill fear into members who consider leaving?
  17. Do the proponents of your SCAM depict conventional medicine as ineffective or harmful?
  18. Are you asked to recruit new members to your SCAM?

Please try to answer these questions honestly and self-critically.

If more than a handful turn out to be positive, you have, in my view, a reason to be concerned. In this case, I would recommend you go to a library and start reading a few books that provide critical analyses of SCAM.

 

I was alerted to an interesting article about homeopathy in Switzerland. Its author points out that homeopathy is paid for by health insurance in Switzerland because of anything remotely related to evidence but because of a referendum in 2009. At the time, one of the arguments of the proponents was that health care costs would tend to decrease if more so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) would be paid for by the public purse. This is what Jacques de Haller, the president of the medical association, claimed: because SCAM is comparatively cheap and helps to prevent more expensive consultations, the total cost of health care would decrease.

This rather naive assumption was also one made in 2005 by the ‘Smallwood-Report’, commissioned by Charles and paid for by Dame Shirley Porter, specifically to inform health ministers. It stated that up to 480 million pounds could be saved if one in 10 family doctors offered homeopathy as an alternative to standard drugs. Savings of up to 3.5 billion pounds could be achieved by offering spinal manipulation rather than drugs to people with back pain. (Because I had commented on this report, Prince Charles’ first private secretary asked the vice-chancellor of Exeter University, Steve Smith, to investigate. Even though I was found to be not guilty of any wrongdoing, specifically of violating confidentiality, all local support stopped which led to my decision to retire early.)

In Switzerland, the assumption that SCAM saves money was refuted in 2019 by the Swiss health insurance association Santésuisse in a proper cost analysis. According to this analysis, doctors who also prescribed homeopathy caused 22% more costs per patient than those practicing conventional medicine. As it turned out, SCAM would be charged in addition to existing conventional medical services. Consequently, from a point of view of health economics, SCAM should not be called “alternative”, but rather “additive”, Santésuisse wrote at the time.

More evidence comes from a German study (authored by proponents of homeopathy!) that confirms these findings. Integrated care contracts for homeopathy by German health insurers were shown to result in higher costs across all diagnoses.

The recognition that homeopathy lacks sound evidence has already led to an end of reimbursement in the UK and France. Both in Germany and Switzerland, strong pro-homeopathy lobbies have so far succeeded in preventing similar actions. Yet, there is no doubt that, in these and other countries, the writing is on the wall.

They say, one has to try everything at least once – except line-dancing and incest. So, when I was invited to co-organize a petition, I considered it and thought: WHY NOT?

Here is the text (as translated by myself) of our petition to the German Medical Association:

 

 

Dear President Dr Reinhardt,

Dear Ms Lundershausen,

Mrs Held,

Dear Ms Johna,

We, the undersigned doctors, would like to draw your attention to the insistence of individual state medical associations on preserving “homeopathy” as a component of continuing medical education. We hope that you, by virtue of your office, will ensure a nationwide regulation so that this form of sham treatment [1], as has already happened in other European countries, can no longer call itself part of medicine.

We justify our request by the following facts:

  1. After the landmark vote in Bremen in September 2019 to remove “homeopathy” from the medical training regulations, 10 other state medical associations have so far followed Bremen’s example. For reasons of credibility and transparency, it would be desirable if the main features of the training content taught were not coordinated locally in the future, but centrally and uniformly across the country so that there is no “training tourism”. Because changes to a state’s own regulations of postgraduate training are only binding for the examination committee of the respective state, this does not affect national regulations but is reduced to only a symbolic character without sufficient effects on the portfolio of medical education nationwide.
  2. Medicine always works through the combination of a specifically effective part and non-specific placebo effects. By insisting on a pseudo-medical methodology – as is “homeopathy” represents in our opinion – patients are deprived of the specific effective part and often unnecessarily deprived of therapy appropriate to the indication. Tragically, it happens again and again that the “therapeutic window of opportunity” for an appropriate therapy is missed, tumors can grow to inoperable size, etc.
  3. Due to the insistence of individual state medical associations on the “homeopathic doctrine of healing” as part of the medical profession, we are increasingly exposed to the blanket accusation that, by tolerating this doctrine, we are supporting and promoting ways of thinking and world views that are detached from science. This is a dangerous situation, which in times of a pandemic manifests itself in misguided aggression reflected not just in vaccination skepticism and vaccination refusal, but also in unacceptable personal attacks and assaults on vaccinating colleagues in private practice.
[1] Homöopathie – die Fakten [unverdünnt] eBook : Ernst, Edzard, Bretthauer, Jutta: Amazon.de: Kindle-Shop

Responsible:

Dr. med. Dent. Hans-Werner Bertelsen

Prof. Dr. med. Edzard Ernst

George A. Rausche

You can sign the petition here:

Petition an die Bundesärztekammer › Sachverständiger kriminalistische Forensik, Foto- Videoforensik, digitale Forensik und der Identifikation lebender Personen nach Bildern (rauscher.xyz)

 

The General Chiropractic Council (GCC) regulates chiropractors in the UK, Isle of Man, and Gibraltar to ensure the safety of patients undergoing chiropractic treatment. The GCC sets the standards of chiropractic practice and professional conduct that all chiropractors must meet.

By providing a lengthy ruling in the case of the late John Lawler and his chiropractor, Arlene Scholten, the GCC has recently established new standards for chiropractors working in the UK, Isle of Man, and Gibraltar (see also today’s article in The Daily Mail). If I interpret the GCC’s ruling correctly, a UK chiropractor is henceforth allowed to do all of the following things without fearing to get reprimanded, as long as he or she produces evidence that the deeds were done not with malicious intentions but in a state of confusion and panic:

  • Treat a patient with treatments that are contraindicated.
  • Fail to obtain informed consent.
  • Pose as a real doctor without informing the patient that the practitioner is just a chiropractor who has never been near a medical school.
  • Cause the death of a patient by treatment to the neck.
  • Administer first aid in a way that makes matters worse.
  • Tell lies to the ambulance men who consequently failed to employ a method of transport that would save the patient’s life.
  • Keep inaccurate patient records that conceal what treatments were administered.

In previous years, the job of a chiropractor had turned out to be demanding, difficult, and stressful. This was due not least to the GCC’s professional standards which UK chiropractors were obliged to observe. The code of the GCC stated prominently that “our overall purpose is to protect the public.

All this is now a thing of the past.

The new ruling changed everything. Now, UK chiropractors can relax and can happily pursue their true devotion, namely to keep their bank manager happy, while not worrying too much about the welfare and health of their patients.

In the name of all UK chiropractors, I herewith express my thanks to the GCC for unashamedly protecting first and foremost the interests of their members, while tacitly discarding medical ethics and evidently not protecting the public.

MAKE CHIROPRACTIC GREAT AGAIN!

The authors of this review start their paper with the following statement:

Acupuncture has demonstrated effectiveness for symptom management among breast cancer survivors.

This, I think, begs the following question: if they already know that, why do they conduct a systematic review of the subject?

The answer becomes clear as we read thier article: they want to add another paper to the literature that shows they are correct in their assumption.

So, they do the searches and found 26 trials (2055 patients), of which 20 (1709 patients) could be included in the meta-analysis. Unsurprisingly, their results show that acupuncture was more effective than control groups in improving pain intensity [standardized mean difference (SMD) = -0.60, 95% confidence intervals (CI) -1.06 to -0.15], fatigue [SMD = -0.62, 95% CI -1.03 to -0.20], and hot flash severity [SMD = -0.52, 95% CI -0.82 to -0.22].  Compared with waitlist control and usual care groups, the acupuncture groups showed significant reductions in pain intensity, fatigue, depression, hot flash severity, and neuropathy. No serious adverse events were reported related to acupuncture intervention. Mild adverse events (i.e., bruising, pain, swelling, skin infection, hematoma, headache, menstrual bleeding) were reported in 11 studies.

The authors concluded that this systematic review and meta-analysis suggest that acupuncture significantly reduces multiple treatment-related symptoms compared with the usual care or waitlist control group among breast cancer survivors. The safety of acupuncture was inadequately reported in the included studies. Based on the available data, acupuncture seems to be generally a safe treatment with some mild adverse events. These findings provide evidence-based recommendations for incorporating acupuncture into clinical breast cancer symptom management. Due to the high risk of bias and blinding issues in some RCTs, more rigorous trials are needed to confirm the efficacy of acupuncture in reducing multiple treatment-related symptoms among breast cancer survivors.

Yes, I agree: this is an uncritical white-wash of the evidence. So, why do I bother to discuss this paper? After all, the acupuncture literature is littered with such nonsense.

Well, to my surprise, the results did contain a little gem after all.

A subgroup analysis of the data indicated that acupuncture showed no significant effects on any of the treatment-related symptoms compared with the sham acupuncture groups.

In other words, this paper confirms what has been discussed repeatedly on this blog (see for instance here, here, and here):

Acupuncture seems to be a placebo therapy!

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