Edzard Ernst

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

As I am drafting this post, I am in a plane flying back from Finland. The in-flight meal reminded me of the fact that no food is so delicious that it cannot be spoilt by the addition of too many capers. In turn, this made me think about the paper I happened to be reading at the time, and I arrived at the following theory: no trial design is so rigorous that it cannot to be turned into something utterly nonsensical by the addition of a few amateur researchers.

The paper I was reading when this idea occurred to me was a randomised, triple-blind, placebo-controlled cross-over trial of homeopathy. Sounds rigorous and top quality? Yes, but wait!

Essentially, the authors recruited 86 volunteers who all claimed to be suffering from “mental fatigue” and treated them with Kali-Phos 6X or placebo for one week (X-potencies signify dilution steps of 1: 10, and 6X therefore means that the salt had been diluted 1: 1000000 ). Subsequently, the volunteers were crossed-over to receive the other treatment for one week.

The results failed to show that the homeopathic medication had any effect (not even homeopaths can be surprised about this!). The authors concluded that Kali-Phos was not effective but cautioned that, because of the possibility of a type-2-error, they might have missed an effect which, in truth, does exist.

In my view, this article provides an almost classic example of how time, money and other resources can be wasted in a pretence of conducting reasonable research. As we all know, clinical trials usually are for testing hypotheses. But what is the hypothesis tested here?

According to the authors, the aim was to “assess the effectiveness of Kali-Phos 6X for attention problems associated with mental fatigue”. In other words, their hyposesis was that this remedy is effective for treating the symptom of mental fatigue. This notion, I would claim, is not a scientific hypothesis, it is a foolish conjecture!

Arguably any hypothesis about the effectiveness of a highly diluted homeopathic remedy is mere wishful thinking. But, if there were at least some promissing data, some might conclude that a trial was justified. By way of justification for the RCT in question, the authors inform us that one previous trial had suggested an effect; however, this study did not employ just Kali-Phos but a combined homeopathic preparation which contained Kalium-Phos as one of several components. Thus the authors’ “hypothesis” does not even amount to a hunch, not even to a slight incling! To me, it is less than a shot in the dark fired by blind optimists – nobody should be surprised that the bullet failed to hit anything.

It could even be that the investigators themselves dimly realised that something is amiss with the basis of their study; this might be the reason why they called it an “exploratory trial”. But an exploratory study is one whithout a hypothesis, and the trial in question does have a hyposis of sorts – only that it is rubbish. And what exactly did the authos meant to explore anyway?

That self-reported mental fatigue in healthy volunteers is a condition that can be mediatised such that it merits treatment?

That the test they used for quantifying its severity is adequate?

That a homeopathic remedy with virtually no active ingredient generates outcomes which are different from placebo?

That Hahnemann’s teaching of homeopathy was nonsense and can thus be discarded (he would have sharply condemned the approach of treating all volunteers with the same remedy, as it contradicts many of his concepts)?

That funding bodies can be fooled to pay for even the most ridiculous trial?

That ethics-committees might pass applications which are pure nonsense and which are thus unethical?

A scientific hypothesis should be more than a vague hunch; at its simplest, it aims to explain an observation or phenomenon, and it ought to have certain features which many alt med researchers seem to have never heard of. If they test nonsense, the result can only be nonsense.

The issue of conducting research that does not make much sense is far from trivial, particularly as so much (I would say most) of alt med research is of such or even worst calibre (if you do not believe me, please go on Medline and see for yourself how many of the recent articles in the category “complementary alternative medicine” truly contribute to knowledge worth knowing). It would be easy therefore to cite more hypothesis-free trials of homeopathy.

One recent example from Germany will have to suffice: in this trial, the only justification for conducting a full-blown RCT was that the manufacturer of the remedy allegedly knew of a few unpublished case-reports which suggested the treatment to work – and, of course, the results of the RCT eventually showed that it didn’t. Anyone with a background in science might have predicied that outcome – which is why such trials are so deplorably wastefull.

Research-funds are increasingly scarce, and they must not be spent on nonsensical projects! The money and time should be invested more fruitfully elsewhere. Participants of clinical trials give their cooperation willingly; but if they learn that their efforts have been wasted unnecessarily, they might think twice next time they are asked. Thus nonsensical research may have knock-on effects with far-reaching consequences.

Being a researcher is at least as serious a profession as most other occupations; perhaps we should stop allowing total amateurs wasting money while playing at being professioal. If someone driving a car does something seriously wrong, we take away his licence; why is there not a similar mechanism for inadequate researchers, funders, ethics-committees which prevents them doing further damage?

At the very minimum, we should critically evaluate the hypothesis that the applicants for research-funds propose to test. Had someone done this properly in relatiom to the two above-named studies, we would have saved about £150,000 per trial (my estimate). But as it stands, the authors will probably claim that they have produced fascinating findings which urgently need further investigation – and we (normally you and I) will have to spend three times the above-named amount (again, my estimate) to finance a “definitive” trial. Nonsense, I am afraid, tends to beget more nonsense.

 

Since homeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann about 200 years ago, a steadily growing group of critics have raised their voices more and more loudly. Usually they come from doctors or scientists and only rarely from the legal profession.

Yet, there are exceptions: an Australian barrister and professor of law has published an analysis of “a series of criminal, civil, disciplinary and coronial decisions from difference countries in relation to homeopathic medicine where outcomes have been tragic”. He concludes that “there is an urgent need for reflection and response within the health sector generally, consumer protection authorities, and legal policy-makers about the steps that should be taken to provide community protection from dangerous homeopathic practice”.

He also questions whether homeopathy can ever be registered alongside other health care professionals:

“Until such time as homoeopathy can scientifically justify its fundamental tenets,… it cannot be said that its claims for therapeutic efficacy can be justifiable. This leaves the profession not just exposed to criticisms,… but potentially open to consumer protection actions directed toward whether its representations are false, misleading and deceptive, to civil litigation when its promises have not been fulfilled, and especially when persons have died, and to criminal actions in respect of the financial advantage that is obtained by its practitioners from their representations.

The distressing cases referred to here which led to avoidable deaths and the multiple accusations leveled against homoeopathy require of the profession at least a formal repudiation of the practitioners concerned… In addition, they demand an unequivocal response that homoeopathy will discipline its own in a robust and open way. If the profession is to acquire any scientific credibility, which is difficult to conceive of, the deaths to which homoeopathy has contributed…also require that homoeopathy actively generate a defensible research basis that justifies its claims to efficacy of outcome for its patients. It is only then that the claims of the medical establishment that homoeopathy is a dangerous and too often a lethal form of quackery will be able to be contested rationally. In the meantime, it is timely to consider further the status that homoeopathy has within the general and health care communities and whether that status can be scientifically, ethically or legally justified”.

I believe this legal view to be highly significant. The persistent criticism from skeptics, concerned scientists and doctors has rarely been translated into decisions about health care provision. Homeopaths tended to respond to our criticism by producing anecdotes, unconvincing or cherry-picked data or by producing outright lies, for instance in relation to the “Swiss government’s report” on homeopathy.

In this context, it is worth noting that, in some countries, homeopaths who have no medical qualifications have been accused to practice medicine without a licence. The case of Dana Ullman in the US is probably the most spectecular such incident; this is how one pro-homeopathy site describes it:

Dana is perhaps the person who has done the most for homeopathy since his court case in that he pursues the evangelism of homeopathy through the NCH and his mail order company… He prescribed homeopathic medicine and was arrested for practicing medicine without a license. But he won an important settlement in 1977 in the Oakland Municipal Court in which the court allowed his practice under two stipulations:

  1. that he did not diagnose or treat disease and that he refers to medical doctors for the diagnosis and treatment of disease;
  2. that he makes contracts with his patients that clearly define his role as a non-medical homeopathic practitioner and the patient’s role in seeking his care.

But such cases are not the only occasions for lawyers to look at homeopathy. Recently there has been a class action against the Boiron, the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic preparations. It was alleged that Boiron made bogus claims for one of its remedies, and there was a settlement worth millions of dollars. Similar cases  are likely to follow, e.g.:

  • Nelsons Homeopathy (Rescue Remedy, Bach Original Flower Remedies, Pure & Clear, Arnileve, H+Care)
  • CVS Homeopathic Products (Flu Relief, Cold Relief, Cold Remedy, Ear Pain Relief)
  • Nature’s Innovation (Naturasil Skin Tags, Bed Bug Patrol, Naturasil Scabies)
  • Boericke & Tafel Cold/Flu
  • Homeolab USA (Kids Relief Cough & Cold)

In June 2003, a British High Court Judge ordered two mothers to ensure that their daughters are appropriately vaccinated. The ruling concerned two separate cases brought by fathers who wanted their daughters immunized despite opposition by the girls’ unwed mothers

The fact that, in the UK and other countries, homeopathic placebos are still being sold as “vaccines” for the prevention of serious, life-threatening infections is, in my view nothing short of a scandal. The fact that a leading figure at Ainsworth actively misleads the public about these products is an outrage. It is high time therefore that the legal profession looks seriously at the full range of issues related to homeopathy with a view of stopping the dangerous nonsense.

I don’t suppose that many readers of this blog believe all things natural to be entirely safe, but the general public seems to be hard-wired victims of this myth: Mother Nature is benign, and herbal remedies must be harmless!

There are, of course, several reasons why supposedly “natural” herbal treatments can be unsafe. Plants extracts can be toxic, they might interact with prescribed drugs or they can be contaminated or adulterated.

The latter two terms describe similar but not identical phenomena: contamination means the accidental addition of substances which should not be present in an herbal remedy; and adulteration signifies the deliberate addition of ingredients. If the substances in question are not pharmacologically inert, their presence in herbal remedies can cause adverse effects.

Both contamination and adulteration break laws and regulations; both are therefore illegal. Sadly, this does not mean that such things do not happen.

We have recently published an overview of the existing knowledge in this area. For this purpose, we summarised the evidence from 26 previously published reviews. Our findings were interesting but far from reassuring: the most commonly found contaminants were dust, pollen, insects, rodents, parasites, microbes, fungi, mould, pesticides, and heavy metals. The adulterants invariably were prescription drugs such as steroids, anti-diabetic medications etc.

These substances were implicated in a wide range of serious adverse effects in the unfortunate patients who took the remedies in question: agranulocytosis, meningitis, multi-organ failure, stroke, arsenic poisoning, mercury poisoning, lead poisoning, caner, encephalopathy, hepato-renal syndrome, kidney damage, rhabdomyolosis, metabolic acidosis, renal failure, liver failure, cerebral oedema, coma, and intra-cerebral bleeding. Several patients did not survive.

To avoid such disasters, consumers need to know which types of herbal remedies are most frequently implicated; our review showed that these were foremost Chinese and Indian remedies. While herbal medicines from the US or Europe ought to comply with certain rules and regulations regarding their quality and safety, Chinese and Indian herbal mixtures frequently enter our countries illegally or are bought from dubious sources, for instance, over the Internet. It is this type of herbal remedy that we should be concerned about.

We have to ask whether the risks outweigh the proven benefits of Chinese or Indian herbal mixtures. The short answer to this question is NO. There is very little compelling evidence to suggest that these treatments are efficacious. In the absence of proven benefit, even small or rare risks weigh heavily.

If the risk-benefit profile for any medical intervention fails to be positive, there can only be one reasonable conclusion regarding the use of this therapy – and that is: DON’T DO IT!

According to Wikipedia, Gua sha involves repeated pressured strokes over lubricated skin with a smooth edge placed against the pre-oiled skin surface, pressed down firmly, and then moved downwards along muscles or meridians.This intervention causes bleeding from capillaries and sub-cutaneous blemishing which usually last for several days. According to a recent article on Gua Sha, it is a traditional healing technique popular in Asia and Asian immigrant communities involving unidirectional scraping and scratching of the skin until ‘Sha-blemishes’ appear.

Gua Sha paractitioners make far-reaching therapeutic claims, e.g.” Gua Sha is used whenever a patient has pain whether associated with an acute or chronic disorder… In addition to resolving musculo skeletal pain, Gua Sha is used to treat as well as prevent common cold, flu, bronchitis, asthma, as well as any chronic disorder involving pain, congestion of Qi and Blood“. Another source informs us that ” Gua Sha is performed to treat systemic toxicity, poor circulation, physical and  emotional stress, and migraines. Gua Sha healing promotes the flow of Qi  (energy) and blood throughout the body for overall health“.

Gua Sha “blemishes” can look frightful – more like the result of torture than of treatment. Yet with our current craze for all things exotic in medicine, Gua Sha is becoming popular also in Western countries. One German team has even published several RCTs of Gua Sha.

This group treated 40 patients with neck pain either with Gua Sha or locally applied heat packs. They found that, after one week, the pain was significantly reduced in the former compared to the latter group. The same team also published a study with 40 back or neck-pain patients who either received a single session of Gua Sha or were left untreated. The results indicate that one week later, the treated patients had less pain than the untreated ones.

My favoutite article on the subject must be a case report by the same German research team. It describes a woman suffering from chronic headaches. She was treated with a range of interventions, including Gua Sha – and her symptoms improved. From this course of events, the authors conclude that “this case provides first evidence that Gua Sha is effective in the treatment of headaches”

The truth, of course, is that neither this case nor the two RCTs provide any good evidence at all. The case-report is, in fact, a classic example of drawing hilariously over-optimistic conclusions from data that are everything but conclusive. And the two RCTs  just show how remarkable placebo-effects can be, particularly if the treatment is exotic, impressive, involves physical touch, is slightly painful and raises high expectations.

My explanation for the observed effects after Gua Sha is quite simple: imagine you have a headache and accidentally injure yourself – say you fall off your bike and the tarmac scrapes off an area of skin on your thigh. This hurts quite a bit and distracts you from your headache, perhaps even to such an extend that you do not feel it any more. As the wound heals, it gets a bit infected and thus hurts for several days; chances are that your headache will be gone for that period of time. Of course, the Gua Sha- effect would be larger because the factors mentioned above (exotic treatment, expectation etc.) but essentially the accident and the treatment work via similar mechanisms, namely distraction and counter-irritation. And neither Gua Sha nor injuring yourself on the tarmac are truly recommendable therapies, in my view.

But surely, for the patient, it does not matter how she gets rid of her headache! The main point is that Gua Sha works! In a way, this attitude is understandable – except, we do not need the hocus pocus of meridians, qi, TCM, ancient wisdom etc. nor do we need to tolerate claims that Gua Sha is “serious medicine” and has any specific effects whatsoever. All we do need is to apply some common sense and then use any other method of therapeutic counter-irritation; that might be more honest, safer and would roughly do the same trick.

No, I am wrong! I forgot something important: it would not be nearly as lucrative for the TCM-practitioner.

Musculoskeletal and rheumatic conditions, often just called “arthritis” by lay people, bring more patients to alternative practitioners than any other type of disease. It is therefore particularly important to know whether alternative medicines (AMs) demonstrably generate more good than harm for such patients. Most alternative practitioners, of course, firmly believe in what they are doing. But what does the reliable evidence show?

To find out, ‘Arthritis Research UK’ has sponsored a massive project  lasting several years to review the literature and critically evaluate the trial data. They convened a panel of experts (I was one of them) to evaluate all the clinical trials that are available in 4 specific clinical areas. The results for those forms of AM that are to be taken by mouth or applied topically have been published some time ago, now the report, especially written for lay people, on those treatments that are practitioner-based has been published. It covers the following 25 modalities: 

Acupuncture

Alexander technique

Aromatherapy

Autogenic training

Biofeedback

Chiropractic (spinal manipulation)

Copper bracelets

Craniosacral therapy

Crystal healing

Feldenkrais

Kinesiology (applied kinesiology)

Healing therapies

Hypnotherapy

Imagery

Magnet therapy (static magnets)

Massage

Meditation

Music therapy

Osteopathy (spinal manipulation)

Qigong (internal qigong)

Reflexology

Relaxation therapy

Shiatsu

Tai chi

Yoga 

Our findings are somewhat disappointing: only very few treatments were shown to be effective.

In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, 24 trials were included with a total of 1,500 patients. The totality of this evidence failed to provide convincing evidence that any form of AM is effective for this particular condition.

For osteoarthritis, 53 trials with a total of ~6,000 patients were available. They showed reasonably sound evidence only for two treatments: Tai chi and acupuncture.

Fifty trials were included with a total of ~3,000 patients suffering from fibromyalgia. The results provided weak evidence for Tai chi and relaxation-therapies, as well as more conclusive evidence for acupuncture and massage therapy.

Low back pain had attracted more research than any of the other diseases: 75 trials with ~11,600 patients. The evidence for Alexander Technique, osteopathy and relaxation therapies was promising by not ultimately convincing, and reasonably good evidence in support of yoga and acupuncture was also found.

The majority of the experts felt that the therapies in question did not frequently cause harm, but there were two important exceptions: osteopathy and chiropractic. For both, the report noted the existence of frequent yet mild, as well as serious but rare adverse effects.

As virtually all osteopaths and chiropractors earn their living by treating patients with musculoskeletal problems, the report comes as an embarrassment for these two professions. In particular, our conclusions about chiropractic were quite clear:

There are serious doubts as to whether chiropractic works for the conditions considered here: the trial evidence suggests that it’s not effective in the treatment of fibromyalgia and there’s only little evidence that it’s effective in osteoarthritis or chronic low back pain. There’s currently no evidence for rheumatoid arthritis.

Our point that chiropractic is not demonstrably effective for chronic back pain deserves some further comment, I think. It seems to be in contradiction to the guideline by NICE, as chiropractors will surely be quick to point out. How can this be?

One explanation is that, since the NICE-guidelines were drawn up, new evidence has emerged which was not positive. The recent Cochrane review, for instance, concludes that spinal manipulation “is no more effective for acute low-back pain than inert interventions, sham SMT or as adjunct therapy”

Another explanation could be that the experts on the panel writing the NICE-guideline were less than impartial towards chiropractic and thus arrived at false-positive or over-optimistic conclusions.

Chiropractors might say that my presence on the ‘Arthritis Research’-panel suggests that we were biased against chiropractic. If anything, the opposite is true: firstly, I am not even aware of having a bias against chiropractic, and no chiropractor has ever demonstrated otherwise; all I ever aim at( in my scientific publications) is to produce fair, unbiased but critical assessments of the existing evidence. Secondly, I was only one of a total of 9 panel members. As the following list shows, the panel included three experts in AM, and most sceptics would probably categorise two of them (Lewith and MacPherson) as being clearly pro-AM:

Professor Michael Doherty – professor of rheumatology, University of Nottingham

Professor Edzard Ernst – emeritus professor of complementary medicine, Peninsula Medical School

Margaret Fisken – patient representative, Aberdeenshire

Dr Gareth Jones (project lead) – senior lecturer in epidemiology, University of Aberdeen

Professor George Lewith – professor of health research, University of Southampton

Dr Hugh MacPherson – senior research fellow in health sciences, University of York

Professor Gary Macfarlane (chair of committee) professor of epidemiology, University of Aberdeen

Professor Julius Sim – professor of health care research, Keele University

Jane Tadman – representative from Arthritis Research UK, Chesterfield

What can we conclude from all that? I think it is safe to say that the evidence for practitioner-based AMs as a treatment of the 4 named conditions is disappointing. In particular, chiropractic is not a demonstrably effective therapy for any of them. This, of course begs the question, for what condition is chiropractic proven to work! I am not aware of any, are you?

Daniels and Vogel recently published an article entitled “Consent in osteopathy: A cross sectional survey of patients’ information and process preferences” (INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF OSTEOPATHIC MEDICINE 2012, 15:3, p.92-102). It addresses an important yet woefully under-researched area.

I find most laudable that two osteopaths conduct research into medical ethics; but the questions still are, does the article tell us anything worth knowing and is it sufficiently rigorous and critical? As the journal does not seem to be available on Medline, I cannot provide a link. I therefore take the liberty of quoting the most important bits from directly the abstract here.

Objective: To explore and describe patients’ preferences of consent procedures in a sample of UK osteopathic patients.

Methods: A cross sectional survey using a new questionnaire was performed incorporating paper and web-based versions of the instruments. 500 copies were made available, (n = 200) to patients attending the British School of Osteopathy (BSO) clinic, and (n = 300) for patients attending 30 randomly sampled osteopaths in practice. Quantitative data were analysed descriptively to assess patient preferences; non-parametric analyses were performed to test for preference difference between patients using demographic characteristics.

Results: 124 completed questionnaires were returned from the BSO sample representing a 41% response rate. None were received from patients attending practices outside of the BSO clinic. The majority (98%) of patient respondents thought that having information about rare yet potentially severe risks of treatment was important. Patients’ preferred to have this information presented during the initial consultation (72%); communication method favoured was verbal (90%). 99% would like the opportunity to ask questions about risks, and all respondents (100%) consider being informed about their current diagnosis as important.

Conclusion: Patients endorse the importance of information exchange as part of the consent process. Verbal communication is very important and is the favoured method for both receiving information and giving consent. Further research is required to test the validity of these results in practice samples

The 0% response-rate in patients from non-BSO practices is, of course, remarkable and not without irony. In my view, it highlights better than anything else the fact that informed consent rarely appears on the osteopathic radar screen. In a way, this increases the praise we should give the two authors for tackling the issue.

The central question of the survey is whether patients want to know about the risks of osteopathy. This is more than a little bizarre: informed consent is not an option, it is a legal, moral and ethical obligation. It seems therefore odd to ask the question “do you want to learn about the risks which you are about to be exposed to?”

Even odder is, I think, the second question “when do you want to receive this information?” It goes without saying that informed consent has to happen before the intervention! This is what, common sense tells us, the law dictates and ethical codes prescribe.

There is general agreement amongst health care professionals and ethicist that verbal consent does suffice in most therapeutic situations, that patients must have the opportunity to ask questions, and that informed consent also extends to diagnostic issues. So, the questions referring to these issues are also a bit strange or naive, in my view.

The article might be revealing mostly by what it does not address rather than by what it tells us. It would be really valuable to know the percentage of osteopaths who abide by the legal, moral and ethical imperative of informed consent in their daily practice. To the best of my knowledge, this information is not available [if anyone has such information, please let me know and provide the reference]. Assuming that it is similar to the percentage of UK chiropractors who obtain informed consent, it might be seriously wanting: only 45% of them routinely obtain informed consent from their patients.

Another issue that, in my view, would be relevant to clarify is the nature of the information provided by osteopaths to patients, other than that of serious risks associated with spinal manipulation/mobilisation. Do they tell their patients about the evidence suggesting that osteopathy does (not) work for the condition at hand? Do they elaborate on non-osteopathic treatments for that disease? I fear that the answers to these questions might well be negative.

Imagine a patient being told that there is no good evidence for effectiveness of osteopathy, that the possibility of some harm exists, and that other interventions might actually do more good than harm than what the osteopath has to offer. How likely is it that this patient would agree to receiving osteopathic treatment?

For most alternative practitioners, including osteopaths, informed consent and most other important ethical issues have so far remained highly uncomfortable areas. This may have a good and simple reason: they have the potential to become real and serious threats to their current practice and business. I suspect this is why there is so very little awareness of and research into the ethics of alternative medicine: “best not to wake sleeping lions”, seems to be the general attitude.

The survey by Daniels and Vogel, even though it touches upon an important topic, avoids the truly pertinent questions. It therefore looks to me a bit like a fig leaf shamefully hiding an area of potential embarrassment.

And where do we go from here? I predict that the current strategy of alternative practitioners to ignore and violate medical ethics as much as possible will not be tolerated for much longer. Double standards in health care cannot and should not survive. The sooner we begin addressing some of these uncomfortable questions with rigorous research, the better – perhaps not for the practitioner but certainly for the patient.

Vaccinations are unquestionably amongst the biggest achievements in the history of medicine. They have prevented billions of diseases and saved millions of lives. Despite all this, there has been an irritatingly vocal movement protesting against immunizations and thus jeopardising the progress made. Kata summarized the notions and tactics of these activists and identified the following ‘common anti-vaccination tropes‘ from searching relevant sites on the internet:

1 I am not anti-vaccine, I am pro-safe vaccine.

2 Vaccines are toxic.

3 Vaccines should be 100% safe.

4 You cannot prove that vaccines are safe.

5 Vaccines did not save us.

6 Vaccines are not natural.

7 I am an expert in my own child.

8 Galileo was persecuted too.

9 Science has been wrong before.

10 So many people simply cannot be wrong.

11 You must be in the pocket of BIG PHARMA.

12 I do not believe that the problems after vaccination occur coincidentally.

And what has this to do with alternative medicine, you may well ask?

In my experience, many of the arguments resonate with those of alternative medicine enthusiasts. Moreover, there is a mountain of evidence to show that many practitioners of alternative medicine are an established and important part of the anti-vax movement; in particular, homeopaths, chiropractors, naturopaths and practitioners of anthroposophic medicine are implicated.

The literature on this topic is vast, so I am spoilt for choice in providing an example. The one that I have selected is by Kate Birch, a mother who apparently found homeopathy so effective for her children that she decided to become a homeopath. Her book “Vaccine Free. Prevention & treatment of infectious contagious disease with homeopathy” provides details about the “homeopathic prevention and treatment” of the following diseases:

Rabies

Tetanus

Polio

Diphtheria

Whooping cough

Mumps

Scarlet fever

Streptococcus A

Roseola

Rocky Mountain spotted fever

Measles

German measles

Chickenpox

Smallpox

Anthrax

Plague

Haemophilus influencae

Otitis media

Influenza

Mononucleosis

Pneumonia

Tuberculosis

Conjunctivitis

Herpes simplex type 1 and 2

Genital warts

Gonorrhoea

Syphilis

AIDS/HIV

Hepatitis A, B, and C

Yellow fewer

Dengue fever

Malaria

Typhoid

Typhus

Cholera

While copying this list from her book, I became so angry that I was about to write something that I might later regret. It is therefore better to end this post abruptly. I leave it to my readers to comment.

On the last day of the year, is time to contemplate the achievements and failures of the past 12 months and think about the future. For me, it is also the moment to once again place my tongue in my cheek, empathise with my opponents and think of what they might hope for in the coming year.

Here is a brief yet somewhat ambitious expose of what I came up with: the charlatan’s wish list for 2013.

1 Let the Daily Mail and similar publications continue to promote uncritical thinking and bogus claims for alternative medicine.

2 Make sure that politicians remain blissfully ignorant of all matters related to science.

3 Let the anecdote continue to reign over evidence, for instance, in the popular press.

4 Regulate alternative practitioners such that they benefit from the added status without any obligation to abide by the generally accepted rules of evidence-based practice.

5 Prevent the closure of more homeopathic hospitals.

6 Ensure that the public continues to be mislead about nonsensical scams such as “integrated medicine”.

7 Increase the influence of Prince Charles in the realm of health care.

8 Give Royal status to the ‘College of Medicine’.

9 Appoint Dr Michael Dixon, chair of the ‘NHS-Alliance’ and the above-named “college”, as advisor to the government.

10 Introduce more post-modern thinking into health care; after all, there is more than one way of knowing!

11 Defame all those terrible sceptics who always doubt our claims.

12 Cherish double standards in medicine; they are essential for our survival!

13 Make sure researchers of alternative medicine use science not for testing but for proving the value of alternative therapies.

14 Continue to allow promotion of alternative medicine to masquerade as research.

15 Ensure that all our celebrity clients tell every journalist how young they look thanks to alternative medicine.

16 Let ‘Duchy’s Original detox Tincture’ become a financial success – Charles needs the added income for promoting quackery.

17 Open more woo-institutes in academia to spread the gospel of belief-based medicine.

18 Prevent anyone from finding out that many of us break even the most fundamental rules of medical ethics in our daily practice.

I am aware that the list is probably not nearly complete, and I invite everyone to add items of importance. Happy New Year!

 

 

The question whether spinal manipulation is an effective treatment for infant colic has attracted much attention in recent years. The main reason for this is, of course, that a few years ago Simon Singh had disclosed in a comment that the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) was promoting chiropractic treatment for this and several other childhood condition on their website. Simon famously wrote “they (the BCA) happily promote bogus treatments” and was subsequently sued for libel by the BCA. Eventually, the BCA lost the libel action as well as lots of money, and the entire chiropractic profession ended up with enough egg on their faces to cook omelets for all their patients.

At the time, the BCA had taken advice from several medical and legal experts; one of their medical advisers, I was told, was Prof George Lewith. Intriguingly, he and several others have just published a Cochrane review of manipulative therapies for infant colic. Here are the unabbreviated conclusions from their article:

The studies included in this meta-analysis were generally small and methodologically prone to bias, which makes it impossible to arrive at a definitive conclusion about the effectiveness of manipulative therapies for infantile colic. The majority of the included trials appeared to indicate that the parents of infants receiving manipulative therapies reported fewer hours crying per day than parents whose infants did not, based on contemporaneous crying diaries, and this difference was statistically significant. The trials also indicate that a greater proportion of those parents reported improvements that were clinically significant. However, most studies had a high risk of performance bias due to the fact that the assessors (parents) were not blind to who had received the intervention. When combining only those trials with a low risk of such performance bias, the results did not reach statistical significance. Further research is required where those assessing the treatment outcomes do not know whether or not the infant has received a manipulative therapy. There are inadequate data to reach any definitive conclusions about the safety of these interventions”

Cochrane reviews also carry a “plain language” summary which might be easier to understand for lay people. And here are the conclusions from this section of the review:

The studies involved too few participants and were of insufficient quality to draw confident conclusions about the usefulness and safety of manipulative therapies. Although five of the six trials suggested crying is reduced by treatment with manipulative therapies, there was no evidence of manipulative therapies improving infant colic when we only included studies where the parents did not know if their child had received the treatment or not. No adverse effects were found, but they were only evaluated in one of the six studies.

If we read it carefully, this article seems to confirm that there is no reliable evidence to suggest that manipulative therapies are effective for infant colic. In the analyses, the positive effect disappears, if the parents are properly blinded;  thus it is due to expectation or placebo. The studies that seem to show a positive effect are false positive, and spinal manipulation is, in fact, not effective.

The analyses disclose another intriguing aspect: most trials failed to mention adverse effects. This confirms the findings of our own investigation and amounts to a remarkable breach of publication ethics (nobody seems to be astonished by this fact; is it normal that chiropractic researchers ignore generally accepted rules of ethics?). It also reflects badly on the ability of the investigators of the primary studies to be objective. They seem to aim at demonstrating only the positive effects of their intervention; science is, however, not about confirming the researchers’ prejudices, it is about testing hypotheses.

The most remarkable thing about the new Cochrane review  is, I think, the in-congruence of the actual results and the authors’ conclusion. To a critical observer, the former are clearly negative but  the latter sound almost positive. I think this begs the question about the possibility of reviewer bias.

We have recently discussed on this blog whether reviews by one single author are necessarily biased. The new Cochrane review has 6 authors, and it seems to me that its conclusions are considerably more biased than my single-author review of chiropractic spinal manipulation for infant colic; in 2009, I concluded simply that “the claim [of effectiveness] is not based on convincing data from rigorous clinical trials”.

Which of the two conclusions describe the facts more helpfully and more accurately?

I think, I rest my case.

In these austere and difficult times, it must be my duty, I think, to alert my fellow citizens to a possible source of additional income which almost anyone can plug into: become a charlatan, and chances are that your economic hardship is a memory from the past. To achieve this aim, I [with my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek] suggest a fairly straight forward step by step approach.

1. Find an attractive therapy and give it a fantastic name

Did I just say “straight forward”? Well, the first step isn’t that easy, after all. Most of the really loony ideas turn out to be taken: ear candles, homeopathy, aura massage, energy healing, urine-therapy, chiropractic etc. As a true charlatan, you want your very own quackery. So you will have to think of a new concept.

Something truly ‘far out’ would be ideal, like claiming the ear is a map of the human body which allows you to treat all diseases by doing something odd on specific areas of the ear – oops, this territory is already occupied by the ear acupuncture brigade. How about postulating that you have super-natural powers which enable you to send ‘healing energy’ into patients’ bodies so that they can repair themselves? No good either: Reiki-healers might accuse you of plagiarism.

But you get the gist, I am sure, and will be able to invent something. When you do, give it a memorable name, the name can make or break your new venture.

2. Invent a fascinating history

Having identified your treatment and a fantastic name for it, you now need a good story to explain how it all came about. This task is not all that tough and might even turn out to be fun; you could think of something touching like you cured your moribund little sister at the age of 6 with your intervention, or you received the inspiration in your dreams from an old aunt who had just died, or perhaps you want to create some religious connection [have you ever visited Lourdes?]. There are no limits to your imagination; just make sure the story is gripping – one day, they might make a movie of it.

3. Add a dash of pseudo-science

Like it or not, but we live in an age where we cannot entirely exclude science from our considerations. At the very minimum, I recommend a little smattering of sciency terminology. As you don’t want to be found out, select something that only few experts understand; quantum physics, entanglement, chaos-theory and Nano-technology are all excellent options.

It might also look more convincing to hint at the notion that top scientists adore your concepts, or that whole teams from universities in distant places are working on the underlying mechanisms, or that the Nobel committee has recently been alerted etc. If at all possible, add a bit of high tech to your new invention; some shiny new apparatus with flashing lights and digital displays might be just the ticket. The apparatus can be otherwise empty – as long as it looks impressive, all is fine.

4. Do not forget a dose of ancient wisdom

With all this science – sorry, pseudo-science – you must not forget to remain firmly grounded in tradition. Your treatment ought to be based on ancient wisdom which you have rediscovered, modified and perfected. I recommend mentioning that some of the oldest cultures of the planet have already been aware of the main pillars on which your invention today proudly stands. Anything that is that old has stood the test of time which is to say, your treatment is both effective and safe.

5. Claim to have a panacea

To maximise your income, you want to have as many customers as possible. It would therefore be unwise to focus your endeavours on just one or two conditions. Commercially, it is much better to affirm in no uncertain terms that your treatment is a cure for everything, a panacea. Do not worry about the implausibility of such a claim. In the realm of quackery, it is perfectly acceptable, even common behaviour to be outlandish.

6. Deal with the ‘evidence-problem’ and the nasty sceptics

It is depressing, I know, but even the most exceptionally gifted charlatan is bound to attract doubters. Sceptics will sooner or later ask you for evidence; in fact, they are obsessed by it. But do not panic – this is by no means as threatening as it appears. The obvious solution is to provide testimonial after testimonial.

You need a website where satisfied customers report impressive stories how your treatment saved their lives. In case you do not know such customers, invent them; in the realm of quackery, there is a time-honoured tradition of writing your own testimonials. Nobody will be able to tell!

7. Demonstrate that you master the fine art of cheating with statistics

Some of the sceptics might not be impressed, and when they start criticising your ‘evidence’, you might need to go the extra mile. Providing statistics is a very good way of keeping them at bay, at least for a while. The general consensus amongst charlatans is that about 70% of their patients experience remarkable benefit from whatever placebo they throw at them. So, my advice is to do a little better and cite a case series of at least 5000 patients of whom 76.5 % showed significant improvements.

What? You don’t have such case series? Don’t be daft, be inventive!

8. Score points with Big Pharma

You must be aware who your (future) customers are (will be): they are affluent, had a decent education (evidently without much success), and are middle-aged, gullible and deeply alternative. Think of Prince Charles! Once you have empathised with this mind-set, it is obvious that you can profitably plug into the persecution complex which haunts these people.

An easy way of achieving this is to claim that Big Pharma has got wind of your innovation, is positively frightened of losing millions, and is thus doing all they can to supress it. Not only will this give you street cred with the lunatic fringe of society, it also provides a perfect explanation why your ground-breaking discovery has not been published it the top journals of medicine: the editors are all in the pocket of Big Pharma, of course.

9. Ask for money, much money

I have left the most important bit for the end; remember: your aim is to get rich! So, charge high fees, even extravagantly high ones. If your treatment is a product that you can sell (e.g. via the internet, to escape the regulators), sell it dearly; if it is a hands-on therapy, charge heavy consultation fees and claim exclusivity; if it is a teachable technique, start training other therapists at high fees and ask a franchise-cut of their future earnings.

Over-charging is your best chance of getting famous – or have you ever heard of a charlatan famous for being reasonably priced?  It will also get rid of the riff-raff you don’t want to see in your surgery. Poor people might be even ill! No, you don’t want them; you want the ‘worried rich and well’ who can afford to see a real doctor when things should go wrong. But most importantly, high fees will do a lot of good to your bank account.

 

Now you are all set. However, to prevent you from stumbling at the first hurdle, here are some handy answers to the questions you inevitably will receive from sceptics, this nasty breed that is never happy. The answers are not designed to convince them but, if voiced in public, they will ensure that the general opinion is on your side – and that’s what is paramount in the realm of quackery.

Q: Your treatment can cause considerable harm; do you find that responsible?

A: Harm? Do you know what you are talking about? Obviously not! Every year, hundreds of thousands die because of the medicine they received from mainstream doctors. This is what I call harm!

Q: Experts say that your treatment is not biologically plausible, what is your response?

A: There are many things science does not yet understand and many things that it will never understand. In any case, there are other ways of knowing, and science is but one of them.

Q: Where are the controlled trials to back up your claim?

A: Clinical trials are of very limited value; they are far too small, frequently biased and never depict the real life situation. This is why many experts now argue for better ways of showing the value of medical interventions.

Q: Professor Ernst recently said that your therapy is unproven, is that true?

A: This man cannot be trusted; he is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry! He would say that, wouldn’t he?

Anyway, did you know that only 15% of conventional therapies actually are evidence-based?

Q: Why is your treatment so expensive?

A: Years of training, a full research programme, constant audits, compliance with regulations, and a large team of co-workers – do you think that all of this comes free? Personally, I would treat all my patients for free (and often do so) but I have responsibilities to others, you know.

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