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

progress

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Robert Verkerk, Executive & scientific director, Alliance for Natural Health (ANH), seems to adore me (maybe that’s why I kept this post for Valentine’s Day?). In 2006, he published this article about me (it is lengthy, and I therefore shortened a bit, but feel free to study it in its full beauty):

START OF QUOTE

PROFESSOR EDZARD ERNST, the UK’s first professor of complementary medicine, gets lots of exposure for his often overtly negative views on complementary medicine. He’s become the media’s favourite resource for a view on this controversial subject…

The interesting thing about Prof Ernst is that he seems to have come a long way from his humble beginnings as a recipient of the therapies that he now seems so critical of. Profiled by Geoff Watts in the British Medical Journal, the Prof tells us: ‘Our family doctor in the little village outside Munich where I grew up was a homoeopath. My mother swore by it. As a kid I was treated homoeopathically. So this kind of medicine just came naturally. Even during my studies I pursued other things like massage therapy and acupuncture. As a young doctor I had an appointment in a homeopathic hospital, and I was very impressed with its success rate. My boss told me that much of this success came from discontinuing main stream medication. This made a big impression on me.’ (BMJ Career Focus 2003; 327:166; doi:10.1136/bmj.327.7425.s166)…

After his early support for homeopathy, Professor Ernst has now become, de facto, one of its main opponents. Robin McKie, science editor for The Observer (December 18, 2005) reported Ernst as saying, ‘Homeopathic remedies don’t work. Study after study has shown it is simply the purest form of placebo. You may as well take a glass of water than a homeopathic medicine.’ Ernst, having done the proverbial 180 degree turn, has decided to stand firmly shoulder to shoulder with a number of other leading assailants of non-pharmaceutical therapies, such as Professors Michael Baum and Jonathan Waxman. On 22 May 2006, Baum and twelve other mainly retired surgeons, including Ernst himself, bandied together and co-signed an open letter, published in The Times, which condemned the NHS decision to include increasing numbers of complementary therapies…

As high profile as the Ernsts, Baums and Waxmans of this world might be—their views are not unanimous across the orthodox medical profession. Some of these contrary views were expressed just last Sunday in The Sunday Times (Lost in the cancer maze, 10 December 2006)…

The real loser in open battles between warring factions in healthcare could be the consumer. Imagine how schizophrenic you could become after reading any one of the many newspapers that contains both pro-natural therapy articles and stinging attacks like that found in this week’s Daily Mail. But then again, we may misjudge the consumer who is well known for his or her ability to vote with the feet—regardless. The consumer, just like Robert Sandall, and the millions around the world who continue to indulge in complementary therapies, will ultimately make choices that work for them. ‘Survival of the fittest’ could provide an explanation for why hostile attacks from the orthodox medical community, the media and over-zealous regulators have not dented the steady increase in the popularity of alternative medicine.

Although we live in a technocratic age where we’ve handed so much decision making to the specialists, perhaps this is one area where the might of the individual will reign. Maybe the disillusionment many feel for pharmaceutically-biased healthcare is beginning to kick in. Perhaps the dictates from the white coats will be overruled by the ever-powerful survival instinct and our need to stay in touch with nature, from which we’ve evolved.

END OF QUOTE

Elsewhere, Robert Verkerk even called me the ‘master trickster of evidence-based medicine’ and stated that Prof Ernst and his colleagues appear to be evaluating the ‘wrong’ variable. As Ernst himself admitted, his team are focused on exploring only one of the variables, the ‘specific therapeutic effect’ (Figs 1 and 2). It is apparent, however, that the outcome that is of much greater consequence to healthcare is the combined effect of all variables, referred to by Ernst as the ‘total effect’ (Fig 1). Ernst does not appear to acknowledge that the sum of these effects might differ greatly between experimental and non-experimental situations.

Adding insult to injury, Ernst’s next major apparent faux pas involves his interpretation, or misinterpretation, of results. These fundamental problems exist within a very significant body of Prof Ernst’s work, particularly that which has been most widely publicised because it is so antagonistic towards healing cultures that have in many cases existed and evolved over thousands of years.

By example, a recent ‘systematic review’ of individualised herbal medicine undertaken by Ernst and colleagues started with 1345 peer-reviewed studies. However, all but three (0.2%) of the studies (RCTs) were rejected. These three RCTs in turn each involved very specific types of herbal treatment, targeting patients with IBS, knee osteoarthritis and cancer, the latter also undergoing chemotherapy, respectively. The conclusions of the study, which fuelled negative media worldwide, disconcertingly extended well beyond the remit of the study or its results. An extract follows: “Individualised herbal medicine, as practised in European medical herbalism, Chinese herbal medicine and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, has a very sparse evidence base and there is no convincing evidence that it is effective in any [our emphasis] indication. Because of the high potential for adverse events and negative herb-herb and herb-drug interactions, this lack of evidence for effectiveness means that its use cannot be recommended (Postgrad Med J 2007; 83: 633-637).

Robert Verkerk has recently come to my attention again – as the main author of a lengthy report published in December 2018. Its ‘Executive Summary’ makes the following points relevant in the context of this blog (the numbers in his text were added by me and refer to my comments below):

  • This position paper proposes a universal framework, based on ecological and sustainability principles, aimed at allowing qualified health professionals (1), regardless of their respective modalities (disciplines), to work collaboratively and with full participation of the public in efforts to maintain or regenerate health and wellbeing. Accordingly, rather than offering ‘fixes’ for the NHS, the paper offers an approach that may significantly reduce the NHS’s current and growing disease burden that is set to reach crisis point given current levels of demand and funding.
  • A major factor driving the relentlessly rising costs of the NHS is its over-reliance on pharmaceuticals (2) to treat a variety of preventable, chronic disorders. These (3) are the result — not of infection or trauma — but rather of our 21st century lifestyles, to which the human body is not well adapted. The failure of pharmaceutically-based approaches to slow down, let alone reverse, the dual burden of obesity and type 2 diabetes means wider roll-out of effective multi-factorial approaches are desperately needed (4).
  • The NHS was created at a time when infectious diseases were the biggest killers (5). This is no longer the case, which is why the NHS must become part of a wider system that facilitates health regeneration or maintenance. The paper describes the major mechanisms underlying these chronic metabolic diseases, which are claiming an increasingly large portion of NHS funding. It identifies 12 domains of human health, many of which are routinely thrown out of balance by our contemporary lifestyles. The most effective way of treating lifestyle disorders is with appropriate lifestyle changes that are tailored to individuals, their needs and their circumstances. Such approaches, if appropriately supported and guided, tend to be far more economical and more sustainable as a means of maintaining or restoring people’s health (6).
  • A sustainable health system, as proposed in this position paper, is one in which the individual becomes much more responsible for maintaining his or her own health and where more effort is invested earlier in an individual’s life prior to the downstream manifestation of chronic, degenerative and preventable diseases (7). Substantially more education, support and guidance than is typically available in the NHS today will need to be provided by health professionals (1), informed as necessary by a range of markers and diagnostic techniques (8). Healthy dietary and lifestyle choices and behaviours (9) are most effective when imparted early, prior to symptoms of chronic diseases becoming evident and before additional diseases or disorders (comorbidities) have become deeply embedded.
  • The timing of the position paper’s release coincides not only with a time when the NHS is in crisis, but also when the UK is deep in negotiations over its extraction from the European Union (EU). The paper includes the identification of EU laws that are incompatible with sustainable health systems, that the UK would do well to reject when the time comes to re-consider the British statute books following the implementation of the Great Repeal Bill (10).
  • This paper represents the first comprehensive attempt to apply sustainability principles to the management of human health in the context of our current understanding of human biology and ecology, tailored specifically to the UK’s unique situation. It embodies approaches that work with, rather than against, nature (11). Sustainability principles have already been applied successfully to other sectors such as energy, construction and agriculture.
  • It is now imperative that the diverse range of interests and specialisms (12) involved in the management of human health come together. We owe it to future generations to work together urgently, earnestly and cooperatively to develop and thoroughly evaluate new ways of managing and creating health in our society. This blueprint represents a collaborative effort to give this process much needed momentum.

My very short comments:

  1. I fear that this is meant to include SCAM-practitioners who are neither qualified nor skilled to tackle such tasks.
  2. Dietary supplements (heavily promoted by the ANH) either have pharmacological effects, in which case they too must be seen as pharmaceuticals, or they are useless, in which case we should not promote them.
  3. I think ‘some of these’ would be more correct.
  4. Multifactorial yes, but we must make sure that useless SCAMs are not being pushed in through the back-door. Quackery must not be allowed to become a ‘factor’.
  5. Only, if we discount cancer and arteriosclerosis, I think.
  6. SCAM-practitioners have repeatedly demonstrated to be a risk to public health.
  7. All we know about disease prevention originates from conventional medicine and nothing from SCAM.
  8. Informed by…??? I would prefer ‘based on evidence’ (evidence being one term that the report does not seem to be fond of).
  9. All healthy dietary and lifestyle choices and behaviours that are backed by good evidence originate from and are part of conventional medicine, not SCAM.
  10. Do I detect the nasty whiff a pro-Brexit attitude her? I wonder what the ANH hopes for in a post-Brexit UK.
  11. The old chestnut of conventional medicine = unnatural and SCAM = natural is being warmed up here, it seems to me. Fallacy galore!
  12. The ANH would probably like to include a few SCAM-practitioners here.

Call me suspicious, but to me this ANH-initiative seems like a clever smoke-screen behind which they hope to sell their useless dietary supplements and homeopathic remedies to the unsuspecting British public. Am I mistaken?

The General Chiropractic Council (GCC) is the statutory body regulating all chiropractors in the UK. Their foremost aim, they claim, is to ensure the safety of patients undergoing chiropractic treatment. They also allege to be independent and say they want to protect the health and safety of the public by ensuring high standards of practice in the chiropractic profession.

That sounds good and (almost) convincing.

But is the GCC truly fit for purpose?

In a previous post, I found good reason to doubt it.

In a recent article, the GCC claimed that they started thinking about a new five-year strategy and began to shape four key strategic aims. So, let’s have a look. Here is the crucial passage:

 

A clear strategy is vital but, of course, implementation and getting things changed are where the real work lie. With that in mind, we have a specific business plan for 2019 – the first year of the new strategic plan. You can read it here. This means you’ll see some really important changes and benefits including:

  • Promote standards: review and improvements to CPD processes, supporting emerging new degree providers, a campaign to promote the public choosing a registered chiropractor
  • Develop the profession: supporting and enabling work with the professional bodies
  • Investigate and act: a full review of, and changes to, our Fitness to Practice processes to enable a more ‘right touch’ approach within our current legal framework, sharing more learning from the complaints we receive
  • Deliver value: a focus on communication and engagement, further work on our culture, a new website, an upgraded registration database for an improved user experience.

The changes being introduced, backed by the GCC’s Council, will have a positive effect. I know Nick, the new Chief Executive and Registrar and the staff team will make this a success. You as chiropractors also have an important role to play – keep engaging with us and take your own action to develop the profession, share your ideas and views as we transform the organisation, and work with us to ensure we maintain public confidence in the profession of chiropractic.

END OF QUOTE

Am I the only one who finds this more than a little naïve and unprofessional? More importantly, this statement hints at a strategy mainly aimed at promoting chiropractors regardless of whether they are doing more good than harm. This, it seems, is not in line with the GCC’s stated aims.

  • How can they already claim that the changes being introduced will have a positive effect?
  • Where in this strategy is the GCC’s alleged foremost aim, the protection of the public?
  • Where is any attempt to get chiropractic in line with the principles of EBM?
  • Where is an appeal to chiropractors to adopt the standards of medical ethics?
  • Where is an independent and continuous assessment of the effectiveness of chiropractic?
  • Where is a critical evaluation of its safety?
  • Where is an attempt to protect the public from the plethora of bogus claims made by UK chiropractors?

I feel that, given the recent history of UK chiropractic, these (and many other) points should be essential elements in any long-term strategy. I also feel that this new and potentially far-reaching statement provides little hope that the GCC is on the way towards getting fit for purpose.

Chronic back pain is often a difficult condition to treat. Which option is best suited?

A review by the US ‘Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’ (AHRQ) focused on non-invasive nonpharmacological treatments for chronic pain. The following therapies were considered:

  • exercise,
  • mind-body practices,
  • psychological therapies,
  • multidisciplinary rehabilitation,
  • mindfulness practices,
  • manual therapies,
  • physical modalities,
  • acupuncture.

Here, I want to share with you the essence of the assessment of spinal manipulation:

  • Spinal manipulation was associated with slightly greater effects than sham manipulation, usual care, an attention control, or a placebo intervention in short-term function (3 trials, pooled SMD -0.34, 95% CI -0.63 to -0.05, I2=61%) and intermediate-term function (3 trials, pooled SMD -0.40, 95% CI -0.69 to -0.11, I2=76%) (strength of evidence was low)
  • There was no evidence of differences between spinal manipulation versus sham manipulation, usual care, an attention control or a placebo intervention in short-term pain (3 trials, pooled difference -0.20 on a 0 to 10 scale, 95% CI -0.66 to 0.26, I2=58%), but manipulation was associated with slightly greater effects than controls on intermediate-term pain (3 trials, pooled difference -0.64, 95% CI -0.92 to -0.36, I2=0%) (strength of evidence was low for short term, moderate for intermediate term).

This seems to confirm what I have been saying for a long time: the benefit of spinal manipulation for chronic back pain is close to zero. This means that the hallmark therapy of chiropractors for the one condition they treat more often than any other is next to useless.

But which other treatments should patients suffering from this frequent and often agonising problem employ? Perhaps the most interesting point of the AHRQ review is that none of the assessed nonpharmacological treatments are supported by much better evidence for efficacy than spinal manipulation. The only two therapies that seem to be even worse are traction and ultrasound (both are often used by chiropractors). It follows, I think, that for chronic low back pain, we simply do not have a truly effective nonpharmacological therapy and consulting a chiropractor for it does make little sense.

What else can we conclude from these depressing data? I believe, the most rational, ethical and progressive conclusion is to go for those treatments that are associated with the least risks and the lowest costs. This would make exercise the prime contender. But it would definitely exclude spinal manipulation, I am afraid.

And this beautifully concurs with the advice I recently derived from the recent Lancet papers: walk (slowly and cautiously) to the office of your preferred therapist, have a little rest there (say hello to the staff perhaps) and then walk straight back home.

 

Once again, I am indebted to the German homeopathy lobbyist, Jens Behnke (research officer at the Karl and Veronica Carstens-Foundation); this time for alerting me via a tweet to the existence of the ‘Institute for Scientific Homeopathy’ run by Dr K Lenger. Anyone who combines the terms ‘scientific’ and ‘homeopathy’ has my full attention.

The institution seems to be small (too small to have its own website); in fact, it seems to have just one member: Dr Karin Lenger. But size is not everything! Lenger has achieved something extraordinary: she has answered the questions that have puzzled many of us for a long time; she has found the ‘modus operandi’ of homeopathy by discovering that:

  • Homeopathy is a regulation therapy that acts (and reacts) as per the principle of resonance to deal hypo- and hyper-functions of pathological pathways.
  • As per resonance principle, the fundamental principles of homeopathy have the same frequencies so that the resonance principle can work.
  • Pathological pathways are cured by using their highly potentized substrates, inhibitors, and enzymes.
  • The efficacy of homeopathy now has a scientific base and is completely explained by applying biochemical and biophysical laws.

Progress at last!

If that is not noteworthy, what is?

But there is more!

This website, for instance, explains that Lenger Karin Dr.rer.nat., pursued Diploma in Biochem, studied Biochemistry at the Universities of Tubingen and Cologne. Her research topics revolved around enzymatic gene regulation, cancer research, enzymatic mechanisms of steroid hormones at the Medical University of Lubeck. In 1987 she became a Lecturer for Homeopathy at DHU ((Deutsche Homöopathie Union = German Homeopathy Union). Since 1995 she worked as a Homeopathic Practitioner and developed the “biochemical homeopathy” by using highly potentized substrates of pathological enzymes for her patients. She detected magnetic photons in high homeopathic potencies by two magnetic resonance methods and developed a model of physical and biochemical function of homeopathy.

Karin Lenger detected magnetic photons in highly diluted and potentized homeopathic remedies. Since the living body is an electromagnetic wavepackage (Einstein), the homeopathic law of Similars (Hahnemann 1755-1843) can be expressed as: the frequencies of the patient must match the frequencies of the remedies. Homeopathy is a regulation therapy curing hypo and hyperfunction of a pathological pathway by resonance: highly potentized substrates, inhibitors, enzymes, receptors of the distinct pathological pathways cure according to biochemical rules: A homeopathic symptom picture is obtained by poisoning a volunteer with a toxin. Simultaneously he develops psychological symptoms, the toxicological pathway and e.g. frequencies I-V. The highly potentized toxin has the frequencies I-V. The patient has symptoms as if he was poisoned by the toxin: during his illness he developed the toxicological pathway, frequencies I-V and psychological symptoms. The potentized toxin cures simultaneously the patient’s frequencies by resonance, his pathological pathway and the psychological symptoms. A stitch of honey bee, apis mellifica, causes a red oedema; a patient developing a red oedema at the finger-joint by rheumatism is cured by highly potentized Apis mellifica. Paralyses caused by a lack of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine bound to the acetylcholine-receptor at the post-synapsis can be healed by using these potentized remedies: the venom of cobra, Naja tripudians containing the receptor’s irreversible inhibitor cobrotoxin, the reversible inhibitor Atropine and Acetylcholine, daily applied. The availability of acetylcholine is maintained by glycolysis and fatty acid oxidation. This can be supported by giving these remedies: Lecithin, Lipasum, Glycerinum, Glucosum and Coenzyme A.

And in case, you are not yet fully convinced, a recent publication is bound to ball you over. Here is its abstract, if you need more, the link allows you to read the full paper as well:

Homeopathy, a holistic therapy, is believed to cure only acute symptoms of a beginning illness according to the Laws of Similars; but not deep, bleeding, septic wounds. The homeopaths refuse to heal according to special medical indications. Based on Lenger’s detection of magnetic photons in homeopathic remedies a biochemical and biophysical model of homeopathic healing was developed Biochemical, pathological pathways can be treated by their highly potentized substrates and inhibitors. Three groups of patients with moderate, severe and septic wounds had been successfully treated with the suitable remedies depending on the biochemical pathological state.

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Do I sense a Nobel Prize in the offing?

Surely!

Lenger’s clinical trial is baffling. But much more impressive are the ‘magnetic photons’ and the reference to Einstein. This is even more significant, if we consider what the genius (Einstein, not Lenger!) is reported to have said about homeopathy:  Einstein reflected for a little while and then said: “If one were to lock up 10 very clever people in a room and told them they were only allowed out once they had come up with the most stupid idea conceivable, they would soon come up with homeopathy.”

My last post was rather depressive, and I certainly do not want my readers to be under the weather when they go into 2019. For this last post of 2018, I have therefore selected 20 events which gave me hope that perhaps we – those who prefer rationality to nonsense – are making progress.

  1. It has been reported that New Brunswick judge ruled this week that Canadian naturopaths — pseudoscience purveyors who promote a variety of “alternative medicines” like homeopathy, herbs, detoxes, and acupuncture — cannot legally call themselves “medically trained.”
  2. The Spanish Ministries of Health and Sciences announced their ‘Health Protection Plan against Pseudotherapies’.
  3. The medical school of Vienna axed their courses in homeopathy.
  4. A most comprehensive review of homeopathy concluded that the effects of homeopathy do not differ from those of placebo.
  5. The UK Pharmaceutical Society has stated that it does not endorse homeopathy and that pharmacists must advise patients considering a homeopathic product about their lack of efficacy beyond that of a placebo.
  6. A top medical journal has retracted a dodgy meta-analysis of acupuncture.
  7. A prominent BMJ columnist wrote : Many people seek to make money from those who don’t understand science. Doctors should call out bollocksology when they see it.
  8. Pharmacare and Bioglan received a ‘Stonky’ for its over-the-counter Melatonin Homeopathic Sleep Formula.
  9. The Governing Body of Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire (BNSSG) Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) approved changes that mean NHS funded homeopathy will only be available in exceptional circumstances in the area.
  10. Health ministers of all German counties have decided that they will start reforming the profession of the Heilpraktiker, the German non-medically trained alternative practitioners.
  11. The NHS chief, Simon Stevens was quoted saying: There is no robust evidence to support homeopathy which is at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds.
  12. A systematic review concluded that there is no evidence in the literature of an effect of chiropractic treatment in the scope of primary prevention or early secondary prevention for disease in general. Chiropractors have to assume their role as evidence-based clinicians and the leaders of the profession must accept that it is harmful to the profession to imply a public health importance in relation to the prevention of such diseases through manipulative therapy/chiropractic treatment.
  13. A Cochrane review did not show any benefit of homeopathic medicinal products compared to placebo on recurrence of acute respiratory tract infections or cure rates in children. 
  14. The French minister of health stated that ‘the French are very attached [to homeopathy]; it’s probably a placebo effect. If it can prevent the use of toxic medicine, I think that we all win. I does not hurt.
  15. The Australian Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Association retracted false accusation against me about their assumption that I had undeclared conflicts of interest.
  16. The ‘Daily Telegraph‘ published the following statement after misquoting me: Emeritus Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s first professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University said that doctors should make it clear to patients that they could not be taking herbal remedies alongside drugs. Prof Ernst said there was no good evidence that they work and that doctors were ‘contributing to disinformation’ by turning a blind eye to the practice.
  17. A comprehensive overview of the therapeutic options for chronic low back pain showed that chiropractic is not any better than over-the-counter painkillers or exercise, and that patients need to take precautions when seeking out a chiropractor.

Hold on, you promised 20, but these are just 17!!!, I hear my attentive readers mutter.

Correct! I tried to find 20 to match my last post; and I only found 17. This might be a reflection that, in the realm of SCAM, the bad still outweighs the good news (by much more that 20:17, I fear).

Yet, this should not depress us. On the contrary, let’s see it as a challenge to get on with out work of fighting for good evidence, ethical standards, rationality and critical thinking.In this spirit, I wish you all a very good, healthy and productive year 2019.

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a journalist who wanted to publish the result in a magazine. He now informed me that his editor decided against it, and the interview thus remained unpublished. I have the journalist’s permission to publish it here. The journalist who, in my view, was well-prepared (much better than most), prefers to remain unnamed.

Q: How would you describe yourself?

A: I am a researcher of alternative medicine.

Q: Not a critic of alternative medicine?

A: Primarily, I am a researcher; after all, I have published more Medline-listed research papers on the subject than anyone else on the planet.

Q: You are retired since a few years; why do you carry on working?

A: Mainly because I see a need for a critical voice amongst all the false and often dangerous claims made by proponents of alternative medicine. But also because I enjoy what I am doing. Since I retired, I can focus on the activities I like. There is nobody to tell me what to do and what not to do; the latter happened far too often when I was still head of my research unit.

Q: Fine, but I still do not quite understand what drives you. Who is motivating you to criticise alternative medicine?

A: Nobody. Some people claim I am paid for my current activities. This is not true. My blog actually costs me money. My books never return enough royalties to break even, considering the time they take to write. And for most of my lectures I don’t charge a penny.

Q: There are people who find this hard to believe.

A: I know. This just shows how money-orientated they are. Do they want me to publish my tax returns?

Q: Sorry, but I still don’t understand your motivation.

A: I guess what motivates me is a sense of responsibility, a somewhat naïve determination to do something good as a physician. I am one of the only – perhaps even THE only – scientist who has researched alternative medicine extensively and who is not a promoter of bogus therapies but voices criticism about them. There are several other prominent and excellent critics of alternative medicine, of course, but they all come ‘from the outside’. I come from the inside of the alternative medicine business. This probably gives me a special understanding of this field. In any case, I feel the responsibility to counter-balance all the nonsense that is being published on a daily basis.

Q: What’s your ultimate aim?

A: I want to create progress through educating people to think more critically.

Q: Which alternative medicine do you hate most?

A: I do not hate any of them. In fact, I still have more sympathy for them than might be apparent. For my blog, for instance, I constantly search for new research papers that are rigorous and show a positive result. The trouble is, there are so very few of those articles. But when I find one, I am delighted to report about it. No, I do not hate or despise any alternative medicine; I am in favour of good science, and I get irritated by poor research. And yes, I do dislike false claims that potentially harm consumers. And yes, I do dislike it when chiropractors or other charlatans defraud consumers by taking their money for endless series of useless interventions.

Q: I noticed you go on about the risks of alternative medicine. But surely, they are small compared to the risks of conventional healthcare, aren’t they?

A: That’s a big topic. To make it simple: alternative medicine is usually portrayed as risk-free. The truth, however, is that there are numerous risks of direct and indirect harm; the latter is usually much more important than the former. Crucially, the risk-free image is incongruent with reality. I want to redress this incongruence. And as to conventional medicine: sure, it can be much more harmful. But one always has to see this in relation to the proven benefit. Chemotherapy, for instance, can kill a cancer patient, but more likely it saves her life. Homeopathic remedies cannot kill you, but employed as an alternative to an effective cancer treatment, homeopathy will certainly kill you.

Q: Homeopathy seems to be your particular hobby horse.

A: Perhaps. This is because it exemplifies alternative medicine in several ways, and because I started my alternative ‘career’ in a homeopathic hospital, all those years ago.

Q: In what way is homeopathy exemplary?

A: Its axioms are implausible, like those of many other alternative modalities. The clinical evidence fails to support the claims, like with so many alternative therapies. And it is seemingly safe, yet can do a lot of harm, like so many other treatments.

Q: You have no qualification in homeopathy, is that right?

A: No, I have no such qualifications. And I never said so. When I want to tease homeopaths a little, I state that I am a trained homeopath; and that is entirely correct.

Q: In several countries, homeopathy has taken spectacular hits recently. Is that your doing?

A: No, I don’t think so. But I do hope that my work has inspired the many dedicated activists who are currently protesting against the reimbursement of homeopathy by the public purse in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, etc.

Q: You often refer to medical ethics; why is that?

A: Because, in the final analysis, many of the questions we already discussed are really ethical issues. And in alternative medicine, few people have so far given the ethical dimensions any consideration. I think ethics are central to alternative medicine, so much so that I co-authored an entire book on this topic this year.

Q: Any plans for the future?

A: Plenty.

Q: Can you tell me more?

A: I will publish another book in 2019 with Springer. It will be a critical evaluation of precisely 150 different alternative modalities. I am thinking of writing yet another book, but have not yet found a literary agent who wants to take me on. I have been offered a new professorship at a private University in Vienna, and am hesitant whether to accept or not. I have been invited to give a few lectures in 2019 and hope to receive more invitations. Last not least, I work almost every day on my blog.

Q: More than enough for a retiree, it seems. Thank you for your time.

A: My pleasure.

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.

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