“Wer heilt hat recht”. Every German knows this saying and far too many believe it. Literally translated, it means THE ONE WHO HEALS IS RIGHT, and indicates that, in health care, the proof of efficacy of a treatment is self-evident: if a clinician administers a treatment and the patient improves, she was right in prescribing it and the treatment must have been efficacious. The only English saying which is vaguely similar (but rarely used for therapies) is THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING IS IN THE EATING, translated into a medical context: the proof of the treatment is in the clinical outcome.
The saying is German but the sentiment behind it is amazingly widespread across the world, particularly the alternative one. If I had a fiver for each time a German journalist has asked me to comment on this ‘argument’ I could probably invite all my readers for a beer in the pub. The notion seems to be irresistibly appealing and journalists, consumers, patients, politicians etc. fall for it like flies. It is popular foremost as a counter-argument against scientists’ objections to homeopathy and similar placebo-treatments. If the homeopath cured her patient, then she and her treatments are evidently fine!
It is time, I think, that I scrutinise the argument and refute it once and for all.
The very first thing to note is that placebos never cure a condition. They might alleviate symptoms, but cure? No!
The next issue relates to causality. The saying assumes that the sole reason for the clinical outcome is the treatment. Yet, if a patient’s symptoms improve, the reason might have been the prescribed treatment, but this is just one of a multitude of different options, e.g.:
- the placebo-effect
- the regression towards the mean
- the natural history of the condition
- the Hawthorne effect
- the compassion of the clinician
- other treatments that might have been administered in parallel
Often it is a complex mixture of these and possibly other phenomena that is responsible and, unless we run a proper clinical trial, we cannot even guess the relative importance of each factor. To claim in such a messy situation that the treatment given by the clinician was the cause of the improvement, is ridiculously simplistic and overtly wrong.
But that is precisely what the saying WER HEILT HAT RECHT does. It assumes a simple mono-causal relationship that never exists in clinical settings. And, annoyingly, it somewhat arrogantly dismisses any scientific evidence by implying that the anecdotal observation is so much more accurate and relevant.
The true monstrosity of the saying can be easily disclosed with a little thought experiment. Let’s assume the saying is correct and we adopt it as a major axiom in health care. This would have all sorts of terrible consequences. For instance, any pharmaceutical company would be allowed to produce colourful placebos and sell them for a premium; they would only need to show that some patients do experience some relief after taking it. THE ONE WHO HEALS IS RIGHT!
The saying is a dangerously misleading platitude. That it happens to be German and that the Germans remain so frightfully fond of it disturbs me. That the notion, in one way or another, is deeply ingrained in the mind of charlatans across the world is worrying but hardly surprising – after all, it is said to have been coined by Samuel Hahnemann.
One of the most gratifying aspect of my work in Exeter was being able to offer posts to visiting researchers from across the world. Some of these co-workers, after returning to their home countries, became prominent scientists in their own right, and quite a few remained in contact and continued to collaborate with me or with members of my team. In one of these collaborative projects, we wanted to investigate adverse events attributed to traditional medical treatments in the Republic of Korea.
For this purpose, we reviewed adverse events recorded in the Republic of Korea, between 1999 and 2010, by the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Agency or the Association of Traditional Korean Medicine. Records of adverse events attributed to the use of traditional medical practices, including reports of medicinal accidents and consumers’ complaints, were evaluated.
Overall, 9624 records of adverse events were identified. Liver problems after the administration of herbal medicines were the most frequently reported adverse events. Only eight of the adverse events were recorded by the pharmacovigilance system run by the Food and Drug Administration. Of the 9624 events, 1389 – mostly infections, cases of pneumothorax and burns – were linked to physical therapies (n = 285) or acupuncture/moxibustion (n = 1104).
We concluded that traditional medical practices often appear to have adverse effects, yet almost all of the adverse events attributed to such practices between 1999 and 2010 were missed by the national pharmacovigilance system. The Consumer Agency and the Association of Traditional Korean Medicine should be included in the national pharmacovigilance system.
The assumption that alternative treatments are entirely harmless is widespread, not least because it is incessantly promoted via millions of web-site, thousands of books, newspaper articles, VIPs like Prince Charles etc. etc. Consumers are incessantly being told that NATURAL = SAFE. Yet, if we look closely, most alternative treatments are not natural and, as this investigation demonstrates, they are certainly not devoid of risks.
I already see the apologists preparing to comment that, compared to conventional therapies, alternative treatments are very safe. So let me pre-empt this fallacy by pointing out (yet again) that 1) in the absence of adequate surveillance systems, nobody can say how frequent adverse-effects of alternative treatments really are, and that 2) even severe adverse effects can normally be tolerated, if the treatment in question has been shown to be efficacious.
So, instead of commenting on my repeated reports about the risks of alternative medicine, I invite, in fact, I challenge my critics to answer this simple question: For how many alternative therapies is there a well-documented positive risk/benefit balance?
A lengthy article posted by THE HOMEOPATHIC COLLEGE recently advocated treating cancer with homeopathy. Since I doubt that many readers access this publication, I take the liberty of reproducing here their (also fairly lengthy) CONCLUSIONS in full:
Laboratory studies in vitro and in vivo show that homeopathic drugs, in addition to having the capacity to reduce the size of tumors and to induce apoptosis, can induce protective and restorative effects. Additionally homeopathic treatment has shown effects when used as a complementary therapy for the effects of conventional cancer treatment. This confirms observations from our own clinical experience as well as that of others that when suitable remedies are selected according to individual indications as well as according to pathology and to cell-line indications and administered in the appropriate doses according to the standard principles of homeopathic posology, homeopathic treatment of cancer can be a highly effective therapy for all kinds of cancers and leukemia as well as for the harmful side effects of conventional treatment. More research is needed to corroborate these clinical observations.
Homeopathy over almost two decades of its existence has developed more than four hundred remedies for cancer treatment. Only a small fraction have been subjected to scientific study so far. More homeopathic remedies need to be studied to establish if they have any significant action in cancer. Undoubtedly the next big step in homeopathic cancer research must be multiple comprehensive double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials. To assess the effect of homeopathic treatment in clinical settings, volunteer adult patients who prefer to try homeopathic treatment instead of conventional therapy could be recruited, especially in cases for which no conventional therapy has been shown to be effective.
Many of the researchers conducting studies — cited here but not discussed — on the growing interest in homeopathic cancer treatment have observed that patients are driving the demand for access to homeopathic and other alternative modes of cancer treatment. So long as existing cancer treatment is fraught with danger and low efficacy, it is urgent that the research on and the provision of quality homeopathic cancer treatment be made available for those who wish to try it.
When I report about nonsense like that, I find it hard not to go into a fuming rage. But doing that would not be very constructive – so let me instead highlight (in random order) eight simple techniques that seem to be so common when unsubstantiated claims are being promoted for alternative treatments:
1) cherry pick the data
2) use all sorts of ‘evidence’ regardless how flimsy or irrelevant it might be
3) give yourself the flair of being highly scientific and totally impartial
4) point out how dangerous and ineffective all the conventional treatments are
5) do not shy away from overt lies
6) do not forget to stress that the science is in full agreement with your exhaustive clinical experience
7) stress that patients want what you are offering
8) ignore the biological plausibility of the underlying concepts
Provided we adhere to these simple rules, we can convince the unsuspecting public of just about anything – even of the notion that homeopathy is a cure for cancer!
In Europe, we have chiropractors, homeopaths, naturopaths and anthroposophical physicians who recommend to their patients not to vaccinate their children. In the US, they have all this plus some of the clergy to jeopardize herd immunity.
An outbreak of measles infections has been reported in Tarrant County, Texas, US where at least 21 people have been affected this month at the Eagle Mountain International Church. The ministers of this church have been critical of vaccination and advised to use alternative treatments. Several more cases of infections with fever and rash have been noted, but so far remain unconfirmed.
Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, between 3 million and 4 million people in the U.S. were infected each year, 48,000 of them needed hospitalisation and 400 to 500 died. Another 1,000 developed chronic disabilities. In the US measles were considered eradicated in 2000, but outbreaks continue because of imported infections brought back by travellers from areas where measles remains common.
The Texas outbreak was caused by a non-vaccinated visitor who had been infected in Indonesia and then returned to expose unvaccinated church members, staff and children in a day-care centre. In the wider community, more than 98 per cent of kids are immunized and less than 1 per cent are exempt. But the congregation of unvaccinated people allowed the disease to catch hold. Church leaders, including Kenneth Copeland and his daughter, Terri Pearsons, senior pastor at Eagle Mountain, have advocated faith-healing and questioned vaccines in the past.
And what can faith-healing achieve? Where is the evidence that it prevents or cures infections or any other diseases? You probably guessed: there is none.
If one spends a lot of time, as I presently do, sorting out old files, books, journals etc., one is bound to come across plenty of weird and unusual things. I for one, am slow at making progress with this task, mainly because I often start reading the material that is in front of me. It was one of those occasions that I had begun studying a book written by one of the more fanatic proponent of alternative medicine and stumbled over the term THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE. It made me think, and I began to realise that the notion behind these four words is quite characteristic of the field of alternative health care.
When I studied medicine, in the 1970s, we were told by our peers what to do, which treatments worked for which conditions and why. They had all the experience and we, by definition, had none. Experience seemed synonymous with proof. Nobody dared to doubt the word of ‘the boss’. We were educated, I now realise, in the age of EMINENCE-BASED MEDICINE.
All of this gradually changed when the concepts of EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE became appreciated and generally adopted by responsible health care professionals. If now the woman or man on top of the medical ‘pecking order’ claims something that is doubtful in view of the published evidence, it is possible (sometimes even desirable) to say so – no matter how junior the doubter happened to be. As a result, medicine has thus changed for ever: progress is no longer made funeral by funeral [of the bosses] but new evidence is much more swiftly translated into clinical practice.
Don’t get me wrong, EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE does not does not imply disrespect EXPERIENCE; it merely takes it for what it is. And when EVIDENCE and EXPERIENCE fail to agree with each other, we have to take a deep breath, think hard and try to do something about it. Depending on the specific situation, this might involve further study or at least an acknowledgement of a degree of uncertainty. The tension between EXPERIENCE and EVIDENCE often is the impetus for making progress. The winner in this often complex story is the patient: she will receive a therapy which, according to the best available EVIDENCE and careful consideration of the EXPERIENCE, is best for her.
NOT SO IN ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE!!! Here EXPERIENCE still trumps EVIDENCE any time, and there is no need for acknowledging uncertainty: EXPERIENCE = proof!!!
In case you think I am exaggerating, I recommend thumbing through a few books on the subject. As I already stated, I have done this quite a bit in recent months, and I can assure you that there is very little evidence in these volumes to suggest that data, research, science, etc.. matter a hoot. No critical thinking is required, as long as we have EXPERIENCE on our side!
‘THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE’ is still a motto that seems to be everywhere in alternative medicine. In many ways, it seems to me, this motto symbolises much of what is wrong with alternative medicine and the mind-set of its proponents. Often, the EXPERIENCE is in sharp contrast to the EVIDENCE. But this little detail does not seem to irritate anyone. Apologists of alternative medicine stubbornly ignore such contradictions. In the rare case where they do comment at all, the gist of their response normally is that EXPERIENCE is much more relevant than EVIDENCE. After all, EXPERIENCE is based on hundreds of years and thousands of ‘real-life’ cases, while EVIDENCE is artificial and based on just a few patients.
As far as I can see, nobody in alternative medicine pays more than a lip service to the fact that EXPERIENCE can be [and often is] grossly misleading. Little or no acknowledgement exists of the fact that, in clinical routine, there are simply far too many factors that interfere with our memories, impressions, observations and conclusions. If a patient gets better after receiving a therapy, she might have improved for a dozen reasons which are unrelated to the treatment per se. And if a patient does not get better, she might not come back at all, and the practitioner’s memory will therefore fail register such events as therapeutic failures. Whatever EXPERIENCE is, in health care, it rarely constitutes proof!
The notion of THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE, it thus turns out, is little more than self-serving, wishful thinking which characterises the backward attitude that seems to be so remarkably prevalent in alternative medicine. No tension between EXPERIENCE and EVIDENCE is noticeable because the EVIDENCE is being ignored; as a result, there is no progress. The looser is, of course, the patient: she will receive a treatment based on criteria which are less than reliable.
Isn’t it time to burry the fallacy of THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE once and for all?
A single, tiny mosquito can make my life a misery. It can rob me of a night’s sleep and turn me into a frantic lunatic. But now there is a remedy that, according to its manufacturer, makes my mosquito-phobia a distant memory. Mosquito-maniacs like myself can finally breathe a sigh of relief!
According to the manufacturer’s web-site, Mozi-Q is formula to reduce the frequency of bites as well as the reactions that people have to bites. No more itching and big red bumps! No more smelly sprays or stinky coils…what a great ally for camping, golfing, hiking, biking. This could revolutionize the whole outdoor experience! Some of the product’s features include:
- It works within 30 minutes of taking it.
- There are no side effects.
- It works on other bugs aside from mosquitoes like ticks and head lice.
- Product can be taken every 3-5 hours starting right before you go outside.
- There are no contraindications.
- Homeopathic medicine is by definition non-toxic…
Mozi-Q is a formula containing five homeopathic remedies:
- Ledum palustre
- Urtica urens
They are in low C and D potencies, thereby acting at the physical level for their common indication, to reduce the frequency and severity of insect bites….
I am sure that most readers will, by now, ask themselves: is there any good evidence for these claims? The manufacturer’s site is pretty affirmative:
In the ’60s a homeopath by the name of HR. Trexler studied Staphysagria for its effectiveness at preventing mosquito bites. In a study of 421 subjects over a 4 year period, he found this remedy to be 90% effective…We have tested this remedy in our clinic over four mosquito seasons and found the response from the public confirmatory of Trexler’s findings.
Sounds great? Yes, but it turns out that the Trexler trial did not test the mixture contained in Mozi-Q at all; it used just one of its ingredients. Moreover, it seemed to have lacked a control group and therefore constitutes no reliable evidence. And the manufacturer’s own tests? I don’t know, they tell us nothing about them.
At this stage, the mosquito-phobe is disappointed. It seems to me that this product is not supported by sound evidence – more trick than treatment.
And why would this important? Because some people like me might lose a bit of sleep? No! It is important because mosquitos, ticks and other insects transmit diseases, some of which can be deadly. If someone claims that there is a preparation which protects us from insect-bites, some consumers will inevitably trust this claim. And this would not just be unfortunate; it could be life-threatening.
Swiss chiropractors have just published a clinical trial to investigate outcomes of patients with radiculopathy due to cervical disk herniation (CDH). All patients had neck pain and dermatomal arm pain; sensory, motor, or reflex changes corresponding to the involved nerve root and at least one positive orthopaedic test for cervical radiculopathy were included. CDH was confirmed by magnetic resonance imaging. All patients received regular neck manipulations.
Baseline data included two pain numeric rating scales (NRSs), for neck and arm, and the Neck Disability Index (NDI). At two, four and twelve weeks after the initial consultation, patients were contacted by telephone, and the data for NDI, NRSs, and patient’s global impression of change were collected. High-velocity, low-amplitude thrusts were administered by experienced chiropractors. The proportion of patients reporting to feel “better” or “much better” on the patient’s global impression of change scale was calculated. Pre-treatment and post-treatment NRSs and NDIs were analysed.
Fifty patients were included. At two weeks, 55.3% were “improved,” 68.9% at four and 85.7% at twelve weeks. Statistically significant decreases in neck pain, arm pain, and NDI scores were noted at 1 and 3 months compared with baseline scores. 76.2% of all sub-acute/chronic patients were improved at 3 months.
The authors concluded that most patients in this study, including sub-acute/chronic patients, with symptomatic magnetic resonance imaging-confirmed CDH treated with spinal manipulative therapy, reported significant improvement with no adverse events.
In the presence of disc herniation, chiropractic manipulations have been described to cause serious complications. Some experts therefore believe that CDH is a contra-indication for spinal manipulation. The authors of this study imply, however, that it is not – on the contrary, they think it is an effective intervention for CDH.
One does not need to be a sceptic to notice that the basis for this assumption is less than solid. The study had no control group. This means that the observed effect could have been due to:
a placebo response,
the regression towards the mean,
the natural history of the condition,
or other factors which have nothing to do with the chiropractic intervention per se.
And what about the interesting finding that no adverse-effects were noted? Does that mean that the treatment is safe? Sorry, but it most certainly does not! In order to generate reliable results about possibly rare complications, the study would have needed to include not 50 but well over 50 000 patients.
So what does the study really tell us? I have pondered over this question for some time and arrived at the following answer: NOTHING!
Is that a bit harsh? Well, perhaps yes. And I will revise my verdict slightly: the study does tell us something, after all – chiropractors tend to confuse research with the promotion of very doubtful concepts at the expense of their patients. I think, there is a name for this phenomenon: PSEUDO-SCIENCE.
The aim of this retrospective chart-review was to identify the percentage of non-musculoskeletal and musculoskeletal conditions treated by interns in the NUHS Student Clinic. The information was taken from the charts of patients treated in the fall trimester of 2011.
The results show that 52% of all patients were treated only for musculoskeletal conditions, and 48% were treated for non-musculoskeletal conditions, or musculoskeletal plus non-musculoskeletal conditions.
The authors draw the following conclusions: The NUHS Student Clinic interns are treating a greater percentage of non-musculoskeletal conditions and a lesser percentage of musculoskeletal conditions than practicing chiropractic physicians. The student interns also treat a lesser percentage of non-musculoskeletal and a greater percentage of musculoskeletal conditions than allopathic practitioners. This comparison would suggest that NUHS is nearing its institutional goal of training its student interns as primary care practitioners.
The very last sentence of the conclusions is particularly surprising, in my view. Do these findings really imply that the NUHS is training competent primary care practitioners? I fail to see that the data demonstrate this. On the contrary, I think they show that some US chiropractic schools want to promote the notion that chiropractors are, in fact, primary care physicians. More worryingly, I fear that this article demonstrates how, through the diligent work of chiropractic schools, the myth is being kept alive that chiropractic is effective for all sorts of non-musculoskeletal conditions. In other words, I think we might here have a fine example of unsubstantiated beliefs being handed from one to the next generation of chiropractors.
Evidence-based chiropractic my foot! They continue to “happily promote bogus claims”.
One thing that unites all (well, almost all, in my experience) proponents of alternative medicine is their intense dislike for BIG PHARMA. Essentially, they see this sector as:
- Driven by profit
- Employing unethical means to maximise profit
- Not caring for the needs of patients
- Attacking alternative medicine for fear of losing profit
And, of course, they claim that alternative medicine, LITTLE ALT MED, is fundamentally different from the cynically capitalist, malign BIG PHARMA.
I have no intention to defend the ways of the pharmaceutical industry – neither on this blog nor anywhere else. This industry is usually responsible to their share-holders and that constellation can lead to excesses which are counter-productive to our needs, to put it mildly. However, what I will question is the notion that LITTLE ALT MED is fundamentally different from BIG PHARMA.
We all have to make a living; to some extend at least we are therefore all driven by our desire to earn money. In alternative medicine, there are certainly not as many mega-enterprises as in the pharmaceutical industry but nobody can deny that many sizable firms exist which make a profit selling alternative remedies of one type or another.
And those parts of alternative medicine which are not into the sale of remedies, you may well ask – think of acupuncture, for instance. Well, those therapists are not exempt either from the need to make a living. Sure, this is on a different scale from BIG PHARMA, but it constitutes still a need for profit. If we multiply the relatively small sums involved by the vast number of therapists, the grand total of LITTLE ALT MED might approach similar orders of magnitude as that of BIG PHARMA.
Ok, but the alternative sector would not employ unethical means for securing or maximising profits! Wrong again, I am afraid.
My 20 years of experience of LITTLE ALT MED have let me witness several incidents which I would not hesitate to call unethical. One of the most recent and least pleasant, from my point of view, was the discovery that several German homeopathic manufacturers had given money to a ‘journalist’ who used these funds to systematically defame me.
What about the charge that BIG PHARMA does not care for the suffering patient? LITTLE ALT MED would never do that!!! Sadly this is a myth too.
Alternative practitioners and their organisations make a plethora of therapeutic claims which are not substantiated. Who would deny that misleading patients into making wrong health care decisions is not the opposite from ‘caring’? What seems even worse, in my view, is the behaviour that might follow the exposure of such behaviour. If someone is courageous enough to disclose the irresponsibility of bogus claims, he might be attacked or even taken to court by those who, in reality should be in the dock or, at least, do their utmost to get their house in order.
Finally, we have the notion of BIG PHARMA trying to suppress LITTLE ALT MED. I call this a myth too because I see absolutely no evidence for this rumour. Even those who circulate it can, when challenged, not produce any.
And, anyway, we all know how many of the big pharmaceutical firms buy into the alternative medicine market as soon as they see a commercially viable opportunity. Does that look like suppression?
So, what is the conclusion? BIG PHARMA can behave badly, no doubt, and when they do, I am as disgusted as the next man. However, LITTLE ALT MED also can behave badly – in fact, wherever there is money to be made, some people will behave badly some of the time.
Perhaps we should not judge an entire sector just by the bad actions of some of its members, but perhaps we should also consider whether or not it has done any good. Who would doubt that BIG PHARMA has helped to save lives – millions of lives?!
And now ask yourself: can we honestly say the same about LITTLE ALT MED?
Australian researchers wanted to know whether acupuncture is effective for alleviating the symptoms of fibromyalgia, a common painful condition for which no universally accepted treatment exists. For this purpose, they conducted a Cochrane review. After extensive literature searches, they identified 9 RCTs, extracted their data and assessed risk of bias.
The results show that all studies except one were at low risk of selection bias; five were at risk of selective reporting bias; two were subject to attrition bias (favouring acupuncture); three were subject to performance bias (favouring acupuncture) and one to detection bias (favouring acupuncture).
Three studies utilised electro-acupuncture (EA) and the remainder manual acupuncture (MA) without electrical stimulation.
Low quality evidence from one study (13 participants) showed EA improved symptoms with no adverse events at one month following treatment.
Moderate quality evidence from six studies (286 participants) indicated that acupuncture (EA or MA) was no better than sham acupuncture, except for less stiffness at one month. Subgroup analysis of two studies (104 participants) indicated benefits of EA. Mean pain was 70 points on 0 to 100 point scale with sham treatment; EA reduced pain by 13% (5% to 22%).
Low-quality evidence from one study suggested that MA resulted in poorer physical function: mean function in the sham group was 28 points (100 point scale); treatment worsened function by a mean of 6 points.
Moderate quality evidence from one study (58 participants) found that, compared with standard therapy alone (antidepressants and exercise), adjunct acupuncture therapy reduced pain at one month after treatment.
Low quality evidence from one study (38 participants) showed a short-term benefit of acupuncture over antidepressants in pain relief.
Moderate-quality evidence from one study (41 participants) indicated that deep needling with or without deqi did not differ in pain, fatigue, function or adverse events.
Four studies reported no differences between acupuncture and control or other treatments described at six to seven months follow-up.
No serious adverse events were reported, but there were insufficient adverse events to be certain of the risks.
The authors draw the following conclusions: There is low to moderate-level evidence that compared with no treatment and standard therapy, acupuncture improves pain and stiffness in people with fibromyalgia. There is moderate-level evidence that the effect of acupuncture does not differ from sham acupuncture in reducing pain or fatigue, or improving sleep or global well-being. EA is probably better than MA for pain and stiffness reduction and improvement of global well-being, sleep and fatigue. The effect lasts up to one month, but is not maintained at six months follow-up. MA probably does not improve pain or physical functioning. Acupuncture appears safe. People with fibromyalgia may consider using EA alone or with exercise and medication. The small sample size, scarcity of studies for each comparison, lack of an ideal sham acupuncture weaken the level of evidence and its clinical implications. Larger studies are warranted.
What does all that mean? In my view, it means that there is no sound evidence base for acupuncture as a treatment of fibromyalgia – or as we expressed it in our own systematic review of 2007: The notion that acupuncture is an effective symptomatic treatment for fibromyaligia is not supported by the results from rigorous clinical trials. On the basis of this evidence, acupuncture cannot be recommended for fibromyalgia.