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

scientific misconduct

A recent post of mine seems to have stimulated a lively discussion about the question IS THERE ANY GOOD EVIDENCE AT ALL FOR OSTEOPATHIC TREATMENTS? By and large, osteopaths commented that they are well aware that their signature interventions for their most frequently treated condition (back pain) lack evidential support and that more research is needed. At the same time, many osteopaths seemed to see little wrong in making unsubstantiated therapeutic claims. I thought this was remarkable and feel encouraged to write another post about a similar topic.

Most osteopaths treat children for a wide range of conditions and claim that their interventions are helpful. They believe that children are prone to structural problems which can be corrected by their interventions. Here is an example from just one of the numerous promotional websites on this topic:

STRUCTURAL  PROBLEMS, such as those affecting the proper mobility and function of the  body’s framework, can lead to a range of problems. These may include:

  • Postural – such as scoliosis
  • Respiratory  – such as asthma
  • Manifestations of brain  injury – such as cerebral palsy and spasticity
  • Developmental  – with delayed physical or intellectual progress, perhaps triggering learning  behaviour difficulties
  • Infections – such  as ear and throat infections or urinary disturbances, which may be recurrent.

OSTEOPATHY can assist in the prevention of health problems, helping children to make a smooth  transition into normal, healthy adult life.

As children cannot give informed consent, this is even more tricky than treating adults with therapies of questionable value. It is therefore important, I think, to ask whether osteopathic treatments of children is based on evidence or just on wishful thinking or the need to maximise income. As it happens, my team just published an article about these issues in one of the highest-ranking paediatrics journal.

The objective of our systematic review was to critically evaluate the effectiveness of osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) as a treatment of paediatric conditions. Eleven databases were searched from their respective inceptions to November 2012. Only randomized clinical trials (RCTs) were included, if they tested OMT against any type of control intervention in paediatric patients. The quality of all included RCTs was assessed using the Cochrane criteria.

Seventeen trials met our inclusion criteria. Only 5 RCTs were of high methodological quality. Of those, 1 favoured OMT, whereas 4 revealed no effect compared with various control interventions. Replications by independent researchers were available for two conditions only, and both failed to confirm the findings of the previous studies. Seven RCTs suggested that OMT leads to a significantly greater reduction in the symptoms of asthma, congenital nasolacrimal duct obstruction, daily weight gain and length of hospital stay, dysfunctional voiding, infantile colic, otitis media, or postural asymmetry compared with various control interventions. Seven RCTs indicated that OMT had no effect on the symptoms of asthma, cerebral palsy, idiopathic scoliosis, obstructive apnoea, otitis media, or temporo-mandibular disorders compared with various control interventions. Three RCTs did not report between-group comparisons. The majority of the included RCTs did not report the incidence rates of adverse-effects.

Our conclusion is likely to again dissatisfy many osteopaths: The evidence of the effectiveness of OMT for paediatric conditions remains unproven due to the paucity and low methodological quality of the primary studies.

So, what does this tell us? I am sure osteopaths will disagree, but I think it shows that for no paediatric condition do we have sufficient evidence to show that OMT is effective. The existing RCTs are mostly of low quality. There is a lack of independent replication of the few studies that suggested a positive outcome. And to make matters even worse, osteopaths seem to be violating the most basic rule of medical research by not reporting adverse-effects in their clinical trials.

I rest my case – at least for the moment.

Indian homeopaths recently published a clinical trial aimed at evaluating homeopathic treatment in the management of diabetic polyneuropathy. The condition affects many diabetic patients; its symptoms include tingling, numbness, burning sensation in the feet and pain, particularly at night. The best treatment consists of adequate metabolic control of the underlying diabetes. The pain can be severe often does not respond adequately to conventional pain-killers. It is therefore obvious that any new, effective treatment would be more than welcome.

The new trial  is a prospective observational study which was carried out from October 2005 to September 2009 by the Indian Central Council for Research in Homeopathy at its five Institutes. Patients suffering diabetic polyneuropathy (DPN) were screened and enrolled in the study, if they fulfilled the inclusion and exclusion criteria. The Diabetic Distal Symmetric Polyneuropathy Symptom Score (DDSPSS), developed by the Council, served as the primary outcome measure.

A total of 15 homeopathic medicines were identified after repertorizing the nosological symptoms and signs of the disease. The appropriate constitutional medicine was selected and prescribed in the 30, 200 and 1 M potencies on an individualized basis. Patients were followed up for 12 months.

Of 336 diabetics enrolled in the study, 247 patients who attended at least three follow-up appointments and baseline nerve conduction studies were included in the analysis. A statistically significant improvement in DDSPSS total score was found at 12 months. Most objective measures did not show significant improvements. Lycopodium clavatum (n = 132), Phosphorus (n = 27) and Sulphur (n = 26) were the most frequently prescribed homeopathic remedies.

From these results, the authors concluded that: “homeopathic medicines may be effective in managing the symptoms of DPN patients.”

Does this study tell us anything worth knowing? The short answer to this question, I am afraid, is NO.

Its weaknesses are all too obvious:

1) There was no control group.

2) Patients who did not come back to the follow-up appointments – presumably because they were not satisfied – were excluded from the analyses. The average benefit reported is thus likely to be a cherry-picked false positive result.

3) The primary outcome measure was not validated.

4) The observed positive effect on subjective symptoms could be due to several factors which are entirely unrelated to the homeopathic treatments’ e.g. better metabolic control, regression towards the mean, or social desirability.

Anyone who had seen the protocol of this study would have predicted the result; I see no way that such a study does not generate an apparently positive outcome. In other words, conducting the investigation was superfluous, which means that the patients’ participation was in vain; and this, in turn, means that the trial was arguably unethical.

This might sound a bit harsh, but I am entirely serious: deeply flawed research should not happen. It is a waste of scarce resources and patients’ tolerance; crucially, it has a powerful potential to mislead us and to set back our efforts to improve health care. All of this is unethical.

The problem of research which is so poor that it crosses the line into being unethical is, of course, not confined to homeopathy. In my view, it is an important issue in much of alternative medicine and quite possibly in conventional medicine as well. Over the years, several mechanisms have been put in place to prevent or at least minimize the problem, for instance, ethic committees and peer-review. The present study shows, I think, that these mechanisms are fragile and that, sometimes, they fail altogether.

In their article, the authors of the new homeopathic study suggest that more investigations of homeopathy for diabetic polyneuropathy should be done. However, I suggest almost precisely the opposite: unethical research of this nature should be prevented, and the existing mechanisms to achieve this aim must be strengthened.

One of the best-selling supplements in the UK as well as several other countries is evening primrose oil (EPO). It is available via all sorts of outlets (even respectable pharmacies – or is that supposedly respectable?), and is being promoted for a wide range of conditions, including eczema. The NIH website is optimistic about its efficacy: “Evening primrose oil may have modest benefits for eczema.” Our brand-new Cochrane review was aimed at critically assessing the effects of oral EPO or borage oil (BO) on the symptoms of atopic eczema, and it casts considerable doubt on this somewhat uncritical view.

Here is what we did: We searched six databases as well as online trials registers and checked the bibliographies of included studies for further references to relevant trials. We corresponded with trial investigators and pharmaceutical companies to identify unpublished and ongoing trials. We also performed a separate search for adverse effects. All RCTs investigating oral intake of EPO or BO for eczema were included.

Two experts independently applied eligibility criteria, assessed risk of bias, and extracted data. We pooled dichotomous outcomes using risk ratios (RR), and continuous outcomes using the mean difference (MD). Where possible, we pooled study results using random-effects meta-analysis and tested statistical heterogeneity.

And here is what we found: 27 studies with a total of 1596 participants met our inclusion criteria: 19 studies tested EPO, and 8 studies assessed BO. A meta-analysis of results from 7 studies showed that EPO failed to improve global eczema symptoms as reported by participants and doctors. Treatment with BO also failed to improve global eczema symptoms. 67% of the studies had a low risk of bias for random sequence generation; 44%, for allocation concealment; 59%, for blinding; and 37%, for other biases.

Our conclusions were clear: Oral borage oil and evening primrose oil lack effect on eczema; improvement was similar to respective placebos used in trials. Oral BO and EPO are not effective treatments for eczema.

The very wide-spread notion that EPO is effective for eczema and a range of other conditions was originally promoted by the researcher turned entrepreneur, D F Horrobin, who claimed that several human diseases, including eczema, were due to a lack of fatty acid precursors and could thus be effectively treated with EPO. In the 1980s, Horrobin began to sell EPO supplements without having conclusively demonstrated their safety and efficacy; this led to confiscations and felony indictments in the US. As chief executive of Scotia Pharmaceuticals, Horrobin obtained licences for several EPO-preparations which later were withdrawn for lack of efficacy. Charges of mismanagement and fraud led to Horrobin being ousted as CEO by the board of the company. Later, Horrobin published a positive meta-analysis of EPO for eczema where he excluded the negative results of the largest published trial, but included results of 7 of his own unpublished studies. When scientists asked to examine the data, Horrobin’s legal team convinced the journal to refuse the request.

The evidence for EPO is negative not just for eczema. To the best of my knowledge, there is not a single disease or symptom for which it demonstrably works. Our own review of the data concluded ” EPO has not been established as an effective treatment for any condition”

Our new Cochrane review might help to put this long saga to rest. In my view, it is a fascinating tale of a scientist being blinded by creed and ambition. The results of such errors can be dramatic. Horrobin misled all of us: patients, health care professionals, scientists, regulators, decision makers, businessmen. This caused unnecessary expense and set back research efforts in a multitude of areas. I find the tale also fascinating from other perspectives; for instance, it begs the question why so many ‘respectable’ manufacturers and retailers are still allowed to make money on EPO. Is it not time to debunk the EPO-myth and say it as clearly as possible: EPO helps only those who financially profit from misleading the public?

In the UK, we have about 150000 practitioners of Spiritual Healing (SH). They treat all sorts of conditions claiming to channel ‘healing energy’ into the patient’s body which enables him/her to heal itself. The plausibility of SH is very close to zero and, despite numerous trials, its clinical effectiveness remains unproven. A new and, in my view, remarkable study of SH was aimed at investigating whether “SH could support patients with breast cancer”.

Spiritual Healing was provided by 4 healers registered with the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. Twelve patients with breast cancer undergoing long-term hormone treatment and experiencing its adverse-effects as onerous, self-referred themselves and were given ten weekly sessions of approximately 40 minutes each. Data collected included participant’s daily records, direct observations noted by the healers, the researcher’s field diary and a one-to-one semi-structured interview.

The alleged positive effects of SH included alleviation of the physical adverse-effects of their treatment, increased energy levels, enhanced well-being, emotional relaxation, and re-engagement with pre-cancer activities. Although one participant admitted considering a drug holiday prior to joining the study, none of the participants felt tempted to stop their hormonal treatments while receiving SH. The authors concluded that “these qualitative findings indicate that SH has the potential to support patients with breast cancer in the maintenance of their long-term orthodox treatments. Further research is needed to test SH as a cost-effective complementary therapy, for those undergoing long-term cancer treatments.”

As I already mentioned, I think this study is remarkable. Having done quite a bit of research into SH myself, I know how bizarre this intervention truly is. A typical treatment session might be with the patient lying on a couch in a relaxing atmosphere, often accompanied by soothing background music; the healer would talk gently but very little to enable the patient to be comfortable and relax; the SH itself might be performed by the healer moving his/her hands at a distance over the body of the patient; the healer would explain that this may cause the sensation of warmth as the ‘healing energy’ enters the body. Altogether, the experience is exotic to say the least.

It is therefore not surprising that SH generates a host of non-specific effects, including the most enormous placebo-response I have ever witnessed in any clinical trial which I have been involved in. I am mentioning this, of course, to point out that the above-noted effects are entirely compatible with those of placebo. As the study has no control group, there is no way of knowing what the effects of SH per se might have been. The fact that patients self-referred themselves to SH would only amplify this placebo-response. In the discussion of the paper, we find a further interesting pointer regarding patients’ prior experience with conventional health care professionals: “participants felt they were left to cope alone as their side-effects were trivialized.”  This seems to suggest that the group of patients were indeed highly selected and all had suffered badly from previous experiences of poorly administered heath care. Thus their expectations of SH were probably high which, in turn, would exaggerate the placebo-response even further.

All of these phenomena might well be fascinating and could provide ample material for relevant research. They deserve to be analysed carefully and discussed openly and critically. Unfortunately none of this happened in the present study. The authors do not even consider the possibility that the observed effects could be related to anything else than their SH. Their stated aim to investigate whether SH supports cancer patients is not even approached; the authors simply assume a cause-effect relationship without demonstrating one. I find this is more than just a missed opportunity; in my view, it is pseudo-science. And this is the reason why I find this study remarkable.

This post has an odd title and addresses an odd subject. I am sure some people reading it will ask themselves “has he finally gone potty; is he a bit xenophobic, chauvinistic, or what?” I can assure you none of the above is the case.

Since many years, I have been asked to peer-review Chinese systematic reviews and meta-analyses of TCM-trials submitted to various journals and to the Cochrane Collaboration for publication, and I estimate that around 300 such articles are available today. Initially, I thought they were a valuable contribution to our knowledge, particularly for the many of us who cannot read Chinese languages. I hoped they might provide reliable information about this huge and potentially important section of the TCM-evidence. After doing this type of work for some time, I became more and more frustrated; now I have decided not to accept this task any longer – not because it is too much trouble, but because I have come to the conclusion that these articles are far less helpful than I had once assumed; in fact, I now fear that they are counter-productive.

In order to better understand what I mean, it might be best to use an example; this recent systematic review seems as good for that purpose as any.

Its Chinese authors “hypothesized that the eligible trials would provide evidence of the effect of Chinese herbs on bone mineral density (BMD) and the therapeutic benefits of Chinese medicine treatment in patients with bone loss. Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) were thus retrieved for a systematic review from Medline and 8 Chinese databases. The authors identified 12 RCTs involving a total of 1816 patients. The studies compared Chinese herbs with placebo or standard anti-osteoporotic therapy. The pooled data from these RCTs showed that the change of BMD in the spine was more pronounced with Chinese herbs compared to the effects noted with placebo. Also, in the femoral neck, Chinese herbs generated significantly higher increments of BMD compared to placebo. Compared to conventional anti-osteoporotic drugs, Chinese herbs generated greater BMD changes.

In their abstract, the part on the paper that most readers access, the authors reached the following conclusions: “Our results demonstrated that Chinese herb significantly increased lumbar spine BMD as compared to the placebo or other standard anti-osteoporotic drugs.” In the article itself, we find this more detailed conclusion: “We conclude that Chinese herbs substantially increased BMD of the lumbar spine compared to placebo or anti-osteoporotic drugs as indicated in the current clinical reports on osteoporosis treatment. Long term of Chinese herbs over 12 months of treatment duration may increase BMD in the hip more effectively. However, further studies are needed to corroborate the positive effect of increasing the duration of Chinese herbs on outcome as the results in this analysis are based on indirect comparisons. To date there are no studies available that compare Chinese herbs, Chinese herbs plus anti-osteoporotic drugs, and anti-osteoporotic drug versus placebo in a factorial design. Consequently, we are unable to draw any conclusions on the possible superiority of Chinese herbs plus anti-osteoporotic drug versus anti-osteoporotic drug or Chinese herb alone in the context of BMD.

Most readers will feel that this evidence is quite impressive and amazingly solid; they might therefore advocate routinely using Chinese herbs for the common and difficult to treat problem of osteoporosis. The integration of TCM might avoid lots of human suffering, prolong the life of many elderly patients, and save us all a lot of money. Why then am I not at all convinced?

The first thing to notice is the fact that we do not really know which of the ~7000 different Chinese herbs should be used. The article tells us surprisingly little about this crucial point. And even, if we manage to study this question in more depth, we are bound to get thoroughly confused; there are simply too many herbal mixtures and patent medicines to easily identify the most promising candidates.

The second and more important hurdle to making sense of these data is the fact that most of the primary studies originate from inaccessible Chinese journals and were published in Chinese languages which, of course, few people in the West can understand. This is entirely our fault, some might argue, but it does mean that we have to believe the authors, take their words at face value, and cannot check the original data. You may think this is fine, after all, the paper has gone through a rigorous peer-review process where it has been thoroughly checked by several top experts in the field. This, however, is a fallacy; like you and me, the peer-reviewers might not read Chinese either! (I don’t, and I reviewed quite a few of these papers; in some instances, I even asked for translations of the originals to do the job properly but this request was understandably turned down) In all likelihood, the above paper and most similar articles have not been properly peer-reviewed at all.

The third and perhaps most crucial point can only be fully appreciated, if we were able to access and understand the primary studies; it relates to the quality of the original RCTs summarised in such systematic reviews. The abstract of the present paper tells us nothing at all about this issue. In the paper, however, we do find a formal assessment of the studies’ risk of bias which shows that the quality of the included RCTs was poor to very poor. We also find a short but revealing sentence: “The reports of all trials mentioned randomization, but only seven described the method of randomization.” This remark is much more significant than it may seem: we have shown that such studies use such terminology in a rather adventurous way; reviewing about 2000 of these allegedly randomised trials, we found that many Chinese authors call a trial “randomised” even in the absence of a control group (one cannot randomise patients and have no control group)! They seem to like the term because it is fashionable and makes publication of their work easier. We thus have good reason to fear that some/many/most of the studies were not RCTs at all.

The fourth issue that needs mentioning is the fact that very close to 100% of all Chinese TCM-trials report positive findings. This means that either TCM is effective for every indication it is tested for (most unlikely, not least because there are many negative non-Chinese trials of TCM), or there is something very fundamentally wrong with Chinese research into TCM. Over the years, I have had several Chinese co-workers in my team and was invariably impressed by their ability to work hard and efficiently; we often discussed the possible reasons for the extraordinary phenomenon of 0% negative Chinese trials. The most plausible answer they offered was this: it would be most impolite for a Chinese researcher to produce findings which contradict the opinion of his/her peers.

In view of these concerns, can we trust the conclusions of such systematic reviews? I don’t think so – and this is why I have problems with research of this nature. If there are good reasons to doubt their conclusions, these reviews might misinform us systematically, they might not further but hinder progress, and they might send us up the garden path. This could well be in the commercial interest of the Chinese multi-billion dollar TCM-industry, but it would certainly not be in the interest of patients and good health care.

On January 27, 1945, the concentration camp in Auschwitz was liberated. By May of the same year, around 20 similar camps had been discovered. What they revealed is so shocking that it is difficult to put it in words.

Today, on ‘HOCOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY’, I quote (shortened and slightly modified) from articles I published many years ago (references can be found in the originals) to remind us of the unspeakable atrocities that occurred during the Nazi period and of the crucial role the German medical profession played in them.

The Nazi’s euthanasia programme, also known as “Action T4″, started in specialized medicinal departments in 1939. Initially, it was aimed at children suffering from “idiocy, Down’s syndrome, hydrocephalus and other abnormalities”. By the end of 1939, the programme was extended to adults “unworthy of living.” We estimate that, when it was stopped, more than 70,000 patients had been killed.

Action T4 (named after its address: Tiergarten Strasse 4) was the Berlin headquarters of the euthanasia programme. It was run by approximately 50 physicians who, amongst other activities, sent questionnaires to (mostly psychiatric) hospitals urging them to return lists of patients for euthanasia. The victims were transported to specialized centers where they were gassed or poisoned. Action T4 was thus responsible for medically supervised, large-scale murder. Its true significance, however, lies elsewhere. Action T4 turned out to be nothing less than a “pilot project” for the extinction of millions of prisoners of the concentration camps.

The T4 units had developed the technology for killing on an industrial scale. It was only with this know-how that the total extinction of all Jews of the Reich could be planned. This truly monstrous task required medical expertise.

Almost without exception, those physicians who had worked for T4 went on to take charge of what the Nazis called the ‘Final Solution’. While action T4 had killed thousands, its offspring would murder millions under the trained instructions of Nazi doctors.

The medical profession’s role in these crimes was critical and essential. German physicians had been involved at all levels and stages. They had created and embraced the pseudo-science of race hygiene. They were instrumental in developing it further into applied racism. They had generated the know-how of mass extinction. Finally, they also performed outrageously cruel and criminal experiments under the guise of scientific inquiry [see below]. German doctors had thus betrayed all the ideals medicine had previously stood for, and had become involved in criminal activities unprecedented in the history of medicine (full details and references on all of this are provided in my article, see link above).

Alternative medicine

It is well-documented that alternative medicine was strongly supported by the Nazis. The general belief is that this had nothing to do with the sickening atrocities of this period. I believe that this assumption is not entirely correct. In 2001, I published an article which reviews the this subject; I take the liberty of borrowing from it here.

Based on a general movement in favour of all things natural, a powerful trend towards natural ways of healing had developed in the 19(th)century. By 1930, this had led to a situation in Germany where roughly as many lay-practitioners of alternative medicine as conventional doctors were in practice.This had led to considerable tensions between the two camps. To re-unify German medicine under the banner of ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ (New German Medicine), Nazi officials eventually decided to create  the profession of the ‘Heilpraktiker‘ (healing practitioner). Heilpraktiker were not allowed to train students and their profession was thus meant to become extinct within one generation; Goebbels spoke of having created the cradle and the grave of the Heilpraktiker. However, after 1945, this decision was challenged in the courts and eventually over-turned – and this is why Heilpraktiker are still thriving today.

The ‘flag ship’ of the ‘Neue Deutsche Heilkunde’ was the ‘Rudolf Hess Krankenhaus‘ in Dresden (which was re-named into Gerhard Wagner Krankenhaus after Hess’ flight to the UK). It represented a full integration of alternative and orthodox medicine.

‘Research’

An example of systematic research into alternative medicine is the Nazi government’s project to validate homoeopathy. The data of this massive research programme are now lost (some speculate that homeopaths made them disappear) but, according to an eye-witness report, its results were entirely negative (full details and references on alt med in 3rd Reich are in the article cited above).

There is,of course, plenty of literature on the subject of Nazi ‘research’ (actually, it was pseudo-research) and the unspeakable crimes it entailed. By contrast, there is almost no published evidence that these activities included in any way alternative medicine, and the general opinion seems to be that there are no connections whatsoever. I fear that this notion might be erroneous.

As far as I can make out, no systematic study of the subject has so far been published, but I found several hints and indications that the criminal experiments of Nazi doctors also involved alternative medicine (the sources are provided in my articles cited above or in the links provided below). Here are but a few leads:

Dr Wagner, the chief medical officer of the Nazis was a dedicated and most active proponent of alternative medicine.

Doctors in the alternative “Rudolf Hess Krankenhaus” [see above] experimented on speeding up the recovery of wounded soldiers, on curing syphilis with fasting, and on various other projects to help the war effort.

The Dachau concentration camp housed the largest plantation of medicinal herbs in Germany.

Dr Madaus (founder of the still existing company for natural medicines by the same name) experimented on the sterilisation of humans with herbal and homeopathic remedies, a project that was deemed of great importance for controlling the predicted population growth in the East of the expanding Reich.

Dr Grawitz infected Dachau prisoners with various pathogens to test the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies.

Schuessler salts were also tested on concentration camp inmates.

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.

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.

 

In my last post, we discussed the “A+B versus B” trial design as a tool to produce false positive results. This method is currently very popular in alternative medicine, yet it is by no means the only approach that can mislead us. Today, let’s look at other popular options with a view of protecting us against trialists who naively or willfully might fool us.

The crucial flaw of the “A+B versus B” design is that it fails to account for non-specific effects. If the patients in the experimental group experience better outcomes than the control group, this difference could well be due to effects that are unrelated to the experimental treatment. There are, of course, several further ways to ignore non-specific effects in clinical research. The simplest option is to include no control group at all. Homeopaths, for instance, are very proud of studies which show that ~70% of their patients experience benefit after taking their remedies. This type of result tends to impress journalists, politicians and other people who fail to realise that such a result might be due to a host of factors, e.g. the placebo-effect, the natural history of the disease, regression towards the mean or treatments which patients self-administered while taking the homeopathic remedies. It is therefore misleading to make causal inferences from such data.

Another easy method to generate false positive results is to omit blinding. The purpose of blinding the patient, the therapist and the evaluator of the outcomes in clinical trials is to make sure that expectation is not the cause of or contributor to the outcome. They say that expectation can move mountains; this might be an exaggeration, but it can certainly influence the result of a clinical trial. Patients who hope for a cure regularly do get better even if the therapy they receive is useless, and therapists as well as evaluators of the outcomes tend to view the results through rose-tinted spectacles, if they have preconceived ideas about the experimental treatment. Similarly, the parents of a child or the owners of an animal can transfer their expectations, and this is one of several reasons why it is incorrect to claim that children and animals are immune to placebo-effects.

Failure to randomise is another source of bias which can make an ineffective therapy look like an effective one when tested in a clinical trial. If we allow patients or trialists to select or choose which patients receive the experimental and which get the control-treatment, it is likely that the two groups differ in a number of variables. Some of these variables might, in turn, impact on the outcome. If, for instance, doctors allocate their patients to the experimental and control groups, they might select those who will respond to the former and those who don’t to the latter. This may not happen with malicious intent but through intuition or instinct: responsible health care professionals want those patients who, in their experience, have the best chances to benefit from a given treatment to receive that treatment. Only randomisation can, when done properly, make sure we are comparing comparable groups of patients, and non-randomisation is likely to produce misleading findings.

While these options for producing false positives are all too obvious, the next possibility is slightly more intriguing. It refers to studies which do not test whether an experimental treatment is superior to another one (often called superiority trials), but to investigations attempting to assess whether it is equivalent to a therapy that is generally accepted to be effective. The idea is that, if both treatments produce the same or similarly positive results, both must be effective. For instance, such a study might compare the effects of acupuncture to a common pain-killer. Such trials are aptly called non-superiority or equivalence trials, and they offer a wide range of possibilities for misleading us. If, for example, such a trial has not enough patients, it might show no difference where, in fact, there is one. Let’s consider a deliberately silly example: someone comes up with the idea to compare antibiotics to acupuncture as treatments of bacterial pneumonia in elderly patients. The researchers recruit 10 patients for each group, and the results reveal that, in one group, 2 patients died, while, in the other, the number was 3. The statistical tests show that the difference of just one patient is not statistically significant, and the authors therefore conclude that acupuncture is just as good for bacterial infections as antibiotics.

Even trickier is the option to under-dose the treatment given to the control group in an equivalence trial. In our hypothetical example, the investigators might subsequently recruit hundreds of patients in an attempt to overcome the criticism of their first study; they then decide to administer a sub-therapeutic dose of the antibiotic in the control group. The results would then apparently confirm the researchers’ initial finding, namely that acupuncture is as good as the antibiotic for pneumonia. Acupuncturists might then claim that their treatment has been proven in a very large randomised clinical trial to be effective for treating this condition, and people who do not happen to know the correct dose of the antibiotic could easily be fooled into believing them.

Obviously, the results would be more impressive, if the control group in an equivalence trial received a therapy which is not just ineffective but actually harmful. In such a scenario, the most useless or even slightly detrimental treatment would appear to be effective simply because it is equivalent to or less harmful than the comparator.

A variation of this theme is the plethora of controlled clinical trials which compare one unproven therapy to another unproven treatment. Perdicatbly, the results indicate that there is no difference in the clinical outcome experienced by the patients in the two groups. Enthusiastic researchers then tend to conclude that this proves both treatments to be equally effective.

Another option for creating misleadingly positive findings is to cherry-pick the results. Most trails have many outcome measures; for instance, a study of acupuncture for pain-control might quantify pain in half a dozen different ways, it might also measure the length of the treatment until pain has subsided, the amount of medication the patients took in addition to receiving acupuncture, the days off work because of pain, the partner’s impression of the patient’s health status, the quality of life of the patient, the frequency of sleep being disrupted by pain etc. If the researchers then evaluate all the results, they are likely to find that one or two of them have changed in the direction they wanted. This can well be a chance finding: with the typical statistical tests, one in 20 outcome measures would produce a significant result purely by chance. In order to mislead us, the researchers only need to “forget” about all the negative results and focus their publication on the ones which by chance have come out as they had hoped.

One fail-proof method for misleading the public is to draw conclusions which are not supported by the data. Imagine you have generated squarely negative data with a trial of homeopathy. As an enthusiast of homeopathy, you are far from happy with your own findings; in addition you might have a sponsor who puts pressure on you. What can you do? The solution is simple: you only need to highlight at least one positive message in the published article. In the case of homeopathy, you could, for instance, make a major issue about the fact that the treatment was remarkably safe and cheap: not a single patient died, most were very pleased with the treatment which was not even very expensive.

And finally, there is always the possibility of overt cheating. Researchers are only human and are thus not immune to temptation. They may have conflicts of interest or may know that positive results are much easier to publish than negative ones. Certainly they want to publish their work – “publish or perish”! So, faced with disappointing results of a study, they might decide to prettify them or even invent new ones which are more pleasing to them, their peers, or their sponsors.

Am I claiming that this sort of thing only happens in alternative medicine? No! Obviously, the way to minimise the risk of such misconduct is to train researchers properly and make sure they are able to think critically. Am I suggesting that investigators of alternative medicine are often not well-trained and almost always uncritical? Yes.

Since it was first published, the “Swiss government report” on homeopathy has been celebrated as the most convincing proof so far that homeopathy works. On the back of this news, all sorts of strange stories have emerged. Their aim seems to be that consumers become convinced that homeopathy is based on compelling evidence.

Readers of this blog might therefore benefit from a brief and critical evaluation of this “evidence” in support of homeopathy. Recently, not one, two, three but four independent critiques of this document have become available.

Collectively, these articles [only one of which is mine] suggest that the “Swiss report” is hardly worth the paper it was written on; one of the critiques published in the Swiss Medical Weekly even stated that it amounted to “research misconduct”! Compared to such outspoken language, my own paper concluded much more conservatively: “this report [is] methodologically flawed, inaccurate and biased”.

So what is wrong with it? Why is this document not an accurate summary of the existing evidence? I said this would be a brief post, so I  will only mention some of the most striking flaws.

The report is not, as often claimed, a product by the Swiss government; in fact, it was produced by 13 authors who have no connection to any government and who are known proponents of homeopathy. For some unimaginable reason, they decided to invent their very own criteria for what constitutes evidence. For instance, they included case-reports and case-series, re-defined what is meant by effectiveness, were highly selective in choosing the articles they happened to like [presumably because of the direction of the result] while omitting lots of data that did not seem to confirm their prior belief, and assessed only a very narrow range of indications.

The report quotes several of my own reviews of homeopathy but, intriguingly, it omitted others for no conceivable reason. I was baffled to realise that the authors reported my conclusions differently from the original published text in my articles. If this had occurred once or twice, it might have been a forgivable error – but this happened in 10 of 22 instances.

Negative conclusions in my original reviews were thus repeatedly turned into positive verdicts, and evidence against homeopathy suddenly appeared to support it. This is, of course, a serious problem: if someone is too busy to look up my original articles, she is very unlikely to notice this extraordinary attempt to cheat.

To me, this approach seems similar to that of an accountant who produces a balance sheet where debts appear as credits. It is a simple yet dishonest way to generate a positive result where there is none!

The final straw for me came when I realised that the authors of this dubious report had declared that they were free of conflicts of interest. This notion is demonstrably wrong; several of them earn their living through homeopathy!

Knowing all this, sceptics might take any future praise of this “Swiss government report” with more than just a pinch of salt. Once we are aware of the full, embarrassing details, it is not difficult to understand how the final verdict turned out to be in favour of homeopathy: if we convert much of the negative data on any subject into positive evidence, any rubbish will come out smelling of roses – even homeopathy.

 

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