As I have mentioned before, I like positive news as much as the next person. Therefore, I am constantly on the look-out for recently published, sound evidence suggesting that some form of alternative medicine is effective and safe for this or that condition. This new systematic review fits that description, I am pleased to report.
Its authors evaluated the effectiveness of massage therapy (MT) for neck and shoulder pain. Their extensive literature searches identified 12 high-quality studies. The meta-analyses showed significant effects of MT for neck pain and shoulder pain compared to inactive therapies. MT did not yield better effects for neck pain or shoulder pain than other active therapies administered to the control groups. Shoulder function was not significantly affected by MT. The authors concluded that “MT may provide immediate effects for neck and shoulder pain. However, MT does not show better effects on pain than other active therapies. No evidence suggests that MT is effective in functional status”.
Massage therapy is thus a promising treatment, particularly as this systematic review is by no means the only piece of encouraging evidence. It is not better than other effective treatments, but it is not associated with frequent or serious adverse effects. This means that the demonstrable benefits are likely to outweigh its risks; in other words, the risk benefit balance is positive. Regular readers of this blog will appreciate the importance of this point.
Massage is practiced by several professions: mostly, of course, by massage therapists, but occasionally also by nurses, osteopath, chiropractors etc. Chiropractors, in particular, have recently tried to make much – I think too much – of this fact. They tend to claim that, as they use treatments which are evidence-based, such as massage, chiropractic is an evidence-based profession. I think this is akin to surgeons claiming that all of surgery is evidence-based because surgeons use medications which effectively reduce post-operative pain. Chiropractors foremost employ spinal manipulation and surgeons foremost use surgery; if they want us to believe that their practice is evidence-based, they need to show us the evidence for their hall-mark interventions. In the case of surgery, the evidence is mostly established; in the case of chiropractic, it is mostly not.
Massage is backed by reasonably sound evidence not just for neck and shoulder pain but for a range of other conditions as well. WHAT DO WE CALL AN ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE THAT WORKS? WE CALL IT MEDICINE!
So why is massage not a mainstream therapy? The answer is simple: in many countries, massage therapy has long been considered to be entirely conventional. Twenty years ago, I was chair of rehabilitation medicine at the university of Vienna. Amongst my staff, there always were about 5-8 full time massage therapists and nobody thought this to be unusual in any way. Similarly, in Germany, massage is entirely conventional.
Perhaps it is time that the English-speaking countries catch up with Europe when it comes to massage therapy and the evidence that supports it?
Reflexology is one of the most popular of all alternative therapies. Anyone who has ever had a session knows why: it is a strangely pleasant and oddly agreeable experience. Reflexologists massage your feet which can be mildly painful but usually is quite relaxing. They look for and subsequently focus on areas of tenderness believing they correspond to specific organs or whole organ systems. Even though few reflexologists would admit to it, they tend to make vague and unreliable diagnoses: if they feel something unusual at a certain point of the sole of your foot, they assume that a certain inner organ is in trouble. Reflexologists even have maps where the sole of a foot is depicted showing which area corresponds to which organ.
The treatment might be enjoyable but the assumptions that underpin it are nonsensical for at least two reasons: firstly, there are no nerve or other connections between a specific area on the sole of a foot and a certain organ. Secondly, the maps which reflexologists employ differ and fail to agree which area corresponds to which organ. Thus there are inconsistencies within the realm of reflexology and there are inconsistencies in relation to the known facts regarding physiology, anatomy etc.
Proponents of reflexology are quite undisturbed by these problems and seem to believe that not their assumptions but science must be wrong. After all, reflexology does work! That is to say that patients perceive benefit from it, pay out of their own pocket for the experience and tend to come back for more.
Several years ago, we asked 8 UK professional organisations of reflexology which conditions they thought could be treated effectively with reflexology. We gave them a list of 25 conditions to chose from, many of which were serious, e.g. cancer and AIDS. Collectively, the organisations felt that 22 of these illnesses would respond to reflexology.
But this is opinion, not evidence! What do the trial data tell us? Is reflexology more than a placebo?
As with many other areas of alternative medicine, controlled clinical trials are scarce; but this is not to say that none at all are available. Our own trial of reflexology for menopausal symptoms failed to show that this therapy has any effects beyond placebo. More recently, we published a systematic review to evaluate all of the 23 studies that had been published at that stage. They related to a wide range of medical conditions and their methodological quality was often poor. Nine high quality randomised clinical trials (RCTs) generated negative findings. Eight RCTs suggested that reflexology is effective for the following conditions: diabetes, premenstrual syndrome, cancer patients, multiple sclerosis, symptomatic idiopathic detrusor over-activity and dementia. These studies, however, were wide open to bias. Therefore, our conclusions had to be cautious: the best clinical evidence does not demonstrate convincingly reflexology to be an effective treatment for any medical condition.
For you and me, this simply means that there is currently no good evidence to suggest that reflexology works. But the story does not end here. There will be more studies and enthusiasts are most likely to concede that our conclusions were incorrect. In fact, a further trial has just become available.
This new single-blind, randomized and placebo controlled study included 20 moderately to severely affected multiple sclerosis patients. Each participant received for 8 weeks, 1 hour per week of either reflexology or sham reflexology. The primary outcome measure was the Multiple Sclerosis Impact Scale at baseline, 8 weeks and 16 weeks. The results revealed improvements in both groups but no statistically significant differences between the two groups at either 8 or 16 weeks. The conclusions of the investigators were clear: The results do not support the use of reflexology for symptom relief in a more disabled multiple sclerosis population and are strongly suggestive of a placebo response.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a relaxing foot-massage; it is agreeable, no doubt, and if someone wants to pay for the luxury, why not? By contrast, there is a lot wrong with reflexology, I think. A foot-massage is not administered under the pretence of generating any specific therapeutic effects. Reflexologists, however, claim they can exert highly specific effects on inner organs, influence the natural history of a wide range of diseases, and provide reliable diagnoses. They thus mislead their clients. This is not just wrong, it also has the potential to do serious harm. I believe it is time to end this nonsense.
Believe it or not, but my decision – all those years ago – to study medicine was to a significant degree influenced by a somewhat naive desire to, one day, be able to save lives. In my experience, most medical students are motivated by this wish – “to save lives” in this context stands not just for the dramatic act of administering a life-saving treatment to a moribund patient but it is meant as a synonym for helping patients in a much more general sense.
I am not sure whether, as a young clinician, I ever did manage to save many lives. Later, I had a career-change and became a researcher. The general view about researchers seems to be that they are detached from real life, sit in ivory towers and write clever papers which hardly anyone understands and few people will ever read. Researchers therefore cannot save lives, can they?
So, what happened to those laudable ambitions of the young Dr Ernst? Why did I decide to go into research, and why alternative medicine; why did I not conduct research in more the promotional way of so many of my colleagues (my life would have been so much more hassle-free, and I even might have a knighthood by now); why did I feel the need to insist on rigorous assessments and critical thinking, often at high cost? For my many detractors, the answers to these questions seem to be more than obvious: I was corrupted by BIG PHARMA, I have an axe to grind against all things alternative, I have an insatiable desire to be in the lime-light, I defend my profession against the concurrence from alternative practitioners etc. However, for me, the issues are a little less obvious (today, I will, for the first time, disclose the bribe I received from BIG PHARMA for criticising alternative medicine: the precise sum was zero £ and the same amount again in $).
As I am retiring from academic life and doing less original research, I do have the time and the inclination to brood over such questions. What precisely motivated my research agenda in alternative medicine, and why did I remain unimpressed by the number of powerful enemies I made pursuing it?
If I am honest – and I know this will sound strange to many, particularly to those who are convinced that I merely rejoice in being alarmist – I am still inspired by this hope to save lives. Sure, the youthful naivety of the early days has all but disappeared, yet the core motivation has remained unchanged.
But how can research into alternative medicine ever save a single life?
Since about 20 years, I am regularly pointing out that the most important research questions in my field relate to the risks of alternative medicine. I have continually published articles about these issues in the medical literature and, more recently, I have also made a conscious effort to step out of the ivory towers of academia and started writing for a much wider lay-audience (hence also this blog). Important landmarks on this journey include:
Alternative medicine is cleverly, heavily and incessantly promoted as being natural and hence harmless. Several of my previous posts and the ensuing discussions on this blog strongly suggest that some chiropractors deny that their neck manipulations can cause a stroke. Similarly, some homeopaths are convinced that they can do no harm; some acupuncturists insist that their needles are entirely safe; some herbalists think that their medicines are risk-free, etc. All of them tend to agree that the risks are non-existent or so small that they are dwarfed by those of conventional medicine, thus ignoring that the potential risks of any treatment must be seen in relation to their proven benefit.
For 20 years, I have tried my best to dispel these dangerous myths and fallacies. In doing so, I had to fight many tough battles (sometimes even with the people who should have protected me, e.g. my peers at Exeter university), and I have the scars to prove it. If, however, I did save just one life by conducting my research into the risks of alternative medicine and by writing about it, the effort was well worth it.
Some time ago, we published a systematic review aimed at identifying what patients might hope for when they consult a practitioner of alternative medicine. The most common expectations that emerged from this research are listed here:
- Less side-effects
- Symptom relief
- Cure of their disease
- Cope better with their condition
- Improve quality of life
- Boost immune system
- Prevention of illness
- Good therapeutic relationship with a clinician
- Holistic care
- Emotional support
- Control over their own health
In several ways, I think, these expectations are revealing; here I want to focus on one particular aspect, and ask the following question: To what extent are patients driven to see alternative practitioners simply because conventional medicine is letting them down? It seems to me that several items in the list above are an implicit criticism of mainstream medicine. This might get much clearer, if I re-phrase the points a bit: according to our findings, patients feel:
- that conventional treatments have too many side-effects;
- that they frequently fail to ease their symptoms;
- that they often do not cure the disease;
- that doctors do not enable their patients to cope with their condition;
- that doctors care not enough about their patients’ quality of life;
- that many conventional treatments neglect the importance of the immune system;
- that prevention is not given the importance it should have;
- that doctors are often no good at establishing good therapeutic relationships with their patients;
- that doctors fail to realise that their patients are not just “cases” but whole human individuals;
- that doctors are not providing enough emotional support;
- that doctors fail to empower their patients to be in control of their health.
Some of these points will probably strike a cord with most of us. I for one know of many instances where conventional physicians have failed their patients most miserably. All too often, the failings of modern medicine are as obvious as they are inexcusable! I can fully understand that disappointed patients look for help and compassion elsewhere, and I am quite sure that the failings of modern medicine are an important motivator for people to try alternative medicine.
But looking elsewhere might not be the best approach for improving health care. Alternative practitioners may well be more compassionate than conventional clinicians but features like empathy, time and attention can never make good medicine, if they are not accompanied by effective therapies.
The conclusion is therefore simple: whenever we encounter one of the many failings of conventional medicine, instead of turning away in disgust, we ought to make sure that mistakes are corrected, lessons are learnt and improvements are found and put into practice. Our aim must be to generate progress, and it cannot be reached by opting for unproven or dis-proven treatments.
Fairly early on during my time at Exeter, I had felt that it would be relevant, interesting and important to familiarise general practitioners with alternative medicine. At the time, we decided that we would start to run regular courses specifically for these health care professionals. Back in the mid 1990s, this was a remarkable thing to do, so much so that we even published our experience after the first such event. Recently I came across the article that resulted from this endeavour; here is an except from the abstract:
The delegates started with a positive but questioning attitude toward complementary medicine (CM) and acknowledged that they gained useful information, leading to increased confidence in discussing CM with patients. The course to a large extent met their needs and expectations. Benefits and draw-backs of integrating CM within general practice were explored. The main advantage of CM, apart from the potential intrinsic value of the techniques themselves, was identified as the time to establish a good therapeutic relationship with the patient. The particular concerns about CM that were expressed by the doctors included poor dialogue with CM practitioners, doubts about competence, and lack of readily identifiable and recognized qualifications. The risk of holding out unrealistic hope of cure was their greatest concern, however, especially if patients were thereby denied an effective orthodox treatment.
What strikes me as particularly remarkable is the fact that, even then, so many doubts were voiced by our GPs about alternative practitioners, their therapeutic claims and their doubtful medical competence. It was then that it occured to me for the first time that these therapists might systematically misinform their patients. This suspicion was strengthened on numerous occasions in the years to come; but it was not until much later that we decided to look into this subject (which is rather difficult to research) more systematically. What we found shocked us. Here are the conclusions of some of our investigations:
The most popular websites on complementary and alternative medicine for cancer offer information of extremely variable quality. Many endorse unproven therapies and some are outright dangerous. The link to the article is here.
Some complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers have a negative attitude towards immunisation and means of changing this should be considered. The link is here.
Advice about herbal medicine is readily available over the Internet. The advice offered is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Potential Internet users should be made aware of these problems and ways of minimizing the risk should be found. The link is here.
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. The link is here.
In another study, we found that advice given by alternative practitioners to diabetic patients had the potential to kill them. A similarly scary conclusion emerged when we evaluated the advice chiropractors provide to asthma patients. Other research found that anthroposophic doctors often advise against measles vaccinations and are thus causing measles outbreaks.
The totality of this evidence, I believe, begs the question: DO ALTERNATIVE PRACTITIONERS SYSTEMATICALLY MISINFORM THEIR PATIENTS? I look forward to a lively discussion of it.
Yesterday, I received a letter from the editor-in-chief of the journal ‘Homeopathy‘ informing me that I have been struck off the editorial board of his publication. As the letter is not marked confidential, I feel that I can reproduce parts of it here:
Dear Professor Ernst,
This is to inform you that you have been removed from the Editorial Board of Homeopathy. The reason for this is the statement you published on your blog on Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 in which you smeared homeopathy and other forms of complementary medicine with a ‘guilt by association’ argument, associating them with the Nazis.
I should declare a personal interest….[Fisher goes on to tell a story which is personal and which I therefore omit]… I mention this only because it highlights the absurdity of guilt by association arguments.
Peter Fisher Editor-in-Chief, Homeopathy
I do agree with Dr Fisher that guilt by association is absurd. However, I disagree with the notion that I used this fallacy in my post the full text of which be found here. After re-reading it several times, I still do not see that it employs a ‘guilt by association argument’. It merely recounts historical facts which are not well-known and therefore worth mentioning. Importantly, the post consits in essence of quotes from my previous publications on the subject. My motives for writing it could not have been clearer and are emphacised in the last paragraph:
So, why bring all of this up today? Is it not time that we let grass grow over these most disturbing events? I think not! For many years, I actively researched this area (you can find many of my articles on Medline) because I am convinced that the unprecedented horrors of Nazi medicine need to be told and re-told – not just on HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY, but continually. This, I hope, will minimize the risk of such incredible abuses ever happening again.
Perhaps a comparison might make it a little clearer why, in my opinion, Fisher’s is so utterly bizarre. Imagine an eminent researcher in the area of psychiatry who has been on the editorial board of a journal in his area for many years and contributed numerous articles to this journal. He then decides to research and subsequently write about the infamous Nazi past of German psychiatry. As a result, he is fired from his editorial board position because the editor feels that he has smeared the reputation of psychiatry.
I think most observers might find this odd and unjustified. Such a thing would not happen, I think, in a field with a mature research-culture. That it did happen in homeopathy might be interpreted as a reflection of the fact that homeopathy lacks such a culture.
So how precisely can we explain my dismissal? My article and my motives for writing it could have been thoroughly misunderstood – in my view, this is unlikely because I explained my motives in some detail both in the article and in the comments that follow the article. Here is my last of several posts clarifying my motives:
i am sorry that some have misunderstood the message of this blog and the reason why i wrote it.
i did certainly not want to engage in the GUILTY BY ASSOCIATION fallacy.
here is the truth:
i have had a research interest in nazi medicine and published about it.
in the course of these activities, i discovered that, contrary to what most people seem to assumue, alt med was involved as well. so i published this too many years ago.
this blog was simply and purely aimed at re-telling this story because it deserves to be re-told, in my view.
i regret that some people have read things into it which i did not intend.
Another explanation could be that Dr Fisher, who also is the Queen’s homeopath, lacks sufficient skills of critical thinking to understand the article and its purpose. Alternatively, he has been waiting for an occasion to fire me ever since I became more openly critical of homeopathy about five years ago.
Whatever the explanation, I think it is regrettable that the journal ‘Homeopathy’ has now lost the only editorial board member who had the ability to openly and repeatedly display a critical attitude about homeopathy – remember: without a critical attitude progress is unlikely!
Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician who was frustrated with the ‘heroic’ medicine of his time, invented homeopathy about 200 years ago. Since then, his followers have applied what we might call ‘selective dogmatism’ to his invention: they have religiously adhered to certain aspects, been considerably more liberal in other respects and abandoned some concepts altogether. It is therefore not unreasonable, I think, to ask what the ‘father of homeopathy’ – if he were still with us – might think of homeopathy as it is being practised today.
TYPES OF HOMEOPATHY
We tend to consider homeopathy to be one single therapy or school of thought, but this is not quite true. There a numerous forms of homeopathy, including the following:
Auto-isopathy (treatment with remedies made from patients’ own body substances)
Classical homeopathy (doctrine based on strict Hahnemannian principles)
Clinical homeopathy (non-individualised treatment based mainly on guiding symptoms; e.g. arnica for bruises)
Complex homeopathy (treatment with combination remedies)
Homotoxicology (treatment based on Reckeweg’s concepts of detoxification)
Isopathy (use of remedies made from the causative agent, e.g. a specific allergen for an allergy)
Pluralistic homeopathy (use of more than one remedy at once)
The list could be extended, and we could discuss the characteristics as well as the pros and cons of each variant. But this would be rather futile and intensely boring; suffice to say that, from all we know about Hahnemann’s views and temper, he would have strongly condemned even the slightest deviation from the strict rules of his doctrine.
CURRENT TYPES OF HOMEOPATHS
So, what about the different ways in which homeopathy (whatever version we might select) is practised by Hahnemann’s disciples today? The way I see it, four different and fairly distinct types of homeopaths currently exist.
The purist homeopath
Samuel Hahnemann himself clearly was a purist. He was adamant that his detailed instructions must be followed to the letter. Amongst other things, this means that homeopathy must be seen as the only true medicine; mixing homeopathy with any other type of medicine is, according to its founder, strictly forbidden; Hahnemann was very explicit that this would weaken or even abolish its effects. Today’s purist homeopaths therefore follow these instructions religiously and employ homeopathy as the sole and only therapeutic option for any symptom or disease.
The liberal homeopath
Purist-homeopaths still do exist today, but they seem to be in the minority. Most homeopathic doctors mix homeopathic with conventional medicines, and most non-doctor homeopaths (they prefer the term ‘professional homeopaths’) accept or at least acknowledge that a mixed approach might often be necessary or preferable. In the words of Hahnemann, these homeopaths are ‘half-homeopaths’ who have ‘betrayed’ his gospel. He would most certainly disown them and point out that this type of approach is doomed to failure and cannot possibly work.
The occasional homeopath
In several countries – Germany is a good example – many doctors use homeopathy on just relatively rare occasions. We might speculate why this is so; my personal impression is that this group of clinicians do not really believe in the effectiveness of homeopathy at all. They employ it because some patients ask for it, or because they want to use a legally defensible and harmless placebo. There can be no doubt, Hahnemann would have not approved of this approach at all. Quite to the contrary, he would have been furious, called them ‘traitors’ or worse and insisted that this is nothing more than a placebo-therapy.
DIY-homeopaths is my term for patients and consumers who have no training in homeopathy but buy homeopathic remedies over the counter and self-administer them without consulting a trained homeopath. They might see it being recommended for a certain health problem and give it a try. If their symptoms subsequently disappear, they are likely to misinterpret this phenomenon and become convinced that homeopathy is effective. This group seems to be by far the largest of all types of homeopaths.
WOULD HAHNEMANN APPROVE?
What would Hahnemann, if we could ask him today, make of all this? I think he would be fuming with anger (from all we know, he was a rather short-tempered man and had no patience with ‘traitors’).
The DIY-homeopaths obviously break every rule in his book: without a long and complicated consultation, it would not be possible to identify the correct, individualised remedy. What follows is simple: according to Hahnemann’s teachings, all these millions of people across the globe are treating themselves with pure placebos. Ironically, this is where most scientists would agree Hahnemann’s verdict!
Hahnemann would certainly direct equal scorn towards the occasional homeopaths who do not even believe in homeopathy. To Hahnemann, belief in his doctrine was essential and the use of his remedies as mere placebos would have been insulting, utterly unacceptable and destined to therapeutic failure.
We do know from Hahnemann’s mouth what he thought of those clinicians he himself called “half-homeopaths”. In his view, they were ‘traitors’ who did not even deserve to be called true homeopaths. There can be no question about the fact that he would have judged their practice as a useless and ineffective abomination.
This leaves us with the purist-homeopath. This relatively small group of dogmatists turns out to be the only one which Hahnemann might have actually approved of. They tend to strictly adhere to (almost) every of the numerous therapeutic instruction he ever put to paper. Like Hahnemann, they believe that homeopathy is the only efficacious medicine and, like Hahnemann, they use it as a true alternative to ‘allopathy’, the derogatory term Hahnemann coined for conventional medicine.
If this analysis is correct, we are today faced with the situation where homeopathy is used by many people worldwide but, according to the teachings of homeopathy’s founder, it is currently badly misused – so much so that, according to Hahnemann’s most clearly and repeatedly expressed views, it cannot possibly result in clinical benefit. Considering that most of today’s homeopaths would insist that the words of Hahnemann as pure gospel, this situation is most bizarre and ironic indeed. It becomes even more ironic when we realise that the only group of clinicians who employ homeopathy in the ‘correct’ way is also the one which is the most serious danger to public health.
There probably is no area in health care that produces more surveys than alternative medicine. I estimate that about 500 surveys are published every year; this amounts to about two every working day which is substantially more than the number of clinical trials in this field.
I have long been critical of this ‘survey-mania’. The reason is simple: most of these articles are of such poor quality that they tell us nothing of value.
The vast majority of these surveys attempts to evaluate the prevalence of use of alternative medicine, and it is this type of investigation that I intend to discuss here.
For a typical prevalence 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 alternative medicine in the past. Subsequently, the investigators might get one or two hundred responses. They then calculate simple descriptive statistics and demonstrate that xy% (let’s assume it is 45%) use alternative medicine. This finding eventually gets published in one of the many alternative medicine journals, and everyone is happy – well, almost everybody.
How can I be such a spoil-sport and claim that this result tells us nothing of value? At the very minimum, some might argue, it shows that enthusiasts of alternative medicine are interested in and capable of conducting research. I beg to differ: this is not research, it is pseudo-research which ignores most of the principles of survey-design.
The typical alternative medicine prevalence survey has none of the features that would render it a scientific investigation:
1) It lacks an accepted definition of what is being surveyed. There is no generally accepted definition of alternative medicine, and even if the researchers address specific therapies, they run into huge problems. Take prayer, for instance – some see this as alternative medicine, while others would, of course, argue that it is a religious pursuit. Or take herbal medicine – many consumers confuse it with homeopathy, some might think that drinking tea is herbal medicine, while others would probably disagree.
2) The questionnaires used for such surveys are almost never validated. Essentially, this means that we cannot be sure they evaluate what we think they evaluate. We all know that the way we formulate a question can determine the answer. There are many potential sources of bias here, and they are rarely taken into consideration.
3) Enthusiastic researchers of alternative medicine usually use a small convenience sample of participants for their surveys. This means they ask a few people who happen to be around to fill their questionnaire. As a consequence, there is no way the survey is representative of the population in question.
4) The typical survey has a low response rate; sometimes the response rate is not even provided or remains unknown even to the investigators. This means we do not know how the majority of patients/consumers who received but did not fill the questionnaire would have answered. Often there is good reason to suspect that those who have a certain attitude did respond, while those with a different opinion did not. This self-selection process is likely to produce misleading findings.
And why I am so sure about all of theses limitations? To my embarrassment, I know about them not least because I have made most these mistakes myself at some time in my career. You might also ask why this is important: what’s the harm in publishing a few flimsy surveys?
In my view, these investigations are regrettably counter-productive because:
they tend to grossly over-estimate the popularity of alternative medicine,
they distract money, manpower and attention from the truly important research questions in this field,
they give a false impression of a buoyant research activity,
and their results are constantly misused.
The last point is probably the most important one. The argument that is all too often spun around such survey data goes roughly as follows: a large percentage of the population uses alternative medicine; people pay out of their own pocket for these treatments; they are satisfied with them (if not, they would not pay for them). BUT THIS IS GROSSLY UNFAIR! Why should only those individuals who are rich enough to afford alternative medicine benefit from it? ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE SHOULD BE MADE AVAILABLE FOR ALL.
I rest my case.
The developed world is in the middle of a major obesity epidemic. It is predicted to cause millions of premature deaths and billions of dollars, money that would be badly needed elsewhere. The well-known method of eating less and moving more is most efficacious but sadly not very effective, that is to say people do not easily adopt and adhere to it. This is why many experts are searching for a treatment that works and is acceptable to all or at least most patients.
Entrepreneurs of alternative medicine have long jumped on this band waggon. They have learnt that the regulations are lax or non-existent, that consumers are keen to believe anything they tell them and that the opportunities to make a fast buck are thus enormous. Today, they are offering an endless array of treatments which are cleverly marketed, for instance via the Internet.
Since many years, my research team are involved in a programme of assessing the alternative slimming aids mostly through systematic reviews and occasionally also through conducting our own clinical trials. Our published analyses include the following treatments:
Supplements containing conjugated linoleic acid
There are, of course, many more but, for most, no evidence exist at all. The treatments listed above have all been submitted to clinical trials. The results show invariably that the outcomes were not convincingly positive: either there were too few data, or there were too many flaws in the studies, or the weight reduction achieved was too small to be clinically relevant.
Our latest systematic review is a good example; its aim was to evaluate the evidence from randomized controlled trials (RCTs) involving the use of the African Bush Mango, Irvingia gabonensis, for body weight reduction in obese and overweight individuals. Three RCTs were identified, and all had major methodological flaws. All RCTs reported statistically significant reductions in body weight and waist circumference favoring I. gabonensis over placebo. They also suggested positive effects of I. gabonensis on blood lipids. Adverse events included headache and insomnia. Despite these apparently positive findings, our conclusions had to be cautious: “Due to the paucity and poor reporting quality of the RCTs, the effect of I. gabonensis on body weight and related parameters are unproven. Therefore, I. gabonensis cannot be recommended as a weight loss aid. Future research in this area should be more rigorous and better reported.”
People who want to loose weight are often extremely desperate and ready to try anything. They are thus easy victims of the irresponsible promises that are being made on the Internet and elsewhere. Despite the overwhelmingly evidence to the contrary, consumers are led to believe that alternative slimming aids are effective. What is more, they are also misled to assume they are risks-free. This latter assumption is false too: apart from the harm done to the patient’s bank account, many alternative slimming aids are associated with side-effects which, in some cases, are serious and can even include death.
The conclusion from all this is short and simple: alternative slimming aids are bogus.
When I retired a few months ago, I began to sort out hundreds of old files and, in the course of doing so, I stumbled across my inauguration lecture given at Exeter in late 1993. Because so many people have been puzzled, bewildered or annoyed by my post, my attitude, my remit, my writings, my errors, my perceived lack of support for CM or my alleged inconsistencies, I have now decided to reproduce the most important sections of this publication here (unfortunately, the article is not available on line but I will send a PDF to anyone who asks for it). For clarity, the original text is in italics; where i needed to add something, I put it in square brackets so that there can be no misunderstandings.
… there are some common denominators [for all different types of CM]: an all encompassing theory (sometimes more a philosophy than a theory) the view of health as a balance of forces within the body and healing as the restoration of this balance, the holistic approach, and the emphasis on each individual’s own responsibility for health. It is noteworthy that the latter two characteristics are, of course, an integral part of (good) orthodox medicine.
…[CM] often lacks an adequate theoretical basis, its diagnoses are usually not in line with science, and it has failed to demonstrate clinical effectiveness convincingly. CM may thus be defined as those branches of the art and science of health care that are not in accordance with current medical thought, scientific knowledge or university teaching…
… no one doubts that today’s modern, orthodox medicine is more successful than any of its predecessors in diagnosing, treating and preventing disease. Yet the public chooses complementary medicine in vast numbers. Why? There must be many reasons, ranging from dissatisfaction with high-tech medicine to a fascination with mysticism, from grabbing ‘the last straw’ to looking for more empathy, to falling victim to the Barnum-Effect or the Health Information Fatigue Phenomenon. Whatever the reasons are (and no doubt they need to be researched in much more detail), they represent a severe criticism to the content and style of today’s medicine. Orthodoxy might be well advised to try and learn a lesson from the apparent success and obvious popularity of CM…
CM also accepts more and more its own limitations, the fact that it may also do harm and the urgent need for much more scientific proof – a remarkable change considering that the scientific method was formerly said to be nothing short of naive reductionism representing an over-simplified mechanistic philosophy, which does injustice to the complexities of the human being.
… the medical establishment is gradually becoming more open-minded and prepared to look into the matter seriously. It realises that it must abandon old prejudice and differentiate between various approaches – maybe not everything in CM is bad after all! A wry and useful classification is the schematic listing of CM in 3 categories: the frankly fraudulent, the foolishly harmless, and the possibly useful. It is clear that only rigorous research will be able to differentiate one from the other.
…why do we need controlled trials, some proponents of CM would argue, when everyday experience shows us that our treatments work? The answer is disarmingly simple: clinical experience can be totally and repeatedly misleading. Medical history abounds with examples. Blood-letting, the panacea of the middle-ages, killed probably more people than it ever helped. Yet clinicians thought to witness its benefit for centuries. Every time in the past, present and future, when a patient’s cure is solely attributed to a treatment, two important factors are neglected: the natural history of the disease, and the placebo effect. There is only one way to be sure, and that is to conduct randomised controlled trials. The notion that they are not feasible, desirable or conclusive is blatantly wrong; not to believe in controlled trials is not to care about the effectiveness of one’s doings and to adopt a quasi-religious attitude towards medicine.
I find some of the points I made back in 1993 remarkable. To be honest, I could not stop smiling when I re-read my text after almost 20 years. Rather than discussing the messages of my own lecture, I will leave the critical assessment of these points to the probably lively comment section that will follow this post. In closing, I do, however, want to briefly highlight two aspects.
1) Many CM proponents have attacked me because they feel that I am too critical and some even assume that I am in the pockets of BIG PHARMA and got the Exeter job under false pretences. The University of Exeter should have employed an outspoken champion of CM, they argue. I think my inaugural lecture shows beyond any doubt that they always knew who they were getting and it suggests that, at least initially (before Prince Charles intervened), they wanted me because universities need scientists, not promoters.
2) Since 1993, about 10 000 articles have been published on the subject of CM (my estimate), and yet we do not seem to have advanced all that much. The title “changing attitudes” might thus have been more than a little optimistic on my part!