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

research

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In the wake of both the NEJM and the LANCET withdrawing two potentially influential papers due unanswered questions about the source and reliability of the data, one has to ask how good or bad the process of peer review is.

Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people with similar competences as the producers of the work (peers). It functions as a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. It normally involves multiple steps:

  1. Authors send their manuscript to a journal of their choice for publication.
  2. The journal editor has a look at it and decides whether to reject it straight away (for instance, because the subject area is not of interest) or whether to send it out to referees for examination (often to experts suggested by the authors of the submission).
  3. The referees (usually 2 or 3) have the opportunity to reject or accept the invitation to review the submission.
  4. If they accept, they review the paper and send their report to the editor (usually following a deadline).
  5. The editor tries to come to a decision about publication; often the referees are not in agreement, and a further referee has to be recruited.
  6. Even if the submission is potentially publishable, the referees will have raised several points that need addressing. In such cases, the editor sends the submission back to the original authors asking them to revise the article.
  7. The authors do their revision (often following a deadline) and re-submit their paper.
  8. Now the editor can decide to either publish it or send it back to the referees asking them whether they feel their criticisms have been adequately addressed.
  9. Depending on the referees’ verdicts, the editor makes the final decision and informs all the involved parties accordingly.
  10. If the paper was accepted, it then goes into production.
  11. When this process is finished, the authors receive the proofs for final a check.
  12. Eventually, the paper is published and the readers of the journal may scrutinise it.
  13. Often this prompts comment which may get published.
  14. In this case, the authors of the original paper may get invited to write a reply.
  15. Finally the comments and the reply are published in the journal side by side.

The whole process takes time, sometimes lots of time. I have had papers that took almost two years from submissions to publications. This delay seems tedious and, if the paper is important, unacceptable (if it is not important, it should arguably not be published at all). Equally unacceptable is the fact that referees are expected to do their reviewing for free. The consequence is that many referees do their reviewing less than well.

When I was still at Exeter, I had plenty of opportunity to see the problems of peer review from the reviewers perspective. At a time, I accepted about 5 reviews per week, and in total I surely have reviewed over 1000 papers. I often recommended inviting a statistician to do a specialist review of the stats. Only rarely were such suggestions accepted by the journal editors. Very often I recommended rejecting a submission because it was rubbish, and occasionally, I told the editor that there was a strong suspicion of the paper being fraudulent. The editors very often (I estimate in about 50% of cases) ignored my suggestions and comments and published the papers nonetheless. If the editor did follow my advice to reject a paper, I regularly saw it published elsewhere later (usually in a less well-respected journal). Several times, an author of a submission contacted me directly after seeing my criticism of his paper. Occasionally this resulted in unpleasantness, once or twice even in threats. Eventually I realised that improving the publications in the realm of SCAM was a Sisyphean task, became quite disenchanted with all this and accepted less and less reviews. Today, I do only very few.

I had even more opportunity to see the peer review process from the author’s perspective. All authors must have suffered from unfair or incompetent reviews and most will have experienced the frustrations of the endless delays. Once (before my time in alternative medicine) a reviewer rejected my paper and soon after published results that were uncannily similar to mine. In alternative medicine, researchers tend to be rather emotional about their subject. Imagine, for instance, the review you might get from Dana Ullmann of a trial of homeopathy that fails to show what he believes in.

Finally, since 40 years, I have also had the displeasure of experiencing peer review as an editor. This often seemed like trying to sail between the devil and the deep blue sea. Editors want to fill their journals with the best science they can find. But all too often, they receive the worst science they can imagine. They are constantly torn by tensions pulling them in opposite directions. And they have to cope not just with poor quality submissions but also with reviewers who miss deadlines and do their work badly.

So, peer review is fraught with problems! The trouble is that there are few solutions that would keep a better check on the reliability of science. Peer review, it often seemed to me, is the worst idea, except for all others. If peer review is to survive (and I think it probably will), there are a few things that could, from my point of view, be done to improve it:

  1. Make it much more attractive for the referees. Payment would be the obvious thing – and by Jove, the big journals like the LANCET and NEJM could afford it. But recognising refereeing academically would be even more important. At present, academic careers depend largely of publications; if they also depended on reviewing, experts would queue up to do it.
  2. The reports of the referees should get independently evaluated according to sensible criteria. These data could be conflated an published as a criterion of academic standing. Referees who fail to to a good job would spoil their chances to get re-invited for this task.
  3. Speed up the entire process. Waiting months on months is hugely counter-productive for all concerned.
  4. Today many journals ask authors for the details of experts who are potential reviewers of their submission and then send the paper in question to them for review. I find this ridiculous! No author I know of has ever resisted the temptation to name people who are friends or owe a favour. Journals should afford the extra work to find who the best independent experts on any particular subject are.

None of this is simple or fool-proof or even sure to work well, of course. But surely it is worth trying to get peer-review right. The quality of future science depends on it.

Someone alerted me to a short article (2008) of mine that I had forgotten about. In it, I mention the 32 Cochrane reviews of acupuncture available at the time and the fact that they showed very little in favour of acupuncture. This made me wonder to what extent the situation might have changed in the last 12 years. So, I made a renewed attempt at evaluating this evidence. The entire exercise comes in three parts:

  1. My original paper from 2008
  2. The current evidence from Cochrane reviews
  3. Comments on the new evidence

PART 1

Acupuncture has a long history of ups and downs. Its latest renaissance started in 1971, when a journalist in President Nixon’s press corps experienced symptomatic relief after being treated for postoperative abdominal distension. He reported this experience in The New York Times, which triggered a flurry of interest and research. In turn, it was discovered that needling might release endorphins in the brain or act via the gate control mechanism. Thus, plausible modes of action seemed to have been found, and the credibility of acupuncture increased significantly. Numerous clinical trials were initiated, and their results often suggested that acupuncture is clinically effective for a surprisingly wide range of conditions. Both a World Health Organization report and a National Institutes of Health consensus conference provided long lists of indications for which acupuncture allegedly was of proven benefit.

Many of the clinical studies, however, lacked scientific rigor. Most experts therefore remained unconvinced about the true value of acupuncture, particularly as a treatment for all ills. Some investigators began to suspect that the results were largely due to patient expectation. Others showed that the Chinese literature, a rich source of acupuncture trials, does not contain a single negative study of acupuncture, thus questioning the reliability of this body of evidence.

A major methodological challenge was the adequate control for placebo effects in clinical trials of acupuncture. Shallow needling or needling at non-acupuncture points had been used extensively for this purpose. Whenever the results of such trials did not show what acupuncture enthusiasts had hoped, they tended to claim that these types of placebos also generated significant therapeutic effects. Therefore, a negative result still would be consistent with acupuncture being effective. The development of non-penetrating needles was aimed at avoiding such problems. These “stage dagger”-like devices are physiologically inert and patients cannot tell them from real acupuncture. Thus, they fulfil the criteria for a reasonably good placebo.

The seemingly difficult question of whether acupuncture works had become complex—what type of acupuncture, for what condition, compared with no treatment, standard therapy, or to placebo, and what type of placebo? Meanwhile, hundreds of controlled clinical trials had become available, and their results were far from uniform. In this situation, systematic reviews might be helpful in establishing the truth, particularly Cochrane reviews, which tend to be more rigorous, transparent, independent, and up-to-date than other reviews. The traditional Chinese concept of acupuncture as a panacea is reflected in the fact that 32 Cochrane reviews are currently (January 2008) available, and a further 35 protocols have been registered. The notion of acupuncture as a “heal all” is not supported by the conclusions of these articles. After discarding reviews that are based on only 3 or fewer primary studies, only 2 evidence-based indications emerge: nausea/vomiting and headache. Even this evidence has to be interpreted with caution; recent trials using the above-mentioned “stage-dagger” devices as placebos suggest that acupuncture has no specific effects in either of these conditions.

Further support for the hypothesis that acupuncture is largely devoid of specific therapeutic effects comes from a series of 8 large randomized controlled trials (RCTs) initiated by German health insurers (Figure). These studies had a similar, 3-parallel-group design: pain patients were randomized to receive either real acupuncture, shallow needling as a placebo control, or no acupuncture. Even though not entirely uniform, the results of these studies tend to demonstrate no or only small differences in terms of analgesic effects between real and placebo acupuncture. Yet, considerable differences were observed between the groups receiving either type of acupuncture and the group that had no acupuncture at all.

The most recent, as-yet-unpublished trial also seems to confirm the “placebo hypothesis.” This National Institutes of Health-sponsored RCT included 640 patients with chronic back pain. They received either individualized acupuncture according to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, or a standardized form of acupuncture, or sham acupuncture. The results demonstrate that acupuncture added to usual care was superior to usual care alone, individualized acupuncture was not more effective than standardized acupuncture, and neither type of real acupuncture was more effective than sham acupuncture.

Figure

Schematic representation of the recent acupuncture trials all following a similar 3-group design. These 8 randomized controlled trials related to chronic back pain, migraine, tension headache, and knee osteoarthritis (2 trials for each indication). Their total sample size was in excess of 5000. Patients in the “no acupuncture” group received either standard care or were put on a waiting list. Sham acupuncture consisted of shallow needling at non-acupuncture points. Real acupuncture was semi-standardized. The differences between the effects of both types of acupuncture and no acupuncture were highly significant in each study. The differences between sham and real acupuncture were, with the exception of osteoarthritis, not statistically significant.

Enthusiasts employ such findings to argue that, in a pragmatic sense, acupuncture is demonstrably useful: it is clearly better than no acupuncture at all. Even if it were merely a placebo, what really matters is to alleviate pain of suffering patients, never mind the mechanism of action. Others are not so sure and point out that all well-administrated treatments, even those that generate effects beyond placebo, will induce a placebo response. A treatment that generates only non-specific effects (for conditions that are amenable to specific treatments) cannot be categorized as truly effective or useful, they insist.

So, after 3 decades of intensive research, is the end of acupuncture nigh? Given its many supporters, acupuncture is bound to survive the current wave of negative evidence, as it has survived previous threats. What has changed, however, is that, for the first time in its long history, acupuncture has been submitted to rigorous science—and conclusively failed the test.

[references in the original paper]

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.

Guest post by Christian Lehmann

It’s the end of February. We see the first death, in the Oise department, near Paris, of a French citizen who has not recently travelled abroad. For doctors concerned about what is happening in China, this is the red alert. In spite of of the little notices posted by the health minister, Agnes Buzyn, at airports, the coronavirus has made it onto French soil. Nobody knows at that point how it will spread. Almost nobody, apart from those responsible for it, yet knows that France has completely run down its stocks of masks. Doctors themselves do know that the health service has only held out, for as long as it has, on the backs of its care personnel. Some are assessing the scale of what is to come.

The announcement by Didier Raoult about the spectacular effectiveness of a synthetic antimalarial, chloroquine, has brought enormous relief, followed immediately for many of us health professionals by growing doubts about an accumulation of errors: Raoult denies any toxicity, urges people to “fall upon” a medication requiring sensitive handling. When we locate the Chinese article on which Didier Raoult is basing his crisis communication, we are stupefied. No need for specialised knowledge in statistical methodology to understand that there is something seriously wrong. No numerical data. Nobody knows what dosage has been given, to what type of patient, nor how many have been treated. The article has not been “peer reviewed”, that is to say reviewed by professional equals; decoded, it has the effect of a simple announcement. So of course at this chaotic time we tell ourselves that, given a revelation of such importance, the Chinese wanted to act as quickly as possible, to inform the whole world. And Didier Raoult, who routinely advises, as he explains with delicious modesty, the Chinese, « the world’s best virologists », has probably been entitled to the first fruits of this revelation.

On Youtube, on 28 February, he posts a weird interview, “Why would the Chinese be mistaken?”, in which he repeatedly takes up his interviewer with obvious irritation. “No, that’s not the question that you should be asking me. You should be asking me….” An informal group of doctors and tweeters pass around the link. We are rubbing our eyes in disbelief. What Didier Raoult is passing off as an interview is nothing more then an audience accorded to one of his media aides. We advise him, sarcastically, to make a professional cut of the video before broadcasting it. An hour later the video disappears and returns in a more professional form which could create the illusion of a genuine interview. And rapidly, in the Press which is beginning to turn its microphones towards the Professor from Marseille, he modifies his stance, without ever acknowledging the radical changes.

Chloroquine, spectacular and miraculous only yesterday, disappears as if by magic, replaced from one day to the next by hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), a different medicine, less common. Though its chemical structure is close to that of the antimalarial medication, hydroxychloroquine is used primarily in rheumatic conditions such as rheumatoid polyarthritis, or immune conditions such as lupus. So at least it isn’t lying around in large quantities in medicine cabinets. And its cardiac toxicity, very real, is slightly lower then that of chloroquine. Didier Raoult puts forward HCQ as an immense discovery, continuing in his usual manner to ridicule his detractors. “The doctors who criticise me are neither in my field nor up to my weight”. He flays the inaction of embittered petty health officials, only fit to follow the diktats of the authorities, who, bogged down in their catastrophic crisis management, dare not intervene. And his posturing as a refractory Gaul, a loudmouth taking on the system, gains sympathy, from those to whom he gives hope, from those who understand that the State does not tell them everything, and from those looking for a hero to fit in with their stereotypes: the man on his own against the establishment, the White Knight taking on Big Pharma, the Hippocratic colossus besieged by hordes of soulless ants.

No one among those who hold out their microphones to him, not one asks him the question which we are all asking, GPs, cardiologists, pharmaceutical specialists, emergency specialists, resuscitation specialists – by what sleight of hand has Didier Raoult exchanged his miracle medicine, in 48 hours, openly and publicly? And how is it that no one has noticed the sleight-of-hand? Has this man who makes such a big deal of his image on social networks suddenly become aware of the risk of being confronted about chloroquine with a justifiable public outcry and with deaths by self-medication?

While the World Health Organisation is sounding alarm bells, in the context of overall mistrust with regard to scientific opinion, of confrontation with regard to government, of growing awareness ( belated and sometimes disproportionate) of the influence of Big Pharma, and as the initial fear gives way to real panic for some with the registration of each new case, Didier Raoult piles up Facebook likes, fans, sites to his glory. And for us, fearful, begins the long registration of flagrant mistruths delivered as revealed truths, which this professor will never have the honestly to set right.

For Didier Raoult, a minimum of intellectual integrity would demand that he admits having changed horses in midstream. That he admits that the concern of his despised detractors was well founded, with respect to chloroquine to which many have access without knowing its dangers ( Nivaquine is very often used in suicides). And, because Didier Raoult withdraws nothing, he continues to stash away all the profits of his media coverage. Every supporter of the Wise Man of Marseille piles in with testimony. Their brother, sister, uncle, the father-in-law of their hairdresser has been taking the Professor’s medicine ( Which one? ) for eight years in Africa and has never had a problem, so that’s the real proof that his detractors are just jealous, or, even worse, backed by “the lobbies”.

And untiringly we repeat the fundamental truths:

  • Yes chloroquine has existed for years
  • Yes it is widely used
  • But for a different treatment, the prevention of malaria
  • And in dosages 5 to 10 times smaller
  • And in large dosages it causes cardiac arrest
  • And it has never been effective in fighting a virus
  • Not this virus nor any other
  • And the same is true for hydroxychloroquine
  • In fact it’s rather the opposite

In fact what is being patiently stated by the upholders of the scientific method is very counter-intuitive, almost inaudible, because they are telling worried and disorientated people, who have put their trust and their hope in one man, that in his assertions………nothing makes sense.

These are exceptional times and they need exceptional measures. Therefore, I am yet again deviating from my policy of focussing exclusively on SCAM and welcome my French colleague Dr Lehmann posting a series of articles on the hydroxychloroquine story.

Guest post by Christian Lehmann

 

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

This pandemic diary was begun just before lock down, already four weeks ago, and yet I have scarcely touched on the elephant in the room. Our personal elephant is called Didier Raoult. White-haired with age, venerable in appearance, he has been number one in the press, constantly in capitals in online news headlines, waking hopes, feeding passions. And arousing the interest of a plethora of epidemiologists of renown, from Valerie Boyer to Donald Trump, by way of Alain Soral and Alexandre Benalla.

Everything begins on 25 February 2020, when the microbiology professor from Marseille posts his famous video “Coronavirus, game over”, since more modestly re-baptised “Coronavirus, towards a way out of the crisis?”.

Standing in front of a student audience out of camera, Didier Raoult reveals “a last-minute scoop, a very important piece of news”: the Chinese, whom he regularly advises, rather than seeking a vaccine or new products have been “repositioning”, trying old molecules, “known, old, without toxicity,” among them chloroquine, which has shown itself to be effective in a daily dose of 500 mg per day “with a spectacular improvement and it is recommended for all clinically positive cases of coronavirus. This is excellent news, it is probably the easiest respiratory infection of all to treat” Here, the whole roomful laughs, with pleasure, with relief, and I remember sharing these sentiments, briefly, but completely. Because this was 26th of February, because like others I felt confusedly that the reassurances with which Agnes Buzyn ( then the French Health Minister) was inundating us were built on sand, and that the virus would only laugh at little notices in airports.

I knew Didier Raoult only by name, as a columnist in Point, I had read some of his articles and I had felt simultaneously soothed by his smooth eloquence, attracted by some of his iconoclastic stances, but also sometimes rather irritated by his Mandarin-style fake cool posturing. At the end of February, I immediately reposted the video in the medical forums, on the walls of worried friends, explaining that, if the suggestions of Didier Raoult were confirmed, we would have escaped with a scare which would soon be dispelled by this “magic bullet”, this “game changer”.

Then between two consultations in my GP’s office, later that afternoon, I watched that video “Game Over” again. How could such an important piece of news have reached me by means of a Youtube video? Where were the overseas publications, the much vaunted Chinese study, the releases from AgenceFrancePresse, Reuters, the first articles from the New York Times and the Guardian, proclaiming from the rooftops that the pandemic we had so much feared was in fact only a technical hitch, easily controllable by a widely available drug. It was at that second viewing that I balked. As a GP who had worked in cardiac resuscitation some years ago, I was brought up short by hearing Didier Raoult talking up a medicine “well known, and devoid of any toxicity”. If chloroquine or Nivaquine, to give it its commercial name, is celebrated for the prevention of malaria, it is also a medicine known for its frightening toxicity as soon as the dose is exceeded, with the risk of irreversible visual damage and extremely serious problems with cardiac rhythm which can prove fatal. To say that chloroquine is without toxicity problems is in fact an error, all the more so because the dose suggested by “the Chinese”, without an iota of proof at this stage, is five times larger than the customary dose, 500 mg instead of 100 mg.

Deeply uneasy, I’m in discussion with doctor friends on Twitter when the video makes its appearance there. We know nothing at this point about Didier Raoult’s past, or about his Marseille Institute. Neither the enmity felt towards him by the Parisian intelligentsia represented by Agnes Buzyn and her husband, nor the fact that his institute has just lost its INSERM and CNRS accreditations, nor the stance adopted by him a month earlier explaining that coronavirus would never escape from China and that it was ridiculous to get worked up about it because “the world has gone mad, something or other happens and three Chinese die and that brings about a world-scale alert”.

Some of us, practitioners and first responders, knew well the toxicity of chloroquine, that it was to be handled with care, and that was about all we said on Twitter. It was already too much. The next day in a 20 minute interview Didier Raoult brushed away his detractors. “Malicious gossip, I don’t give a damn about it. When a medication has been shown to work on 100 people while all the world is busy having a nervous breakdown, and there’s some idiots who say there’s no certainty that it works, I’m not interested! It would honestly be medical misconduct not to use chloroquine to treat Chinese coronavirus”. And he drives the point home. “People who have lived in Africa like me took chloroquine every day. Everybody who went to hot countries took it throughout their time there, and for two months after they came home. Billions of people have taken this medication. And it costs nothing: ten centimes per pill. It is a medication which is extremely reliable and it’s the cheapest imaginable. So this is super amazing news. Everybody who learns about these benefits should fall upon it.” This is no longer a mistake, this is grave medical misconduct. Nobody who knows about therapeutics would use such words so lightly.

Cardiologists, resuscitation specialists, emergency doctors, GPs, public-health specialists, we are all alarmed. Our first warnings are vehement and rational, reaffirming the toxicity of chloroquine in cardiology, and the majority of us insisting on the senseless and significant risk which Didier Raoult is running. Because it is familiar, prescribed for long stays in Africa in packages of 100 tablets, chloroquine is lying around in many medicine cabinets. To declare as a fact that we should “fall upon it” in this agonising pandemic context is to encourage unrestrained self medication, and to endanger life. Incoherent, dangerous, this announcement disturbs us deeply. Incredulous, not for a moment do we imagine just what Didier Raoult will unleash, nor that the nightmare had already begun.

 

Here is an open letter published yesterday, initiated by SENSE ABOUT SCIENCE and signed by many UK scientists and other experts. If you agree with it, you can still add your name to the signatories (see below):

 

 

Dear Mr Johnson

We urge you to start publishing the government’s evolving plans for coronavirus testing, and the evidence they are based on.

Testing is key to understanding the risks and to how people can get back to work and normal life. It is what major decisions will be based on, but there are also limits to what it can tell us.

People are frustrated and confused about the scientific and logistical challenges of testing and what the government is doing about it. The internet and media are awash with rumours and the public are valiantly trying to work their way through fragments of information. People in senior positions in healthcare, in government departments, in research and in the related industries are struggling to see whether their input is needed and how to give it.

Why is testing delayed? Is there a shortage of tests? Is there a shortage of chemicals? Do they only work 30% of the time? Will there be tests to see whether someone’s had the virus? Can people test themselves or does it have to be done by a clinic? These are just a handful of the many questions being asked. Scientists and government representatives are trying to answer them but it’s a losing battle with volume and reach.

The UK government’s response to this epidemic started by levelling with people in a clear way about the emerging evidence and transparency on the government’s evolving thinking about that evidence. Of course, continuing to tell people what is happening has become complex and challenging. But that won’t be brought under control by limiting communication to behavioural instructions or by your efforts to clamp down on misinformation. The government cannot clamp down on misinformation without substituting information in its place. Would the government please maintain its commitment to evidence transparency and put its evolving plans and evidence on testing on an open site where the public, experts and government agencies can follow them and to which those who are trying to address confusion can direct people.

Yours faithfully

Tracey Brown OBE, director, Sense about Science

Carl Heneghan, director, Centre for Evidence Based Medicine

Justine Roberts, CEO, Mumsnet

Emma Friedmann, campaign director, FACSaware

Professor Sarah Harper, The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, University of Oxford

Mairead MacKenzie, Independent Cancer Patient Voices

Rose Woodward, Founder, Patient & Advocate, Kidney Cancer Support Network

Dr Bu’Hussain Hayee PhD FRCP AGAF, Clinical Lead for Gastroenterology

I.Chisholm-Bunting, School of Nursing and Allied Health

Rachael Jolley, editor in chief, Index on censorship

Caroline Fiennes, director, Giving Evidence

Dr Ritchie Head, director, Ceratium

Tommy Parker, KiActiv

Professor Annette Dolphin FRS, FMedSci, President of British Neuroscience Association

Dr James May, Vice Chair, Healthwatch and GP

Peter Johnson, Patient representative with respiratory conditions

A. P. Dawid, FRS Emeritus Professor of Statistics, University of Cambridge

Stafford Lightman FMedSci FRS, Professor of Medicine, University of Bristol

Dr Christie Peacock CBE PhD FRAgS FRSB Hon DSc, Founder and Chairman, Sidai Africa (Kenya) Ltd

Caroline Richmond, Medical journalist

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky FAcSS, Chair in Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol

Hugh Pennington CBE, Emeritus Professor of Bacteriology, University of Aberdeen

Prof. Wendy Bickmore FRS, FRSE, FMedSci, Director: MRC Human Genetics Unit, University of Edinburgh

Benjamin Schuster-Böckler, PhD, Research Group Leader, Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research

Dr Max Pemberton, Daily Mail columnist and NHS Doctor

Diana Kornbrot, Emeritus Professor of Mathematical Psychology, University of Hertfordshire

Professor Patrick Eyers, Chair in Cell Signalling, University of Liverpool

Lelia Duley, Emeritus Professor, University of Nottingham

Edzard Ernst, Emeritus Professor University of Exeter

Ianis Matsoukas, Biomedical Sciences, University of Bolton

Dr Lorna Gibson, Radiology Registrar, New Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh

Sylvia Schröder, Senior Research Fellow, UCL

Dr Emma Dennett, St George’s University of London.

Ellie Wood, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh

Sophie Faulkner, clinical doctoral research fellow / occupational therapist

Dr Maya Hanspal, research assistant, UK Discovery Lab

Dr John Baird, University of Aberdeen

Martin Stamp, managing director, Ionic Information

Saša Jankovic, Journalist

Kate Ravilious, Freelance Science Writer

Charise Johnson, policy advisor

Dr Sophie Millar, University of Nottingham

Bissera Ivanvoa, Research Assistant in Linguistics, The University of Leeds

Baroness Jolly, House of Lords

Dr. Simon Keeling MSc, PhD, RMet, FRMetS, The weather centre

Laurie van Someren, Aleph One Ltd

Prof Chris Kirk, former Hon. Sec. Royal Society of Biology.

Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Edinburgh

Dr. Wilber Sabiiti,Senior Research fellow in Medicine, University of St Andrews

Prof. Bob Brecher, Director, Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics, University of Brighton

Dr Sabina Michnowicz, UCL Hazard Centre

David Orme, Research Assistant, Cortex Lab

Rebecca Dewey PhD, Research Fellow in Neuroimaging

Dr Ricky Nathvani, Imperial College London.

Rita F. de Oliveira, Senior lecturer Sport and Exercise Science, London South Bank University

Prof Christopher C French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London

Kirstie Tew, Lead Scientist, KiActiv®

Dr Ben Martynoga, Freelance writer

Nigel Johnson, Patient representative with respiratory conditions

Dr Mimi Tanimoto – Science Communications Consultant

Till Bruckner, TranspariMED

Lesley-Anne Pearson, The University of Dundee

Sue O’Connell, retired consultant microbiologist, Health Protection Agency

Hao Ni, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, UCL, The Turing Fellow, the Alan Turing Institute

Dr Simon Underdown, FSA, FRSB, Director – Centre for Environment and Society

Matthew A Jay, PhD Student in Legal Epidemiology, University College London

Michael Butcher, Chairman, dataLearning Ltd

Professor Tom Crick, Swansea University

Dr J K Aronson, Consultant Physician and Clinical Pharmacologist, Centre for Evidence Based Medicine

Dr Thomas O’Mahoney, Anglia Ruskin University

Professor Ianis G. Matsoukas PhD (Biomedical Sciences), University of Bolton

Emeritus Professor Nigel Brown, Blackah-Brown Consulting

Danae Dodge, Ask for Evidence Ambassador

Ieuan Hughes, Department of Paediatrics, University of Cambridge, Addenbrooke’s Hospital

Mandy Payne, Freelance Medical Editor

Lyssa Gold, University of St Andrews

Please email hello@senseaboutscience.org with your name and description if you wish to add yourself to the letter.

A new appointment in the realm of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has just been announced:

Friends of Science in Medicine (FSM) President, Assoc Professor Ken Harvey MB BS (Melb), FRCPA, AM congratulates Professor Jon Wardle, nurse and naturopath, with postgraduate qualifications in public health, law and health economics, on being appointed to Southern Cross University’s (SCU) Maurice Blackmore Chair of Naturopathic Medicine in Lismore. Professor Wardle has also been appointed as Foundation Director of the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine (NCNM) funded with $10 Million from the Blackmore Foundation set up to sponsor research into ‘complementary medicine’.

Vice Chancellor, Professor Adam Shoemaker BA (Hons), PhD (ANU), researcher in Indigenous literature and culture, said the benefits of basing the NCNM at Southern Cross were enormous, “Being in a region like the Northern Rivers of New South Wales means we have brilliant local networks in this field. We are also supported by a local community who, like the University, are really receptive to trying new things in order to create a healthier future”.

Professor Harvey comments, “Professor Wardle certainly has challenges ahead. The Northern Rivers region is the anti-vax capital of Australia and some naturopaths advise against vaccination. Degree courses in naturopathy such as the Torrens Bachelor of Health Science (Naturopathy) degree, include studies of homeopathy, iridology and flower essence therapy. None have scientific evidence of efficacy”.

FSM has long argued that health care should be based on scientifically sound research, published in peer-reviewed journals of accepted standing. FSM is equally concerned about medical practitioners offering unproven and often exploitative treatments as it is about complementary medicine practitioners. Professor Harvey said, “some naturopaths practicing in Lismore, associated with SCU, work at clinics that use unverified laboratory tests to make dubious diagnoses and recommend treatment programs that lack evidence of efficacy”.

Professor Harvey (and FSM) conclude that there is an urgent need for evidence-based science to be applied to naturopathy. They trust that Professor Wardle will emulate Professor Edzard Ernst, Foundation Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University, by applying accepted scientific standards to the evaluation of naturopathic interventions.

The March 24 opening of the NCNM in Lismore will feature a panel discussion on the future of health care with guest speakers: Professor Kerryn Phelps AM, former President of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association, Marcus Blackmore AM, naturopath and Executive Director of Blackmores Ltd, which markets vitamin and herbal products, and Professor Jon Wardle. FSM hopes that the panel will discuss some of the issues raised above.

Sounds exciting, but is Wardle up to the job?

Judging from his publication record, he is certainly a naturopath through and through. He has published lots of papers; as far as I can see most of them are surveys of some sort or another. Many leave me somewhat bewildered. Two examples must suffice:

No 1

Objectives: To explore the recommendations of naturopathic medicine for the management of endometriosis, dysmenorrhea, and menorrhagia, drawing on traditional and contemporary sources.

Design: Content analysis.

Setting: Australia, Canada, and the United States of America (USA).

Subjects: Contemporary sources were identified from reviewing naturopathic higher education institutions’ recommended texts, while traditional sources were identified from libraries which hold collections of naturopathic sources. Sources were included if they were published from 1800 to 2016, were in English, published in Australia, Canada, or the USA, and reported on the topic. Included sources were as follows: 37 traditional texts; 47 contemporary texts; and 83 articles from naturopathic periodicals.

Results: Across included sources, the most reported disciplines were herbal medicine, clinical nutrition, mineral medicines, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and chemical-based medicines. Herbal medicines were extensively reported from all sources for the management of endometriosis, dysmenorrhea, and menorrhagia. Clinical nutrition was only recommended from contemporary sources for all three conditions. Mineral medicines were mentioned in both traditional and contemporary sources, but were only recommended for dysmenorrhea and menorrhagia. There were limited recommendations for homeopathy and hydrotherapy treatments in all conditions across all sources. Chemical-based medicines were only mentioned for dysmenorrhea and menorrhagia, and recommendations ceased after 1922. Recommendations for endometriosis were not present in any of the traditional sources, across all reported disciplines.

Conclusions: The findings of this article provide insights into the documented historical and contemporary treatments within naturopathic medicine for endometriosis, dysmenorrhea, and menorrhagia. While philosophical principles remain the core of naturopathic practice, the therapeutic armamentarium appears to have changed over time, and a number of the original naturopathic treatments appear to have been retained as key elements of treatment for these conditions. Such insights into naturopathic treatments will be of particular interest to clinicians providing care to women, educators designing and delivering naturopathic training, and researchers conducting clinical and health service naturopathic research.

No 2

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is an increasingly prevalent part of contemporary health care. Whilst there have been some attempts to understand the dynamics of CAM integration in the health care system from the perspective of conventional care providers and patients, little research has examined the view of CAM practitioners. This study aims to identify the experiences of integration within a conventional healthcare system as perceived by naturopaths. Qualitative semi-structured interviews were conducted using a purposeful sample of 20 practising naturopaths in South East Queensland, Australia to discuss their experiences and perceptions of integrating with conventional medical providers. Analysis of the interviews revealed five broad challenges for the integration of CAM according to naturopaths: competing paradigms between CAM and conventional medicine; co-option of CAM by conventional medical practitioners; the preservation of separate CAM and conventional medical worlds by patients and providers due to lack of formalised relations; negative feedback and biases created through selective or limited experience or information with CAM; and indifferent, reactive and one-sided interaction between CAM and conventional medical providers. Naturopaths support the integration of health services and attempt to provide safe and appropriate care to their patients through collaborative approaches to practice. The challenges identified by naturopaths associated with integration of CAM with conventional providers may impact the quality of care of patients who choose to integrate CAM and conventional approaches to health. Given the significant role of naturopaths in contemporary health-care systems, these challenges require further research and policy attention.

So, is Jon Wardle up to the job?

The answer obviously depends on what the job is.

If it is about publishing 100 more surveys that show nothing of much value and are essentially SCAM-promotion, then he ought to be fine. If it is about rigorously testing which SCAMs generate more good than harm, then ‘Houston, we have a problem’!

My critics regularly display a lot of imagination. For instance, some come up with the claim that I have never done any original research.

Well, I have!

How much?

A lot.

The precise answer depends on how you define original research.

Usually, my detractors then focus on clinical trials. Prof Ernst can only criticise and find fault in studies of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) published by others, they claim, but he never did a single clinical trial in his life!

Well, I have!

The allegation came up recently in a legal case that I am involved in, and I was asked to prove that it is false. I skimmed through my files and found something that I had almost forgotten about. Until my retirement in 2012, I had kept a record entitled THE EVIDENCE, A DOCUMENTATION OF OUR CLINICALLY RELEVANT RESEARCH. The document is based on 470 of our published articles and 35 of our clinical trials (I do not know many SCAM-researchers who have done more).

For the legal case, I also did a Medline-search to get the links of clinical trials including the ones before the Exeter job. The list is quite incomplete but, for what it’s worth, here it is:

  1. Placebo-controlled, double-blind study of haemodilution in peripheral arterial disease Ernst E, et al. Lancet 1987 – Clinical Trial. PMID 2885450
  2. Regular sauna bathing and the incidence of common colds Ernst E, et al. Ann Med 1990 – Clinical Trial. PMID 2248758
  3. A single blind randomized, controlled trial of hydrotherapy for varicose veins Ernst E, et al. Vasa 1991 – Clinical Trial. PMID 1877335
  4. Effects of felodipine ER and hydrochlorothiazide on blood rheology in essential hypertension–a randomized, double-blind, crossover study Koenig W, et al. J Intern Med 1991 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 2045762
  5. Does pentoxifylline prolong the walking distance in exercised claudicants? A placebo-controlled double-blind trial Ernst E, et al. Angiology 1992 – Clinical Trial. PMID 1536472
  6. Exercise therapy for osteoporosis: results of a randomised controlled trial Preisinger E, et al. Br J Sports Med 1996 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 8889112 Free PMC article.
  7. Randomized trial of acupuncture for nicotine withdrawal symptoms White AR, et al. Arch Intern Med 1998 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 9818805
  8. Randomized, double-blind trial of chitosan for body weight reduction Pittler MH, et al. Eur J Clin Nutr 1999 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 10369493 Free article
  9. A randomized trial of distant healing for skin warts Harkness EF, et al. Am J Med 2000 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 10781776
  10. Can singing exercises reduce snoring? A pilot study Ojay A and Ernst E. Complement Ther Med 2000 – Clinical Trial. PMID 11068344
  11. A blinded investigation into the accuracy of reflexology charts White AR, et al. Complement Ther Med 2000 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 11068346
  12. Acupuncture for episodic tension-type headache: a multicentre randomized controlled trial White AR, et al. Cephalalgia 2000 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 11128820
  13. Spiritual healing as a therapy for chronic pain: a randomized, clinical trial Abbot NC, et al. Pain 2001 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 11240080
  14. Randomised controlled trial of reflexology for menopausal symptoms Williamson J, et al. BJOG 2002 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 12269681 Free article.
  15. Validating a new non-penetrating sham acupuncture device: two randomised controlled trials Park J, et al. Acupunct Med 2002 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 12512790
  16. Homeopathic arnica for prevention of pain and bruising: randomized placebo-controlled trial in hand surgery Stevinson C, et al. J R Soc Med 2003 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 12562974 Free PMC
  17. Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of autologous blood therapy for atopic dermatitis Pittler MH, et al. Br J Dermatol 2003 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 12588384
  18. Individualised homeopathy as an adjunct in the treatment of childhood asthma: a randomised placebo controlled trial White A, et al. Thorax 2003 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 12668794 Free PMC article.
  19. Multiple n = 1 trials in the identification of responders and non-responders to the cognitive effects of Ginkgo biloba Canter PH and Ernst E. Int J Clin Pharmacol Ther 2003 – Clinical Trial. PMID 12940592
  20. Effectiveness of artichoke extract in preventing alcohol-induced hangovers: a randomized controlled trial Pittler MH, et al. CMAJ 2003 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 14662662 Free PMC article.
  21. Autogenic training reduces anxiety after coronary angioplasty: a randomized clinical trial Kanji N, et al. Am Heart J 2004 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 14999212
  22. Does aromatherapy massage benefit patients with cancer attending a specialist palliative care day centre? Wilcock A, et al. Palliat Med 2004 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 15198118
  23. Randomised controlled trial of magnetic bracelets for relieving pain in osteoarthritis of the hip and knee Harlow T, et al. BMJ 2004 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 15604181 Free PMC article.
  24. Acupuncture for subacute stroke rehabilitation: a Sham-controlled, subject- and assessor-blind, randomized trial Park J, et al. Arch Intern Med 2005 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 16186474
  25. Autogenic training to reduce anxiety in nursing students: randomized controlled trial Kanji N, et al. J Adv Nurs 2006 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 16553681
  26. Autogenic training to manage symptomology in women with chest pain and normal coronary arteries Asbury EA, et al. Menopause 2009 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 18978640
  27. The effects of triple therapy (acupuncture, diet and exercise) on body weight: a randomized, clinical trial Nourshahi M, et al. Int J Obes (Lond) 2009 – Clinical Trial. Among authors: Ernst E. PMID 19274056

Five things I like about the list:

  1. It is long.
  2. It displays a wide variety of subjects.
  3. It hardly depicts me as a ‘pharma shill’.
  4. Most of the trials were published in top journals (suggesting they were of decent quality).
  5. It reminds me how much fun these studies often were (I wrote a chapter about No13 in my memoir, and I could write [very amusing] short stories about No 20 and [less funny but baffling] about No 17 and 23)

So, the next time they claim ‘Prof Ernst never did any clinical trials’, I will be able to shut them up by simply showing them this post.

I am looking forward to it!

Yesterday’s blog disclosed the fact that the German ‘Natur und Medizin’, an organisation of the ‘Carstens Stiftung’, had published slanderous lies about me. Consequently, I published an ‘open letter’ urging them to correct their mistake so that they would spare us the agony and cost of using legal action.

I never doubted for a minute that they would do this (I do not assume they are stupid, just a tiny bit dishonest) – and, as it turned out, I was correct. Here is a reminder of what they had originally published:

… er ist dafür bekannt, dass er kein gutes Haar an komplementären Therapieverfahren lässt. Notfalls greift er auch zu absichtlichen Falschdarstellungen[17], erfindet Daten[18] oder behauptet einfach, klinische Studien, die nicht die Negativ-Ergebnisse erbringen, die er erwartet, seien schlicht und ergreifend Betrug.[19]…

My rough translation:

… he [Edzard Ernst] is known for not finding anything positive in SCAM. If all else fails, he uses deliberate misrepresentation [17], invents data [18], or simply claims that clinical trials which did not generate the negative findings he expected are simply falsifications [19]…

The corrected new text passage is a little longer and now reads as follows (my rough translation):

… he [Edzard Ernst] is known for not finding anything positive in SCAM. Analyses of his publications by independent scientists draw the conclusion that he represents case-reports demonstrably wrongly [17] and that he arbitrarily alters or omits data [18]. He claims occasionally that high-quality studies of SCAM which do not generate the negative findings he expected appeared to be scientifically sound, but are nevertheless not believable [19]…

… er ist dafür bekannt, dass er kein gutes Haar an komplementären Therapieverfahren lässt. Analysen seiner Publikationen durch unabhängige Wissenschaftler gelangen zu der Schlussfolgerung, dass er Fallberichte nachweislich falsch darstelle[17] und Daten willkürlich verändere oder auslasse[18]. Er selbst behauptet mitunter über methodisch hochwertige Studien zur Komplementärmedizin, die nicht die Negativ-Ergebnisse erbringen, die er erwartet, sie sähen zwar nach wissenschaftlichen Maßstäben überzeugend aus, seien aber dennoch ‚unglaubwürdig‘.[19]… 

I would like to take this occasion to sincerely thank the ‘Natur und Medizin’ and the ‘Carstens Stiftung’ for this – much obliged guys, you made my day!

  • They have shown wisdom in not wasting money on expensive lawyers (even though my brother, who is a lawyer, might have enjoyed the windfall).
  • They have shown courage to hide behind papers like the one by Robert Hahn which have been discussed on this blog and elsewhere and found to be deluded.
  • They have shown strength by not meekly apologising to me about their attempt to slander me and my work.
  • They show leadership and innovative spirit by employing Jens Behnke, the author of the above lines, who does not seem to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Last not least, my personal thanks to dear Jens (after your generosity, I am thinking about dedicating an entire blog post to you; your employer needs to know what a genius they have in you – watch this space) for yet again having demonstrated that the phenomenon known as ERNST’ S LAW is 100% correct.

In 2011, the following leading researchers of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) – no I was not invited – had a meeting in Italy, did a brainstorm and decided what we would need to know about SCAM by 2020 (today, in other words):

They proposed 6 core areas of research that should be investigated to achieve a robust knowledge base and to allow stakeholders to make informed decisions:

  1. Research into the prevalence of SCAM in Europe: Reviews show that we do not know enough about the circumstances in which SCAM is used by Europeans. To enable a common European strategic approach, a clear picture of current use is of the utmost importance.
  2. Research into differences regarding citizens’ attitudes and needs towards SCAM: Citizens are the driver for CAM utilization. Their needs and views on SCAM are a key priority, and their interests must be investigated and addressed in future SCAM research.
  3. Research into safety of SCAM: Safety is a key issue for European citizens. SCAM is considered safe, but reliable data is scarce although urgently needed in order to assess the risk and cost-benefit ratio of SCAM.
  4. Research into the comparative effectiveness of SCAM: Everybody needs to know in what situation SCAM is a reasonable choice. Therefore, we recommend a clear emphasis on concurrent evaluation of the overall effectiveness of SCAM as an additional or alternative treatment strategy in real-world settings.
  5. Research into effects of context and meaning: The impact of effects of context and meaning on the outcome of SCAM treatments must be investigated; it is likely that they are significant.
  6. Research into different models of SCAM health care integration: There are different models of SCAM being integrated into conventional medicine throughout Europe, each with their respective strengths and limitations. These models should be described and concurrently evaluated; innovative models of SCAM provision in health care systems should be one focus for SCAM research.

‘Look, half the work is done! All you need to do is fill in the top part so we can legally say the bottom part.’

The researchers then added:

We also propose a methodological framework for SCAM research. We consider that a framework of mixed methodological approaches is likely to yield the most useful information. In this model, all available research strategies including comparative effectiveness research utilising quantitative and qualitative methods should be considered to enable us to secure the greatest density of knowledge possible. Stakeholders, such as citizens, patients and providers, should be involved in every stage of developing the specific and relevant research questions, study design and the assurance of real-world relevance for the research.

Furthermore, structural and sufficient financial support for research into SCAM is needed to strengthen SCAM research capacity if we wish to understand why it remains so popular within the EU. In order to consider employing SCAM as part of the solution to the health care, health creation and self-care challenges we face by 2020, it is vital to obtain a robust picture of SCAM use and reliable information about its cost, safety and effectiveness in real-world settings. We need to consider the availability, accessibility and affordability of SCAM. We need to engage in research excellence and utilise comparative effectiveness approaches and mixed methods to obtain this data.

Our recommendations are both strategic and methodological. They are presented for the consideration of researchers and funders while being designed to answer the important and implicit questions posed by EU citizens currently using SCAM in apparently increasing numbers. We propose that the EU actively supports an EU-wide strategic approach that facilitates the development of SCAM research. This could be achieved in the first instance through funding a European SCAM coordinating research office dedicated to foster systematic communication between EU governments, public, charitable and industry funders as well as researchers, citizens and other stakeholders. The aim of this office would be to coordinate research strategy developments and research funding opportunities, as well as to document and disseminate international research activities in this field.

With the aim to develop sustainability as second step, a European Centre for SCAM should be established that takes over the monitoring and further development of a coordinated research strategy for SCAM, as well as it should have funds that can be awarded to foster high quality and robust independent research with a focus on citizens health needs and pan-European collaboration.

We wish to establish a solid funding for SCAM research to adequately inform health care and health creation decision-making throughout the EU. This centre would ensure that our vision of a common, strategic and scientifically rigorous approach to SCAM research becomes our legacy and Europe’s reality. We are confident that our recommendations will serve these essential goals for EU citizens.

As I know all of the members of the panel personally, I am not surprised by the content of this document. That does not mean, however, that I do not find it remarkable. In my view, it is remarkable because of the nature of the 6 items that we allegedly need to know by 2020, and because of the fact that, even though none of them seem particularly demanding, today we have clarity or sound information on none of them. I also thought that both the research topics and the research methods were on the woolly side and, to a large degree, avoided what would be standard in conventional medicine. The ‘vision’ of the 13 researchers thus turns out to be the view of 13 partially sighted people on an array of platitudes.

Being just a bit sarcastic, the document could be seen as a plea for letting SCAM researchers:

  • continue to play on their far from level playing field,
  • use their preferred and largely inadequate methodologies,
  • pretend they do cutting edge science,
  • continue to avoid the real issues,
  • enjoy a life free of demanding challenges,
  • have pots of EU money for doing largely useless work.

In a word, I am confident that their recommendations would not have served any essential goals for EU citizens.

I published this article 20 years ago! Yet, it is, I think, still relevant today. For the purpose of this blog, I have altered it marginally (mainly by using the acromym SCAM):

Whatever SCAM is, it is not an alternative to conventional medicine. Nevertheless, one might still ask why so many people pay for ‘unproven’ SCAM when they can have scientifically backed medicine at no extra expense. Chandola et al suggest that 44% who use CM hope for a cure, 30% fear adverse effects of mainstream drugs, and 27% are dissatisfied with conventional care. In a much larger survey conducted in the USA, Astin found that dissatisfaction with orthodox medicine was prevalent but did not predict use of SCAM. SCAM users tended to be better educated and to subscribe to a more ‘holistic’ philosophy of healthcare. Interestingly, they reported poorer health status than non-users. Moreover, SCAM attracts patients because it offers more personal autonomy or control and is less impersonal or high-tech than mainstream medicine. Finally patients, particularly those with chronic conditions, may simply try SCAM so as to leave no stone unturned.

‘Scientifically backed’ medicine may not be quite as helpful as one tends to assume at least not in the eyes of the patient. A survey of 1420 (mostly musculoskeletal) pain sufferers suggested that SCAMs were perceived as more successful than mainstream drugs. In fact, orthodox therapies such as parenteral injections and oral medications ranked only 8th and 11th, respectively. Perhaps more disturbingly, patients seem to experience the therapeutic encounter with SCAM practitioners as more satisfying, empathetic and informative than that with their general practitioners. While many physicians (rightly or wrongly) continue to see SCAM as a nuisance, maybe we should think again: SCAM’s popularity amounts to a biting criticism of mainstream medicine that ought to be taken seriously.

How are clinicians to reconcile the public demand for SCAM with the new zeal for evidence-based medicine? The apparently easy answer is to pursue a strategy of evidence-based SCAM. This is precisely what my department is doing. There are now about 2000 clinical trials in this diverse area. But clinical trials are often full of contradictions and seldom clarify clinical questions adequately. A US study, for instance, has contributed to increasing doubts about whether chiropractic is helpful for acute uncomplicated low back pain in a clinically relevant way. What we really need for informing clinicians’ decisions are systematic reviews incorporating the totality of the available data. For the past 5 years this has been the focus of my department’s work, and we have published a considerable number of such papers. The notion that SCAM is totally devoid of evidence is a cliché which, like many clichés, is not entirely true.

Undoubtedly, vast areas of uncertainty do remain. The more difficult question is, therefore, how should clinicians deal with their patients’ desire for SCAM in the absence of evidence? Embarrassingly few convincing answers are on offer. Physicians have become experts in dealing with uncertainty in many aspects of their work. A dose of common sense will usually go quite far. At the very least, doctors should know what type of treatments their patients are trying. Taking a detailed history should nowadays include asking specifically about use of SCAM. In order not to alienate patients, one should resist the temptation to be dismissive. If there are good reasons to warn of a certain form of SCAM, these are best offered in an objective manner. To give evidence-based advice, clinicians obviously have to be informed about the facts, and impartial information is hard to find. One ray of light in this relative darkness is the Cochrane Collaboration, which now has a ‘field’ working on SCAM. The number of systematic reviews available from the Cochrane database is growing rapidly.

Once a patient is using SCAM (with or against the doctor’s advice), it makes sense to monitor the effects. This increases the safety of the patient and contributes to the physician’s knowledge of and experience with SCAM. There is also a good argument for establishing working relationships with a selection of local SCAM therapists who have a good track record and adequate training. At present, communication between doctors and therapists is often poor or even non-existent. Surely this cannot be to the benefit of the patient.

For SCAM, the best chance of survival in a harsh climate of evidence-based medicine and increasing rationing of resources is to come up with the goods and demonstrate what treatments are effective, safe and cost-effective for which condition. For physicians, the best way of reconciling the ‘two worlds’ is to inform themselves adequately and guide their patients through the ‘SCAM maze’ with a generous helping of good common sense. For patients, last but not least, the best approach is to be cautious and remember that, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

END OF QUOTE

Twenty years, and little has changed:

  1. There still are vast areas of uncertainty.
  2. Imparcial information about SCAM is still scarce.
  3. Patient demand for SCAM is still considerable.
  4. The implied criticism of conventional medicine is still not taken seriously.
  5. The communication between doctors and SCAM practitioners is still lamentable.
  6. Most doctors still do not include questions about SCAM in their medical history taking.
  7. Arguably, SCAM has become even less evidence-based.
  8. Most doctors remain blissfully uninformed about SCAM.
  9. Most of the claims made for SCAM are too good to be true.
  10.  …
  11. etc.

I think you get the gist.

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