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Chiropractors often claim that they are working tirelessly towards increasing public health. But how seriously should we take such claims?

The purpose of this study was to investigate weight-loss interventions offered by Canadian chiropractors. It is a secondary analysis of data from the Ontario Chiropractic Observation and Analysis STudy (Nc = 42 chiropractors, Np = 2162 patient encounters). Its results show that around two-thirds (61.3%) of patients who sought chiropractic care were either overweight or had obesity. Very few patients had weight loss managed by their chiropractor. Among patients with body mass index equal to or greater than 18.5 kg/m2, guideline recommended weight management was initiated or continued by Ontario chiropractors in only 5.4% of encounters. Chiropractors did not offer weight management interventions at different rates among patients who were of normal weight, overweight, or obese (P value = 0.23). Chiropractors who graduated after 2005 who may have been exposed to reforms in chiropractic education to include public health were significantly more likely to offer weight management than chiropractors who graduated between 1995 and 2005.

The authors concluded that the prevalence of weight management interventions offered to patients by Canadian chiropractors in Ontario was low. Health care policy and continued chiropractic educational reforms may provide further direction to improve weight-loss interventions offered by doctors of chiropractic to their patients.

This paper seems to confirm my suspicion that the claim of chiropractors working for public heath is little more than an advertising gimmick. If we also consider the often negative attitude of chiropractors towards vaccination, the claim even deteriorates into a sick joke. Chiropractors, I have previously argued, are undermining public health and are being educated to become a danger to public health.

In Switzerland, so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is officially recognised within the healthcare system and mainly practised in conjunction with conventional medicine. So far no research has been published into the attitude towards, training in and offer of SCAM among paediatricians in Switzerland. This survey addresses this gap by investigating these topics with an online survey of paediatricians in Switzerland.

It employed a 19-item, self-reporting questionnaire among all ordinary and junior members of the Swiss Society of Paediatrics (SSP). A comparison of the study sample with the population of all paediatricians registered with the Swiss Medical Association (FMH) allowed an assessment of the survey’s representativeness. The data analysis was performed on the overall group level as well as for predefined subgroups (e.g. sex, age, language, workplace and professional experience).

A total of 1890 paediatricians were approached and 640, from all parts of Switzerland, responded to the survey (response rate 34%). Two thirds of respondents were female, were aged between 35 and 55 years, trained as paediatric generalist and worked in a practice. Apart from young paediatricians in training, the study sample was representative of all Swiss paediatricians.

According to the authors’ statistics, the results suggest that

  • 23% had attended training in SCAM, most frequently in phytotherapy, homeopathy, acupuncture/traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and anthroposophic medicine
  • 8% had a federal certificate in one or more SCAM methods.
  • 44% did not routinely ask their patients about their use of SCAM.
  • 84% did not offer SCAM.
  • 65% were interested in SCAM courses and training.
  • 16% provided SCAM services to their patients.
  • 97% were asked by patients/parents about SCAM therapies.
  • More than half of the responding paediatricians use SCAM for themselves or their families.
  • 42% were willing to contribute to paediatric SCAM research.

The authors concluded that in a representative sample of paediatricians in Switzerland, the overall attitude towards SCAM was positive, emphasised by great interest in SCAM training, willingness to contribute to SCAM research and, in particular, by the high rate of paediatricians using SCAM for themselves and their families. However, given the strong demand for SCAM for children, the rate of paediatricians offering SCAM is rather low, despite the official recognition of SCAM in Switzerland. Among the various reasons for this, insufficient knowledge and institutional barriers deserve special attention. The paediatricians’ great interest in SCAM training and support for SCAM research offer key elements for the future development of complementary and integrative medicine for children in Switzerland.

SCAM suffers from acute survey mania. I am anxiously waiting for a survey of SCAM use in left-handed, diabetic policemen in retirement from Devon. But every other variation of the theme has been exploited. And why not? It provides the authors with a most welcome addition to their publication list. And, of course, it lends itself very nicely to SCAM-promotion. Sadly, there is not much else that such surveys offer.

Except perhaps for an opportunity to do an alternative evaluation of their results. Here is an assessment the devil’s advocate in me proposes. Based on the reasonable assumption that those 34% of paediatricians who responded did so because they had an interest in SCAM, and the 64% who did not reply couldn’t care less, it is tempting to do an analysis of the entire population of Swiss paediatricians. Here are my findings:

  • Hardly anyone had attended training in SCAM.
  • Hardly anyone had a federal certificate in one or more SCAM methods.
  • Very few did not routinely ask their patients about their use of SCAM.
  • Hardly anyone offered SCAM.
  • Very few were interested in SCAM courses and training.
  • Hardly anyone provided SCAM services to their patients.
  • Quite a few were asked by patients/parents about SCAM therapies.
  • Very few paediatricians use SCAM for themselves or their families.
  • Few were willing to contribute to paediatric SCAM research.

These results might be closer to the truth but they have one very important drawback: they do not lend themselves to drawing the SCAM-promotional conclusions formulated by the authors.

Oh Yes, reality can be a painful thing!

I stared my Exeter post in October 1993. It took the best part of a year to set up a research team, find rooms etc. So, our research began in earnest only mid 1994. From the very outset, it was clear to me that investigating the risks of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) should be our priority. The reason, I felt, was simple: SCAM was being used a million times every day; therefore it was an ethical imperative to check whether these treatments were as really safe as most people seemed to believe.

In the course of this line of investigation, we did discover many surprises (and lost many friends). One of the very first revelation was that homeopathy might not be harmless. Our initial results on this topic were published in this 1995 article. In view of the still ongoing debate about homeopathy, I’d like to re-publish the short paper here:

Homoeopathic remedies are believed by doctors and patients to be almost totally safe. Is homoeopathic advice safe, for example on the subject of immunization? In order to answer this question, a questionnaire survey was undertaken in 1995 of all 45 homoeopaths listed in the Exeter ‘yellow pages’ business directory. A total of 23 replies (51%) were received, 10 from medically qualified and 13 from non-medically qualified homoeopaths.

The homoeopaths were asked to suggest which conditions they perceived as being most responsive to homoeopathy. The three most frequently cited conditions were allergies (suggested by 10 respondents), gynaecological problems (seven) and bowel problems (five).

They were then asked to estimate the proportion of patients that were referred to them by orthodox doctors and the proportion that they referred to orthodox doctors. The mean estimated percentages were 1 % and 8%, respectively. The 23 respondents estimated that they spent a mean of 73 minutes on the first consultation.

The homoeopaths were asked whether they used or recommended orthodox immunization for children and whether they only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization. Seven of the 10 homoeopaths who were medically qualified recommended orthodox immunization but none of the 13 non-medically qualified homoeopaths did. One non-medically qualified homoeopath only used and recommended homoeopathic immunization.

Homoeopaths have been reported as being against orthodox immunization’ and advocating homoeopathic immunization for which no evidence of effectiveness exists. As yet there has been no attempt in the United Kingdom to monitor homoeopaths’ attitudes in this respect. The above findings imply that there may be a problem. The British homoeopathic doctors’ organization (the Faculty of Homoeopathy) has distanced itself from the polemic of other homoeopaths against orthodox immunization, and editorials in the British Homoeopathic Journal call the abandonment of mass immunization ‘criminally irresponsible’ and ‘most unfortunate, in that it will be seen by most people as irresponsible and poorly based’.’

Homoeopathic remedies may be safe, but do all homoeopaths merit this attribute?

This tiny and seemingly insignificant piece of research triggered debate and research (my group must have published well over 100 papers in the years that followed) that continue to the present day. The debate has spread to many other countries and now involves numerous forms of SCAM other than just homeopathy. It relates to many complex issues such as the competence of SCAM practitioners, their ethical standards, education, regulation, trustworthiness and the risk of neglect.

Looking back, it feels odd that, at least for me, all this started with such a humble investigation almost a quarter of a century ago. Looking towards the future, I predict that we have so far merely seen the tip of the iceberg. The investigation of the risks of SCAM has finally started in earnest and will, I am sure, continue thus leading to a better protection of patients and consumers from charlatans and their bogus claims.

If so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) ever were to enter the Guinness Book of Records, it would most certainly be because it generates more surveys than any other area of medical inquiry. I have long been rather sceptical about this survey-mania. Therefore, I greet any major new survey with some trepidation.

The aim of this new survey was to obtain up-to-date general population figures for practitioner-led SCAM use in England, and to discover people’s views and experiences regarding access. The researchers commissioned a face-to-face questionnaire survey of a nationally representative adult quota sample (aged ≥15 years). Ten questions were included within Ipsos MORI’s weekly population-based survey. The questions explored 12-month practitioner-led SCAM use, reasons for non-use, views on NHS-provided SCAM, and willingness to pay.

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

The authors concluded that SCAM is commonly used in England, particularly for musculoskeletal and mental health problems, and by affluent groups paying privately. However, less well-off people are also being GP-referred for NHS-funded treatments. For SCAM with evidence of effectiveness (and cost-effectiveness), those of lower SES may be unable to access potentially useful interventions, and access via GPs may be able to address this inequality. Researchers, patients, and commissioners should collaborate to research the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of SCAM, and consider its availability on the NHS.

I feel that a few critical thoughts are in order:

  1. The authors call their survey an ‘up-date’. The survey ran between 25 September and 18 October 2015. That is more than three years ago. I would not exactly call this an up-date!
  2. Authors (several of whom are known SCAM-enthusiasts) also state that practitioner-led SCAM use was about 5% higher than previous national (UK and England) surveys. This may relate to the authors’ wider SCAM definition, which included 11 more therapies than Hunt et al (a survey from my team), or increased SCAM use since 2005. Despite this uncertainty, the authors write this: Figures from 2005 reported that 12% of the English population used practitioner-led CAM. This 2015 survey has found that 16% of the general population had used practitioner-led CAM in the previous 12 months. Thus, they imply that SCAM-use has been increasing.
  3. The main justification for running yet another survey presumably was to determine whether SCAM-use has increased, decreased or remained the same (virtually everything else found in the new survey had been shown many times before). To not answer this main question conclusively by asking the same questions as a previous survey is just daft, in my view. We have used the same survey methods at two points one decade apart and found little evidence for an increase, on the contrary: overall, GPs were less likely to endorse CAMs than previously shown (38% versus 19%).
  4. The main reason why I have long been critical about such surveys is the manner in which their data get interpreted. The present paper is no exception in this respect. Invariably the data show that SCAM is used by those who can afford it. This points to INEQUALITY that needs to be addressed by allowing much more SCAM on the public purse. In other words, such surveys are little more that very expensive and somewhat under-hand promotion of quackery.
  5. Yes, I know, the present authors are more clever than that; they want the funds limited to SCAM with evidence of effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. So, why do they not list those SCAMs together with the evidence for effectiveness and cost-effectiveness? This would enable us to check the validity of the claim that more public money should fund SCAM. I think I know why: such SCAMs do not exist or, at lest, they are extremely rare.

But otherwise the new survey was excellent.


I have often pointed out that, in contrast to ‘rational phytotherapy’, traditional herbalism of various types (e. g. Western, Chinese, Kampo, etc.) – characterised by the prescription of an individualised mixture of herbs by a herbalist – is likely to do more harm than good. This recent paper provides new and interesting information about the phenomenon.

Specifically, it explores the prevalence with which Australian Western herbalists treat menstrual problems and their related treatment, experiences, perceptions, and inter-referral practices with other health practitioners. Members of the Practitioner Research and Collaboration Initiative practice-based research network identifying as Western Herbalists (WHs) completed a specifically developed, online questionnaire.

Western Herbalists regularly treat menstrual problems, perceiving high, though differential, levels of effectiveness. For menstrual problems, WHs predominantly prescribe individualised formulas including core herbs, such as Vitex agnus-castus (VAC), and problem-specific herbs. Estimated clients’ weekly cost (median = $25.00) and treatment duration (median = 4-6 months) covering this Western herbal medicine treatment appears relatively low. Urban-based women are more likely than those rurally based to have used conventional treatment for their menstrual problems before consulting WHs. Only 19% of WHs indicated direct contact by conventional medical practitioners regarding treatment of clients’ menstrual problems despite 42% indicating clients’ conventional practitioners recommended consultation with WH.

The authors concluded that Western herbal medicine may be a substantially prevalent, cost-effective treatment option amongst women with menstrual problems. A detailed examination of the behaviour of women with menstrual problems who seek and use Western herbal medicine warrants attention to ensure this healthcare option is safe, effective, and appropriately co-ordinated within women’s wider healthcare use.

Apart from the fact, that I don’t see how the researchers could possibly draw conclusions about the cost-effectiveness of Western herbalism, I feel that this survey requires further comments.

There is no reason to assume that individualised herbalism is effective and plenty of reason to fear that it might cause harm (the larger the amount of herbal ingredients in one prescription, the higher the chances for toxicity and interactions). The only systematic review on the subject concluded that there is a sparsity of evidence regarding the effectiveness of individualised herbal medicine and no convincing evidence to support the use of individualised herbal medicine in any indication.

Moreover, VAC (the ‘core herb’ for menstrual problems) is hardly a herb that is solidly supported by evidence either. A systematic review concluded that, although meta-analysis shows a large pooled effect of VAC in placebo-controlled trials, the high risk of bias, high heterogeneity, and risk of publication bias of the included studies preclude a definitive conclusion. The pooled treatment effects should be viewed as merely explorative and, at best, overestimating the real treatment effect of VAC for premenstrual syndrome symptoms. There is a clear need for high-quality trials of appropriate size examining the effect of standardized extracts of VAC in comparison to placebo, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and oral contraceptives to establish relative efficacy.

And finally, VAC is by no means free of adverse effects; our review concluded that frequent adverse events include nausea, headache, gastrointestinal disturbances, menstrual disorders, acne, pruritus and erythematous rash. No drug interactions were reported. Use of VAC should be avoided during pregnancy or lactation. Theoretically, VAC might also interfere with dopaminergic antagonists.

So, to me, this survey suggests that the practice of Western herbalists is:

  1. not evidence-based;
  2. potentially harmful;
  3. and costly.

In a nutshell: IT IS BEST AVOIDED.

Chiropractors are fast giving up the vitalistic and obsolete concepts of their founding fathers, we are told over and over again. But are these affirmations true? There are good reasons to be sceptical. Take this recent paper, for instance.

The objective of this survey was to investigate the proportion of Australian chiropractic students who hold non-evidence-based beliefs in the first year of study and to determine the extent to which they may be involved in non-musculoskeletal health conditions.

Students from two Australian chiropractic programs were invited to answer a questionnaire on how often they would give advice on 5 common health conditions in their future practices, as well as to provide their opinion on whether chiropractic spinal adjustments could prevent or help seven health-related conditions.

The response rate of this survey was 53%. Students were highly likely to offer advice on a range of non-musculoskeletal conditions. The proportions were lowest in first year and highest the final year. For instance, 64% of students in year 4/5 believed that spinal adjustments improve the health of infants. Also, high numbers of students held non-evidence-based beliefs about ‘chiropractic spinal adjustments’ which tended to occur in gradually decreasing in numbers in sequential years, except for 5th and final year, when a reversal of the pattern occurred.

The authors concluded that new strategies are required for chiropractic educators if they are to produce graduates who understand and deliver evidence-based health care and able to be part of the mainstream health care system.

This is an interesting survey, but I think its conclusion is wrong!

  • Educators do not require ‘new strategies’, I would argue; they simply need to take their duty of educating students seriously – educating in this context does not mean brain-washing, it means teaching facts and evidence-based practice. And this is were any concept of true education would run into problems: it would teach students that chiropractic is built on sand.
  • Conclusions need to be based on the data presented. Therefore, the most fitting conclusion, in my view, is that chiropractic students are currently being educated such that, once let loose on the unsuspecting and often all too gullible public, they will be a menace and a serious danger to public health.

You might say that this survey is from Australia and that the findings therefore do not necessarily apply to other countries. Correct! However, I very much fear that elsewhere the situation is similar or perhaps even worse. And my fear does not come out of thin air, it is based on things we have discussed before; see for instance these three posts:

Chiropractic education seems to be a form of religious indoctrination

What are the competencies of a ‘certified paediatric doctor of chiropractic’?

Educating chiros

But I would be more than willing to change my mind – provided someone can show me good evidence to the contrary.

If you ask me, the field of alternative medicine is plagued with surveys; too many are published and most are complete, meaningless rubbish which serve merely the purpose of being misinterpreted as a means of popularising bogus treatments. Yet, every now and then, a decent and informative article appears – like this survey from Canada.

It yields a number of fascinating findings:

  • More than three-quarters of Canadians (79%) had used at least one from of CAM sometime in their lives in 2016 (74% in 2006 and 73% in 1997). British Columbians were most likely to have used an alternative therapy during their lifetime (89%), followed by Albertans (84%) and Ontarians (81%).
  • More than half (56%) of Canadians had used at least one CAM therapy in the year prior to the 2016 survey, compared to 54% in 2006 and 50% in 1997.
  • In 2016, massage was the most common type of therapy that Canadians used over their lifetime with 44 percent having tried it, followed by chiropractic care (42%), yoga (27%), relaxation techniques (25%), and acupuncture (22%).
  • The most rapidly expanding therapies over the past two decades were massage, yoga, acupuncture, chiropractic care, osteopathy, and naturopathy.
  • High dose/mega vitamins, herbal therapies, and folk remedies were in declining use over that same time period.
  • The most likely users of CAM over the past 12 months in 2016 were from the 35- to 44-year-old age group (61%). The use of CAM diminished with age, and generally rose with both income and education. These trends are similar to those observed in 2006 and 1997.
  • The majority of people choosing to use CAM in the 12 months preceding the 2016 survey did so for “wellness”.
  • Canadians spent an estimated $8.8 billion on CAM in the last 12 months ($8.0 billion in 2005/06 and $6.3 billion in 1996/97.
  • Of the $8.8 billion spent in 2016, more than $6.5 billion was spent on providers of CAM, while another $2.3 billion was spent on herbs, vitamins, special diet programs, books, classes, and equipment.
  • The majority of Canadians believe that CAM should be paid for privately and not by provincial health.

The strengths of this survey are that it is methodologically rigorous, and that it provides longitudinal data (this is in sharp contrast to the plethora of CAM surveys published recently). Many of its findings confirm what has already been known. Yet some results are new and noteworthy.

To many readers of this blog, the high CAM-usage will be disturbing. However, I am mildly encouraged by the results of this survey.

  • Firstly, the choice of CAM by Canadians seems rather more reasonable than that by other nations. Canadians seem to avoid the more ridiculous types of CAM, such as homeopathy or para-normal healing.
  • Secondly, many Canadians seem to view CAM not as medicine, but as a sort of luxurious pampering that they use to relax and feel well. Consequently, most are not pushing to get it reimbursed which I find more sensible than consumers’ attitudes in many other countries.

The fact that many dentists practice dubious alternative therapies receives relatively little attention. In 2016, for instance, Medline listed just 31 papers on the subject of ‘complementary alternative medicine, dentistry’, while there were more than 1800 on ‘complementary alternative medicine’. Similarly, I have discussed this topic just once before on this blog. Clearly, the practice of alternative medicine by dentists begs many questions – perhaps a new paper can answer some of them?

The aims of this study were to “analyse whether dentists offer or recommend complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) remedies in their clinical routine, and how effective these are rated by proponents and opponents. A second aim of this study was to give a profile of the dentists endorsing CAM.

A prospective, explorative, anonymised cross-sectional survey was spread among practicing dentists in Germany via congresses, dental periodicals and online (n=250, 55% male, 45% female; mean age 49.1±11.4years).

Of a set of 31 predefined CAM modalities, the dentists integrated plant extracts from Arnica montana (64%), chamomile (64%), clove (63%), Salvia officinalis (54%), relaxation therapies (62%), homeopathy (57%), osteopathic medicine (50%) and dietetics (50%). The effectiveness of specific treatments was rated significantly higher by CAM proponents than opponents. However, also CAM opponents classified some CAM remedies as highly effective, namely ear acupuncture, osteopathic medicine and clove.

With respect to the characteristic of the proponents, the majority of CAM-endorsing dentists were women. The mean age (50.4±0.9 vs 47.0±0.9years) and number of years of professional experience (24.2±1.0 vs 20.0±1.0years) were significantly higher for CAM proponents than the means for opponents. CAM proponents worked significantly less and their perceived workload was significantly lower. Their self-efficacy expectation (SEE) and work engagement (Utrecht work engagement, UWE) were significantly higher compared to dentists who abandoned these treatment options. The logistic regression model showed an increased association from CAM proponents with the UWES subscale dedication, with years of experience, and that men are less likely to be CAM proponents than women.

The authors concluded that various CAM treatments are recommended by German dentists and requested by their patients, but the scientific evidence for these treatments are often low or at least unclear. CAM proponents are often female, have higher SE and work engagement.


These conclusion are mostly not based on the data provided.

The researchers seemed to insist on addressing utterly trivial questions.

They failed to engage in even a minimum amount of critical thinking.

If, for instance, dentists are convinced that ear-acupuncture is effective, they are in urgent need of some rigorous education in EBM, I would argue. And if they use a lot of unproven therapies, researchers should ask whether this phenomenon is not to a large extend motivated by their ambition to improve their income.

Holistic dentistry, as it is ironically often called (there is nothing ‘holistic’ about ripping off patients), is largely a con, and dentists who engage in such practices are mostly charlatans … but why does hardly anyone say so?



Some doctors use homeopathy, and for proponents of homeopathy this has always been a strong argument for its effectiveness. They claim that someone who has studied medicine would not employ a therapy that does not work. I have long felt that this view is erroneous.

This article goes some way in finding out who is right. It was aimed at describing the use of homeopathy by physicians working in outpatient care, factors associated with prescribing homeopathy, and the therapeutic intentions and attitudes involved.

All physicians working in outpatient care in the Swiss Canton of Zurich in the year 2015 (n = 4072) were approached. Outcomes of the survey were:

  • association of prescribing homeopathy with medical specialties;
  • intentions behind prescriptions;
  • level of agreement with specific attitudes;
  • views towards homeopathy including explanatory models,
  • rating of homeopathy’s evidence base,
  • the endorsement of indications,
  • reimbursement of homeopathic treatment by statutory health insurance providers.

The participation rate was 38%, mean age 54 years, 61% male, and 40% specialised in general internal medicine. Homeopathy was prescribed at least once a year by 23% of the respondents. Medical specialisations associated with prescribing homeopathy were: no medical specialisation (OR 3.9; 95% CI 1.7-9.0), specialisation in paediatrics (OR 3.8 95% CI 1.8-8.0) and gynaecology/obstetrics (OR 3.1 95% CI 1.5-6.7).

Among prescribers, only 50% clearly intended to induce specific homeopathic effects, only 27% strongly adhered to homeopathic prescription doctrines, and only 23% thought there was scientific evidence to prove homeopathy’s effectiveness. Seeing homeopathy as a way to induce placebo effects had the strongest endorsement among prescribers and non-prescribers of homeopathy (63% and 74% endorsement respectively). Reimbursement of homeopathic remedies by statutory health insurance was rejected by 61% of all respondents

The authors concluded that medical specialties use homeopathy with significantly varying frequency and only half of the prescribers clearly intend to achieve specific effects. Moreover, the majority of prescribers acknowledge that effectiveness is unproven and give little importance to traditional principles behind homeopathy. Medical specialties and associated patient demands but also physicians’ openness towards placebo interventions may play a role in homeopathy prescriptions. Education should therefore address not only the evidence base of homeopathy, but also ethical dilemmas with placebo interventions.

These data suggest than many doctors use homeopathy as a placebo. And this is what I had always suspected. Certainly I did often employ it in this way when I still worked as a clinician. The logic of doing so is quite simple: there are many patients where, after running all necessary tests, you conclude that there is nothing wrong with them. You try your best to get the message across but it is not accepted by the patient who clearly wants to have a prescription for something. In the end, due to time pressure etc., you give up and prescribe a homeopathic remedy hoping that the placebo effect, regression towards the mean and the natural history of the condition will do the trick.

And often they do!

I do know that this is hardly good medicine and arguably even not entirely ethical, but it is the reality. If I found myself in the same situation again, I am not sure that I would not do something similar.

I have often cautioned about what I call the ‘survey mania’ in alternative medicine. Yet, once in a while, an informative survey gets published. Take this recent survey, for instance:

It was based on a design-based logistic regression analysis of the European Social Survey (ESS), Round 7. The researchers distinguished 4 modalities: manual therapies, alternative medicinal systems, traditional Asian medical systems and mind-body therapies.

In total, 25.9% of the general population had used at least one of these therapies during the last 12 months which was around one-third of the proportion of those who had visited a general practitioner (76.3%). Typically, only one treatment had been used, and it was used more often as complementary rather than alternative treatment. The usage varied greatly by country (see Table 1 below). Compared to those in good health, the use of CAM was two to fourfold greater among those with health problems. The health profiles of users of different CAM modalities varied. For example, back or neck pain was associated with all types of CAM, whereas depression was associated only with the use of mind-body therapies. Individuals with difficult to diagnose health conditions were more inclined to utilize CAM, and CAM use was more common among women and those with a higher education. Lower income was associated with the use of mind-body therapies, whereas the other three CAM modalities were associated with higher income.

The authors concluded that help-seeking differed according to the health problem, something that should be acknowledged by clinical professionals to ensure safe care. The findings also point towards possible socioeconomic inequalities in health service use.

As I said, this is one of the rare surveys that is worth studying in some detail. This is mainly because it is rigorous and its results are clearly presented. Much of what it reports has been known before (for instance, we showed that the use of CAM in the UK was 26% which ties in perfectly with the 21% figure considering that here only 4 CAMs were included), but it is undoubtedly valuable to see it confirmed based on sound methodology.

Apart of what the abstract tells us, there are some hidden gems from this paper:

  • 8% of CAM users had used CAM exclusively (alternative use), without any visits to biomedical professionals in the last 12 months. This may look like a low figure, but I would argue that it is worryingly high considering that alternative usage of CAM has the potential to hasten patients’ deaths.
  • The most frequently used CAM treatment was massage therapy, used by 11.9% of the population, followed by homeopathy (5.7%), osteopathy (5.2%), herbal treatments (4.6%), acupuncture (3.6%), chiropractic (2.3%), reflexology (1.7%) and spiritual healing (1.3%). Other modalities (Chinese medicine, acupressure and hypnotherapy) were used by around by 1% or less. The figure for homeopathy is MUCH smaller that the ones homeopaths want us to believe.
  • About 9% of healthy survey-participants had used at least one of the CAM modalities during the last 12 months. One can assume that this usage was mostly for disease-prevention. But there is no good evidence for CAM to be effective for this purpose.
  • The highest ORs for the use of Traditional Asian Medical Systems were found in Denmark, Switzerland and Israel, followed by Austria, Norway and Sweden. The highest OR for the use of Alternative Medical Systems was found in Lithuania, while manual therapies were most commonly used in Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark. Moreover, Denmark, Ireland, Slovenia and Lithuania had the highest ORs for using mind-body therapies. France, Spain and Germany presented a common pattern, with relatively similar use of the different modalities. Poland and Hungary had low ORs for use of the different CAM modalities.

But by far the nicest gem, however, comes from my favourite source of misinformation on matters of health, WDDTY. They review the new survey and state this: The patients are turning to alternatives for a range of chronic conditions because they consider the conventional therapy to be inadequate, the researchers say. Needless to point out that this is not a theme that was addressed by the new survey, and therefore its authors also do not draw this conclusion.

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