Some consumers believe that research is by definition reliable, and patients are even more prone to this error. When they read or hear that ‘RESEARCH HAS SHOWN…’ or that ‘A RECENT STUDY HAS DEMONSTRATED…’, they usually trust the statements that follow. But is this trust in research and researchers justified? During 25 years that I have been involved in so-called alternative medicine (SCAM), I have encountered numerous instances which make me doubt. In this post, I will briefly discuss some the many ways in which consumers can be mislead by apparently sound evidence (for an explanation as to what is and what isn’t evidence, see here).
ABSENCE OF EVIDENCE
I have just finished reading a book by a German Heilpraktiker that is entirely dedicated to SCAM. In it, the author makes hundreds of statements and presents them as evidence-based facts. To many lay people or consumers, this will look convincing, I am sure. Yet, it has one fatal defect: the author fails to offer any real evidence that would back up his statements. The only references provided were those of other books which are equally evidence-free. This popular technique of making unsupported claims allows the author to make assertions without any checks and balances. A lay person is usually unable or unwilling to differentiate such fabulations from evidence, and this technique is thus easy and poular for misleading us about SCAM.
On this blog, we have encountered this phenomenon ad nauseam: a commentator makes a claim and supports it with some seemingly sound evidence, often from well-respected sources. The few of us who bother to read the referenced articles quickly discover that they do not say what the commentator claimed. This method relies on the reader beeing easily bowled over by some pretend-evidence. As many consumers cannot be bothered to look beyond the smokescreen supplied by such pretenders, the method usually works surprisingly well.
An example: Vidatox is a homeopathic cancer ‘cure’ from Cuba. The Vidatox website clains that it is effective for many cancers. Considering how sensational this claim is, one would expect to find plenty of published articles on Vidatox. However, a Medline search resulted in one paper on the subject. Its authors drew the following conclusion: Our results suggest that the concentration of Vidatox used in the present study has not anti-neoplastic effects and care must be taken in hiring Vidatox in patients with HCC.
The question one often has to ask is this: where is the line between misleading research and fraud?
There is no area in healthcare that produces more surveys than SCAM. About 500 surveys are published every year! This ‘survey-mania’ has a purpose: it promotes a positive message about SCAM which hypothesis-testing research rarely does.
For a typical SCAM survey, a team of enthusiastic researchers might put together a few questions and design a questionnaire to find out what percentage of a group of individuals have tried SCAM in the past. Subsequently, the investigators might get one or two hundred responses. They then calculate simple descriptive statistics and demonstrate that xy % use SCAM. This finding eventually gets published in one of the many third-rate SCAM journals. The implication then is that, if SCAM is so popular, it must be good, and if it’s good, the public purse should pay for it. Few consumers would realise that this conclusion is little more that a fallacious appeal to popularity.
AVOIDING THE QUESTION
Another popular way of SCAM researchers to mislead the public is to avoid the research questions that matter. For instance, few experts would deny that one of the most urgent issues in chiropractic relates to the risk of spinal manipulations. One would therefore expect that a sizable proportion of the currently published chiropractic research is dedicated to it. Yet, the opposite is the case. Medline currently lists more than 3 000 papers on ‘chiropractic’, but only 17 on ‘chiropractic, harm’.
A pilot study is a small scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate feasibility, time, cost, adverse events, and improve upon the study design prior to performance of a full-scale research project. Yet, the elementary preconditions are not fulfilled by the plethora of SCAM pilot studies that are currently being published. True pilot studies of SCAM are, in fact, very rare. The reason for the abundance of pseudo-pilots is obvious: they can easily be interpreted as showing encouragingly positive results for whatever SCAM is being tested. Subsequently, SCAM proponents can mislead the public by claiming that there are plenty of positive studies and therefore their SCAM is supported by sound evidence.
As regularly mentioned on this blog, there are several ways to design a study such that the risk of producing a negative result is minimal. The most popular one in SCAM research is the ‘A+B versus B’ design. In this study, for instance, cancer patients who were suffering from fatigue were randomised to receive usual care or usual care plus regular acupuncture. The researchers then monitored the patients’ experience of fatigue and found that the acupuncture group did better than the control group. The effect was statistically significant, and an editorial in the journal where it was published called this evidence “compelling”. Due to a cleverly over-stated press-release, news spread fast, and the study was celebrated worldwide as a major breakthrough in cancer-care.
Imagine you have an amount of money A and your friend owns the same sum plus another amount B. Who has more money? Simple, it is, of course your friend: A+B will always be more than A [unless B is a negative amount]. For the same reason, such “pragmatic” trials will always generate positive results [unless the treatment in question does actual harm]. Treatment as usual plus acupuncture is more than treatment as usual alone, and the former is therefore more than likely to produce a better result. This will be true, even if acupuncture is a pure placebo – after all, a placebo is more than nothing, and the placebo effect will impact on the outcome, particularly if we are dealing with a highly subjective symptom such as fatigue.
A more obvious method for generating false positive results is to omit blinding. The purpose of blinding the patient, the therapist and the evaluator of the group allocation in clinical trials is to make sure that expectation is not a contributor to the result. Expectation might not move mountains, but it can certainly influence the result of a clinical trial. Patients who hope for a cure regularly do get better, even if the therapy they receive is useless, and therapists as well as evaluators of the outcomes tend to view the results through rose-tinted spectacles, if they have preconceived ideas about the experimental treatment.
Failure to randomise is another source of bias which can mislead us. If we allow patients or trialists to select or chose which patients receive the experimental and which get the control-treatment, it is likely that the two groups differ in a number of variables. Some of these variables might, in turn, impact on the outcome. If, for instance, doctors allocate their patients to the experimental and control groups, they might select those who will respond to the former and those who don’t to the latter. This may not happen with intent but through intuition or instinct: responsible health care professionals want those patients who, in their experience, have the best chances to benefit from a given treatment to receive that treatment. Only randomisation can, when done properly, make sure we are comparing comparable groups of patients. Non-randomisation can easily generate false-positive findings.
It is also possible to mislead people with studies which do not test whether an experimental treatment is superior to another one (often called superiority trials), but which assess whether it is equivalent to a therapy that is generally accepted to be effective. The idea is that, if both treatments produce similarly positive results, both must be effective. Such trials are called non-superiority or equivalence trials, and they offer a wide range of possibilities for misleading us. If, for example, such a trial has not enough patients, it might show no difference where, in fact, there is one. Let’s consider a simple, hypothetical example: someone comes up with the idea to compare antibiotics to acupuncture as treatments of bacterial pneumonia in elderly patients. The researchers recruit 10 patients for each group, and the results reveal that, in one group, 2 patients died, while, in the other, the number was 3. The statistical tests show that the difference of just one patient is not statistically significant, and the authors therefore conclude that acupuncture is just as good for bacterial infections as antibiotics.
Even trickier is the option to under-dose the treatment given to the control group in an equivalence trial. In the above example, the investigators might subsequently recruit hundreds of patients in an attempt to overcome the criticism of their first study; they then decide to administer a sub-therapeutic dose of the antibiotic in the control group. The results would then seemingly confirm the researchers’ initial finding, namely that acupuncture is as good as the antibiotic for pneumonia. Acupuncturists might then claim that their treatment has been proven in a very large randomised clinical trial to be effective for treating this condition. People who do not happen to know the correct dose of the antibiotic could easily be fooled into believing them.
Obviously, the results would be more impressive, if the control group in an equivalence trial received a therapy which is not just ineffective but actually harmful. In such a scenario, even the most useless SCAM would appear to be effective simply because it is less harmful than the comparator.
A variation of this theme is the plethora of controlled clinical trials in SCAM which compare one unproven therapy to another unproven treatment. Perdicatbly, the results would often indicate that there is no difference in the clinical outcome experienced by the patients in the two groups. Enthusiastic SCAM researchers then tend to conclude that this proves both treatments to be equally effective. The more likely conclusion, however, is that both are equally useless.
Another technique for misleading the public is to draw conclusions which are not supported by the data. Imagine you have generated squarely negative data with a trial of homeopathy. As an enthusiast of homeopathy, you are far from happy with your own findings; in addition you might have a sponsor who puts pressure on you. What can you do? The solution is simple: you only need to highlight at least one positive message in the published article. In the case of homeopathy, you could, for instance, make a major issue about the fact that the treatment was remarkably safe and cheap: not a single patient died, most were very pleased with the treatment which was not even very expensive.
A further popular method for misleading the public is the outright omission findings that SCAM researchers do not like. If the aim is that the public believe the myth that all SCAM is free of side-effects, SCAM researchers only need to omit reporting them in clinical trials. On this blog, I have alerted my readers time and time again to this common phenomenon. We even assessed it in a systematic review. Sixty RCTs of chiropractic were included. Twenty-nine RCTs did not mention adverse effects at all. Sixteen RCTs reported that no adverse effects had occurred. Complete information on incidence, severity, duration, frequency and method of reporting of adverse effects was included in only one RCT.
Most trails have many outcome measures; for instance, a study of acupuncture for pain-control might quantify pain in half a dozen different ways, it might also measure the length of the treatment until pain has subsided, the amount of medication the patients took in addition to receiving acupuncture, the days off work because of pain, the partner’s impression of the patient’s health status, the quality of life of the patient, the frequency of sleep being disrupted by pain etc. If the researchers then evaluate all the results, they are likely to find that one or two of them have changed in the direction they wanted (especially, if they also include half a dozen different time points at which these variables are quatified). This can well be a chance finding: with the typical statistical tests, one in 20 outcome measures would produce a significant result purely by chance. In order to mislead us, the researchers only need to “forget” about all the negative results and focus their publication on the ones which by chance have come out as they had hoped.
When it come to fraud, there is more to chose from than one would have ever wished for. We and others have, for example, shown that Chinese trials of acupuncture hardly ever produce a negative finding. In other words, one does not need to read the paper, one already knows that it is positive – even more extreme: one does not need to conduct the study, one already knows the result before the research has started. This strange phenomenon indicates that something is amiss with Chinese acupuncture research. This suspicion was even confirmed by a team of Chinese scientists. In this systematic review, all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of acupuncture published in Chinese journals were identified by a team of Chinese scientists. A total of 840 RCTs were found, including 727 RCTs comparing acupuncture with conventional treatment, 51 RCTs with no treatment controls, and 62 RCTs with sham-acupuncture controls. Among theses 840 RCTs, 838 studies (99.8%) reported positive results from primary outcomes and two trials (0.2%) reported negative results. The percentages of RCTs concealment of the information on withdraws or sample size calculations were 43.7%, 5.9%, 4.9%, 9.9%, and 1.7% respectively. The authors concluded that publication bias might be major issue in RCTs on acupuncture published in Chinese journals reported, which is related to high risk of bias. We suggest that all trials should be prospectively registered in international trial registry in future.
A survey of clinical trials in China has revealed fraudulent practice on a massive scale. China’s food and drug regulator carried out a one-year review of clinical trials. They concluded that more than 80 percent of clinical data is “fabricated“. The review evaluated data from 1,622 clinical trial programs of new pharmaceutical drugs awaiting regulator approval for mass production. Officials are now warning that further evidence malpractice could still emerge in the scandal.
I hasten to add that fraud in SCAM research is certainly not confined to China. On this blog, you will find plenty of evidence for this statement, I am sure.
Research is obviously necessary, if we want to answer the many open questions in SCAM. But sadly, not all research is reliable and much of SCAM research is misleading. Therefore, it is always necessary to be on the alert and apply all the skills of critical evaluation we can muster.
Misinformation by chiropractors is unfortunately nothing new and has been discussed ad nauseam on this blog. It is tempting to ask whether chiropractors have lost (or more likely never had) the ability to ditinguish real information from misinformation or substantiated from unsubstantiated claims. During the pandemic, the phenomenon of chiropractic misinformation has become even more embarrassingly obvious, as this new article highlights.
Chiropractors made statements on social media claiming that chiropractic treatment can prevent or impact COVID-19. The rationale for these claims is that spinal manipulation can impact the nervous system and thus improve immunity. These beliefs often stem from nineteenth-century chiropractic concepts. The authors of the paper are aware of no clinically relevant scientific evidence to support such statements.
The investigators explored the internet and social media to collect examples of misinformation from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand regarding the impact of chiropractic treatment on immune function. They discussed the potential harm resulting from these claims and explore the role of chiropractors, teaching institutions, accrediting agencies, and legislative bodies.
The authors conclude as follows: In this search of public media in Europe, North America, New Zealand, and Australia, we discovered many cases of misinformation. Claims of chiropractic treatment improving immunity conflict with the advice from authorities and the scientific consensus. The science referenced by these claims is missing, flawed or has no clinical relevance. Consequently, their claims about clinical effectiveness are spurious at best and misleading at worst. However, our examples cannot be used to make statements about the magnitude of the problem among practitioners as our samples were not intended to be representative. For that reason, we also did not include an analysis of the arguments provided in the various postings. In view of the seriousness of the topic, it would be relevant to conduct a systematic study on a representative sample of public statements, to better understand these issues. Our search illustrates the possible danger to public health of misinformation posted on social media and the internet. This situation provides an opportunity for growth and maturation for the chiropractic profession. We hope that individual chiropractors will reflect on and improve their communication and practices. Further, we hope that the chiropractic teaching institutions, regulators, and professional organisations will always demonstrate responsible leadership in their respective domains by acting to ensure that all chiropractors understand and uphold their fiduciary duties.
Several previous papers have found similar things, e.g.: Twitter activity about SMT and immunity increased during the COVID-19 crisis. Results from this work have the potential to help policy makers and others understand the impact of SMT misinformation and devise strategies to mitigate its impact.
The pandemic has crystallised the embarrassment about chiropractic false claims. Yet, the phenomenon of chiropractors misleading the public has long been known and arguably is even more important when it relates to matters other than COVID-19. Ten years ago, we published this paper:
Background: Some chiropractors and their associations claim that chiropractic is effective for conditions that lack sound supporting evidence or scientific rationale. This study therefore sought to determine the frequency of World Wide Web claims of chiropractors and their associations to treat, asthma, headache/migraine, infant colic, colic, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain, whiplash (not supported by sound evidence), and lower back pain (supported by some evidence).
Methods: A review of 200 chiropractor websites and 9 chiropractic associations’ World Wide Web claims in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States was conducted between 1 October 2008 and 26 November 2008. The outcome measure was claims (either direct or indirect) regarding the eight reviewed conditions, made in the context of chiropractic treatment.
Results: We found evidence that 190 (95%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims regarding at least one of the conditions. When colic and infant colic data were collapsed into one heading, there was evidence that 76 (38%) chiropractor websites made unsubstantiated claims about all the conditions not supported by sound evidence. Fifty-six (28%) websites and 4 of the 9 (44%) associations made claims about lower back pain, whereas 179 (90%) websites and all 9 associations made unsubstantiated claims about headache/migraine. Unsubstantiated claims were made about asthma, ear infection/earache/otitis media, neck pain,
Conclusions: The majority of chiropractors and their associations in the English-speaking world seem to make therapeutic claims that are not supported by sound evidence, whilst only 28% of chiropractor websites promote lower back pain, which is supported by some evidence. We suggest the ubiquity of the unsubstantiated claims constitutes an ethical and public health issue.
It makes it clear that the misleading information of chiropractors is a serious problem. And I find it disappointing to see that so little has been done about it, and that progress seems so ellusive.
This, of course, begs the question, where does all this misinformation come from? The authors of the new paper stated that beliefs often stem from nineteenth-century chiropractic concepts. This, I believe, is very true and it gives us an important clue. It suggests that, because it is good for business, chiro schools are still steeped in obsolete notions of pseudo- and anti-science. Thus, year after year, they seem to churn out new generations of naively willing victims of the Dunning Kruger effect.
We have often heard it said on this blog and elsewhere that chiropractors are making great strides towards reforming themselves and becoming an evidence-based profession. In view of the data cited above, this does not ring all that true, I am afraid. Is the picture that emerges not one of a profession deeply embroiled in BS with but a few fighting a lost battle to clean up the act?
Today, HRH the Prince of Wales has his 72th birthday. As every year, I send him my best wishes by dedicating an entire post to a brief, updated summary of his achievements in the area of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).
EARLY INFLUENCE OF LAURENCE VAN DER POST
Aged 18, Charles went on a journey of ‘spiritual discovery’ into the Kalahari desert. His guide was Laurens van der Post (later discovered to be a fraud and compulsive fantasist and to have fathered a child with a 14-year old girl entrusted to him during a sea voyage). Van der Post wanted to awake Charles’ mind and attune it to the ideas of Carl Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’, and it is this belief in vitalism that provides the crucial link to SCAM: virtually every form of SCAM is based on the assumption that some sort of vital force exists. Charles was impressed with van der Post that he made him the godfather of Prince William. After Post’s death, he established an annual lecture in his honour (the lecture series was quickly discontinued after van der Post was discovered to be a fraud).
CHIROPRACTIC and OSTEOPATHY
Throughout the 1980s, Charles lobbied for the statutory regulation of chiropractors and osteopaths in the UK. In 1993, this finally became reality. To this day, these two SCAM professions are the only ones regulated by statute in the UK.
THE BRITISH MEDICAL ASSOCIATION
In 1982, Prince Charles was elected as President of the British Medical Association (BMA) and promptly challenged the medical orthodoxy by advocating SCAM. In a speech at his inaugural dinner as President, the Prince lectured the medics: ‘Through the centuries healing has been practised by folk healers who are guided by traditional wisdom which sees illness as a disorder of the whole person, involving not only the patient’s body, but his mind, his self-image, his dependence on the physical and social environment, as well as his relation to the cosmos.’ The BMA-officials ordered a full report on alternative medicine which promptly condemned this area as implausible nonsense.
Six years later, a second report, entitled ‘Complementary Medicine – New Approaches to Good Practice’, heralded U-turn stating that: “the demand for non-conventional therapies had become so pressing that organised medicine in Britain could no longer ignore its contribution“. At the same time, however, the BMA set in motion a further chapter in the history of SCAM by insisting that it was “unacceptable” to allow the unrestricted practice of non-conventional therapies, irrespective of training or experience.
THE FOUNDATION OF INTEGRATED HEALTH
In 1993, Charles founded his lobby group which, after being re-named several times, ended up being called the ‘Foundation for Integrated Health’ (FIH). It was closed down in 2010 amidst allegations of money laundering and fraud. Its chief executive, George Gray, was later convicted and went to jail.
In 2001, Charles worked on plans to help build a model hospital of integrated medicine. It was to train doctors to combine conventional medicine and SCAMs, such as homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine and acupuncture, and was to have around 100 beds. The prince’s intervention marked the culmination of years of campaigning by him for the NHS to assign a greater role to SCAM.
In 2001, Charles published an editorial in the BMJ promoting his ideas around integrative medicine. Its title: THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS. Ever since, Charles has been internationally recognised as one of the world’s most vociferous champions of integrated medicine.
In 2004, Charles publicly supported the Gerson diet as a treatment for cancer. Prof Baum, an eminent oncologists, was invited to respond in an open letter to the British Medical Journal: ” …Over the past 20 years I have treated thousands of patients with cancer and lost some dear friends and relatives to this dreaded disease…The power of my authority comes with knowledge built on 40 years of study and 25 years of active involvement in cancer research. Your power and authority rest on an accident of birth. I don’t begrudge you that authority but I do beg you to exercise your power with extreme caution when advising patients with life-threatening diseases to embrace unproven therapies.”
THE SMALLWOOD REPORT
In 2005, the ‘Smallwood-Report’ was published; it had been commissioned by Charles and paid for by Dame Shirley Porter to inform health ministers. It stated that up to 480 million pounds could be saved, if one in 10 family doctors offered homeopathy as an “alternative” to standard drugs for asthma. Savings of up to 3.5 billion pounds could be achieved by offering spinal manipulation rather than drugs to people with back pain. Because I had commented on this report, Prince Charles’ first private secretary asked my vice chancellor to investigate the alleged indiscretion; even though I was found to be not guilty of any wrong-doing, all local support at Exeter stopped which eventually led to my early retirement.
WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION
In a 2006 speech, Prince Charles told the World Health Organisation in Geneva that SCAM should have a more prominent place in health care and urged every country to come up with a plan to integrate conventional and alternative medicine into the mainstream. Anticipating Prince Charles’s sermon in Geneva, 13 of Britain’s most eminent physicians and scientists wrote an “Open Letter” which expressed concern over “ways in which unproven or disproved treatments are being encouraged for general use in Britain’s National Health Service.” The signatories argued that “it would be highly irresponsible to embrace any medicine as though it were a matter of principle.”
TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE (TCM)
In 2007, the People’s Republic of China recorded the visit of Fu Ying, its ambassador in London at the time, to Clarence House, and announced that the Charles had praised TCM. “He hoped that it could be included in the modern medical system . . . and was willing to make a contribution to it.”
In 2009, the Prince held talks with the health Secretary to persuade him to introduce safeguards amid a crackdown by the EU that could prevent anyone who is not a registered health practitioner from selling remedies.
In the same year, Charles urged the government to protect SCAM because “we fear that we will see a black market in herbal products”, as Dr Michael Dixon, medical director of the FIH and Charles’ advisor in SCAM, put it.
UK HEALTH POLITICS
In 2009, the health secretary wrote to the Prince suggesting a meeting on the possibility of a study on integrating SCAM in England’s NHS. The Prince had written to Burnham’s predecessor, Alan Johnson, demanding greater access to SCAM in the NHS alongside conventional medicine. Charles stated that “despite waves of invective over the years from parts of the medical and scientific establishment” he continued to lobby “because I cannot bear people suffering unnecessarily when a complementary approach could make a real difference”.
In June 2014, BBC NEWS published the following text about a BBC4 broadcast entitled ‘THE ROYAL ACTIVIST’ aired on the same day: Prince Charles has been a well-known supporter of complementary medicine. According to a… former Labour cabinet minister, Peter Hain, it was a topic they shared an interest in. He had been constantly frustrated at his inability to persuade any health ministers anywhere that that was a good idea, and so he, as he once described it to me, found me unique from this point of view, in being somebody that actually agreed with him on this, and might want to deliver it. Mr Hain added: “When I was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2005-7, he was delighted when I told him that since I was running the place I could more or less do what I wanted to do. I was able to introduce a trial for complementary medicine on the NHS, and it had spectacularly good results, that people’s well-being and health was vastly improved. And when he learnt about this he was really enthusiastic and tried to persuade the Welsh government to do the same thing and the government in Whitehall to do the same thing for England, but not successfully,” added Mr Hain.
In October 2015, the Guardian obtained the infamous “black spider memos” which revealed that Charles had repeatedly lobbied politicians in favour of SCAM.
THE COLLEGE OF MEDICINE
In 2009, it was announced that the ‘College of Integrated Medicine’ (the successor of the FIH) was to have a second base in India. In 2011, Charles forged a link between ‘The College of Medicine’ and an Indian holistic health centre. The collaboration was reported to include clinical training to European and Western doctors in Ayurveda and homoeopathy and traditional forms of medicine to integrate them in their practice. The foundation stone for the extended campus of the Royal College known as the International Institution for Holistic and Integrated Medicine was laid by Dr Michael Dixon in collaboration with the Royal College of Medicine.
In 2020, Charles became the patron of the College of Medicine which, by then, had re-christened itself ‘College of Medicine and Integrated Health’. The College chair, Michael Dixon, was quoted stating: ‘This is a great honour and will support us as an organisation committed to taking medicine beyond drugs and procedures. This generous royal endorsement will enable us to be ever more ambitious in our mission to achieve a more compassionate and sustainable health service.”
DUTCHY ORIGINALS DETOX TINCTURE
In 2011, after the launch of Charles’ range of herbal tinctures, I had the audacity to publicly criticise Charles for selling the Duchy Herbals detox tincture which I named ‘Dodgy Originals Detox Tincture’.
In 2016, speaking at a global leaders summit on antimicrobial resistance, Prince Charles warned that Britain faced a “potentially disastrous scenario” because of the “overuse and abuse” of antibiotics. The Prince explained that he had switched to organic farming on his estates because of the growing threat from antibiotic resistance and now treats his cattle with homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medication. As some of you may be aware, this issue has been a long-standing and acute concern to me,” he told delegates from 20 countries “I have enormous sympathy for those engaged in the vital task of ensuring that, as the world population continues to increase unsustainably and travel becomes easier, antibiotics retain their availability to overcome disease… It must be incredibly frustrating to witness the fact that antibiotics have too often simply acted as a substitute for basic hygiene, or as it would seem, a way of placating a patient who has a viral infection or who actually needs little more than patience to allow a minor bacterial infection to resolve itself.”
In 2017, Charles declared that he will open a centre for SCAM in the recently purchased Dumfries House in Scotland. Currently, the College of Medicine and Integrated Health is offering two-day Foundation Courses at this iconic location. Gabriel Chiu, a US celebrity cosmetic and reconstructive surgeon, and his wife Christine, joined the Prince of Wales as he opened the integrated health and wellbeing centre on the Dumfries House Estate in East Ayrshire in 2019. As he unveiled a plaque, Prince Charles said: “I’m so glad that all of you have been able to get here today, particularly because I could not be more proud to see the opening of this new integrated health centre at Dumfries House. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for the last 35 years. I’m also so proud of all the team at Dumfries House who built it, an all in-house team.”
Generations of royals have favoured homeopathy, and allegedly it is because of this influence that homeopathy became part of the NHS in 1948. Homeopathy has also been at the core of Charles’ obsession with SCAM from its beginning. In 2017, ‘Country News’ published an article about our heir to the throne stating that Prince of Wales has revealed he uses homeopathic treatments for animals on his organic farm at Highgrove to help reduce reliance on antibiotics, the article stated. He said his methods of farming tried wherever possible to ‘‘go with the grain of nature’’ to avoid dependency on antibiotics, pesticides and other forms of chemical intervention.
In the same year, it was revealed that UK farmers were being taught how to treat their livestock with homeopathy “by kind permission of His Royal Highness, The Prince Of Wales”
In 2019, the Faculty of Homeopathy announced that His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales had accepted to become Patron of the Faculty of Homeopathy. Dr Gary Smyth, President of the Faculty of Homeopathy commented, “As the Faculty celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, it is an enormous honour for us to receive the Patronage of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and I am delighted to announce this news today.” Charles’ move amazed observers who saw it as a deliberate protest against the discontinuation of reimbursement of homeopathy by the NHS.
In 2020, Charles fell ill with the corona-virus and happily made a swift recovery. It was widely reported that his recovery was due to homeopathy, a notion denied by Clarence House.
Happy Birthday Charles
Governments and key institutions have had to implement decisive responses to the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Imposed change will increase the likelihood that alternative explanations take hold. In a proportion of the general population there may be strong scepticism, fear of being misled, and false conspiracy theories.
The objectives of this survey were to estimate the prevalence of conspiracy thinking about the pandemic and test associations with reduced adherence to government guidelines. The survey was conducted in May 2020 as a non-probability online survey with 2501 adults in England, quota sampled to match the population for age, gender, income, and region.
Approximately 50% of this population showed little evidence of conspiracy thinking, 25% showed a degree of endorsement, 15% showed a consistent pattern of endorsement, and 10% had very high levels of endorsement. Higher levels of coronavirus conspiracy thinking were associated with less adherence to all government guidelines and less willingness to take diagnostic or antibody tests or to be vaccinated. Such ideas were also associated with
- general vaccination conspiracy beliefs,
- climate change conspiracy belief,
- a conspiracy mentality, and distrust in institutions and professions.
Holding coronavirus conspiracy beliefs was also associated with being more likely to share opinions.
The authors concluded that, in England, there is appreciable endorsement of conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus. Such ideas do not appear confined to the fringes. The conspiracy beliefs connect to other forms of mistrust and are associated with less compliance with government guidelines and greater unwillingness to take up future tests and treatment.
The authors also state that the coronavirus conspiracy ideas ascribe malevolent intent to individuals, groups, and organisations based on what are likely to be long-standing prejudices. For instance, almost half of participants endorsed to some degree the idea that ‘Coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by China to destroy the West’ and around one-fifth endorsed to some degree that ‘Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain’.
The survey did not include questions about so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). This is a great shame, in my view. We know from previous research that people who adhere to conspiracy theories feel strongly that SCAM is being suppressed via some sinister complot by the establishment. Moreover, we know that SCAM enthusiasts tend to believe in vaccination conspiracy theories. One might therefore expect that proponents of SCAM are also prone to conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus.
When reading some of the comments on this blog, I have little doubt that this is, in fact, the case.
This study assessed the patterns of dietary supplement usage among cancer survivors in the United States in a population-based setting. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) datasets (1999-2016) were accessed, and adult respondents (≥ 20 years old) with a known status of cancer diagnosis and a known status of dietary supplements intake were included. Multivariable logistic regression analysis was then used to assess factors associated with dietary supplements intake. Moreover, and to evaluate the impact of dietary supplements on overall survival among respondents with cancer, multivariable Cox regression analysis was conducted.
A total of 49,387 respondents were included in the current analysis, including a total of 4,575 respondents with cancer. Among respondents with cancer, 3,024 (66.1%) respondents reported the use of dietary supplements; while 1,551 (33.9%) did not report the use of dietary supplements. Using multivariable logistic regression analysis, factors associated with the use of dietary supplements included:
- older age (OR: 1.028; 95% CI: 1.027-1.030);
- white race (OR for black race vs. white race: 0.67; 95% CI: 0.63-0.72);
- female gender (OR for males vs. females: 0.56; 95% CI: 0.53-0.59),
- higher income (OR: 1.13; 95% CI: 1.11-1.14),
- higher educational level (0.59; 95% CI: 0.56-0.63),
- better self-reported health (OR: 1.36; 95% CI: 1.17-1.58),
- health insurance (OR: 1.35; 95% CI: 1.27-1.44),
- history of cancer (OR: 1.20; 95% CI: 1.10-1.31).
Using multivariable Cox regression analysis and within the subgroup of respondents with a history of cancer, the use of dietary supplements was not found to be associated with a difference in overall survival (HR: 1.13; 95% CI: 0.98-1.30).
The authors concluded that dietary supplement use has increased in the past two decades among individuals with cancer in the United States, and this increase seems to be driven mainly by an increase in the use of vitamins. The use of dietary supplements was not associated with any improvement in overall survival for respondents with cancer in the current study cohort.
Many cancer patients, when they first get diagnosed, are tested for vitamin D levels and found to be low or borderline. Consequently, they get a prescription for supplements. Other than this, there is rarely an indication to take any vitamins or other dietary supplements. Yet, cancer patients take them because they think these ‘natural’ preparations can do no harm (and because the industry can be persuasive [there is big money at stake] and the odd breed of ‘integrated’ oncologists might even recommend them). Sadly, this assumption is not correct. The biggest danger, in my view, is the possibility of supplements to interact with one of the many drugs that cancer patients need to take. So, in a way, it is reassuring that, on average, there is no detrimental effect on overall survival.
The paper will probably also reignite the perennial discussion about the effects of vitamin C on the natural history of cancer. My understanding is that there is none (and this verdict seems to be supported by the findings reported here). But I am, of course, aware that this is a ‘hot potato’ and that some readers will think differently. To them I say: please show me the evidence.
‘Infodemics’ are outbreaks of false information including rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories. All of these have been common during the COVID-19 pandemic. The detection, assessment, and response to rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories in real time are a challenge.
An international team of researchers followed and examined COVID-19-related rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories circulating on online platforms, including fact-checking agency websites, Facebook, Twitter, and online newspapers, and their impacts on public health. Information was extracted between December 31, 2019 and April 5, 2020, and descriptively analysed. The team performed a content analysis of the news articles to compare and contrast data collected from other sources.
The researchers identified 2,311 reports of rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories in 25 languages from 87 countries. Claims were related to:
- illness, transmission and mortality (24%),
- control measures (21%),
- treatment and cure (19%),
- cause of disease including the origin (15%),
- violence (1%),
- and miscellaneous (20%).
Of the 2,276 reports for which text ratings were available, 1,856 claims were false (82%).
The authors concluded that misinformation fuelled by rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially serious implications on the individual and community if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines. Health agencies must track misinformation associated with the COVID-19 in real time, and engage local communities and government stakeholders to debunk misinformation.
These findings are as perplexing as they are frightening. On this blog, we have since the beginning of the pandemic focussed on the SCAM for COVID-19. We have seen that this health crisis provided an occasion for almost any quackery on the planet:
- supplement salesmen,
- essential oil salesmen.
They all crept out of the woodwork. Their methods may differ, but their aim seems to be the same: to make a fast buck regardless of how many people their activities might kill.
On this blog, I have discussed the adverse events (AEs) of spinal manipulative therapy (SMT) with some regularity, and we have seen that ~ 50% of patients who receive SMT from a chiropractor experience some kind of AE. In addition there are many serious complications. In my book, I discuss, apart from the better-known vascular accidents followed by a stroke or death, the following:
- atlantoaxial dislocation,
- cauda equina syndrome,
- cervical radiculopathy,
- diaphragmatic paralysis,
- disrupted fracture healing,
- dural sleeve injury,
- haemorrhagic cysts,
- muscle abscess,
- muscle abscess,
- neurologic compromise,
- oesophageal rupture
- soft tissue trauma,
- spinal cord injury,
- vertebral disc herniation,
- vertebral fracture,
- central retinal artery occlusion,
- Wallenberg syndrome,
- loss of vision,
- Horner’s syndrome.
Considering this long list, we currently have far too little reliable information. A recent publication offers further information on this important topic.
The aim of this study was to identify beliefs, perceptions and practices of chiropractors and patients regarding benign AEs post-SMT and potential strategies to mitigate them. Clinicians and patients from two chiropractic teaching clinics were invited to respond to an 11-question survey exploring their beliefs, perceptions and practices regarding benign AEs post-SMT and strategies to mitigate them.
A total of 39 clinicians (67% response rate) and 203 patients (82.9% response rate) completed the survey. The results show that:
- 97% of the chiropractors believed benign AEs occur.
- 82% reported their own patients have experienced an AE.
- 55% of the patients reported experiencing benign AEs post-SMT, with the most common symptoms being pain/soreness, headache and stiffness.
- 61.5% of the chiropractors reported trying a mitigation strategy with their patients.
- Yet only 21.2% of patients perceived their clinicians had tried any mitigation strategy.
- Chiropractors perceived that patient education is most likely to mitigate benign AEs, followed by soft tissue therapy and/or icing after SMT.
- Patients perceived stretching was most likely to mitigate benign AEs, followed by education and/or massage
The authors concluded that this is the first study comparing beliefs, perceptions and practices from clinicians and patients regarding benign AEs post-SMT and strategies to mitigate them. This study provides an important step towards identifying the best strategies to improve patient safety and improve quality of care.
The question that I have often asked before, and I am bound to ask again after seeing such results, is this:
If there were a drug that causes temporary pain/soreness, headache and stiffness in 55% of all patients (plus an unknown frequency of a long list of serious complications), while being of uncertain benefit, do you think it would still be on the market?
Steiner with his wife (right) and Ita Wegman, his lover (left).
Anthroposophic medicine was founded by Steiner and Ita Wegman in the early 20th century. Currently, it is being promoted as an extension of conventional medicine. Proponents claim that “its unique understanding of the interplay among physiological, soul and spiritual processes in healing and illness serves to bridge allopathy with naturopathy, homeopathy, functional/nutritional medicine and other healing systems.” Its value has repeatedly been questioned, and clinical research in this area is often less than rigorous.
Anthroposophic education was developed in the Waldorf school that was founded by Steiner in 1919 to serve the children of employees of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Pupils of Waldorf or Steiner schools, as they are also frequently called, are encouraged to develop independent thinking and creativity, social responsibility, respect, and compassion.
Waldorf schools implicitly infuse spiritual and mystic concepts into their curriculum. Like some other alternative healthcare practitioners – for instance, doctors promoting integrative medicine, chiropractors, homeopaths and naturopaths – some doctors of anthroposophic medicine take a stance against childhood immunizations. In a 2011 paper, I summarised the evidence which showed that in the UK, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany, Waldorf schools have been at the centre of measles outbreaks due to their stance regarding immunisations.
More recently, a study evaluated trends in rates of personal belief exemptions (PBEs) to immunization requirements for private kindergartens in California that practice alternative educational methods. The investigators used California Department of Public Health data on kindergarten PBE rates from 2000 to 2014 to compare annual average increases in PBE rates between schools.
Alternative schools had an average PBE rate of 8.7%, compared with 2.1% among public schools. Waldorf schools had the highest average PBE rate of 45.1%, which was 19 times higher than in public schools (incidence rate ratio = 19.1; 95% confidence interval = 16.4, 22.2). Montessori and holistic schools had the highest average annual increases in PBE rates, slightly higher than Waldorf schools (Montessori: 8.8%; holistic: 7.1%; Waldorf: 3.6%).
The authors concluded that Waldorf schools had exceptionally high average PBE rates, and Montessori and holistic schools had higher annual increases in PBE rates. Children in these schools may be at higher risk for spreading vaccine-preventable diseases if trends are not reversed.
As the world is hoping for the arrival of an effective vaccine against the corona virus, these figures should concern us.
This recently published survey aimed to investigate the use of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) among long-term cancer survivors and its links with healthy behaviour. Data was used from the VICAN survey, conducted in 2015-2016 on a representative sample of French cancer survivors 5 years after diagnosis.
Among the 4174 participants, 21.4% reported using SCAM at the time of the survey, including 8.4% who reported uses not associated with cancer. The most frequently cited reasons for using SCAM were:
- to improve their physical well-being (83.0%),
- to strengthen their body (71.2%),
- to improve their emotional well-being (65.2%),
- to relieve the side effects of treatment (50.7%).
The SCAM users who reported using SCAM to cure cancer or prevent relapses (8.5% of the participants) also used SCAM for other reasons. They had more often experienced cancer progression, feared a recurrence, and had a poorer quality of life because of sequelae, pain, and fatigue. They also consulted their general practitioners more frequently and had changed their lifestyle by adopting more healthy practices.
The authors concluded that the use of SCAM is not an alternative but a complementary means of coping with impaired health. Further research is now required to determine whether the use of SCAM reflects a lifestyle change or whether it assists survivors rather to make behavioural changes.
The 2012 data from the same survey had previously reported that, among the participants, 16.4% claimed to have used SCAM, and 45.3% of this group had not used SCAM before cancer diagnosis (new SCAM users). Commonly, SCAMs used were:
- homeopathy (64.0%),
- acupuncture (22.1%),
- osteopathy (15.1%),
- herbal medicine (8.1%),
- diets (7.3%),
- energy therapies (5.8%).
SCAM use was found to be significantly associated with younger age, female gender and a higher education level. Previous SCAM use was significantly associated with having a managerial occupation and an expected 5-year survival rate ≥80% at diagnosis; recent SCAM use was associated with cancer progression since diagnosis, impaired quality of life and higher pain reports.
In nearly half of the SCAM users, cancer diagnosis was one of the main factors which incited patients to use SCAM. Opting for SCAM was a pragmatic response to needs which conventional medicine failed to meet during the course of the disease.
These surveys mostly confirm what has been shown over and over again in other countries. What I find remarkable with these results, however, is the increase in SCAM use over time and the extraordinary high use of homeopathy by French cancer patients (more recently, the reimbursement of homeopathy in France has changed, of course). As homeopathy has no effects beyond placebo, this suggests that SCAM use by French cancer patients is far from being driven by evidence.
So, what then does determine it?
My best answer I can give to this question is this: relentless promotion through pharmacies, advertisements and journalists. These have all been very powerful in France in relation to homeopathy (hardly surprising, as the world’s largest homeopathic producer, Boiron, is based in France).
This leads me to the conclusion that SCAM is far more commercially driven than its enthusiasts would ever admit. They think of the pharmaceutical industry as the evil exploiter of the sick. It is now time to realise that the SCAM industry is, to a large extent, part of the pharmaceutical industry and often behaves just as badly or even worse: because what could be more unethical that selling placebos to desperate and vulnerable cancer patients?
When I discuss published articles on this blog, I usually focus on recent papers. Not so today! Today I write about a small study we published 17 years ago. It was conducted in Canada by researchers whom I merely assisted in designing the protocol and interpreting the findings.
They trained 8 helpers to pretend being customers of health food stores. They entered individually into assigned stores; the helpers had been informed to browse in the store until approached by an employee. At this time they would declare that their mother has breast cancer. They disclosed information on their mother’s condition, use of chemotherapy (Tamoxifen) and physician visits, only if asked. The helpers would then ask what the employee recommend for this condition. They followed a structured, memorized, pretested questionnaire that asked about product usage, dosage, cost, employee education and product safety or potential for drug interactions.
The helpers recorded which products were recommended by the health food store employees, along with the recommended dose and price per product as well as price per month. Additionally, they inquired about where the employee had obtained information on the recommended products. They also noted whether the employees referred them on to SCAM practitioners or recommended that they consult a physician. Full notes on the encounters were written immediately after leaving the store.
The findings were impressive. Of the 34 stores that met our inclusion criteria, 27 recommended SCAMs; a total of 33 different products were recommended. Here are some further findings:
- Essiac was recommended most frequently.
- The mean cost of the recommended products per month was $58.09 (CAD) (minimum $5.28, median $32.99, maximum $600).
- Twenty-three employees (68%) did not ask whether the patient took prescription medications.
- Fifteen (44%) employees recommended visiting a healthcare professional; these included: naturopaths (9), physicians (5) and nutritionists (1).
- Health food store employees relied on a variety of sources of information. Twelve employees (35%) said they had received their information from books, 5 (15%) from a supplier, 3 (9%) had formal education in SCAM, 2 (6%) had in-store training, and 12 (35%) did not disclose their sources of information.
- Pharmacies and HFS in Greater Wellington provided potentially hazardous advice, recommending products, often branded for pregnancy, which contradicted NZ MOH guidelines. Regulatory reform of CAM products and those who sell them is called for in New Zealand.
- …only about one-quarter [of health food stores (HFSs)] gave appropriate advice regarding possible interactions with warfarin and management of anticoagulation compared with two-thirds of pharmacies.
- HFS promoting herbal products for medical conditions should be regulated in a similar fashion to shops that dispense pharmaceutical products.
- Staff in 25 out of 26 health food stores did not refer the researcher to a medical practitioner; instead they recommended and sold a wide variety of compounds of unproven efficacy
- Store personnel readily provided information and product recommendations, with shark cartilage being the most frequent.
But why do I mention all this today?
The answer is that firstly, I think it is important to warn consumers of the often dangerous advice they might receive in HFSs. Secondly, I feel it would worthwhile to do further research, check whether the situation has changed and repeat a similar study today. Ideally, a new investigation should be conducted in different locations comparing several countries. If you have the possibility to plan and conduct such an experiment, please drop me a line.