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

systematic review

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One of the favourite arguments of proponents of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is that conventional medicine is amongst the world’s biggest killers. The argument is used cleverly to discredit conventional medicine and promote SCAM. It has been shown to be wrong many times, but it nevertheless is much-loved by SCAM enthusiasts and thus refuses to disappear. Perhaps this new and important review might help instilling some realism into this endless discussion? Here is its abstract:

Objective To systematically quantify the prevalence, severity, and nature of preventable patient harm across a range of medical settings globally.

Design Systematic review and meta-analysis.

Data sources Medline, PubMed, PsycINFO, Cinahl and Embase, WHOLIS, Google Scholar, and SIGLE from January 2000 to January 2019. The reference lists of eligible studies and other relevant systematic reviews were also searched.

Review methods Observational studies reporting preventable patient harm in medical care. The core outcomes were the prevalence, severity, and types of preventable patient harm reported as percentages and their 95% confidence intervals. Data extraction and critical appraisal were undertaken by two reviewers working independently. Random effects meta-analysis was employed followed by univariable and multivariable meta regression. Heterogeneity was quantified by using the I2 statistic, and publication bias was evaluated.

Results Of the 7313 records identified, 70 studies involving 337 025 patients were included in the meta-analysis. The pooled prevalence for preventable patient harm was 6% (95% confidence interval 5% to 7%). A pooled proportion of 12% (9% to 15%) of preventable patient harm was severe or led to death. Incidents related to drugs (25%, 95% confidence interval 16% to 34%) and other treatments (24%, 21% to 30%) accounted for the largest proportion of preventable patient harm. Compared with general hospitals (where most evidence originated), preventable patient harm was more prevalent in advanced specialties (intensive care or surgery; regression coefficient b=0.07, 95% confidence interval 0.04 to 0.10).

Conclusions Around one in 20 patients are exposed to preventable harm in medical care. Although a focus on preventable patient harm has been encouraged by the international patient safety policy agenda, there are limited quality improvement practices specifically targeting incidents of preventable patient harm rather than overall patient harm (preventable and non-preventable). Developing and implementing evidence-based mitigation strategies specifically targeting preventable patient harm could lead to major service quality improvements in medical care which could also be more cost effective.

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One in 20 patients is undoubtedly an unacceptably high proportion, but it is nowhere close to some of the extraordinarily alarming claims by SCAM enthusiasts. And, as I try regularly to remind people, the harm must be viewed in relation to the benefit. For the vast majority of conventional treatments, the benefits outweigh the risks. But, if there is no benefit at all – as with some form of SCAM – a risk/benefit balance can never be positive. Moreover, many experts work hard and do their very best to improve the risk/benefit balance of conventional healthcare by educating clinicians, maximising the benefits, minimising the risks, and filling the gaps in our current knowledge. Do equivalent activities exist in SCAM? The answer is VERY FEW?

Treating children is an important income stream for chiropractors and osteopaths. There is plenty of evidence to suspect that their spinal manipulations generate more harm than good; on this blog, we have discussed this problem more often than I care to remember (see for instance here, here, here, here and here). Yet, osteopaths and chiropractors carry on misleading parents to abuse their children with ineffective and dangerous spinal manipulations. A new and thorough assessment of the evidence seems to confirm this suspicion.

This systematic review evaluated the evidence for effectiveness and harms of specific SMT techniques for infants, children and adolescents. Controlled studies, describing primary SMT treatment in infants (<1 year) and children/adolescents (1-18 years), were included to determine effectiveness.

Of the 1,236 identified studies, 26 studies were eligible. Infants and children/adolescents were treated for various (non-)musculoskeletal indications, hypothesized to be related to spinal joint dysfunction. Studies examining the same population, indication and treatment comparison were scarce. The results showed that:

  • Due to very low quality evidence, it is uncertain whether gentle, low-velocity mobilizations reduce complaints in infants with colic or torticollis, and whether high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulations reduce complaints in children/adolescents with autism, asthma, nocturnal enuresis, headache or idiopathic scoliosis.
  • Five case reports described severe harms after HVLA manipulations in 4 infants and one child. Mild, transient harms were reported after gentle spinal mobilizations in infants and children, and could be interpreted as side effect of treatment.

The authors concluded that due to very low quality of the evidence, the effectiveness of gentle, low-velocity mobilizations in infants and HVLA manipulations in children and/or adolescents is uncertain. Assessments of intermediate outcomes are lacking in current pediatric SMT research. Therefore, the relationship between specific treatment and its effect on the hypothesized spinal dysfunction remains unclear. Gentle, low-velocity spinal mobilizations seem to be a safe treatment technique. Although scarcely reported, HVLA manipulations in infants and young children could lead to severe harms. Severe harms were likely to be associated with unexamined or missed underlying medical pathology. Nevertheless, there is a need for high quality research to increase certainty about effectiveness and safety of specific SMT techniques in infants, children and adolescents. We encourage conduction of controlled studies that focus on the effectiveness of specific SMT techniques on spinal dysfunction, instead of concluding about SMT as a general treatment approach. Large observational studies could be conducted to monitor the course of complaints/symptoms in children and to gain a greater understanding of potential harms.

The situation regarding spinal manipulation for children might be summarised as follows:

  1. Spinal manipulations are not demonstrably effective for paediatric conditions.
  2. They can cause serious direct and indirect harm.
  3. Chiropractors and osteopaths are not usually competent to treat children.
  4. They nevertheless treat children regularly.

In my view, this is unethical and can amount to child abuse.

George Vithoulkas, has been mentioned on this blog repeatedly. He is a lay homeopath – one that has no medical background – and has, over the years, become an undisputed hero within the world of homeopathy. Yet, Vithoulkas’ contribution to homeopathy research is perilously close to zero. Judging from a recent article in which he outlines the rules of rigorous research, his understanding of research methodology is even closer to zero. Here is a crucial excerpt from this paper intercepted by a few comment from me in brackets and bold print.

Which are [the] homoeopathic principles to be respected [in clinical trials and meta-analyses]?

1. Homoeopathy does not treat diseases, but only diseased individuals. Therefore, every case may need a different remedy although the individuals may be suffering from the same pathology. This rule was violated by almost all the trials in most meta-analyses. (This statement is demonstrably false; there even has been a meta-analysis of 32 trials that respect this demand)

2. In the homoeopathic treatment of serious chronic pathology, if the remedy is correct usually a strong initial aggravation takes place []. Such an aggravation may last from a few hours to a few weeks and even then we may have a syndrome-shift and not the therapeutic results expected. If the measurements take place in the aggravation period, the outcome will be classified negative. (Homeopathic aggravations exist only in the mind of homeopaths; our systematic review failed to find proof for their existence.)

This factor was also ignored in most trials []. At least sufficient time should be given in the design of the trial, in order to account for the aggravation period. The contrary happened in a recent study [], where the aggravation period was evaluated as a negative sign and the homoeopathic group was pronounced worse than the placebo []. (There are plenty of trials where the follow-up period is long enough to account for this [non-existing] phenomenon.)

3. In severe chronic conditions, the homoeopath may need to correctly prescribe a series of remedies before the improvement is apparent. Such a second or third prescription should take place only after evaluating the effects of the previous remedies []. Again, this rule has also been ignored in most studies. (Again, this is demonstrably wrong; there are many trials where the homeopath was able to adjust his/her prescription according to the clinical response of the patient.)

4. As the prognosis of a chronic condition and the length of time after which any amelioration set in may differ from one to another case [], the treatment and the study-design respectively should take into consideration the length of time the disease was active and also the severity of the case. (This would mean that conditions that have a short history, like post-operative ileus, bruising after injury, common cold, etc. should respond well after merely a short treatment with homeopathics. As this is not so, Vithoulkas’ argument seems to be invalid.)

5. In our experience, Homeopathy has its best results in the beginning stages of chronic diseases, where it might be possible to prevent the further development of the chronic state and this is its most important contribution. Examples of pathologies to be included in such RCTs trials are ulcerative colitis, sinusitis, asthma, allergic conditions, eczema, gangrene rheumatoid arthritis as long as they are within the first six months of their appearance. (Why then is there a lack of evidence that any of the named conditions respond to homeopathy?)

In conclusion, three points should be taken into consideration relating to trials that attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of homoeopathy.

First, it is imperative that from the point of view of homoeopathy, the above-mentioned principles should be discussed with expert homoeopaths before researchers undertake the design of any homoeopathic protocol. (I am not aware of any trial where this was NOT done!)

Second, it would be helpful if medical journals invited more knowledgeable peer-reviewers who understand the principles of homoeopathy. (I am not aware of any trial where this was NOT done!)

Third, there is a need for at least one standardized protocol for clinical trials that will respect not only the state-of-the-art parameters from conventional medicine but also the homoeopathic principles []. (Any standardised protocol would be severely criticised; a good study protocol must always take account of the specific research question and therefore cannot be standardised.)

Fourth, experience so far has shown that the therapeutic results in homeopathy vary according to the expertise of the practitioner. Therefore, if the objective is to validate the homeopathic therapeutic modality, the organizers of the trial have to pick the best possible prescribers existing in the field. (I am not aware of any trial where this was NOT done!)

Only when these points are transposed and put into practice, the trials will be respected and accepted by both homoeopathic practitioners and conventional medicine and can be eligible for meta-analysis.

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I suspect what the ‘GREAT VITHOULKAS’ really wanted to express are ‘THE TWO ESSENTIAL PRINCIPLES OF HOMEOPATHY RESEARCH’:

  1. A well-designed study of homeopathy can always be recognised by its positive result.
  2. Any trial that fails to yield a positive finding is, by definition, wrongly designed.

This press-release caught my attention:

Following the publication in Australia earlier this year of a video showing a chiropractor treating a baby, the Health Minster for the state of Victoria called for the prohibition of chiropractic spinal manipulation for children under the age of 12 years. As a result, an independent panel has been appointed by Safer Care Victoria to examine the evidence and provide recommendations for the chiropractic care of children.

The role of the panel is to (a) examine and assess the available evidence, including information from consumers, providers, and other stakeholders, for the use of spinal manipulation by chiropractors on children less than 12 years of age and (b) provide recommendations regarding this practice to the Victorian Minister for Health.
Members of the public and key stakeholders, including the WFC’s member for Australia, the Australia Chiropractors Association (AusCA), were invited to submit observations. The AusCA’s submission can be read here

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This submission turns out to be lengthy and full of irrelevant platitudes, repetitions and nonsense. In fact, it is hard to find in it any definitive statements at all. Here are two sections (both in bold print) which I found noteworthy:

1. There is no need to restrict parental or patient choice for chiropractic care for children under 12 years of age as there is no evidence of harm. There is however, expressed outcome of benefit by parents70 who actively choose chiropractic care for their children … 

No evidence of harm? Really! This is an outright lie. Firstly, one has to stress that there is no monitoring system and that therefore we simply do not learn about adverse effects. Secondly, there is no reason to assume that the adverse effects that have been reported in adults are not also relevant for children. Thirdly, adverse effects in children have been reported; see for instance here. Fourthly, we need to be aware of the fact that any ineffective therapy causes harm by preventing effective therapies from being applied. And fifthly, we need to remember that some chiropractors harm children by advising their parents against vaccination.

2. Three recent systematic reviews have focused on the effectiveness of manual therapy for paediatric conditions. For example, Lanaro et al. assessed osteopathic manipulative treatment for use on preterm infants. This systematic review looked at five clinical trials and found a reduction of length of stay and costs in a large population of preterm infants with no adverse events (96).

Carnes et al.’s 2018 systematic review focused on unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants following any type of manual therapy. Of the seven clinical trials included, five involved chiropractic manipulative therapy; however, meta-analyses of outcomes were not possible due to the heterogeneity of the clinical trials. The review also analysed an additional 12 observational studies: seven case series, three cohort studies, one service evaluation survey, and one qualitative study. Overall, the systematic review concluded that small benefits were found. Additionally, the reporting of adverse events was low. Interestingly, when a relative risk analysis was done, those who had manual therapy were found to have an 88% reduced risk of having an adverse event compared to those who did not have manual therapy (97).

A third systematic review by Parnell Prevost et al. in 2019 evaluated the effectiveness of any paediatric condition following manual therapy of any type and summarizes the findings of studies of children 18 years of age or younger, as well as all adverse event information. While mostly inconclusive data were found due to lack of high-quality studies, of the 32 clinical trials and 18 observational studies included, favourable outcomes were found for all age groups, including improvements in suboptimal breastfeeding and musculoskeletal conditions. Adverse events were mentioned in only 24 of the included studies with no serious adverse events reported in them (98).

(96) Lanaro D, Ruffini N, Manzotti A, Lista G. Osteopathic manipulative treatment showed reduction of length of stay and costs in preterm infants: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2017; 96(12):e6408 10.1097/MD.0000000000006408.

(97) Carnes D, Plunkett A, Ellwood J, Miles C. Manual therapy for unsettled, distressed and excessively crying infants: a systematic review and meta-analyses. BMJ Open 2018;8:e019040. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019040.

(98) Parnell Prevost et al. 2019.

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And here are my comments:

(96) Lanaro et al is about osteopathy, not chiropractic (4 of the 5 primary trials were by the same research group).

(97) The review by Carnes et al has been discussed previously on this blog. This is what I wrote about it at the time:

The authors concluded that some small benefits were found, but whether these are meaningful to parents remains unclear as does the mechanisms of action. Manual therapy appears relatively safe.

For several reasons, I find this review, although technically sound, quite odd.

Why review uncontrolled data when RCTs are available?

How can a qualitative study be rated as high quality for assessing the effectiveness of a therapy?

How can the authors categorically conclude that there were benefits when there were only 4 RCTs of high quality?

Why do they not explain the implications of none of the RCTs being placebo-controlled?

How can anyone pool the results of all types of manual therapies which, as most of us know, are highly diverse?

How can the authors conclude about the safety of manual therapies when most trials failed to report on this issue?

Why do they not point out that this is unethical?

My greatest general concern about this review is the overt lack of critical input. A systematic review is not a means of promoting an intervention but of critically assessing its value. This void of critical thinking is palpable throughout the paper. In the discussion section, for instance, the authors state that “previous systematic reviews from 2012 and 2014 concluded there was favourable but inconclusive and weak evidence for manual therapy for infantile colic. They mention two reviews to back up this claim. They conveniently forget my own review of 2009 (the first on this subject). Why? Perhaps because it did not fit their preconceived ideas? Here is my abstract:

Some chiropractors claim that spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for infant colic. This systematic review was aimed at evaluating the evidence for this claim. Four databases were searched and three randomised clinical trials met all the inclusion criteria. The totality of this evidence fails to demonstrate the effectiveness of this treatment. It is concluded that the above claim is not based on convincing data from rigorous clinical trials.

Towards the end of their paper, the authors state that “this was a comprehensive and rigorously conducted review…” I beg to differ; it turned out to be uncritical and biased, in my view. And at the very end of the article, we learn a possible reason for this phenomenon: “CM had financial support from the National Council for Osteopathic Research from crowd-funded donations.”

(98) Parnell et al was easy to find despite the incomplete reference in the submission. This paper has also been discussed previously. Here is my post on it:

This systematic review is an attempt [at] … evaluating the use of manual therapy for clinical conditions in the paediatric population, assessing the methodological quality of the studies found, and synthesizing findings based on health condition.

Of the 3563 articles identified through various literature searches, 165 full articles were screened, and 50 studies (32 RCTs and 18 observational studies) met the inclusion criteria. Only 18 studies were judged to be of high quality. Conditions evaluated were:

      • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),
      • autism,
      • asthma,
      • cerebral palsy,
      • clubfoot,
      • constipation,
      • cranial asymmetry,
      • cuboid syndrome,
      • headache,
      • infantile colic,
      • low back pain,
      • obstructive apnoea,
      • otitis media,
      • paediatric dysfunctional voiding,
      • paediatric nocturnal enuresis,
      • postural asymmetry,
      • preterm infants,
      • pulled elbow,
      • suboptimal infant breastfeeding,
      • scoliosis,
      • suboptimal infant breastfeeding,
      • temporomandibular dysfunction,
      • torticollis,
      • upper cervical dysfunction.

Musculoskeletal conditions, including low back pain and headache, were evaluated in seven studies. Only 20 studies reported adverse events.

The authors concluded that fifty studies investigated the clinical effects of manual therapies for a wide variety of pediatric conditions. Moderate-positive overall assessment was found for 3 conditions: low back pain, pulled elbow, and premature infants. Inconclusive unfavorable outcomes were found for 2 conditions: scoliosis (OMT) and torticollis (MT). All other condition’s overall assessments were either inconclusive favorable or unclear. Adverse events were uncommonly reported. More robust clinical trials in this area of healthcare are needed.

There are many things that I find remarkable about this review:

      • The list of indications for which studies have been published confirms the notion that manual therapists – especially chiropractors – regard their approach as a panacea.
      • A systematic review evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy that includes observational studies without a control group is, in my view, highly suspect.
      • Many of the RCTs included in the review are meaningless; for instance, if a trial compares the effectiveness of two different manual therapies none of which has been shown to work, it cannot generate a meaningful result.
      • Again, we find that the majority of trialists fail to report adverse effects. This is unethical to a degree that I lose faith in such studies altogether.
      • Only three conditions are, according to the authors, based on evidence. This is hardly enough to sustain an entire speciality of paediatric chiropractors.

Allow me to have a closer look at these three conditions.

      1. Low back pain: the verdict ‘moderate positive’ is based on two RCTs and two observational studies. The latter are irrelevant for evaluating the effectiveness of a therapy. One of the two RCTs should have been excluded because the age of the patients exceeded the age range named by the authors as an inclusion criterion. This leaves us with one single ‘medium quality’ RCT that included a mere 35 patients. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
      2. Pulled elbow: here the verdict is based on one RCT that compared two different approaches of unknown value. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.
      3. Preterm: Here we have 4 RCTs; one was a mere pilot study of craniosacral therapy following the infamous A+B vs B design. The other three RCTs were all from the same Italian research group; their findings have never been independently replicated. In my view, it would be foolish to base a positive verdict on such evidence.

So, what can be concluded from this?

I would say that there is no good evidence for chiropractic, osteopathic or other manual treatments for children suffering from any condition.

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The ACA’s submission ends with the following conclusion:

The Australian Chiropractors Association (ACA) intent is to improve the general health of all Australians and the ACA supports the following attributes to achieve this:

      • The highest standards of ethics and conduct in all areas of research, education and practise
      • Chiropractors as the leaders in high quality spinal health and wellbeing
      • A commitment to evidence-based practice – the integration of best available research evidence, clinical expertise and patient values
      • The profound significance and value of patient-centred chiropractic care in healthcare in Australia.
      • Inclusiveness and collaborative relationships within and outside the chiropractic profession…

After reading through the entire, tedious document, I arrived at the conclusion that

THIS SUBMISSION CAN ONLY BE A CALL FOR THE PROHIBITION OF CHIROPRACTIC SPINAL MANIPULATION FOR CHILDREN.

‘Acute-on-chronic liver failure’ (ACLF) is an acute deterioration of liver function in patients with pre-existing liver disease. It is usually associated with a precipitating event and results in the failure of one or more organs and high short term mortality.

An international team of researchers published a analysis examining data regarding drugs producing ACLF. They evaluated clinical features, laboratory characteristics, outcome, and predictors of mortality in patients with drug-induced ACLF. They identified drugs as precipitants of ACLF among prospective cohort of patients with ACLF from the Asian Pacific Association of Study of Liver (APASL) ACLF Research Consortium (AARC) database. Drugs were considered precipitants after exclusion of known causes together with a temporal association between exposure and decompensation. Outcome was defined as death from decompensation.

Of the 3,132 patients with ACLF, drugs were implicated as a cause in 10.5% of all cases and other non-drug causes in 89.5%. Within the first group, so-called alternative medications (SCAMs) were the commonest cause (71.7%), followed by combination anti-tuberculosis therapy drugs (27.3%). Alcoholic liver disease (28.6%), cryptogenic liver disease (25.5%), and non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) (16.7%) were common causes of underlying liver diseases. Patients with drug-induced ACLF had jaundice (100%), ascites (88%), encephalopathy (46.5%), high Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) (30.2), and Child-Turcotte-Pugh score (12.1). The overall 90-day mortality was higher in drug-induced (46.5%) than in non-drug-induced ACLF (38.8%).

The authors concluded that drugs are important identifiable causes of ACLF in Asia-Pacific countries, predominantly from complementary and alternative medications, followed by anti-tuberculosis drugs. Encephalopathy, bilirubin, blood urea, lactate, and international normalized ratio (INR) predict mortality in drug-induced ACLF.

The fact that some SCAMs can damage the liver has long been known. Here, for example, is 2003 our review of herbal medicine and liver problems:

Systematic literature searches were performed on Medline, Embase, The Cochrane Library, Amed and Ciscom. To identify additional data, searches were conducted by hand in relevant medical journals and in our own files. The screening and selection of articles and the extraction of data were performed independently by the two authors. There were no restrictions regarding the language of publication. In order to be included articles were required to report data on hepatotoxic events associated with the therapeutic use of herbal medicinal products.

Single medicinal herbs and combination preparations are associated with hepatotoxic events. Clinically, the spectrum ranges from transient elevations of liver enzyme levels to fulminant liver failure and death. In most instances hepatotoxic herbal constituents are believed to be the cause, while others may be due to herb-drug interactions, contamination and/or adulteration.

A number of herbal medicinal products are associated with serious hepatotoxic events. Incidence figures are largely unknown, and in most cases a causal attribution is not established. The challenge for the future is to systematically research this area, educate all parties involved, and minimize patient risk.

Despite these warnings, progress is almost non-existent. If anything the problem seems to increase in proportion with the rise in the use of SCAM. Hence, one cannot but agree with the conclusion of a more recent overview: The actual incidence and prevalence of herb-induced liver injury in developing nations remain largely unknown due to both poor pharmacovigilance programs and non-application of emerging technologies. Improving education and public awareness of the potential risks of herbals and herbal products is desirable to ensure that suspected adverse effects are formally reported. There is need for stricter regulations and pre-clinical studies necessary for efficacy and safety.

“Eating elderberries can help minimise influenza symptoms.” This statement comes from a press release by the University of Sydney. As it turned out, the announcement was not just erroneous but it also had concealed that the in-vitro study that formed the basis for the press-release was part-funded by the very company, Pharmacare, which sells elderberry-based flu remedies.

“This is an appalling misrepresentation of this Pharmacare-funded in-vitro study,” said associate professor Ken Harvey, president of Friends of Science in Medicine. “It was inappropriate and misleading to imply from this study that an extract was ‘proven to fight flu’.” A University of Sydney spokeswoman confirmed Pharmacare was shown a copy of the press release before it was published.

This is an embarrassing turn of events, no doubt. But what about elderberry (Sambucus nigra) and the flu? Is there any evidence?

A systematic review quantified the effects of elderberry supplementation. Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms. The quantitative synthesis of the effects yielded a large mean effect size. The authors concluded that these findings present an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections, and a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.

WHAT?!?!

The alternative to antibiotic misuse can only be the correct use of antibiotics. And, in the case of viral infections such as the flu, this can only be the non-use of antibiotics. My trust in this review, published in a SCAM journal of dubious repute, has instantly dropped to zero.

Perhaps a recent overview recently published in THE MEDICAL LETTER provides a more trustworthy picture:

No large randomized, controlled trials evaluating the effectiveness of elderberry for prevention or treatment of influenza have been conducted to date. Elderberry appears to have some activity against influenza virus strains in vitro. In two small studies (conducted outside the US), adults with influenza A or B virus infection taking elderberry extract reported a shorter duration of symptoms compared to those taking placebo. Consuming uncooked blue or black elderberries can cause nausea and vomiting. The rest of the plant (bark, stems, leaves, and root) contains sambunigrin, which can release cyanide. No data are available on the safety of elderberry use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. CONCLUSION — Prompt treatment with an antiviral drug such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu, and generics) has been shown to be effective in large randomized, controlled trials in reducing the duration of influenza symptoms, and it may reduce the risk of influenza-related complications. There is no acceptable evidence to date that elderberry is effective for prevention or treatment of influenza and its safety is unclear.

Any take-home messages?

Yes:

  1. Elderberry supplements are not of proven effectiveness against the flu.
  2. The press officers at universities should be more cautious when writing press-releases.
  3. They should involve the scientists and avoid the sponsors of the research.
  4. In-vitro studies can never tell us anything about clinical effectiveness.
  5. SCAM-journals’ articles must be taken with a pinch of salt.
  6. Consumers are being misled left, right and centre.

Radix Salviae Miltiorrhizae (Danshen) is a herbal remedy that is part of many TCM herbal mixtures. Allegedly, Danshen has been used in clinical practice for over 2000 years.

But is it effective?

The aim of this systematic review was to evaluate the current available evidence of Danshen for the treatment of cancer. English and Chinese electronic databases were searched from PubMed, the Cochrane Library, EMBASE, and the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI), VIP database, Wanfang database until September 2018. The methodological quality of the included studies was evaluated by using the method of Cochrane system.

Thirteen RCTs with 1045 participants were identified. The studies investigated the lung cancer (n = 5), leukemia (n = 3), liver cancer (n = 3), breast or colon cancer (n = 1), and gastric cancer (n = 1). A total of 83 traditional Chinese medicines were used in all prescriptions and there were three different dosage forms. The meta-analysis suggested that Danshen formulae had a significant effect on RR (response rate) (OR 2.38, 95% CI 1.66-3.42), 1-year survival (OR 1.70 95% CI 1.22-2.36), 3-year survival (OR 2.78, 95% CI 1.62-4.78), and 5-year survival (OR 8.45, 95% CI 2.53-28.27).

The authors concluded that the current research results showed that Danshen formulae combined with chemotherapy for cancer treatment was better than conventional drug treatment plan alone.

I am getting a little tired of discussing systematic reviews of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) that are little more than promotion, free of good science. But, because such articles do seriously endanger the life of many patients, I do nevertheless succumb occasionally. So here are a few points to explain why the conclusions of the Chinese authors are nonsense:

  • Even though the authors claim the trials included in their review were of high quality, most were, in fact, flimsy.
  • The trials used no less than 83 different herbal mixtures of dubious quality containing Danshen. It is therefore not possible to define which mixture worked and which did not.
  • There is no detailed discussion of the adverse effects and no mention of possible herb-drug interactions.
  • There seemed to be a sizable publication bias hidden in the data.
  • All the eligible studies were conducted in China, and we know that such trials are unreliable to say the least.
  • Only four articles were published in English which means those of us who cannot read Chinese are unable to check the correctness of the data extraction of the review authors.

I know it sounds terribly chauvinistic, but I do truly believe that we should simply ignore Chinese articles, if they have defects that set our alarm bells ringing – if not, we are likely to do a significant disservice to healthcare and progress.

Chiropractic spinal manipulative therapy (CSMT) for migraine?

Why?

There is no good evidence that it works!

On the contrary, there is good evidence that it does NOT work!

A recent and rigorous study (conducted by chiropractors!) tested the efficacy of chiropractic CSMT for migraine. It was designed as a three-armed, single-blinded, placebo -controlled RCT of 17 months duration including 104 migraineurs with at least one migraine attack per month. Active treatment consisted of CSMT (group 1) and the placebo was a sham push manoeuvre of the lateral edge of the scapula and/or the gluteal region (group 2). The control group continued their usual pharmacological management (group 3). The results show that migraine days were significantly reduced within all three groups from baseline to post-treatment. The effect continued in the CSMT and placebo groups at all follow-up time points (groups 1 and 2), whereas the control group (group 3) returned to baseline. The reduction in migraine days was not significantly different between the groups. Migraine duration and headache index were reduced significantly more in the CSMT than in group 3 towards the end of follow-up. Adverse events were few, mild and transient. Blinding was sustained throughout the RCT. The authors concluded that the effect of CSMT observed in our study is probably due to a placebo response.

One can understand that, for chiropractors, this finding is upsetting. After all, they earn a good part of their living by treating migraineurs. They don’t want to lose patients and, at the same time, they need to claim to practise evidence-based medicine.

What is the way out of this dilemma?

Simple!

They only need to publish a review in which they dilute the irritatingly negative result of the above trial by including all previous low-quality trials with false-positive results and thus generate a new overall finding that alleges CSMT to be evidence-based.

This new systematic review of randomized clinical trials (RCTs) evaluated the evidence regarding spinal manipulation as an alternative or integrative therapy in reducing migraine pain and disability.

The searches identified 6 RCTs eligible for meta-analysis. Intervention duration ranged from 2 to 6 months; outcomes included measures of migraine days (primary outcome), migraine pain/intensity, and migraine disability. Methodological quality varied across the studies. The results showed that spinal manipulation reduced migraine days with an overall small effect size as well as migraine pain/intensity.

The authors concluded that spinal manipulation may be an effective therapeutic technique to reduce migraine days and pain/intensity. However, given the limitations to studies included in this meta-analysis, we consider these results to be preliminary. Methodologically rigorous, large-scale RCTs are warranted to better inform the evidence base for spinal manipulation as a treatment for migraine.

Bob’s your uncle!

Perhaps not perfect, but at least the chiropractic profession can now continue to claim they practice something akin to evidence-based medicine, while happily cashing in on selling their unproven treatments to migraineurs!

But that’s not very fair; research is not for promotion, research is for finding the truth; this white-wash is not in the best interest of patients! I hear you say.

Who cares about fairness, truth or conflicts of interest?

Christine Goertz, one of the review-authors, has received funding from the NCMIC Foundation and served as the Director of the Inter‐Institutional Network for Chiropractic Research (IINCR). Peter M. Wayne, another author, has received funding from the NCMIC Foundation and served as the co‐Director of the Inter‐Institutional Network for Chiropractic Research (IINCR)

And who the Dickens are the  NCMIC and the IINCR?

At NCMIC, they believe that supporting the chiropractic profession, including chiropractic research programs and projects, is an important part of our heritage. They also offer business training and malpractice risk management seminars and resources to D.C.s as a complement to the education provided by the chiropractic colleges.

The IINCR is a collaborative effort between PCCR, Yale Center for Medical Informatics and the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. They aim at creating a chiropractic research portfolio that’s truly translational. Vice Chancellor for Research and Health Policy at Palmer College of Chiropractic Christine Goertz, DC, PhD (PCCR) is the network director. Peter Wayne, PhD (Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School) will join Anthony J. Lisi, DC (Yale Center for Medical Informatics and VA Connecticut Healthcare System) as a co-director. These investigators will form a robust foundation to advance chiropractic science, practice and policy. “Our collective efforts provide an unprecedented opportunity to conduct clinical and basic research that advances chiropractic research and evidence-based clinical practice, ultimately benefiting the patients we serve,” said Christine Goertz.

Really: benefiting the patients? 

You could have fooled me!

The aim of this new systematic review was to evaluate the controlled trials of homeopathy in bronchial asthma. Relevant trials published between Jan 1, 1981, and Dec 31, 2016, were considered. Substantive research articles, conference proceedings, and master and doctoral theses were eligible. Methodology was assessed by Jadad’s scoring, internal validity by the Coch-rane tool, model validity by Mathie’s criteria, and quality of individualization by Saha’s criteria.

Sixteen trials were eligible. The majority were positive, especially those testing complex formulations. Methodological quality was diverse; 8 trials had “high” risk of bias. Model validity and individualization quality were compromised. Due to both qualitative and quantitative inadequacies, proofs supporting individualized homeopathy remained inconclusive. The trials were positive (evidence level A), but inconsistent, and suffered from methodological heterogeneity, “high” to “uncertain” risk of bias, incomplete study reporting, inadequacy of independent replications, and small sample sizes.

The authors of this review come from:

  • the Department of Homeopathy, District Joint Hospital, Government of Bihar, Darbhanga, India;
  • the Department of Organon of Medicine and Homoeopathic Philosophy, Sri Sai Nath Postgraduate Institute of Homoeopathy, Allahabad, India;
  • the Homoeopathy University Jaipur, Jaipur, India;
  • the Central Council of Homeopathy, Hooghly,
  • the Central Council of Homeopathy, Howrah, India

They state that they have no conflicts of interest.

The review is puzzling on so many accounts that I had to read it several times to understand it. Here are just some of its many oddities:

  • According to its authors, the review adhered to the PRISMA-P guideline; as a co-author of this guideline, I can confirm that this is incorrect.
  • The authors claim to have included all ‘controlled trials (randomized, non-randomized, or observational) of any form of homeopathy in patients suffering from persistent and chronic bronchial asthma’. In fact, they also included uncontrolled studies (16 controlled trials and 12 uncontrolled observational studies, to be precise).
  • The authors included papers published between Jan 1, 1981, and Dec 31, 2016. It is unacceptable, in my view, to limit a systematic review in this way. It also means that the review was seriously out of date already on the day it was published.
  • The authors tell us that they applied no language restrictions. Yet they do not inform us how they handled papers in foreign languages.
  • Studies of homeopathy as a stand alone therapy were included together with studies of homeopathy as an adjunct. Yet the authors fail to point out which studies belonged to which category.
  • Several of the included studies are not of homeopathy but of isopathy.
  • The authors fail to detail their results and instead refer to an ‘online results table’ which I cannot access even though I have the on-line paper.
  • Instead, they report that 28 studies were included and ‘thus, the level of evidence was graded as A.’
  • No direction of outcome was provided in the results section. All we do learn from the paper’s discussion section is that ‘the majority of the studies were positive, and the level of evidence could be graded as A (strong scientific evidence)’.
  • Despite the high risk of bias in most of the included studies, the authors suggest a ‘definite role of homeopathy beyond placebo in the treatment of bronchial asthma’.
  • The current Cochrane review (also authored by a pro-homeopathy team) concluded that there is not enough evidence to reliably assess the possible role of homeopathy in asthma. Yet the authors of this new review do not even attempt to explain the contradiction.

Confusion?

Incompetence?

Scientific misconduct?

Fraud?

YOU DECIDE!

Whenever there are discussions about homeopathy (currently, they have reached fever-pitch both in France and in Germany), one subject is bound to emerge sooner or later: its cost. Some seemingly well-informed person will exclaim that USING MORE HOMEOPATHY WILL SAVE US ALL A LOT OF MONEY.

The statement is as predictable as it is wrong.

Of course, homeopathic remedies tend to cost, on average, less than conventional treatments. But that is beside the point. A car without an engine is also cheaper than one with an engine. Comparing the costs of items that are not comparable is nonsense.

What we need are proper analyses of cost-effectiveness. And these studies clearly fail to prove that homeopathy is a money-saver.

Even researchers who are well-known for their pro-homeopathy stance have published a systematic review of economic evaluations of homeopathy. They included 14 published assessments, and the more rigorous of these investigations did not show that homeopathy is cost-effective. The authors concluded that “although the identified evidence of the costs and potential benefits of homeopathy seemed promising, studies were highly heterogeneous and had several methodological weaknesses. It is therefore not possible to draw firm conclusions based on existing economic evaluations of homeopathy“.

Probably the most meaningful study in this area is an investigation by another pro-homeopathy research team. Here is its abstract:

OBJECTIVES:

This study aimed to provide a long-term cost comparison of patients using additional homeopathic treatment (homeopathy group) with patients using usual care (control group) over an observation period of 33 months.

METHODS:

Health claims data from a large statutory health insurance company were analysed from both the societal perspective (primary outcome) and from the statutory health insurance perspective (secondary outcome). To compare costs between patient groups, homeopathy and control patients were matched in a 1:1 ratio using propensity scores. Predictor variables for the propensity scores included health care costs and both medical and demographic variables. Health care costs were analysed using an analysis of covariance, adjusted for baseline costs, between groups both across diagnoses and for specific diagnoses over a period of 33 months. Specific diagnoses included depression, migraine, allergic rhinitis, asthma, atopic dermatitis, and headache.

RESULTS:

Data from 21,939 patients in the homeopathy group (67.4% females) and 21,861 patients in the control group (67.2% females) were analysed. Health care costs over the 33 months were 12,414 EUR [95% CI 12,022-12,805] in the homeopathy group and 10,428 EUR [95% CI 10,036-10,820] in the control group (p<0.0001). The largest cost differences were attributed to productivity losses (homeopathy: EUR 6,289 [6,118-6,460]; control: EUR 5,498 [5,326-5,670], p<0.0001) and outpatient costs (homeopathy: EUR 1,794 [1,770-1,818]; control: EUR 1,438 [1,414-1,462], p<0.0001). Although the costs of the two groups converged over time, cost differences remained over the full 33 months. For all diagnoses, homeopathy patients generated higher costs than control patients.

CONCLUSION:

The analysis showed that even when following-up over 33 months, there were still cost differences between groups, with higher costs in the homeopathy group.

A recent analysis confirms this situation. It concluded that patients who use homeopathy are more expensive to their health insurances than patients who do not use it. The German ‘Medical Tribune’ thus summarised the evidence correctly when stating that ‘Globuli are m0re expensive than conventional therapies’. This quote mirrors perfectly the situation in Switzerland which as been summarised as follows: ‘Globuli only cause unnecessary healthcare costs‘.

But homeopaths (perhaps understandably) seem reluctant to agree. They tend to come out with ever new arguments to defend the indefensible. They claim, for instance, that prescribing a homeopathic remedy to a patient would avoid giving her a conventional treatment that is not only more expensive but also has side-effects which would cause further expense to the system.

To some, this sounds perhaps reasonable (particularly, I fear, to some politicians), but it should not be reasonable argument for responsible healthcare professionals.

Why?

Because it could apply only to the practice of bad and unethical medicine: if a patient is ill and needs a medical treatment, she does certainly not need something that is ineffective, like homeopathy. If she is not ill and merely wants a placebo, she needs assurance, compassion, empathy, understanding and most certainly not an expensive and potentially harmful conventional therapy.

To employ the above analogy, if someone needs transport, she does not need a car without an engine!

So, whichever way we twist or turn it, the issue turns out to be quite simple:

WHITHOUT EFFECTIVENESS, THERE CAN BE NO COST-EFFECTIVENESS!

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