The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has been the statutory body responsible for the regulation of pharmacy since 2010. It’s status is similar to that of the GMC and. heaven help us, the GCC. Before that the regulator was the same as the professional body, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPS). The RPS proved to be as useless as most other regulators, as documented in detail in my 2008 post, At around the time it stopped being a regulator, the RPS started to condemn quackery more effectively, but by then it had lost the power to do much about it (I hope the latter wasn’t the cause of the former). The body that could do something, the GPhC has done essentially nothing. as described in this post.
I did a 2 year apprenticeship in Timothy White’s and Taylor’s Homeopathic (yes, really) Chemists in the 1950s.
My first degree was in pharmacy. I got my interest in pharmacology from reading Martindale’s Extra Pharmacopoeia in the shop. I soon decided that I didn’t really want to spend the rest of my life selling lipstick and Durex. The latter was quite a big seller because the Boots across the road didn’t sell contraceptives (they changed their minds in the 1960s).
In those days, we spent quite a lot of time making up (almost entirely ineffective) ‘tonics’ and ‘cough mixtures’. Now the job consists largely of counting pills. This has exacerbated the ‘chip on the shoulder’ attitude that was present even in the 1950s. For a long time now, pharmacists have wanted to become the a ‘third tier’ in the NHS, alongside GP practices and hospitals., after hospitals and doctors". . Here are a few comments on this proposition.
First let me say that I’ve met some very good and ethical pharmacists. I did a vacation job in a hospital pharmacy where the boss had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the effects and side effects of drugs, and of their dosage. His advice was often sought by doctors, and rightly so. He had no way of knowing at the time that his advice to replace barbiturates with thalidomide would lead to such a tragedy, because the evidence had been concealed by the manufacturer. Some of the problems alluded to here have already been highlighted by two excellent pharmacists, Anthony Cox and @SparkleWildfire, neither of whom work in pharmacists shops. They are absolutely spot on but they seem to be in a minority among pharmacists.
The problems seem to lie mostly in retail shops. Their shelves are laden with ineffective pills and potions. And the pharmacist has every incentive to sell them. His/her income depends on it directly if it’s a privately owned pharmacy. And his/her standing with head office depends on it in chain store pharmacies. This conflict of financial interest is the prime reason why pharmacists are not qualified to form a third tier of healthcare. The avoidance of conflicts of interest among doctors was one of the great accomplishments of the NHS. In the USA there are huge scandals when, as happens repeatedly, doctors order expensive and unnecessary treatments from which they profit. It’s no consolation that such problems are creeping back in the UK as a result of the government’s vigorous efforts to sell it off.
Here are few examples of things that have gone wrong, and who is to blame. Then I’ll consider what can be done.
In any pharmacy you can see ineffective ‘tonics’ and ‘cough medicines’, unnecessary supplements with dishonest claims and even, heaven help us, the ultimate scam, homeopathic pills.
What’s worse, if you ask a pharmacist for advice, it’s quite likely that they’ll recommend you to buy them.
I was amazed to discover that a number of old-fashioned ‘tonics’ and ‘cough medicines’ still have full marketing authorisation. That’s the fault of the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Auhority (MHRA) who are supposed to assess efficacy and totally failed to do so, Read about that in “Some medicines that don’t work. Why doesn’t the MHRA tell us honestly?” . It’s hard to blame a pharmacist for the bad advice given by the MHRA, but a good one would tell patients to save their money.
Big corporate pharmacies
Companies like Boots seem to have no interest whatsoever in ethical behaviour. All that matters is sales. They provide “(mis)educational” materials that promote nonsense They advertise ridiculous made-up claims in the newspapers, which get shot down regularly by the Advertising Standards Authority, but by that time the promotion is over so they don’t give a damn. See for example, CoQ10 scam and the ASA verdict on it. And "Lactium: more rubbish from Boots the Chemists. And a more serious problem". And "The Vitamin B scam. Don’t trust Boots"
Recently the consumer magazine Which? checked 122 High Street pharmacies. They got unsatisfactory advice from 43% of them, a disastrously bad performance for people who want to be the third tier of healthcare.
Even that’s probably better than my own experience. Recently, when I asked a Sainsbury’s pharmacist about a herbal treatment for prostate problems, he pointed to the MHRA’s kite mark and said it must work because the MHRA approved it -he was quite unaware that you get the THR kite mark without having to present any evidence at all about efficacy.
Of course that is partly the fault of the MHRA for allowing misleading labels, but nevertheless, he should have known. See “Why does the MHRA refuse to label herbal products honestly? Kent Woods and Richard Woodfield tell me” for more on how the MHRA has betrayed its own standards.
When I’ve asked Boots’ pharmacists advice about persistent diarrhoea in an infant, saying I wanted a natural remedy, I’ve usually been guided to the homeopathic display. Only once was I told firmly that I should use rehydration not homeopathy (something every good parent knows) and when I asked that good pharmacist where she’d been educated, she said in Germany (mildly surprising given the amount of junk available in German pharmacies)
Anthony Cox, a pharmacist who has been consistently on the side of right, says
"This is something that needs to be dealt with at a regulatory and professional body by the whole profession, and I am certain we have the majority of the UK pharmacy profession on side."
At a 2009 meeting of Branch Representatives of the RPS a motion was proposed:
“…registration as a pharmacist and practice as a homeopath are not compatible, and that premises registered with the Society should not be used for the promotion of homeopathy”
Although that is obviously sensible to most people, the proposal was followed by a speaker from Leicester who thought it right to keep an open mind about Avogadro’s number and the motion was defeated. So much for the "scientists on the High Street" aspiration.
There have been two major scandals surrounding homeopathy recently. Both were revealed first by bloggers, and both came to wide notice through television programs. None were noticed by the regulators, and when they were brought to the attention of the regulator, nothing effective was done.
The malaria scandal
A lot has been wriitten about this here and on other blogs e.g. here and here. The idea that sugar pills can prevent or cure malaria is so mind-bogglingly dangerous that it was condemned by the Queen’s Homeopathic Physician, Peter Fisher. It was exposed on a BBC Newsnight programme in 2006. Watch the video.
The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing was an article that originally appeared on the excellent Quackometer blog produced by Andy Lewis. "The Society of Homeopaths were so outraged about one of their members flouting the code of ethics so blatantly that they took immediate action. That action was, as expected, not to do anything about the ethics breach but to threaten Andy and his hosting ISP with legal action for defamation. The article is reproduced here as a public service".
Some of the people involved in this bad advice were pharmacists, Very properly they were referred to the RPS in 2006 qnd 2009, the regulator at that time. They sat on the complaint so long that eventually the RPS was replaced by the GPhC as regulator. Nothing much has happened.
The GPhC did precisely nothing. Read their pathetic response.
Homeopathy for meningitis
An equally murderous fraud, "homeopathic vaccines" by Ainsworth’s has long been targeted by bloggers. In January 2013, Samantha Smith made an excellent BBC South West programme about it. Watch it and get angry.
Anthony Pinkus, pharmacist at Ainsworths, has been referred to the then regulator, the RPS, in 2006 and 2009. It’s said that he took "remedial action", though there is little obvious change judged by the video above. No doubt some of the most incriminating stuff has been removed from his web site to hide it from the ASA. It’s safer to mislead people by word of mouth. Since the last video more complaints have been made to the GPhC. So far, nothing but silence.
Why doesn’t the regulator regulate?
This pamphlet is reproduced from the July 2011 Quackometer post, “Ainsworths Pharmacy: Casual Disregard for the Law“
It’s almost as though those royal warrants, enlarged on right, acted as a talisman that puts this dangerous company outside the grasp of regulators. I hope that the GPhC Council , and Duncan Rudkin (its chief executive and registrar), are not so worried about their knighthoods that they won’t risk upsetting the royal family, just to save patients from malaria and meningitis. Their CEO, Robert Nicholls is only a CBE so far.
Another reason for their inaction might be that the GPhC Council members, and Duncan Rudkin (its chief executive and registrar), lack critical faculties. Perhaps they have not been very well educated? Many of them aren’t even pharmacists, but that curious breed of professional administrators who inhabit the vast number of quangos, tick their boxes and do harm. Or perhaps they are just more interested in protecting the income of pharmacists than in protecting their customers?
The solution to most problems is education. But there is no real knowledge of how many pharmacists in the UK are educated in the critical assessment of evidence. A recent paper from the USA did not give cause for optimism. It’s discussed by the excellent US pharmacist, Scott Gavura, at Science-based medicine. The results are truly horrifying.
“Few students disagreed with any CAM therapy. There was the greatest support for vitamins and minerals (94%, mean 4.29) which could include the science-based use these products. But there was strong support for demonstrably ineffective treatments like acupuncture, with 64% agreeing it was acceptable. Even homeopathy, which any pharmacy student with basic medicinal chemistry skills ought to know is absurd, was supported by over 40% of students.”
If the numbers are similar in the UK, the results of the Which? magazine survey are not so surprising. And if they are held by the GPhC Council. their inaction is to be expected. We just don’t know, and perhaps someone should find out.
I suspect that sympathy for quackery may sometimes creep in through that old-fashioned discipline known as pharmacognosy. It is about the botany of medicinal plants, and it’s still taught, despite the fact that very few drugs are now extracted from plants. At times, it gets dangerously close to herbalism. For example, at the School of Pharmacy (now part of UCL) a book is used Fundamentals of Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy by Michael Heinrich, Joanne Barnes, Simon Gibbons and Elizabeth M. Williamson, ot the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy at the School of Pharmacy. The introductory chapter says.
“TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE (TCM) The study of TCM is a mixture of myth and fact, stretching back well over 5000 years. At the time, none of the knowledge was written down, apart from primitive inscriptions of prayers for the sick on pieces of tortoise carapace and animal bones, so a mixture of superstition, symbolism and fact was passed down by word of mouth for centuries. TCM still contains very many remedies, which were selected by their symbolic significance rather than proven effects; however, this does not necessarily mean that they are all ‘quack’ remedies!”
Well, not necessarily. But as in most such books, there are good descriptions of the botany, more or less good accounts of the chemical constituents followed by uncritical lists of things that the herb might (or might not) do. The fact that even the US National Institutes of Health quackery branch, NCCAM, doesn’t claim that a single herbal treatment is useful tells you all you need to know.
Joanna Barnes is Associate Professor in Herbal Medicines, School of Pharmacy, University of Auckland, New Zealand. She has written a book, Herbal Medicines (“A useful book for learning holistic medicine”) that is desperately uncritical about the alleged theraputic effectiveness of plants. ("Simon Gibbons is on the editorial board of The Chinese Journal of Natural Medicine. Elizabeth Williamson is editor of the Journal of Phytotherapy Research, a journal that has a strong flavour of herbalism (take the infamous snoring remedy). These people aren’t quacks but they are dangerously tolerant of quacks.
The warning is in the title. "Phytotherapy" is the current euphemism for herbalism. It’s one of those red light words that tells you that what follows is unlikely to be critical. Exeter’s fantasy herbalist, Simon Mills, now describes himself as a phytotherapist. What more warning could you need?
Perhaps this explains why so many pharmacists are unworried by selling things that don’t work. Pharmacy education seems not to include much about the critical assessment of evidence. It should do.
"Homeopathic remedies are available, but are best prescribed by a homeopath"
Ms Gascoigne must be living on another planet.
The main conclusion from all of this is that the General Pharmaceutical Council is almost criminally negligent. It continues to allow pharmacists, Anthony Pinkus among them, to endanger lives. It fails to apply its own declared principles. The members of its Council, and Duncan Rudkin (its chief executive and registrar), are not doing their job.
Individual pharmacists vary a lot, from the superb to those who believe in quackery. Some, perhaps many, are embarrassed by the fact that their employer compels them to sell rubbish. It’s too much to expect that they’ll endanger their mortgage payments by speaking out about it, but the best ones will take you aside and explain that they can’t recommend it.
The GPhC itself is regulated by the Professional Standards Authority, the subject of my last post. We can’t expect anything sensible from them.
In the USA there is a shocking number of pharmacists who seem to believe in quackery. In the UK. nobody knows, though judging by their failure to vote against the daftest of all scams, homeopathy, there is no cause for complacency here.
It seems that there will have to be big improvements in pharmacy education before you can have much confidence in the quality of the advice that you get in a pharmacy.
Yesterday a talk was given at the School of Pharmacy, organised by the “The Centre for Homeopathic Education” (an oxymoron if there ever was one). The flyer had all the usual nonsense. Its mention of “Remedies & Tonics for Cancer Recovery” might well have breached the Cancer Act (1939). When I asked whether the amount received in room rental was sufficient to offest the damage to the reputation of the School of Pharmacy resulting from hosting a nutty (and possible illegal) event, I had the greatest difficulty in extracting any sort of response from the school’s director, Duncan Craig. I’m told that he considers “the policy on space rental to be a UCL management issue, rather than a matter of discussion on scientific ethics with a colleague”. Oh dear.
This article has appeared, in nearly identical form, on the UK Conversation . You can leave comments there or here.
A constitutional monarch is purely ceremonial and plays no part in politics. Well actually in the UK it isn’t quite as simple as that. The first problem is that we have no constitution. Things haven’t changed much since the 19th century when Walter Bagehot said "the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy… three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn."
These are not inconsiderable powers in a country which is meant to be run by elected representatives. But nobody knows how these powers are used: it is all done in secret. Well, almost all. Charles, Prince of Wales, has been unusually public in expressing his views. He told a conference at St James’s Palace “I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment” “I felt proud of that.” That’s a remarkable point of view for someone who, if he succeeds, will become the patron of that product of the age of enlightenment, the Royal Society.
I have no doubt that Prince Charles means well. He can’t be blamed for his lack of education. But his views on medicine date from a few centuries ago, and he has lost no opportunity to exploit his privileged position to proclaim them.
Euphemisms for quackery
He set up the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health (PFIH) to promote his views. ( “Integrated”, in this context, is, of course, just the latest euphemism for “alternative” or “quack”.) When the Foundation collapsed because of a financial scandal in 2010, it was replaced by the “College of Medicine”. The name changed, but not the people behind it. Initially this phoenix was to be named the “College of Integrated Health”, but by this time the prince’s views on medicine had become sufficiently discredited that the word “integrated” was quickly dropped. This might be thought less than frank, but it is just employment of the classic bait and switch technique, beloved by used car salesmen.
His views were well publicised in a PFIH publication, “Complementary Healthcare: a Guide for Patients”. That volume either omitted or misrepresented the evidence about the one question that matters most to patients – does the treatment work or not? It caused me to write a much shorter, but more accurate, version, the Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine. The PFIH guide was arguably a danger to public health. When, very properly, it was criticised by Edzard Ernst, a letter was sent from from the prince’s private secretary to Ernst’s vice-chancellor, Steve Smith. Instead of defending Ernst’s public spirited action, Smith instituted disciplinary proceedings against Ernst that lasted for a year. The prince had intervened directly in the affairs of the university. Steve Smith was rewarded with a knighthood in 2011.
None of this criticism has dimmed the prince’s enthusiasm for barmy medical ideas. He is well known to write many letters to government ministers to try to persuade them to adopt his ideas in a whole range of areas. In July 2013, the Minister of Health, Jeremy Hunt, visited the prince at Clarence House. The visit was reported to be to persuade the minister to defend homeopathy, though it was more likely to have been to press the case to confer a government stamp of approval on herbalists and traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners by giving them statutory regulation. This is a matter that was recently raised again in parliament by Charles’ greatest ally, David Tredinnick MP (Con, Bosworth) who got into trouble for charging astrology software to expenses. We shall never know what pressure was applied. A ruling of the Information Commissioner judged, reasonably enough, that there was public interest in knowing what influences were being brought to bear on public policy. But the Attorney General overruled the judgement on the grounds that “Disclosure of the correspondence could damage The Prince of Wales’ ability to perform his duties when he becomes King.” That, of course, is exactly what we are worried about.
Influence on politics
The prince’s influence seems to be big in the Department of Health (DH). He was given £37,000 of taxpayers’ money to produce his guide, and an astonishing £900,000 to prepare the ground for the setting up of the hapless self-regulator, the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC, also known as Ofquack). When NHS Choices (itself set up by DH to assess evidence) tried to rewrite its web page about that most discredited of all forms of quackery, homeopathy, officials in DH referred the new advice to Michael Dixon, the medical director of the Prince’s Foundation and, were it not for the Freedom of Information act, the DH would have caused inaccurate information to be provided. The DH has a chief medical officer and two scientific advisors, but prefers to take the advice of the Prince of Wales.
The Prince of Wales’ business, Duchy Originals, has been condemned by the Daily Mail, (of all places) for selling unhealthy foods. And when his business branched into selling quack “detox” and herbal nonsense he found himself censured by both the MHRA and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for making unjustifiable medical claims for these products.
Ainsworth’s homeopathic pharmacy is endorsed by both Prince Charles and the Queen: it has two Royal Warrants. They sell “homeopathic vaccines” for meningitis, measles, rubella and whooping cough. These “vaccines” contain nothing whatsoever so they are obviously a real danger to public health. Despite the fact that Ainsworth’s had already been censured by the ASA in 2011 for selling similar products, Ainsworth’s continued to recommend them with a “casual disregard for the law”. The regulator (the MHRA) failed to step in to stop them until it was eventually stirred into action by a young BBC reporter, Sam Smith, made a programme for BBC South West. Then, at last, the somnolent regulator was stirred into action. The MHRA “told Ainsworths to stop advertising a number of products” (but apparently not to stop making them or selling them). They still sell Polonium metal 30C and Swine Meningitis 36C, and a booklet that recommends homeopathic “vaccination”. Ainsworth’s sales are no doubt helped by the Royal Warrants. The consequence is that people may die of meningitis. In 2011, the MHRA Chief Executive Professor Kent Woods, was knighted.
It runs in the family
The Prince of Wales is not the only member of the royal family to be obsessed with bizarre forms of medicine. The first homeopath to the British royal family, Frederick Quin, was a son of the Duchess of Devonshire (1765-1824). Queen Mary (1865-1953), wife of King George V, headed the fundraising efforts to move and expand the London Homeopathic Hospital.
King George VI was so enthusiastic that in 1948 conferred the royal title on the London Homeopathic Hospital. The Queen Mother loved homeopathy too (there is no way to tell whether this contributed to her need for a colostomy in the 1960s).
The present Queen’s homeopathic physician is Peter Fisher, who is medical director of what, until recently was called the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (RLHH). In 2010 that hospital was rebranded as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM) in another unsubtle bait and switch move.
The RLHIM is a great embarrassment to the otherwise excellent UCLH Trust. It has been repeatedly condemned by the Advertising Standards Authority for making false claims. As a consequence, it has been forced to withdraw all of its patient information.
The patron of the RLHIM is the Queen, not the Prince of Wales. It is hard to imagine that this anachronistic institution would still exist if it were not for the influence, spoken or unspoken, of the Queen. Needless to say we will never be told.
The Queen and Peter Fisher
Observer 8 April 2007
The attorney general, while trying to justify the secrecy of Charles’ letters, said
“It is a matter of the highest importance within our constitutional framework that the Monarch is a politically neutral figure”.
Questions about health policy are undoubtedly political, and the highly partisan interventions of the prince in the political process make his behaviour unconstitutional. They endanger the monarchy itself. Whether that matters depends on how much you value tradition and how much you value the tourist business generated by the Gilbert & Sullivan flummery at which royals excel.
The least that one can ask of the royal family is that they should not endanger the health of the nation. If I wanted to know the winner of the 2.30 at Ascot, I’d ask a royal. For any question concerning science or medicine I’d ask someone with more education.
Here is some more interesting reading
Michael Baum’s “An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong”
Gerald Weissman’s essay Homeopathy: Holmes, Hogwarts, and the Prince of Wales.
Channel 4 TV documentary HRH “meddling in politics”
Observer April 2007 "Royals’ favoured hospital at risk as homeopathy backlash gathers pace. The Queen loves it. But alternative medicine centre’s future looks uncertain as more NHS trusts axe funding"
It’s hard to know what to make of David Tredinnick MP (Cons, Bosworth). He is certainly an extreme example of the scientific ignorance of our parliamentary representatives, but he isn’t alone in that. Our present minister of Education, Michael Gove, memorably referred to Newton’s Laws of Thermodynamics, blissfully unaware that thermodynamics was a 19th century development. And our present Minister of Health seems to think that magic water cures diseases.
But Mr Treddinick breaks every record for anti-scientific nonsense. That, no doubt, is why he was upset by the recent revision of come NHS Choices web pages, so that they now give a good account of the evidence (that’s their job, of course). They did that despite two years of obstruction by the Department of Health. which seemed to think that it was appropriate to take advice from Michael Dixon of the Prince’s Foundation for integrated Health. That shocking example of policy based evidence was revealed on this blog, and caused something of a stir.
Treddinick’s latest letter
A copy of a letter from Mr Tredinnick to the Minister of Health, Jeremy Hunt, has some into my possession by a tortuous route [download the letter]. It’s a corker. Here are a few quotations.
"1. UKIP moving onto our ground
Attached is an extract from a recent UKIP policy statement. The position which UKIP has taken is one with which most of our Daily Mail reading supporters of complementary medicine would agree."
It seems that Treddinick’s preferred authority on medicine is now Nigel Farage, leader of the UK’s far right party. UKIP’s policy on health is appended to the letter, and it’s as barmy as most of the other things they say.
"2. Herbal Medicine
. . .there is very real concern that the Government will not regulate Herbal Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The current situation is unacceptable, because herbal practitioners need regulation and cannot function as herbal therapists, nor can they cannot obtain stocks of their herbal remedies, without it.
This refers to a saga that has been running for at least 10 years. Herbalists are desperate to get a government stamp of approval by getting statutory regulation, much like real doctors have, despite the fact that they make money by selling sick people "an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety" (as quoted recently in the House of Lords).
Even the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) doesn’t claim that a single herbal treatment is useful. The saga of herbal regulation is long and tedious. The short version is that a very bad report, The Pittilo report, recommended regulation of herbalists. After years of prevarication, Andrew Lansley ignored the impartial scientific advice and yielded to the pressure from the herbal industry to accept the Pittilo report. But still nothing has happened.
Could it be that even Jeremy Hunt realises, deep down, that the regulation of nonsense is a nonsense that would harm the public?
We can only hope that a letter from Mr Tredinnick is the kiss of death. Perhaps his continuous pestering will only reinforce the doubts that seem to exist at the Department of Health.
Then Tredinnick returns (yawn) to his obsession with magic water. He vents his rage at the now excellent NHS Choices page on homeopathy.
"Recently this wording has been removed and instead a comment by the Chief Medical Officer that homeopathy is placebo inserted in its place, as well as links to external organisations which campaign against homeopathy. For instance, there is a link to the Sense About Science website, and Caroline Finucane, who is Editor of new content at NHS Choices, also writes for the Sense About Science website. This is an organisation which has no expertise in homeopathy and traces its roots back to the ultra-left Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)."
"I respectfully suggest that the original wording be reinstated and these links to external organisations be removed or changed to ensure a balanced view.".
So it seems that he prefers the medical views of Nigel Farage and the Prince of Wales to those of the Chief Medical Officer and the government’s chief scientist. Disgracefully, Tredinnick picks out one particular employee of NHS Choices among many, and one who does an excellent job. And he raises the hoary old myth that Sense About Science is a communist organisation. Odd, since others accuse it of being neo-libertarian. The actual history is here. The organisation that is a bit too libertarian for my taste is Spiked Online. I haven’t agreed with every word that Sense about Science has printed, but they have a totally honest belief in evidence.
To drag in the name of one person out of many, and to justify it by a false history shows, once again, how very venomous and vindictive the advocates of delusional medicine can be when they feel cornered.
A bit more information about Mr Treddinick
This is what the BBC News profile says about him.
David Tredinnick is an old style Conservative MP, being an Eton-educated former Guards officer, who has sat in the Commons since 1987.
However, his ambition for high office was thwarted by his role in one of the sleaze stories which helped to sink the Major government. He accepted £1,000 from an undercover reporter to ask parliamentary questions about a fictitious drug. He was obliged to resign from his role as a PPS and was suspended from the Commons for 20 sitting days. He has not sat on the frontbench since.
He is an orthodox Conservative loyalist, though he is more supportive of the European Union than many of his colleagues.
He has, however, carved himself a niche as the Commons’ most enthusiastic supporter of complementary medicine. He has wearied successive health secretaries with his persistent advocacy of any and all homeopathic remedies. He has also supported their use in prisons and even suggested them as an aid in alleviating the foot and mouth crisis.
Tredinnick has also asserted that he was aware of a psychiatric hospital that doubled its staff at full moon (this is an old urban myth, and is, of course, quite untrue).
His advocacy of homeopathic borax as a way to control the 2001 epidemic of foot and mouth diease can be read here. Luckily it was ignored by the government. I hope his latest letter will be treated similarly.
Picture of David Tredinnick MP from the Conservative Party
“In causing NHS Choices to publish content that is less than completely frank about the evidence on homeopathy, the DH have compromised the editorial standards of a website that they themselves established”. . . “. . . they have failed the general public, by putting special interests, politics, and the path of least resistance (as they saw it) before the truth about health and healthcare.”
David Mattin, lately of NHS Choices
NHS Choices is usually a good source of information for the public. But there is one exception: the information they provide about alternative medicine is poor. A Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that the attempt of NHS Choices to rewrite their pages more accurately was censored by the Department of Health in conjunction with the late Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. The Department of Health (DH) has misled the public.
The earliest version of the homeopathy information page recorded by the Wayback Machine was November 12 2007. It was still there on December 5 2010. The comments were mostly critical. One said, quite correctly,
I find it most regrettable that the way NHS has covered this subject is to give uncritical voice to the claims of homoeopathy without giving readers the information they need to evaluate those claims. To refer readers to the websites of the British Homeopathy Association is like settling the question of the shape of planet by a reference to the website of the Flat Earth Society
There were a lot of complaints, and to the credit of NHS Choices, the page vanished. Throughout 2011, and up to October 2012 the information page on homeopathy read
Content on homeopathy has been removed from the website pending a review by the Department of Health policy team responsible for complementary and alternative medicines.
Homeopathy is not part of mainstream medicine. Instead it is defined as a complementary or alternative medicine. If you are considering using homeopathy, talk to your GP first.
For more information about homeopathy see the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy published on 8 February 2010 and the Department of Health response to that report published in July 2010 (PDF, 69KB).
Then, at the end of 2012, the page reappeared. It was a bit better than the original, but not much. Many of the comments criticise the misleading nature of the information (as well as the usual “it worked for me” comments). The “useful links” still has six links to flat-earth organisations like the Society of Homeopaths, and only one to a sensible source, the excellent pamphlet from Sense about Science. They do link at the end to the 2010 Science and Technology Committee Report: Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy (PDF, 1.61Mb), and to the Government Response to the Science and Technology Committee Report, Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy (PDF, 69kb) but no comment is made on the findings.
I wondered why the NHS Choices page, after an absence of almost two years, had returned in such an unsatisfactory form. So I asked them. After a reminder, I was told that my queries were being dealt with not by NHS Choices, but had been referred to Dr Sunjai Gupta “the DH official with responsibility for this area”. Dr Sunjai Gupta OBE is Deputy Director of Public Health Strategy and Social Marketing, Department of Health.
Dr Gupta is not obviously sympathetic to woo. It’s hard to tell since he doesn’t seem to have published much. But one is not reassured by an article that he wrote for the Journal of Holistic Healthcare. It appears straight after an article by fantasy herbalist, Simon Mills.
Despite assurances that I’d hear from Dr Gupta shortly, nothing happened. So I sent a request for the correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act (2000). Although the request was addressed to NHS Choices, a public body, strenuous efforts were made to divert it to the Department of Health. These were resisted. Nevertheless when, after a long delay, the material arrived, it came not from NHS Choices, but from DH, who had evidently vetted it,. The emails were rather shocking [download all].
A mail dated 1 December 2009 said
This is the most direct statement I’ve seen that, in the Department of Health, policy dictates evidence. NHS Choices is meant to provide evidence, but what they say has to be checked by DH to make sure they “don’t clash with any policy messages”.
The re-written page
The original version of the re-written page was sent to me by David Mattin, who worked for NHS Choices until September 2012. You can download the whole draft here. It is an enormous improvement on the original page. For example, it says
“Does it work?
Many independent experts would respond to this question ‘no, homeopathy does not work’
There is no good quality clinical evidence to show that homeopathy is more successful than placebo in the treatment of any type of condition.
Furthermore, if the principles of homeopath were true it would violate all the existing theories of science that we make use of today; not just our theory of medicine, but also chemistry, biology and physics.
This original draft was sent to Mattin on 29 January 2010. After editing it for length Mattin sent it to DH for approval. Over the next two years, DH removed much of the accurate content. Mattin’s own comments on this evisceration are reproduced below.
The DH emails
All the names have been redacted. Needless to say, nobody is willing to take responsibility. But the number of people who support magic medicine is really quite small so the main players were easy to identify.
During the nearly 2 year absence of the homeopathy page, dozens of changes were made by DH. It seems that the policy message with which the NHS Choices draft failed to comply were those of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, and its successor (after April 2010), the College of Integrated Health, now known as the College of Medicine.
The most reliable source in the country - and one of the most reliable in the world - is Professor Edzard Ernst, professor of Complementary Medicine at the Peninsular Medical School,
Ernst returned his suggestions in July 2010, but it seems that few of them survived the subsequent 18 months of revisions by DH.
On 2 December 2009, a mail from the NHS headquarters (Quarry House, Leeds) was sent to NHS Choices
This makes it perfectly clear that DH regards the Prince’s Foundation, and the equally flaky Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC: known on the web as Ofquack) as appropriate guides for public health policy. The fact of the matter is that regulation of magic medicine by the government has been a total disaster, because, it seems, DH regards the Prince of Wales as a reliable source.
On 29 December 2009, the Prince’s Foundation went on the attack.
On 10th January 2010, two more letters were sent to DH by the Prince’s Foundation. At 13.48 they wrote
And at 22.14 on the same day, it was followed up with
The references to Devon and to Thought Field Therapy, make it very obvious that these letters were written by Dr Michael Dixon OBE, who was medical director of the Prince’s Foundation, and who is now a director of the “College of Medicine”. And the object of Dixon’s bile is obviously Edzard Ernst (the quotation is from his book, Trick or Treatment).
I find it fascinating to see just how venomous quacks become when the evidence contradicts their views. The cuddly “holistic” veneer quickly vanishes.
It gets worse. On 21 January 2010, a mail from NHS Choices to DH said
The only person in the country who fits this description is the (in)famous George Lewith. It is simply mind-boggling that DH regards him as an appropriate person to advise on anything.
After that, NHS Choices kept asking DH to sign off the documents, and changes continued to be made. Almost two years later, DH were still stalling.
The admission that “We are a bit short of doctors within DH these days” is interesting.
A bit short of anyone capable of critical thinking would be more accurate.
The most interesting document that I got from DH was an intermediate draft of the rewritten page on homeopathy (undated). Download the document. Here are a couple of extracts.
It’s a story of two years of meddling and procrastination. The end result misinforms the public.
Right at the start, the NHS Choices draft says, reasonably enough
A House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos and that the principles on which homeopathv is based are “scientifically implausible”.
But a comment, added apparently by DH, says
Can we remove this statement? This report is really quite contentious and we may well be subject to quite a lot of challenge from the Homeopathic community if published.
What on earth? The DH seems to think that that its job is not to present the evidence, but to avoid challenges from the homeopathic community! And true enough, this piece is missing from the final version.
A bit later, the NHS Choices draft was censored again
“A 2010 Science and Technology Committee report said that scientific tests had shown that homeopathic treatments don’t work”
But again this doesn’t appear in the final version. The comment, apparently from DH, says
“The DH response to this report (point 24) doesn’t support this statement though”
That’s a gross distortion of point 24, which actually concludes
“The Government Chief Scientific Adviser cannot envisage scientifically credible proposals for funding for research into homeopathy in the future”
NHS Choices was not happy with the result
Shortly before the revised page was published, Paul Nuki, Editor in Chief of NHS Choicea, sent an email to DH.
Date: 7th September 2011
Time: 3:33:42 pm
I’ve been through the CAM articles and asked that we publish them asap as requested.
For the record, we will be publishing these pieces outside of the normal editorial process. Although originally signed off by a suitably qualified clinician, the time lapse and policy changes have been so substantial as to render that null and void. We also don’t have a formal
It doesn’t need much reading between the lines to see that he was unhappy with the result. It will be interesting to see whether the Information Standard people at the Royal Society for Public Health do anything about it.
The Department of Health has not just ignored evidence but actively opposed it.
That’s the only possible conclusion from the documents that I was sent. And it’s pretty shocking that the DH has preferred advice from the Prince’s Foundation and its handful of acolytes (in particular Michael Dixon and George Lewith) to the findings of the Science and Technology Select Committee and the views of the Chief Scientific Advisor.
In January this year, the Chief medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, said, in a rare outburst of candour
‘I’m very concerned when homeopathic practitioners try to peddle this way of life to prevent malaria or other infectious disease,” she said.
“I am perpetually surprised that homeopathy is available on the NHS.”
Dame Sally, who is England’s most senior doctor, concluded by remarking that homeopathy “is rubbish”.
So one part of DH is working to contradict another part. the Chief Medical Officer. Perhaps Sally Davies should have a word with Dr Gupta.
This all predates the advent of Jeremy Hunt (and known defender of homeopathy) as health minister. But the sympathies of some DH people are made obvious by the presence on the DH web site of an article “Personal health budgets: A new way of accessing complementary therapies?”. This astonishing piece confirms the worst fears that quacks will see personal health budgets as a commercial opportunity to peddle their wares. The article is by Jim Rogers of Lincoln University. What his paper does not mention is Rogers’ conflict of interest. He’s a homeopath, and he has a paper in the International Journal of High Dilution Research (yes, there is a journal for every form of make-believe). You can download a reprint of this paper. It advocates more research into homeopathic provings, something that even George Lewith seems to have given up on.
It’s about time that the DH started to listen to the Chief Medical Officer. As it is, some people at DH seem to prefer the advice of the Prince’s Foundation, and to actively suppress employees who prefer evidence to anecdote.
One thing is clear. The DH is an unholy mess. Parts of it are intent on producing policy-based evidence.
Comment by David Mattin, who edited the first draft for NHS Choices
David Mattin left NHS Choices in September, 2012. He edited the new version and lived through the two years of wrangling with DH during which much of the best content was eviscerated. He sent me this statement about the affair.
As an editor at NHS Choices, I viewed it as my job to present evidence-based information to the public. The article we prepared on homeopathy stayed true to that central purpose: it made clear to readers that there is no good quality evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any health condition, and also presented the broad scientific consensus that the supposed method of action of homeopathy is implausible.
What followed was a two year story of delay, and eventual suppression, of that article. My strong impression was of DH civil servants who lacked the courage, and, frankly, the energy to stand up to the criticism from special interest groups that they anticipated would arise because of the article; and that did indeed arise when a draft of the article and other draft content on complementary and alternative medicines fell into the hands of the Prince’s Foundation and other CAM groups.
The attitude of DH civil servants, broadly, was simply to tell us ‘we can’t say this about homeopathy, people will complain’. They seemed to have no interest in making an appraisal of the evidence on homeopathy themselves to see if what we were saying was actually true or not. We repeatedly pushed back with the message: ‘some people may very well complain, but if what we are saying about the evidence base is true – and it is – then we must simply weather those complaints, and stand by our content. Our duty is to supply our readers with the best information, not to please the homeopathy community.’ But these arguments were disregarded. The DH civil servants were almost entirely concerned with the politics of the situation – that is, the politics as they saw them – and the possibility that this article may create new work for them, and very little concerned with the evidence itself, or the presentation of this evidence to the public.
The whole episode is an insight into the way special interest groups can influence the workings of government and the public sector simply by making a lot of noise, and having a few powerful friends.
In causing NHS Choices to publish content that is less than completely frank about the evidence on homeopathy, the DH have compromised the editorial standards of a website that they themselves established, and that they fund. They have sold out the NHS Choices editorial team, who work tirelessly to fulfil their remit. And, most seriously, they have failed the general public, by putting special interests, politics, and the path of least resistance (as they saw it) before the truth about health and healthcare.
13 February 2013 The Guardian version of this story, written by Sarah Boseley, is Prince’s charity lobbied government to water down homeopathy criticism. It’s fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t name any names. There are some good comments though.
14 February 2013. The printed Guardian gave the story full 5 column-width coverage. [download print version]
And news has reached the USA: there’s an account of the affair on the Neurologica blog: Politics trumping science at the NHS.
On 14 February, the Guardian version was Editor’s Choice by lunchtime, and the Guardian web version already had 414 comments, mostly sensible (though this blog got far more referrals from twitter than from the Guardian)
And news has reached the USA: there’s an account of the affair on the Neurologica blog: Politics trumping science at the NHS.
15 February 2013. The Daily Mail had very fair coverage of the story.
The Guardian closed the comments on the story when it had got 642 comments, most of them very sensible. And this page got almost 6000 hits in 24 hours. The majority of the referrals came from Twitter rather than from the Guardian, despite the direct link to the page from the Guardian.
18 February 2013. The affair featured in BMJ News [download the reprint]. The item featured prominently on the BMJ news page.
19 February 2013 Only six days of this post, the NHS Choices page has been re-written again, in a much improved form. That looks like bloggers 1, DH 0. It is baffling that it’s left to bloggers, working for nothing, to extract a bit of sense from the highly-paid civil servants at the Department of Health. But at least they listened this time, which is a lot more than happens often. Paul Nuki, who runs NHS Choices, deserves congratulations. Of course the revised page still doesn’t call a spade a spade, but it gets close at times. I like the way it starts "Homeopathy is a ‘treatment’ based". Notice the quotation marks.
Incidentally, NHS Choices is outsourced to the (in)famous company, Capita. And the moderation of the comments on their site is outsourced again to Tempero, which describes itself as a "reputation management" company. Each of them creams off money meant of patient care. This discovery might explain why I and others have had comments rejected by NHS Choices several times. "Reputation management" is the antithesis of evidence. It is public relations, i.e. paid lying. That is quite wrong for a site that is meant to provide dispassionate information.
21 February 2013. Sadly a step backwards. Part of the improved page was removed. This bit.
The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has said there is no scientifically plausible way that homeopathy can prevent or cure diseases. She has made it clear she is particularly concerned about the use of homeopathy in developing countries as a so-called cure for malaria.
We can only speculate why this was removed, because it was true. In fact she accurately described homeopathy as "rubbish". Why she should not be quoted beats me.
The Scottish Universities Medical Journal asked me to write about the regulation of alternative medicine. It’s an interesting topic and not easy to follow because of the veritable maze of more than twenty overlapping regulators and quangos which fail utterly to protect the public against health fraud. In fact they mostly promote health fraud. The paper is now published, and here is a version with embedded links (and some small updates).
We are witnessing an increasing commercialisation of medicine. It’s really taken off since the passage of the Health and Social Security Bill into law. Not only does that mean having NHS hospitals run by private companies, but it means that “any qualified provider” can bid for just about any service. The problem lies, of course, in what you consider “qualified” to mean. Any qualified homeopath or herbalist will, no doubt, be eligible. University College London Hospital advertised for a spiritual healer. The "person specification" specified a "quallfication", but only HR people think that a paper qualification means that spiritual healing is anything but a delusion.
The vocabulary of bait and switch
First, a bit of vocabulary. Alternative medicine is a term that is used for medical treatments that don’t work (or at least haven’t been shown to work). If they worked, they’d be called “medicine”. The anti-malarial, artemesinin, came originally from a Chinese herb, but once it had been purified and properly tested, it was no longer alternative. But the word alternative is not favoured by quacks. They prefer their nostrums to be described as “complementary” –it sounds more respectable. So CAM (complementary and alternative medicine became the politically-correct euphemism. Now it has gone a stage further, and the euphemism in vogue with quacks at the moment is “integrated” or “integrative” medicine. That means, very often, integrating things that don’t work with things that do. But it sounds fashionable. In reality it is designed to confuse politicians who ask for, say, integrated services for old people.
Put another way, the salespeople of quackery have become rather good at bait and switch. The wikepedia definition is as good as any.
Bait-and-switch is a form of fraud, most commonly used in retail sales but also applicable to other contexts. First, customers are “baited” by advertising for a product or service at a low price; second, the customers discover that the advertised good is not available and are “switched” to a costlier product.
As applied to the alternative medicine industry, the bait is usually in the form of some nice touchy-feely stuff which barely mentions the mystical nonsense. But when you’ve bought into it you get the whole panoply of nonsense. Steven Novella has written eloquently about the use of bait and switch in the USA to sell chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine: "The bait is that CAM offers legitimate alternatives, the switch is that it primarily promotes treatments that don’t work or are at best untested and highly implausible.".
The "College of Medicine" provides a near-perfect example of bait and switch. It is the direct successor of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health. The Prince’s Foundation was a consistent purveyor of dangerous medical myths. When it collapsed in 2010 because of a financial scandal, a company was formed called "The College for Integrated Health". A slide show, not meant for public consumption, said "The College represents a new strategy to take forward the vision of HRH Prince Charles". But it seems that too many people have now tumbled to the idea that "integrated", in this context, means barmpottery. Within less than a month, the new institution was renamed "The College of Medicine". That might be a deceptive name, but it’s a much better bait. That’s why I described the College as a fraud and delusion.
Not only did the directors, all of them quacks, devise a respectable sounding name, but they also succeeded in recruiting some respectable-sounding people to act as figureheads for the new organisation. The president of the College is Professor Sir Graham Catto, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Aberdeen. Names like his make the bait sound even more plausible. He claims not to believe that homeopathy works, but seems quite happy to have a homeopathic pharmacist, Christine Glover, on the governing council of his college. At least half of the governing Council can safely be classified as quacks.
So the bait is clear. What about the switch? The first thing to notice is that the whole outfit is skewed towards private medicine: see The College of Medicine is in the pocket of
Crapita Capita. The founder, and presumably the main provider of funds (they won’t say how much) is the huge outsourcing company, Capita. This is company known in Private Eye as Crapita. Their inefficiency is legendary. They are the folks who messed up the NHS computer system and the courts computer system. After swallowing large amounts of taxpayers’ money, they failed to deliver anything that worked. Their latest failure is the court translation service.. The president (Catto), the vice president (Harry Brunjes) and the CEO (Mark Ratnarajah) are all employees of Capita.
The second thing to notice is that their conferences and courses are a bizarre mixture of real medicine and pure quackery. Their 2012 conference had some very good speakers, but then it had a "herbal workshop" with Simon Mills (see a video) and David Peters (the man who tolerates dowsing as a way to diagnose which herb to give you). The other speaker was Dick Middleton, who represents the huge herbal company, Schwabe (I debated with him on BBC Breakfast), In fact the College’s Faculty of Self-care appears to resemble a marketing device for Schwabe.
Why regulation isn’t working, and can’t work
There are various levels of regulation. The "highest" level is the statutory regulation of osteopathy and chiropractic. The General Chiropractic Council (GCC) has exactly the same legal status as the General Medical Council (GMC). This ludicrous state of affairs arose because nobody in John Major’s government had enough scientific knowledge to realise that chiropractic, and some parts of osteopathy, are pure quackery,
The problem is that organisations like the GCC function more to promote chiropractic than to regulate them. This became very obvious when the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) decided to sue Simon Singh for defamation, after he described some of their treatments as “bogus”, “without a jot of evidence”.
In order to support Singh, several bloggers assessed the "plethora of evidence" which the BCA said could be used to justify their claims. When, 15 months later, the BCA produced its "plethora" it was shown within 24 hours that the evidence was pathetic. The demolition was summarised by lawyer, David Allen Green, in The BCA’s Worst Day.
In the wake of this, over 600 complaints were made to the GCC about unjustified claims made by chiropractors, thanks in large part to heroic work by two people, Simon Perry and Allan Henness. Simon Perry’s Fishbarrel (browser plugin) allows complaints to be made quickly and easily -try it). The majority of these complaints were rejected by the GCC, apparently on the grounds that chiropractors could not be blamed because the false claims had been endorsed by the GCC itself.
My own complaint was based on phone calls to two chiropractors, I was told such nonsense as "colic is down to, er um, faulty movement patterns in the spine". But my complaint never reached the Conduct and Competence committee because it had been judged by a preliminary investigating committee that there was no case to answer. The impression one got from this (very costly) exercise was that the GCC was there to protect chiropractors, not to protect the public.
The outcome was a disaster for chiropractors, wno emerged totally discredited. It was also a disaster for the GCC which was forced to admit that it hadn’t properly advised chiropractors about what they could and couldn’t claim. The recantation culminated in the GCC declaring, in August 2010, that the mythical "subluxation" is a "historical concept " "It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease.". Subluxation was a product of the fevered imagination of the founder of the chiropractic cult, D.D. Palmer. It referred to an imaginary spinal lesion that he claimed to be the cause of most diseases. .Since ‘subluxation’ is the only thing that’s distinguished chiropractic from any other sort of manipulation, the admission by the GCC that it does not exist, after a century of pretending that it does, is quite an admission.
The President of the BCA himself admitted in November 2011
“The BCA sued Simon Singh personally for libel. In doing so, the BCA began one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially,”
As a result of all this, the deficiencies of chiropractic, and the deficiencies of its regulator were revealed, and advertisements for chiropractic are somewhat less misleading. But this change for the better was brought about entirely by the unpaid efforts of bloggers and a few journalists, and not at all by the official regulator, the GCC. which was part of the problem. not the solution. And it was certainly not helped by the organisation that is meant to regulate the GCC, the Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) which did nothing whatsoever to stop the farce.
At the other end of the regulatory spectrum, voluntary self-regulation, is an even worse farce than the GCC. They all have grand sounding "Codes of Practice" which, in practice, the ignore totally.
The Society of Homeopaths is just a joke. When homeopaths were caught out recommending sugar pills for prevention of malaria, they did nothing (arguably such homicidal advice deserves a jail sentence).
The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) is widely know in the blogosphere as Ofquack. I know about them from the inside, having been a member of their Conduct and Competence Committee, It was set up with the help of a £900,000 grant from the Department of Health to the Prince of Wales, to oversee voluntary self-regulation. It fails utterly to do anything useful.. The CNHC code of practice, paragraph 15 , states
“Any advertising you undertake in relation to your professional activities must be accurate. Advertisements must not be misleading, false, unfair or exaggerated”.
When Simon Perry made a complaint to the CNHC about claims being made by a CNHC-registered reflexologist, the Investigating Committee upheld all 15 complaints. But it then went on to say that there was no case to answer because the unjustified claims were what the person had been taught, and were made in good faith.
This is precisely the ludicrous situation which will occur again and again if reflexologists (and many other alternative therapies) are “accredited”. The CNHC said, correctly, that the reflexologist had been taught things that were not true, but then did nothing whatsoever about it apart from toning down the advertisements a bit. They still register reflexologists who make outrageously false claims.
Once again we see that no sensible regulation is possible for subjects that are pure make-believe.
The first two examples deal (or rather, fail to deal) with regulation of outright quackery. But there are dozens of other quangos that sound a lot more respectable.
European Food Standards Agency (EFSA). One of the common scams is to have have your favourite quack treatment classified as a food not as a medicine. The laws about what you can claim have been a lot laxer for foods. But the EFSA has done a pretty good job in stopping unjustified claims for health benefits from foods. Dozens of claims made by makers of probiotics have been banned. The food industry, needless to say, objects very strongly to be being forced to tell the truth. In my view, the ESFA has not gone far enough. They recently issued a directive about claims that could legally be made. Some of these betray the previously high standards of the EFSA. For example you are allowed to say that "Vitamin C contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue" (as long as the product contains above a specified amount of Vitamin C. I’m not aware of any trials that show vitamin C has the slightest effect on tiredness or fatigue, Although these laws do not come into effect until December 2012, they have already been invoked by the ASA has a reason not to uphold a complaint about a multivitamin pill which claimed that it “Includes 8 nutrients that can contribute to the reduction in tiredness and fatigue”
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). This is almost the only organisation that has done a good job on false health claims. Their Guidance on Health Therapies & Evidence says
"Whether you use the words ‘treatment’, ‘treat’ or ‘cure’, all are likely to be seen by members of the public as claims to alleviate effectively a condition or symptom. We would advise that they are not used"
"Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable"
"Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable"
They are spot on.
The ASA’s Guidance for Advertisers of Homeopathic Services is wonderful.
"In the simplest terms, you should avoid using efficacy claims, whether implied or direct,"
"To date, the ASA has have not seen persuasive evidence to support claims that homeopathy can treat, cure or relieve specific conditions or symptoms."
That seems to condemn the (mis)labelling allowed by the MHRA as breaking the rules.. Sadly, though, the ASA has no powers to enforce its decisions and only too often they are ignored. The Nightingale collaboration has produced an excellent letter that you can hand to any pharmacist who breaks the rules
The ASA has also judged against claims made by "Craniosacral therapists" (that’s the lunatic fringe of osteopathy). They will presumably uphold complaints about similar claims made (I’m ashamed to say) by UCLH Hospitals.
The private examination company Edexcel sets exams in antiscientific subjects, so miseducating children. The teaching of quackery to 16 year-olds has been approved by a maze of quangos, none of which will take responsibility, or justify their actions. So far I’ve located no fewer than eight of them. The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (OfQual), Edexcel, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), Skills for Health, Skills for Care, National Occupational Standards (NOS), private exam company VTCT and the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.. Asking any of these people why they approve of examinations in imaginary subjects meets with blank incomprehension. They fail totally to protect tha public from utter nonsense.
The Department of Education has failed to do anything about the miseducation of children in quackery. In fact it has encouraged it by, for the first time, giving taxpayers’ money to a Steiner (Waldorf) school (at Frome, in Somerset). Steiner schools are run by a secretive and cult-like body of people (read about it). They teach about reincarnation, karma, gnomes, and all manner of nonsense, sometimes with unpleasant racial overtones. The teachers are trained in Steiner’s Anthroposophy, so if your child gets ill at school they’ll probably get homeopathic sugar pills. They might well get measles or mumps too, since Steiner people don’t believe in vaccination.
Incredibly, the University of Aberdeen came perilously close to appointing a chair in anthroposophical medicine. This disaster was aborted by bloggers, and a last minute intervention from journalists. Neither the university’s regulatory mechanisms. nor any others, seemed to realise that a chair in mystical barmpottery was a bad idea.
Trading Standards offices and the Office of Fair Trading.
It is the statutory duty of Trading Standards to enforce the Consumer Protection Regulations (2008) This European legislation is pretty good. it caused a lawyer to write " Has The UK Quietly Outlawed “Alternative” Medicine?". Unfortunately Trading Standards people have consistently refused to enforce these laws. The whole organisation is a mess. Its local office arrangement fails totally to deal with the age of the internet. The situation is so bad that a group of us decided to put them to the test. The results were published in the Medico-Legal Journal, Rose et al., 2012. "Spurious Claims for Health-care Products: An Experimental Approach to Evaluating Current UK Legislation and its Implementation". They concluded "EU directive 2005/29/EC is
largely ineffective in preventing misleading health claims for consumer products in
Skills for Health is an enormous quango which produces HR style "competences" for everything under the son. They are mostly quite useless. But those concerned with alternative medicine are not just useless. They are positively harmful. Totally barmy. There are competences and National Occupational Standards for every lunatic made-up therapy under the sun. When I phoned them to discover who’d written them, I learned that the had been drafted by the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Magic Medicine. And when I joked by asking if they had a competence for talking to trees, I was told, perfectly seriously, “You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that.”
That was in January 2008. A lot of correspondence with the head of Skills for Health got nowhere at all. She understood nothing and it hasn’t improved a jot.
This organisation costs a lot of taxpayers’ money and it should have been consigned to the "bonfire of the quangos" (but of course there was no such bonfire in reality). It is a disgrace.
The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is supposed to ensure the quality of university courses. In fact it endorses courses in nonsense alternative medicine and so does more harm than good. The worst recent failure of the QAA was in the case of the University of Wales: see Scandal of the University of Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency. The university was making money by validating thousands of external degrees in everything from fundamentalist theology to Chinese Medicine. These validations were revealed as utterly incompetent by bloggers, and later by BBC Wales journalist Ciaran Jenkins (now working for Channel 4).
The mainstream media eventually caught up with bloggers. In 2010, BBC1 TV (Wales) produced an excellent TV programme that exposed the enormous degree validation scam run by the University of Wales. The programme can be seen on YouTube (Part 1, and Part 2). The programme also exposed, incidentally, the uselessness of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) which did nothing until the scam was exposed by TV and blogs. Eventually the QAA sent nine people to Malaysia to investigate a dodgy college that had been revealed by the BBC. The trip cost £91,000. It could have been done for nothing if anyone at the QAA knew how to use Google.
The outcome was that the University of Wales stopped endorsing external courses, and it was soon shut down altogether (though bafflingly, its vice-chancellor, Marc Clement was promoted). The credit for this lies entirely with bloggers and the BBC. The QAA did nothing to help until the very last moment.
Throughout this saga Universities UK (UUK), has maintained its usual total passivity. They have done nothing whatsoever about their members who give BSc degrees in anti-scientific subjects. (UUK used to known as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals).
Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE), soon to become the PSAHSC,
Back now to the CHRE, the people who failed so signally to sort out the GCC. They are being reorganised. Their consultation document says
"The Health and Social Care Act 20122 confers a new function on the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (the renamed Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence). From November 2012 we will set standards for organisations that hold voluntary registers for people working in health and social care occupations and we will accredit the register if they meet those standards. It will then be known as an ‘Accredited Register’. "
They are trying to decide what the criteria should be for "accreditation" of a regulatory body. The list of those interested has some perfectly respectable organisations, like the British Psychological Society. It also contains a large number of crackpot organisations, like Crystal and Healing International, as well as joke regulators like the CNHC.
They already oversee the Health Professions Council (HPC) which is due to take over Herbal medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine, with predictably disastrous consequences.
Two of the proposed criteria for "accreditation" appear to be directly contradictory.
Para 2.5 makes the whole accreditation pointless from the point of view of patients
2.5 It will not be an endorsement of the therapeutic validity or effectiveness of any particular discipline or treatment.
Since the only thing that matters to the patient is whether the therapy works (and is safe), accrediting of organisations that ignore this will merely give the appearance of official approval of crystal healing etc etc. This appears to contradict directly
A.7 The organisation can demonstrate that there either is a sound knowledge base underpinning the profession or it is developing one and makes that explicit to the public.
A "sound knowledge base", if it is to mean anything useful at all, means knowledge that the treatment is effective. If it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean?
It seems that the official mind has still not grasped the obvious fact that there can be no sensible regulation of subjects that are untrue nonsense. If it is nonsense, the only form of regulation that makes any sense is the law.
Please fill in the consultation. My completed return can be downloaded as an example, if you wish.
Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should be a top level defender of truth. Its strapline is
"We enhance and safeguard the health of the public by ensuring that medicines and medical devices work and are acceptably safe."
The MHRA did something (they won’t tell me exactly what) about one of the most cruel scams that I’ve ever encountered, Esperanza Homeopathic Neuropeptide, peddled for multiple sclerosis, at an outrageous price ( £6,759 for 12 month’s supply). Needless to say there was not a jot of evidence that it worked (and it wasn’t actually homeopathic).
Astoundingly, Trading Standards officers refused to do anything about it.
The MHRA admit (when pushed really hard) that there is precious little evidence that any of the herbs work, and that homeopathy is nothing more than sugar pills. Their answer to that is to forget that bit about "ensuring that medicines … work"
Here’s the MHRA’s Traditional Herbal Registration Certificate for devils claw tablets.
The wording "based on traditional use only" has to be included because of European legislation. Shockingly, the MHRA have allowed them to relegate that to small print, with all the emphasis on the alleged indications. The pro-CAM agency NCCAM rates devil’s claw as "possibly effective" or "insufficient evidence" for all these indications, but that doesn’t matter because the MHRA requires no evidence whatsoever that the tablets do anything. They should, of course, added a statement to this effect to the label. They have failed in their duty to protect and inform the public by allowing this labelling.
But it gets worse. Here is the MHRA’s homeopathic marketing authorisation for the homeopathic medicinal product Arnicare Arnica 30c pillules
It is nothing short of surreal.
Since the pills contain nothing at all, they don’t have the slightest effect on sprains, muscular aches or bruising. The wording on the label is exceedingly misleading.
If you "pregnant or breastfeeding" there is no need to waste you doctor’s time before swallowing a few sugar pills.
"Do not take a double dose to make up for a missed one". Since the pills contain nothing, it doesn’t matter a damn.
"If you overdose . . " it won’t have the slightest effect because there is nothing in them
And it gets worse. The MHRA-approved label specifies ACTIVE INGREDIENT. Each pillule contains 30c Arnica Montana
No, they contain no arnica whatsoever.
It truly boggles the mind that men with dark suits and lots of letters after their names have sat for hours only to produce dishonest and misleading labels like these.
The Nightingale Collaboration.
This is an excellent organisation, set up by two very smart skeptics, Alan Henness and Maria MacLachlan. Visit their site regularly, sign up for their newsletter Help with their campaigns. Make a difference.
The regulation of alternative medicine in the UK is a farce. It is utterly ineffective in preventing deception of patients.
Such improvements as have occurred have resulted from the activity of bloggers, and sometime the mainstream media. All the official regulators have, to varying extents, made things worse.
The CHRE proposals promise to make matters still worse by offering "accreditation" to organisations that promote nonsensical quackery. None of the official regulators seem to be able to grasp the obvious fact that is impossible to have any sensible regulation of people who promote nonsensical untruths. One gets the impression that politicians are more concerned to protect the homeopathic (etc, etc) industry than they are to protect patients.
Deception by advocates of alternative medicine harms patients. There are adequate laws that make such deception illegal, but they are not being enforced. The CHRE and its successor should restrict themselves to real medicine. The money that they spend on pseudo-regulation of quacks should be transferred to the MHRA or a reformed Trading Standards organisation so they can afford to investigate and prosecute breaches of the law. That is the only form of regulation that makes sense.
The shocking case of the continuing sale of “homeopathic vaccines” for meningitis, rubella, pertussis etc was highlighted in an excellent TV programme by BBC South West. The failure of the MHRA and the GPC do take any effective action is a yet another illustration of the failure of regulators to do their job. I have to agree with Andy Lewis when he concludes
“Children will die. And the fault must lie with Professor Sir Kent Woods, chairman of the regulator.”
Much has been written on this blog about Dr Michael Dixon, and about the "College of Medicine", which is the direct inheritor of the mantle of the late, unlamented, Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. At the time of the foundation of the College it was stated that "The College represents a new strategy to take forward the vision of HRH Prince Charles".
Michael Dixon has also been chairman of the NHS Alliance since 1998. That was one of very few organisations to support Andrew Lansley’s Health Bill. No doubt he will be happy for
Crapita Capita to supply alternative nonsense at public expense.
Dr Dixon took offence to a review in The Times of Mark Henderson’s new book, The Geek Manifesto.
" . . .there was now, almost for the first time, a group of people who were not content to see claims made for discredited treatments without making everyone aware of the science that disproved those claims. And second, what they were doing had implications for public policy."
"The geeks represent, for me, one of the most encouraging recent developments in British public life."
This excellent review evidently upset Dr Dixon, because on 20th May, his letter appeared in the Times.
David Aaronovitch is right to argue for a robust scientific approach in medicine. However, he is not being logical or scientific when he says that if something is suspected to be placebo then it has no benefit and the NHS should not pay for it.
What about scientific research on remedies that many believe to be placebo? These frequently show that there is a benefit but this is confined to those who believe in the treatment given. Surely, in such cases, it would be logical to say that the treatment was beneficial albeit in a specific group of “believers”. From there, it would be good science to compare the safety costs of this supposed placebo remedy with its currently given alternative before deciding whether “believers” should be able to receive such a remedy on the NHS.
The problem here is that belief and mindset play an enormous part in healing – science needs to take account of this. Patients’ symptoms are frequently metaphors and effective treatment can often be symbolic and culturally dependent. The mind, in the right circumstances, can produce its own healing chemicals often mimicking those given in conventional medicine. Until science can explain healing in psychosocial as well as biomedical language, we must be cautious about “voting for the geeks” as Mr Aaronovitch suggests. It is far better surely that individual treatment should be tailored, within reason, to the patient and their beliefs and perspectives. Further more, might it not be wiser to direct NHS resources according to pragmatic trials of cost effectiveness and safety rather than a limited interpretation of science that excludes the effect of the mind?
Dr Michael Dixon
Chair of Council College of Medicine.
This letter seemed remarkable to me. It is very close to being an admission that alternative medicine is largely placebo. It called for a reply.
We have been here before. Many people have discussed the dubious ethics of deceiving patients by giving placebos while pretending they are no such thing. There is wide agreement that it is not only unethical, but also unnecessary. Kevin Smith has written a scholarly essay on the topic. Edzard Ernst wrote Mind over matter? Margaret McCartney, the Glasgow GP, and author of The Patient Paradox, has explained it. Some views of Dr Dixon’s approach are less flattering than mine. For example, from the USA, Steven Novella’s Dr. Michael Dixon – “A Pyromaniac In a Field of (Integrative) Straw Men”. And, from Majikthyse, Michael Dixon caught red-handed!, and Dr Aust’s Dr Michael Dixon is annoyed. The list is almost endless.
.Two replies were published in the Times on 26 May (and they were the lead letters -bold print). One from the excellent Evan Harris, and one from me.
Here they are as text.
Sir, Dr Michael Dixon’s letter (May 21) is fascinating. He is, of course, a well-known advocate of alternative medicine. Yet he seems now to believe that much alternative medicine is just a placebo. That’s something the geeks have been saying for years, and he appears, at last, to have accepted it.
That being the case, it follows that we have to ask whether placebos produce useful benefits, and whether it is ethical to prescribe them. Nobody denies the existence of placebo effects. But recent research has shown that they are usually both small and transient. Often they are not big enough to provide a useful degree of relief. For example, a recent paper on acupuncture in the British Journal of General Practice showed that it had a remarkably small placebo effect. And placebos have no effect at all on the course of cancer or infectious diseases.
There has been an admirable movement in medicine for doctors to be open and honest with patients. Prescribing of medicines that contain no active ingredient involves lying to patients. That is old-fashioned and unethical.
It is fair to ask why so many people seem to believe in alternative medicine, if even their placebo effects are small. The answer seems to lie in the “get better anyway” effect (known to geeks as regression to the mean). Most of the conditions for which placebos seem to work are things that wax and wane naturally. You take the “cure” when you are at your worst, and next day you are better. You would have been better anyway, but it’s hard to avoid attributing the improvement to whatever you took. That is why alternative medicine is advertised largely on the basis of anecdotal testimonials. And it is doubtless why Dr Dixon advocates “pragmatic” trials: that’s a euphemism for trials without a proper control group.
Psychosocial problems may indeed be very important for some patients. But deceiving such patients with dummy pills is not the proper way to deal with their problems.
D. Colquhoun, FRS Professor of Pharmacology, University College London
Sir, Dr Michael Dixon argues that the NHS should fund placebo treatments such as homeopathy (though he stops short of agreeing that homeopathy is a placebo) on the basis that they can offer limited help to those who “believe” in them. It is no part of modern ethical medical practice to deceive patients into thinking — or failing to disabuse them of the belief — that an inert substance or ineffective medicine has beneficial effects. This can not be justified by the hope — or even expectation — of deriving for that patient the limited psychologically based improvement in symptoms that may follow from the deployment of the placebo.
Pedlars of homeopathy for profit in the private sector will, alas, always seek to fool people into believing the hocus pocus of “memory of water” and the effects of infinite dilution and a lot of bottle-shaking. But doctors have responsibilities not to deceive their patients, even out of a paternalistic wish to assist them to manage their symptoms; and public policy demands that the NHS spends its resources only on treatments that work without deception in a cost-effective way.
Dr Evan Harris Oxford
It is a good thing that clinical trials have to be registered, but is not good that there is no obligation to reveal the outcome. Many are never published. Nobody knows quite why they are not published but clearly it is a source of ‘publication bias’ if results that somebody doesn’t like, whether for financial or ideological reasons, simply vanish.
That has been a problem with the pharmaceutical industry, as discussed by Ben Goldacre in This is a very broken system. For example, It has turned out that the SSRI antidepressants are essentially ineffective in mild/moderate depression, but that fact was concealed because negative trials were hidden by the drug companies. Likewise, it must be very tempting for homeopaths and other advocates of magic medicine, to quietly forget about trials that don’t come out as they wish. Nobody knows how often that happens, and Homeopaths certainly don’t always bury negative results. Peter Fisher has published trials with negative results. So has George Lewith. Both, needless to say, continue to prescribe it.
It seemed until this month that burial had been the fate of a trial of homeopathy at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, run by Dr Elizabeth Thompson.
Dr Thompson was also an author of the infamous paper, Spence et al (2005) paper [download pdf]. This paper was no more than a customer satisfaction survey. Half the patients felt better or much better after a visiting the Homeopathic Hospital, but there was no control group and so not the slightest reason to think that they felt better because of the homeopathic treatment. This pathetic apology for a trial is, needless to say, widely cited by homeopaths. Children with asthma were the group who most often said they felt better, and that might have been taken as a hint ro do a proper trial.
That isn’t what happened though. A small unblinded trial was proposed and it was run between January 1st 2005 and September
30th 2007. In March 2006 the University Hospitals Bristol NHS Trust announced a trial that was being run by Dr Elizabeth Thompson at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital. The press release has now vanished, but it was reported by the BBC in May 2008.
But no results appeared. Soon people stared asking where the results were. It was discussed on the UKSKeptics forum in October 2006, and on the James Randi Educational Forum. I wrote to Dr Thompson in December 2007 to ask if their results of the asthma study were available yet, and got a rather rude reply (some details below). I was also told by Dr Thompson that
"I have just submitted the funders report today and we have set ourselves the deadline to publish two inter-related papers by March 1st 2007.".
But it still didn’t appear. I and others wrote to the Hospital Trust but got nowhere. Two years later, In 2009, a Freedom of Information Act request was sent to the Hospital Trust (not by me) to try to discover what the still unpublished results were. In February 2010, the Hospital’s lawyers declined to provide the information on the grounds that publication was "imminent".
Then, at last, in July 2011,four years after it was promised, the paper appeared, in the journal Homeopathy. UCL does not, thank heavens, subscribe to that journal, but a request on Twitter produced three copies in no time: twitter is great for crowd-sourcing. The paper is The feasibility of a pragmatic randomised controlled trial to compare usual care with usual care plus individualised homeopathy, in children requiring secondary care for asthma.
It’s not surprising that publication was delayed. The results are completely negative. In fact it shows that the homeopathic treatment didn’t even produce a placebo effect, never mind an effect of its own.
Some details of the paper
The paper compared ‘usual treatment’ with ‘usual treatment plus homeopathic treatment’ for children with asthma. Children were allocated randomly to one treatment or the other (good) but of course they were aware of what treatment they were getting (not good). Ernst has pointed out that this sort of trial can never give a negative result unless the homeopathic treatment is actually harmful. The usual care plus homeopathy group can only benefit from any placebo effect produced by the homeopathic consultation.
The pills used were all 12C dilutions or even weaker, so none of them contained anything whatsoever.
The remarkable thing about this trial was that there was no detectable difference between the ‘usual treatment’ and ‘usual treatment + homeopathy’ groups.
The homeopathic treatment was not just ineffective in itself, but it didn’t even have any detectable placebo effect.
In that respect, the result resembles those in a recent paper in the British Journal of General Practice that showed acupuncture didn’t even produce any useful placebo effect.
The trial was quite small, 39 children aged 7 – 14 years, with moderate or severe asthma were divided into the two groups, and 35 finished the trial. The follow-up periods was 16 weeks which should be enough to show any substantial effect on asthma. Twelve different outcomes were measured and none showed any difference between the two groups (despite the fact that no allowance was made for multiple comparisons, and no primary outcome was specified in advance).
A cost-benefit analysis was done. There was no benefit but there was certainly a cost. On average, each of the children in the usual care group cost the NHS £323, but when homeopathy was added, the cost was £937. That’s an extra cost of £615 for no benefit.
The authors’ conclusions are simple
Conclusions: A future study using this design is not feasible,
That’s pretty feeble. They don’t state the conclusion as "homeopathy doesn’t work", far less that "homeopathy doesn’t even have a placebo effect". Just the eternal cry after every failed trial of magic medicine: the trial design was wrong and more research is needed. An excuse was offered in the form
"A further limitation was the length of the study period which may have needed to be longer in order for homeopathic treatment to make an impact in a complex disease with high variabilitythrough the year."
This is a paraphrase of the typical homeopathic modus operandi. Keep trying a different pill until the patient gets better anyway, then claim the credit.
Some details of the attempts to discover the results
Some of this was recounted in 2007, but it’s so bizarre I’ll repeat it here.
On 11 December 2007 I wrote to Dr Thompson, thus
In March 2006, a press release http://www.ubht.nhs.uk/press/view.asp?257 announced a randomised trial for homeopathic treatment of asthma in children.
This was reported also on the BBC http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/bristol/4971050.stm .
I’d be very grateful if you could let me know when results from this trial will become available.
The reply, dated 11 December 2007, was unsympathetic
I have just submitted the funders report today and we have set ourselves the deadline to publish two inter-related papers by March 1st 2007.
Can I ask why you are asking and what authority you have to gain this information. I shall expect a reply to my questions,
I answered this question politely on the same day, 11th December.
I know we disagree about the strength of the existing evidence, but nevertheless I was surprised by the strength of your reaction, and the rather abusive stance about my scientific credentials. I’m rather interested in evidence (my first academic work was a text book on statistics), and I’m always eager to see new data. From little I could learn it seemed that your data might be rather better quality than usual. If the evidence is good enough, I’m quite happy to change my mind. That’s how science works isn’t it?
With best regards
Nevertheless my innocent enquiry drew forth a rather vitriolic complaint from Dr Thompson to the Provost of UCL (dated 14 December 2007). Despite the fact that I’d replied on December 11th, she said to the provost (with a lot more invective)
"As yet I have not received a reply from Professor Colquhoun as to the authority he is using to make direct enquiries to me about my research. I would be grateful if you could reassure me th~t UCL have really thought through the implications of having someone, with such strong opinions that seem to extend beyond reason, promoting their opinions at such a high profile".
Dr. E. A. Thompson, BA Oxon, MBBS, MRCP, FFHom,
Lead Clinician/Consultant Homeopathic Physician &
Honorary Senior Lecturer in Palliative Medicine
In this case, the Provost came up trumps. On 14 January 2008 he replied to Thompson:
“I have looked at the email that you copied to me, and I must say that it seems an entirely proper and reasonable request. It is not clear to me why Professor Colquhoun should require some special authority to make such direct enquiries”.
Dr Thompson seems to be very sensitive. Now we have seen the results of her trial, perhaps it’s not surprising
Almost all the revelations about what’s taught on university courses in alternative medicine have come from post-1992 universities. (For readers not in the UK, post-1992 universities are the many new univerities created in 1992, from former polytechnics etc, and Russell group universities are the "top 20" research-intensive universities)
It is true that all the undergraduate courses are in post-1992 universities, but the advance of quackademia is by no means limited to them. The teaching at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School, one of the oldest, was pretty disgraceful for example, though after protests from their own students, and from me, it is now better, I believe.
Quackery creeps into all universities to varying extents. The good ones (like Southampton) don’t run "BSc" degrees, but it still infiltrates through two main sources,
The first is via their HR departments, which are run by people who tend to be (I quote) "credulous and moronic" when it comes to science.
The other main source is in teaching to medical students. The General Medical Council says that medical students must know something about alterantive medicine and that’s quite right, A lot of their patients will use it. The problem is that the guidance is shockingly vague .
“They must be aware that many patients are interested in and choose to use a range of alternative and complementary therapies. Graduates must be aware of the existence and range of such therapies, why some patients use them, and how these might affect other types of treatment that patients are receiving.” (from Tomorrow’s Doctors, GMC)
In many medical schools, the information that medical students get is quite accurate. At UCL and at King’s (London) I have done some of the familiarisation myself. In other good medical schools, the students get some shocking stuff. St Bartholomew’s Hospital medical School was one example. Edinburgh University was another.
But there is one Russell group university where alternative myths are propagated more than any other that I know about. That is the University of Southampton.
In general, Southampton is a good place, I worked there for three years myself (1972 – 1975). The very first noise spectra I measured were calculated on a PDP computer in their excellent Institute of Sound and Vibration Research, before I wrote my own programs to do it.
But Southanpton also has a The Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit . Oddly the unit’s web site, http://www.cam-research-group.co.uk, is not a university address, and a search of the university’s web site for “Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit” produces no result. Nevertheless the unit is “within the School of Medicine at the University of Southampton”
Notice the usual euphemisms ‘complementary’ and ‘integrated’ in the title: the word ‘alternative’ is never used. This sort of word play is part of the bait and switch approach of alternative medicine.
Teaching about alternative medicine to Southampton medical students.
The whole medical class seems to get quite a lot compared with other places I know about. That’s 250 students (210 on the 5-year course plus another 40 from the 4-year graduate-entry route).
Year 1: Lecture by David Owen on ‘holism’ within the Foundation Course given to all 210 medical students doing the standard (5-year) course.
Year 2: Lecture by Lewith (on complementary medicine, focusing on acupuncture for pain) given within the nervous systems course to the whole medical student year-group (210 students).
Year 3 SBOM (scientific basis of medicine) symposium: The 3-hour session (“Complementary or Alternative Medicine: You Decide”). I’m told that attendance at this symposium is often pretty low, but many do turn up and all of them are officially ‘expected’ to attend.
There is also an optional CAM special study module chosen by 20 students in year 3, but also a small number of medical students (perhaps 2 – 3 each year?) choose to do a BMedSci research project supervised by the CAM research group and involving 16-18 weeks of study from October to May in Year 4. The CAM research group also supervise postgraduate students doing PhD research.
As always, a list of lectures doesn’t tell you much. What we need to know is what’s taught to the students and something about the people who teach it. The other interesting question is how it comes about that alternative medicine has been allowed to become so prominent in a Russell group university. It must have support from on high. In this case it isn’t hard to find out where it comes from. Here are some details.
Year 1 Dr David Owen
David Owen is not part of Lewith’s group, but a member of the Division of Medical Education headed by Dr Faith Hill (of whom, more below). He’s one of the many part-time academics in this area, being also a founder of The Natural Practice .
Owen is an advocate of homeopathy (a past president of the Faculty of Homeopathy). Homeopathy is, of course, the most barmy and discredited of all the popular sorts of alternative medicine. Among those who have discredited it is the head of the alt med unit, George Lewith himself (though oddly he still prescribes it).
And he’s also a member of the British Society of Environmental Medicine (BSEM). That sounds like a very respectable title, but don’t be deceived. It is an organisation that promotes all sorts of seriously fringe ideas. All you have to do is notice that the star speaker at their 2011 conference was none other than used-to-be a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, a man who has been responsible for the death of children from measles by causing an unfounded scare about vaccination on the basis of data that turned out to have been falsified. There is still a letter of support for Wakefield on the BSEM web site.
The BSEM specialises in exaggerated claims about ‘environmental toxins’ and uses phony allergy tests like kinesiology and the Vega test that misdiagnose allergies, but provide en excuse to prescribe expensive but unproven nutritional supplements, or expensive psychobabble like "neuro-linguistic programming".
If it is wrong to expose medical students to someone who believes that dose-response curves have a negative slope (the smaller the dose the bigger the effect -I know, it’s crazy), then it is downright wicked to expose students to a supporter of Andrew Wakefield.
David Owen’s appearance on Radio Oxford, with the indomitable Andy Lewis appears on his Quackometer blog.
Year 2 Dr George Lewith
Lewith is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He’s participated in some research that is quite good by the (generally pathetic) standards of the world of alternative medicine.
In 2001 he showed that the Vega test did not work as a method of allergy diagnosis. "Conclusion Electrodermal testing cannot be used to diagnose environmental allergies", published in the BMJ .[download reprint].
In 2003 he published "A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled proving trial of Belladonna 30C” [download reprint] that showed homeopathic pills with no active ingredients had no effects: The conclusion was "”Ultramolecular homeopathy has no observable clinical effects" (the word ultramolecular, in this context, means that the belladonna pills contained no belladonna).
In 2010 he again concluded that homeopathic pills were no more than placebos, as described in Despite the spin, Lewith’s paper surely signals the end of homeopathy (again). [download reprint]
What i cannot understand is that, despite his own findings, his private practice continues to prescribe the Vega machine and continues to prescribe homeopathic pills. And he continues to preach this subject to unfortunate medical students.
Lewith is also one of the practitioners recommended by BSEM. He’s a director of the "College of Medicine". And he’s also an advisor to a charity called Yes To Life. (see A thoroughly dangerous charity: YesToLife promotes nonsense cancer treatments).
3rd year Student Selected Unit
The teaching team includes:
- David Owen – Principal Clinical Teaching Fellow SoM, Holistic Physician
- George Lewith – Professor of Health Research and Consultant Physician
- Caroline Eyles – Homeopathic Physician
- Susan Woodhead – Acupuncturist
- Elaine Cooke – Chiropractic Practitioner
- Phine Dahle – Psychotherapist
- Keith Carr – Reiki Master
- Christine Rose – Homeopath and GP
- David Nicolson – Nutritionalist
- Shelley Baker – Aromatherapist
- Cheryl Dunford – Hypnotherapist
- Dedj Leibbrandt – Herbalist
More details of the teaching team here. There is not a single sceptic among them, so the students don’t get a debate, just propaganda.
Let’s look at some examples
Chiropractic makes an interesting case, because, in the wake of the Singh-BCA libel case, the claims of chiropractors have been scrutinised as never before and most of their claims have turned out to be bogus. There is a close relationship between Lewith’s unit and the Anglo-European Chiropractic College (the 3rd year module includes a visit there). In fact the handout provided for students, Evidence for Chiropractic Care , was written by the College. It’s interesting because it provides no real evidence whatsoever for the effectiveness of chiropractic care. It’s fairly honest in stating that the view at present is that, for low back pain, it isn’t possible to detect any difference between the usefulness of manipulation by a physiotherapist, by an osteopath or by a chiropractor. Of course it does not draw the obvious conclusion that this makes chiropractic and osteopathy entirely redundant -you can get the same result without all the absurd mumbo jumbo that chiropractors and osteopaths love, or their high-pressure salesmanship and superfluous X-rays. Neither does it mention the sad, but entirely possible, outcome that none of the manipulations are effective for low back pain. There is, for example, no mention of the fascinating paper by Artus et al [download reprint]. This paper concludes
"symptoms seem to improve in a similar pattern in clinical trials following a wide
variety of active as well as inactive treatments."
This paper was brought to my attention through the blog run by the exellent physiotherapist, Neil O’Connell. He comments
“If this finding is supported by future studies it might suggest that we can’t even claim victory through the non-specific effects of our interventions such as care, attention and placebo. People enrolled in trials for back pain may improve whatever you do. This is probably explained by the fact that patients enrol in a trial when their pain is at its worst which raises the murky spectre of regression to the mean and the beautiful phenomenon of natural recovery.”
This sort of critical thinking is conspicuously absent from this (and all the other) Southampton handouts. The handout is a superb example of bait and switch: No nonsense about infant colic, innate energy or imaginary subluxations appears in it.
Acupuncture is another interesting case because there is quite a lot of research evidence, in stark contrast to the rest of traditional Chinese medicine, for which there is very little research.
There is a powerpoint show by Susan Woodhead (though it is labelled British Acupuncture Council).
The message is simple and totally uncritical. It works.
In fact there is now a broad consensus about acupuncture.
(1) Real acupuncture and sham acupuncture have been found to be indistinguishable in many trials. This is the case regardless of whether the sham is a retractable needle (or even a toothpick) in the "right" places, or whether it is real needles inserted in the "wrong" places. The latter finding shows clearly that all that stuff about meridians and flow of Qi is sheer hocus pocus. It dates from a pre-scientific age and it was wrong.
(2) A non-blind comparison of acupuncture versus no acupuncture shows an advantage for acupuncture. But the advantage is usually too small to be of any clinical significance. In all probability it is a placebo effect -it’s hard to imagine a more theatrical event than having someone in a white coat stick long needles into you, like a voodoo doll. Sadly, the placebo effect isn’t big enough to be of much use.
Needless to say, none of this is conveyed to the medical students of Southampton. Instead they are shown crude ancient ideas that date from long before anything was known about physiology as though they were actually true. These folks truly live in some alternative universe. Here are some samples from the acupuncture powerpoint show by Susan Woodhead.
Well this is certainly a "different diagnostic language", but no attempt is made to say which one is right. In the mind of the acupuncurist it seems both are true. It is a characteristic of alternative medicine advocates that they have no difficulty in believing simultaneously several mutually contradictory propositions.
As a final exmple of barminess, just look at the acupuncture points (allegedly) on the ear The fact that it is a favoured by some people in the Pentagon as battlefield acupuncture, is more reminiscent of the mad general, Jack D. Ripper, in Dr Strangelove than it is of science.
There is an equally uncritical handout on acupuncture by Val Hopwood. It’s dated March 2003, a time before some of the most valuable experiments were done.
The handout says "sham acupuncture
is generally less effective than true acupuncture", precisely the opposite of what’s known now. And there are some bits that give you a good laugh, always helpful in teaching. I like
“There is little doubt that an intact functioning nervous system is required for acupuncture to produce
analgesia or, for that matter, any physiological changes”
Modern techniques: These include hybrid techniques such as electro-acupuncture . . . and Ryadoraku [sic] therapy and Vega testing.
Vega testing!! That’s been disproved dozens of times (not least by George Lewith). And actually the other made-up nonsense is spelled Ryodoraku.
It’s true that there is a short paragraph at the end of the handout headed "Scientific evaluation of acupuncture" but it doesn’t cite a single reference and reads more like excuses for why acupuncture so often fails when it’s tested properly.
Homeopathy. Finally a bit about that most boring of topics, the laughable medicine that contains no medicine, homeopathy. Caroline Eyles is a member for the Society of Homeopaths, the organisation that did nothing when its members were caught out in the murderous practice of recommending homeopathy for prevention of malaria. The Society of Homeopaths also endorses Jeremy Sherr, a man so crazy that he believes he can cure AIDS and malaria with sugar pills.
The homeopathy handout given to the students has 367 references, but somehow manages to omit the references to their own boss’s work showing that the pills are placebos. The handout has all the sciencey-sounding words, abused by people who don’t understand them.
"The remedy will be particularly effective if matched to the specific/particular characteristics of the individual (the ‘totality’ of the patient) on all levels, including the emotional and mental levels, as well as just the physical symptoms. ‘Resonance’ with the remedy’s curative power will then be at it’s [sic] best."
The handout is totally misleading about the current state of research. It says
"increasing clinical research confirms it’s [sic] clinical effectiveness in treating patients, including babies and animals (where a placebo effect would be hard to justify)."
The powerpont show by Caroline Eyles shows all the insight of a mediaeval vitalist
Anyone who has to rely on the utterly discredited Jacques Benveniste as evidence is clearly clutching at straws. What’s more interesting about this slide the admission that "reproducibility is a problem -oops, an issue" and that RCTs (done largely by homeopaths of course) have "various methodological flaws and poor external validity". You’d think that if that was the best that could be produced after 200 yours, they’d shut up shop and get another job. But, like aging vicars who long since stopped believing in god, but are damned if they’ll give up the nice country rectory, they struggle on, sounding increasingly desperate.
How have topics like this become so embedded in a medical course at a Russell group university?
The details above are a bit tedious and repetitive. It’s already established that hardly any alternative medicine works. Don’t take my word for it. Check the web site of the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) who, at a cost of over $2 billion have produced nothing useful.
A rather more interesting question is how a good university like Southampton comes to be exposing its medical students to teaching like this. There must be some powerful allies higher up in the university. In this case it’s pretty obvious who thay are.
Professor Stephen Holgate MD DSc CSc FRCP FRCPath FIBiol FBMS FMed Sci CBE has to be the primary suspect, He’s listed as one of Southampton’s Outstanding Academics. His work is nothing to do with alternative medicine but he’s been a long term supporter of the late unlamented Prince of Wales’ Foundation, and he’s now on the advisory board of it’s successor, the so called "College of Medicine" (for more information about that place see the new “College of Medicine” arising from the ashes of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, and also Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion ). His description on that site reads thus.
"Stephen Holgate is MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton School of Medicine and Honorary Consultant Physician at Southampton University Hospital Trust. He is also chair of the MRC’s Populations and Systems Medicine Board. Specialising in respiratory medicine, he is the author of over 800 peer-reviewed papers and contributions to scientific journals and editor of major textbooks on asthma and rhinitis. He is Co-Editor of Clinical and Experimental Allergy, Associate Editor of Clinical Science and on the editorial board of 25 other scientific journals."
Clearly a busy man. Personally I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to be the author of over 800 papers. He graduated in medicine in 1971, so that is an average of over 20 papers a year since then, one every two or three weeks. I’d have trouble reading that many, never mind writing them.
Holgate’s long-standing interest in alternative medicine is baffling. He’s published on the topic with George Lewith, who, incidentally, is one of the directors of the "College of Medicine"..
It may be unkind to mention that, for many years now, I’ve been hearing rumours that Holgate is suffering from an unusually bad case of Knight starvation.
The Division of Medical Education appears to be the other big source of support for. anti-scientific medicine. That is very odd, I know, but it was also the medical education people who were responsible for mis-educating medical students at. St. Bartholomew’s and at Edinburgh university. Southampton’s Division of Medical Education has a mind-boggling 60 academic and support staff. Two of them are of particular interest here.
Faith Hill is director of the division. Her profile doesn’t say anything about alternative medicine, but her interest is clear from a 2003 paper, Complementary and alternative medicine: the next generation of health promotion?. The research consisted of reporting anecdotes from interviews of 52 unnamed people (this sort of thing seems to pass for research in the social sciences). It starts badly by misrepresenting the conclusions of the House of Lords report (2000) on CAM. Although it comes to no useful conclusions, it certainly shows a high tolerance of nonsensical treatments.
Chris Stephens is Associate Dean of Medical Education & Student Experience. His sympathy is shown by a paper he wrote In 2001, with David Owen (the homeopath, above) and George Lewith: Can doctors respond to patients’ increasing interest in complementary and alternative medicine?. Two of the conclusions of this paper were as follows.
"Doctors are training in complementary and alternative medicine and report benefits both for their patients and themselves"
Well, no actually. It wasn’t true then, and it’s probably even less true now. There’s now a lot more evidence and most of it shows alternative medicine doesn’t work.
"Doctors need to address training in and practice of complementary and alternative medicine within their own organisations"
Yes they certainly need to do that.
And the first thing that Drs Hill and Stephens should do is look a bit more closely about what’s taught in their own university, I hope that this post helps them,
4 July 2011. A correspondent has just pointed out that Chris Stephens is a member of the General Chiropractic Council. The GCC is a truly pathetic pseudo-regulator. In the wake of the Simon Singh affair it has been kept busy fending off well-justified complaints against untrue claims made by chiropractors. The GCC is a sad joke, but it’s even sadder to see a Dean of Medical Education at the University of Southampton being involved with an organisation that has treated little matters of truth with such disdain.
A rather unkind tweet from (ex)-chiropractor @RichardLanigan.
“Chris is just another light weight academic who likes being on committees. Regulatory bodies are full of them”
Professor George Lewith is perhaps the most prominent advocate of alternative medicine within quackademia, at least in Russell Group University. He claims to be a member of “The Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit is within the School of Medicine at the University of Southampton.”.
The URL for this unit is actually http://www.cam-research-group.co.uk/. Strangely, though, a search of Southampton University’s own web site for “Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit” yields very little information about this unit.
But Lewith does not spend all of his time on his academic duties. He also spends time in London at his private practice, at the Centre for Complementary and Integrated Medicine. This practice, I discovered in 2006, was selling to patients that well known method for misdiagnosing food intolerance, the Vega test. It was doing so despite the fact that Lewith himself had written a paper that concluded that the Vega machine does not work, The paper was in the British Medical Journal, 2001;322:131-4. It concludes “Electrodermal testing cannot be used to diagnose environmental allergies”. This history is recorded in Lewith’s private clinic has curious standards.
Dr Lewith was in the news again recently when he published a paper that showed (yet again) that homeopathic pills work no better than placebo. No surprise there of course. The paper has been described here, in Despite the spin, Lewith’s paper surely signals the end of homeopathy (again).
So we can congratulate Lewith for being one of the few members of the magic-medicine community to have published papers of reasonable quality that show that neither homeopathy nor the Vega test work. In fact there was nothing novel in the conclusions about the Vega machine. It has been debunked again and again.
The BBC’s Inside Out programme in 2003 found that when the Vega test was taken in three different branches of Holland and Barrett, the results were quite different every time. The reporter was advised to by a total of 20 different supplements, but got different advice from every store.
In 2006, the test was destroyed again in, of all places, the Daily Mail which published ‘The great allergy con‘.
In 2011, BBC’s Watchdog programme looked again at food intolerance tests, with results as crazy as before. Holland & Barrett said “In light of this report, however, we have instructed The UK Health Partnership to investigate the findings and review their current training practices”. That’s odd, because in 2001 they had said “”In light of the issues raised, we are already carrying out a full review of the services that HSL provide.” So not much progress there.
What is rather more surprising is to find that Dr Lewith, having himself shown that neither the Vega test nor homeopathy work, continues to sell both to patients in his private practice.
I recently heard from a young student about her experiences when she went to Prof Lewith’s private practice. If you want to read her letter in full, download the pdf. Some quotations from it suffice to tell the tale.
“I had suffered from CFS/ME for nearly 8 years when on March 18th 2009 I had my first appointment with doctor Lewith”
“We talked for 7 to 10 minutes about my history and gave a very brief outline of my medical past. I did feel that this was a bit rushed”
“He said that he would treat me with a mixture of homeopathic medicine and conventional treatments and then hooked me up to a machine to determine any food intolerances.”
“He put me off all dairy products and said that he would send me some homeopathic remedies and food supplements”
“Having suffered with the illness for so long and having been involved with the conventional practices for treating ME with no relief I went to Dr Lewith desperate. I left this first consultation a little shocked at the rushed pace and a little wary of homeopathy but determined to carry on. ”
“I waited for my remedies in the post but only the food supplements and the blood test results arrived.”
“On April 8th 2009, I went back for my 30 minute follow up consultation. We talked briefly about how I was doing. Dr Lewith exclaimed that I looked so much better than last time and that the treatments that he had sent me had obviously worked. I assumed he meant the food supplements. It quickly transpired that he meant the homeopathic drops that I had never received. I suggested that I was probably better than last time because I was not recently recovering from tonsillitis. My confidence was immediately lost as I felt I was being coerced into thinking that the drugs he had provided were the reason for my recovery. Someone with knowledge of ME should be aware that a sufferer is not in a permanent state of ill health but generally that they follow what is known as ‘Boom and Bust’. I was going through a good patch, which after 8 years of being ill was the normal pattern. This was a maximum 5 minute conversation.”
“He hooked me up to the machine again still without any real explanation. ”
“I cancelled my next appointment with Dr Lewith having completely lost faith in his methods. I subsequently received two packages of drugs by post which I have returned. Neither at the consultation nor with the packages of drugs was there any explanation of what each drug was prescribed to achieve.”
“It was soon after that Lewith was chasing me for payment of the cancelled appointment and the homeopathic drugs that I had sent back. This was a total of £230. I had already spent nearly £300. I refused to pay as I did not feel that I had received the proper medical care that is expected of a GP.”
“He threatened to lay a claim against me at the small claims court.”
“I submitted both a Defence and Counterclaim to his action against me.”
“We went to court yesterday [January 17 2011] where Dr Lewith did not attend. ”
“He failed to submit witness statements and a Defence to my Counterclaim. The judge struck the case off and my costs awarded against Dr Lewith.”
“Conventional medicine had not been successful in helping me with ME and at 20 years old and at university I was desperate for a cure. I feel that complementary medicine takes advantage of people in my situation – I witnessed extortionate fees, blatant coercion to believe that it was working and blasé professionalism”
In response to a subsequent enquiry, the student told me
“He never told me what the homeopathic drugs were or what they were meant to do. When I received them I sent them straight back.”
“I am pretty sure that I was given general vitamins and minerals and some magnesium (if that makes sense?)”
A Vega machine
The student also paid £85 for an ATP metabolism test, done by Acumen, a private company run by Dr John McLaren-Howard. This test allegedly found defects in ATP metabolism on the basis of which the student was charged £91.91 for CoQ10 tablets. Neither the test, nor CoQ10, have any verified usefulness for her condition.
Here’s the bill for the homeopathic pills prescribed by Lewith.
These are the facts. Make of them what you will. At a cost of over £500, no good was done.
It isn’t surprising that Lewith’s claim was dismissed by the court.
The College of Medicine
We notice that Professor Lewith plays is vice-chair of the “College of Medicine” that has arisen from the ashes of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health (for more details see Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion). That organisation is supposed to be devoted to “patient-centered medicine”. The reader can judge whether the case related here is a good example.
It is often said that one reason that people go to alternative practitioners is because real medicine can do nothing for them. That, only too often, is the case. People get desperate and clutch at straws. That is bad enough even in cases where the alternative practitioner believes sincerely, if wrongly, that their treatments work.
For the alternative practitioner to prescribe things which he knows full well don’t work, is, perhaps, rather worse.
Just as this post was about to go up, George Lewith popped up again in a BCC piece about how expectations affect the perception of pain (something that has been known for years). Lewith is quoted as saying “It completely blows cold randomised clinical trials, which don’t take into account expectation.” This comment shows a total misunderstand of how a randomised trial works. It is all explained properly by Majikthyse, in The wrong end of the stick
Just for fun, here is a discussion that I had with Lewith on Channel 4 News, as edited (not by me) for YouTube.
I hate to be forced to return to the world’s most boring delusion, homeopathy. It is boring because the battle to inform people how daft it is has been almost won. Now not a single Bachelors degree in homeopathy appears in UCAS, compared with at least five in 2007. But the battle is not quite won with the UK Government. This post is not so much about homeopathy as about the failures of the Government and the MHRA.
The Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA), has just launched yet another consultation and I have felt obliged to waste an entire Sunday writing a response to it, I can’t imagine that any scientist would disagree much with what I have written, but most of them have far better ways to spend their time than bothering about the lunatic fringes of medicine. No doubt most of the responses will come from people who make money from homeopathy, Not just the homeopaths on the High Street, but also the very rich companies like Boiron and Weleda who make enormous profits from selling pills that contain nothing but a bit of sugar.
The consultation concerns what should be done, about homeopathy in the wake of the scarifying report of the House of Commons Select Committee [get pdf], and the governments response to that report [get pdf].
The MHRA’s request for consultation is here. Download the consultation document. You can download my full response [get pdf], Please write your own response and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org before February 17th. Feel free to plagiarise anything you find here.
Another good response is from Healthwatch, [download pdf]
And an excellent response by Prof John C. McLachlan [download pdf].
Now I’ll filll in some of the background and outline why I think the MHRA still hasn’t understood.
The Medicines Act 1968 and PLRs
The Medicines Act (1968) was passed in the wake of the thalidomide disaster. It required evidence that medicines work and that they are safe. It was not possible to check all existing medicines by the time the Act was implemented in 1971, so, as a temporary measure, many medicines, including homeopathic stuff, were give a "public licence of right" (PLR). Forty years later they have mostly vanished. But not for homeopathy. The PLR is the licence that allows homeopaths to break all the rules. They still exist.
MHRA cocked it up in 2006
The story starts with the National Regulation Scheme for homeopathic junk that was introduced by the MHRA in 2006. This allowed, for the first time, indications to be put on the labels of the bottles of sugar pills. There were howls of outrage from just about every scientific organisation (the medical establishment was, as usual, more pusillanimous, with some honourable exceptions). The history is related here in the following posts.
The Science and Technology Select Committee report
This was an admirable effort, It extracted, with some difficulty, admissions from Boots’ professional standards director that the sold pills while knowing that they didn’t work. It also squeezed out of the then Health Minister, Mike O’Brien an admission that they don’t work, Less surprisingly, the head of the MHRA agreed that they don’t work. So it is unanimous (apart, of course, from those who make money from selling things that don’t work).
If you want to know more about Boots’ Professional standards, take a look at Mis-education at Boots the Chemist, or The Vitamin B scam. Don’t trust Boots, or Boots reaches new level of dishonesty with CoQ10 promotion, to name but a few. The oral sessions of the committee were notable for the squirming evasiveness of most of the answers to simple questions. An account can be found in Comedy gold in parliament and tragedy from Prince of Wales: editorial in British Medical Journal
The Government’s response to the report was mostly as truly pathetic bit of official waffle, like those letters you get when you write to your Member of Parliament. But it did contain one good thing."In order for the public to make informed choices, it is therefore vitally important that the scientific evidence base for homeopathy is clearly explained and available." (though even that statement is attributed to John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific advisor, rather than something the Government thinks essential).
"“The MHRA will review the labelling requirements under the NRS to ensure that these deliver clarity as to the status of products and their composition."
The proposals in the MHRA Consultation document’
There are a couple of good things in the proposals. The MHRA proposes to end PLRs (decades overdue, but nonetheless welcome).
The MHRA proposes to stop ‘regulating’ (ho ho) “Bach Flower Remedies” as medicines (but seems happy to classify them as food Supplements, another weasel description to evade sensible regulation). That’s sensible because they aren’t medicines. Homeopathic pills most certainly aren’t medicines either but the MHRA seems to have difficulty grasping that, and wants to treat them quite differently from “Flower remedies”
More honest labelling was about the only sensible thing recommended by the Government’s response. On this topic the MHRA proposals verge on the laughable
At present the labelling allowed under the NRS includes
“A homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of ….”
It is proposed to change this to
“A homeopathic medicinal product licensed only on the basis of safety, quality and use within the homeopathic tradition”
“A homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of……”
Spot the difference!
The is utterly inadequate. In fact it verges on the pathetic (and on the dishonest). Here is an extract from my full response.
"Sad to say these proposals to remedy the labelling problem are wholly inadequate. They are almost as deceptive as the originals. These labels don‘t come anywhere near to fulfilling the requirement in the government‘s response which said
In order for the public to make informed choices, it is therefore vitally important that the scientific evidence base for homeopathy is clearly explained and available
Why, oh why, cannot the MHRA bring itself to simply tell the truth? It seems to be so stifled by some perversion of political correctness that it is unable to do what it must know is right.
Nothing indicates more clearly the ludicrous state of the NRS than the label approved for Arnica 30C pills.
The approved label says
Each pill contains 30C Arnica Montana
Also contains: lactose and sucrose"
The MHRA must decide whether or not it believes Avogadro‘s number or not.
How many people in the general public realise the ―Each pill contains 30C Arnica Montana‖ means that the ―pills contain no Arnica whatsoever‖? The very mention of the words ―active ingredient‖ will suggest to most people that there is an active ingredient when there is not. This wording alone is both dishonest and deceptive.
The rest of the approved label consists largely of make-believe too.
"If you are pregnant or breastfeeding consult your doctor before use"
What is your doctor meant to advise you about the dangers of taking a few mg of sugar when you are pregnant?
"If you take too much of the product (overdose) speak to a doctor / pharmacist and take this label with you,."
Unless the MHRA has disavowed Avogadro‘s number, an overdose is impossible. To allow a label like this makes the MHRA a laughing stock
Labels should tell the truth in plain language. For example they should say
This product contains no Arnica
There is no evidence that it works for any condition, other than as a placebo
Some comments on regulation of magic medicine
Governments like to regulate things. They should have regulated the banks a bit more. The problem arises when you try to regulate things that are myths. Like homeopathy.
Andy Lewis has recently written a superb account of the problems on his Quackometer blog, When the Regulator Believes in Fairies, Who Protects the Public?
The government appears to believe that "training" will solve all the problems. Training people to believe things that aren’t true can never solve problems. On the contrary, it creates problems. Organisations like the Complementary and Natural Health Care Council (CNHC)do nothing to protect the public, They endanger the public (see Why the CNHC can’t succeed). Their excuse for rejecting complaints that members were making false claims was not to deny that the claims were false, but to say that it didn’t matter because that is what they had been trained to say. That is make-believe regulation.
.This is Andy Lewis’s version of an honest label. It looks quite accurate to me.
27 January 2011
News today makes one despair of the morality of governments. Remember those obviously fraudulent bomb detectors, no more than a dowsing rod? Although they are now the subject of a fraud investigation, they are still being sold. The government has banned their export to Iraq and Afghanistan, but NOT to anywhere else, This suggests not only that the government is (or at least was) quite happy to believe in dowsing. It also implies that even when they realise that it’s fraud they take the view that that business is far more important than even the most basic morality. No doubt they will allow fraudulent labelling of medicines in order to protect the homeopathic industry
Does politics have to be quite so disgusting?
11 February 2011. Here is a characteristically beautiful response to the consultation by Prof John C. McLachlan, who has allowed me to post it here [download pdf].
As I walked back from lunch today, I passed an exhibit that advertised the UCL Haiti Development Project. It was good to see that somebody still cares.
Now the dire problems of Haitians have got worse, At least 500 people have been killed by cholera.
In stark contrast, I also had today another email form Kate Birch. She used to be vice-president of the North American Society of Homeopaths (NASH), though she now appears to be only a “registered teacher”. I wrote twice about Kate Birch in 2007
and in October, A visit from Kate Birch.
When I googled "Kate Birch" homeopathy I was surprised to see that these two posts came in 2nd and 1st position respectively. Since then, she has emailed me from time to time. Such is her delusion that she seems to think that she’ll be able to persuade me sugar pills cure malaria, rabies, smallpox, anthrax and plage, as claimed in her book.
Largely as a result of her letters, she appeared again in June 2009, in Homeopathy Awareness Week. Like tobacco companies, discredited at home, homeopaths exploit poor countries. And again in March 2010, More homeopathic killing
Today’s first email from Ms Birch was brief.
Subject: homeoapthy in haiti
oh my god look what is happening now!!! those homeopaths are actually helping people in Haiti, and the nurses and doctors are learning how to do it.
Kate Birch, RSHom(NA), CCH, CMT
My reply was equally brief
"Fascinating. Are you saying that homeopathy can cure cholera?
Her response, though entirely predictable on past form. is worth posting in full.
During the cholera epidemics of Paris in the mid 1800’s Hahnemann cured many patients with three remedies: Camphora, Veratrum and Cuprum. His son Friedrick Hahnemann came to America in the mid 1800’s and cured many cased in the 1840’s and 1890’s epidemics on the east coast and in the work camps for building the railway with the remedy Crotalus horidus when the cholera developed in to the stage with hemorrhages from all of the orifices. Of cousre repid hydration is necessary too, but homeopathy helps along the way and can act preventatively, in addition to proper sanitation. If you were to look in my book that I gave you in the cholera chapter you will find many references to the success of homeopathy and cholera, even in England ( they are all referenced so that you can look them up and check for your self). Currently I am not sure of the success in Haiti, however I have collegues down there and I know that Since Cuba is using homeopathic for many of its epidemics (I was there in 2008) and they have had a hand in the relief aimed at Haiti I am sure we will see some statistics coming from them. I will be going to a Haiti Homeopathic releif benefit tomorrow and so I will have more information for you if you are interested.
.Kate Birch, RSHom(NA), CCH, CMT
Sadly. Kate Birch is not the only person to endanger lives in Haiti. Read more at Gimpy’s blog, Homeopaths go to Haiti, which was posted about a month after the disastrous earthquake.
With advanced delusions like this, it’s not surprising that Haitians now blame aid workers for the cholera outbreak.
Nothing illustrates better than this the vast schism between the (small number of) medical homeopaths, and the vast majority of non-medical homeopaths.
Remember what Peter Fisher said after the revelations that London homeopaths were recommending their pills for malaria prevention.
“”I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.”
Fisher is, of course, the Queen’s homeopathic physician and clinical director at Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (recently renamed to remove the word homeopathy from its name). He may be a homeopath, but at moments like this he feels like an ally. After all it was Fisher who agreed with me that BSc degrees in homeopathy could not be justified. He may be a homeopath but that quotation alone means his intellect is sharper (or perhaps his honesty greater) than that of several university vice-chancellors, the QAA and UUK. Watch him say so (more detail here).
I’m bored stiff with that barmiest of all the widespread forms of alternative medicine, homeopathy. It is clearly heading back to where it was in 1960, a small lunatic fringe of medicine. Nevertheless it’s worth looking at a recent development.
A paper has appeared by that arch defender of all things alternative, George Lewith.
The paper in question is “Homeopathy has clinical benefits in rheumatoid arthritis patients that are attributable to the
consultation process but not the homeopathic remedy: a randomized controlled clinical trial”, Sarah Brien, Laurie Lachance, Phil Prescott, Clare McDermott and George Lewith. [read it here]. It was published in Rheumatology.
Conclusion. Homeopathic consultations but not homeopathic remedies are associated with clinically relevant benefits for patients with active but relatively stable RA.
So yet another case where the homeopathic pills turn out the same as placebos, Hardly surprising since the pills are the same as the placebos, but it’s always good to hear it from someone whose private practice sells homeopathy for money.
The conclusion isn’t actually very novel, because Fisher & Scott (2001) had already found nine years ago that homeopathy was ineffective in reducing the symptoms if joint inflammation in RA. That is Peter Fisher, the Queens’ homeopathic physician, and Clinical Director of the Royal Hospital for Integrated Medicine (recently renamed to remove ‘homeopathy’ from its title). That paper ends with the remarkable statement [download the paper]
- "Over these years we have come to believe that conventional RCTs [randomised controlled trials] are unlikely to capture the possible benefits of homeopathy . . . . It seems more important to define if homeopathists can genuinely control patients’ symptoms and less relevant to have concerns about whether this is due to a ‘genuine’ effect or to influencing the placebo response."
That seemed to me at the time to amount to an admission that it was all ‘placebo effect’, though Fisher continues to deny that this is the case.
"Homeopathy has clinical benefits in rheumatoid arthritis patients" -the title says. But does it?
In fact this is mere spin. What the paper actually shows is that an empathetic consultation has some benefit (and even this is inconsistent). This is hardly surprising, but there is really not the slightest reason to suppose that the benefit, such as it is, has anything whatsoever to do with homeopathy.
Homeopathy, non-specific effects and good medicine is the title of an excellent editorial, in the same issue of Rheumatology, by Edzard Ernst. He points out that "The recognition of the therapeutic value of an empathetic consultation is by no means a new insight". Any therapy that provides only non-specific effects is unacceptable. Any good doctor provides that and, when it exists, real effective treatments too.
Lewith’s private clinic
The Centre for Complementary and Integrated Medicine is run by Drs Nick Avery and George Lewith. It is always a bit galling to real scientists, who often work 60 hours a week or more to get results, that people like Lewith get a professorial salary (in his case from the University of Southampton) but still have time to make more money by doing another job at the same time.
Avery is a homeopath. I wonder whether we can now look forward to the web site being changed in the near future so that there is a clear statement that the pills have no effect?
There is, at least, now no longer any mention of the Vega test on Lewith’s site. That is a test for food allergy that has been shown again and again to be fraudulent. The Environmental medicine page is brief, and avoids making any claims at all. It now contains the somewhat coy statement
“Specific food avoidance regimes are a controversial area and one in which there may be conflict between conventionally trained allergists and CAM practitioners.”
The front page of their web site boasts that "Dr George Lewith is now one of The Lifestyle 50!". " The Times, in an article on September 6th 2008, included George Lewith in The Lifestyle 50, this newspaper’s listing of the “top 50 people who influence the way we eat, exercise and think about ourselves”. Dr Lewith is included in the Alternatives category". It doesn’t mention that this is an honour he shares with such medical luminaries as Gillian ("I’m not a doctor") McKeith, Jennifer Ariston and the Pope,
But let’s end this on a happier note. There is one thing that I agree with wholeheartedly. Lewith says
"The use of bottled water seems to me to be a multi-billion pound industry, based on some of the cleverest marketing that I have ever encountered. There is absolutely no evidence that bottled water is any safer, better, or more “energising” than the water you get from the tap."
No connection of course with the multi-million pound industry of selling homeopathic water by clever marketing.
Some limitations of the paper by Brien et al.
Like any good trial, this one defined in advance a primary and secondary outcome.
The primary outcome was ACR20. which means the propertion of patients that showed an improvement of at least 20% of the number of tender and swollen joint counts and 20% improvement in 3 of the 5 remaining ACR core set measures (see Felsen 1995). Although it isn’t stressed in the paper, there was no detectable difference between consultation vs no consultation for this primary outcome.
The secondary outcome was 28-joint DAS (DAS-28), tender and swollen joint count, disease severity, pain, weekly patient
and physician GA and pain, and inflammatory markers (see, for example, Stucki. 1996). It was only on this outcome that an effect was seen between consultation and no consultation. The "effect size" (standardized mean score differences, adjusted for baseline differences) was an improvement of 0.7 in DAS-28 score, which runs on a scale from 0 – 10. Although this improvement is probably real (statistically significant), it is barely bigger than improvement of 0.6 which is said to be the smallest change that is clinically significant (Stucki. 1996).
Not only is the improvement by the consultation small in clinical terms. It is also rather inconsistent. for example Table 6 shows that the consultation seemded to result in a detectable effect on swollen joint count, but not on tender joint count. Neither was there any significant effect of the consultation on the response to “considering all the ways your arthritis affects you, please make a vertical line to show how well you are now”. There appeared to be an improvement on “negative mood score”, but not on “positive mood score”. Effects of the consultation on pain scores was marginal at best.
It seems to me that the conclusion that the consultation process helps patients, though not entirely implausible, gets marginal support from this study. It may be real, but if so it isn’t a large effect.
Like most alternative medicine advocates, the authors of this paper make the mistake of confusing caring and curing. Caring is good if there is nothing else that can be done (as is only too often the case). But what patients really want is cures and they’ll never get that from an empathetic consultation.
The problem of Human Resources
What does all this mean for alternative medicine on the NHS? Nobody denies the desirability of empathy. In fact it is now talked about so much that there is a danger that scientific medical education will be marginalised. My own experience of the NHS is that most doctors are quite good at empathy, without any need to resort to hocus pocus like homeopathy and all the myriad forms of mythical medicine.
It must be said that Drs Avery and Lewith have had proper medical training. Their views on alternative medicine seem bizarre to me, but at least they should do no great harm. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the majority of homeopaths who have no medical training and who continue to andanger the public by recommending sugar pills for anything from malaria to Dengue fever. People like that have no place in the NHS. Indeed some are in jail.
Not long ago, I was invited to tour the oncology wards at UCL hospital with their chief spiritual healer, Angie Buxton-King. Although in her private practice she offers some pretty bizarre services like healing humans and animals at a distance, I had the impression that on the wards she did a pretty good job holding hands with people who were nervous about injections and chatting to people in for their third lot of chemotherapy. I asked if she would object to being called a "supportive health care worker" rather than a spiritual healer. Somewhat reluctantly she said that she wouldn’t mind that. But it can’t be done because of the absurd box-ticking mentality of HR departments. There is no job-description for someone who holds hands with patients, and no formal qualifications. On the other hand, if you are sufficiently brainless, you can tick a box for a healer. Once again I wish that HR departments would not hinder academic integrity.
Steven Novella, at Science-Based medicine, has also written about this paper.
On Friday 25 August 2006, Michael Baum and I went to visit the rather palatial headquarters of the UCL Hospitals Trust (that is part of the NHS, not of UCL). We went to see David Fish, who was, at that time, in charge of specialist hospitals. That included world-leading hospitals like the National Hospital Queen Square, and Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. It also includes that great national embarrassment, the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (RLHH).
It came as something of a surprise that the man in charge did not know the barmy postulates of homeopathy and he looked appropriately embarrassed when we told him.
Michael Baum is not only a cancer surgeon. but he has also taken the lead in thinking about palliative and spiritual needs of patients who suffer from cancer. Listen to his Samuel gee lecture: it is awe-inspiring. It is available in video, Concepts of Holism in Orthodox and Alternative Medicine.
The problem for UCLH Trust is that the RLHH has royal patronage One can imagine the frantic green-ink letters that would emanate form the Quacktitioner Royal, if it were to be shut down. Instead, we suggested that the name of the RLHH should be changed. Perhaps something like Hospital for palliative and supportive care? Well, four years later it has been changed, but the outcome is not at all satisfactory. From September it is to be known as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine.
What’s wrong with that? You have to ask what is to be "integrated" with what?. In practice it usually means integrating things that don’t work with things that do. So not much advance there. In fact the weasel word "integrated" is just the latest in a series of euphemisms for quackery. First it was ‘alternative’ medicine. But that sounds a bit ‘new age’ (it is), so then it was rebranded ‘complementary medicine’. That sounds a bit more respectable. Now it is often "integrated medicine" (in the USA, "integrative"). That makes it sound as though it is already accepted. It is intended to deceive. See, for example, Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’, and What ‘holistic’ really means.
Of course the amount of homeopathy practised at the RLHH has fallen considerably over the last few years. Already by 2007 there were signs of panic among homeopaths, They are beginning to realise that the game is up. Some of the gaps were filled with other sorts of unproven and disproved medicine.
What the hospital is called matters less than what they do, The current activities can be seen on the UCLH web site.
- Allergy Environmental and Nutritional Medicine
- Autogenics Training
- Children’s Clinic
- Complementary Cancer Care Programme
- Education services
- Musculoskeletal Medicine Clinic
- Pharmacy Services
- Skin Services
- Stress and Mood Disorders Clinic
- The Marigold Clinic – Homeopathic Podiatry and Chiropody
- Womens Clinic
It would be tedious to go through all of them, but here are some samples.
The Children’s Clinic
"The mainstay of treatments offered include Homeopathy, Herbal remedies, Flower essences, Essential oils, Tissue salts and Acupuncture. We also assess nutritional status, provide dietary advice and supplementation. Psychotherapeutic techniques including Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and Visualisation are sometimes used where indicated, to gain better understanding of the presenting problems".
So a wide range of woo there. And they claim to be able to treat some potentially serious problems
"What can be treated
A wide variety of clinical conditions are being treated including:
- Recurrent infections
- Skin diseases such as eczema
- Allergic disorders including asthma
- Food intolerances and eating disorders
- Functional developmental and learning problems
- Behavioural disorders including ADHD (hyperactivity) and autism."
There is, of course, no evidence worth mentioning thar any of these conditions can be treated effectively by “Homeopathy, Herbal remedies, Flower essences, Essential oils, Tissue salts and Acupuncture”.
They describe their success rate thus:
An internal audit questionnaire showed that 70% of children responded well to homeopathic treatment
So, no published data, and no control group. This is insulting to any patient with half a brain.
These claims should be referred to the Advertising Standards Authority and/or Trading standards. They are almost certainly illegal under the Consumer Protection Regulations (May 2008). The UCLH Trust should be ashamed of itself.
Education Services offers mainly courses in homeopathy, the medicines that contain no medicine,
Pharmacy Services stock thousands of bottles of pills, most of which are identical sugar pills. It’s hard to imagine a greater waste of money.
The Marigold Clinic – Homeopathic Podiatry and Chiropody
I was rather surprised to find this is still running. In 2006, I wrote about it in Conflicts of interest at the Homeopathic Hospital. It turned out that the prescription costs if the clinic were spent on Marigold paste, made by a company owned by the people who run the clinic. UCLH claimed that they were aware of this conflict of interest, but had no obligation to make it public. That is an odd ethics in itself. Even odder when I discovered that the Trust had been notified of the conflict of interest only after I’d started to ask questions.
The same people are still running the clinic. They may well be good chiropodists, If so why surround the service with woo. There are, almost needless to say, no good trials of the efficacy of marigold paste (and it isn’t homeopathic).
At the moment, it appears that the renaming of the RLHH is empty re-branding. No doubt UCLH Trust see homeopathy as something that brings shame on a modern medical service. But to remove the name while retaining the nonsense is simply dishonest. Let’s hope that the name change will be followed by real changes in the sort of medicine practised, Changes to real medicine, one hopes.
Other blogs on this topic
Gimpyblog was first, with Farewell to the RLHH, hello to the RLHIM
Quackometer posted An Obituary: Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, 1849-2010
Having recently been fired from Ofquack, the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). I found I was missing the constant dribble of double-speak, Then, as luck would have it, a friend emailed me to draw my attention to a lucrative job at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. On August 11th I put out a tweet, just in case any of my friends were interested.
After the story appeared in the Daily Express it occurred to me that I should apply. It seems that NHS Scotland
Tayside) is determined to look idiotic in the eyes of the world. They advertised for a homeopathic doctor, The upper level of salary, £68,000 for two sessions a week, is a great deal more than I ever got paid as holder of the established chair of pharmacology at UCL, Then I discovered that a crystallographer, David Briggs (@xtaldave on twitter) had applied for the job. If he can, why not I? I found it hard to match the wit of his supporting statement, but just in case others want to apply, here’s my attempt. The more the merrier.
As a Fellow of the Royal Society for the last 25 years, and author of a textbook on statistics, I feel sure that I am capable of dealing with the intellectual rigours of handing out placebos to patients. I feel that my academic qualifications, and my authorship of many research papers, including several articles about homeopathy, should more than make up for my lack of formal qualifications in medicine or homeopathy. Indeed I have spent more time than I care to remember on reading the extensive literature on homeopathy.
Having some expertise in the statistical analysis of clinical trials, my reading of the literature has equipped me well to impress gullible patients with sciencey sounding words like “succussion”, “energy medicine” and “quantum theory”. As an additional qualification, I have read widely about crystal healing, magnetic bracelets, aura photography and other such fairground paraphernalia which are designed, like homeopathy, to impress those with no knowledge of science or medicine.
I have had over two years’ experience of serving on the Conduct and Competence Committee of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council, which has provided me with valuable insights into the world of alternative medicine. Indeed I have been told that my name is well known in Clarence House itself.
If appointed to this job, I should like to combine it with research in homeopathy. I would approach this by using systems biology, in the hope that proteomics and metabolomics would be able to explain the still mysterious ability of medicines that contain no medicine to satisfy patients. People whom I know at the University of Westminster have proposed to use systems biology to explain Traditional Chinese Medicine, and I imagine that its application to homeopathy will be every bit as successful as theirs. To have cutting edge research of this sort will, I believe, give NHS Scotland a reputation that will spread around the world.
I would also propose to save the Tayside PCT a lot of money, something not to be ignored in these hard times. At present, homeopathic pharmacies stock many thousands of sorts of pill. Recognising that the majority of them contain nothing at all, I’d retain the labels but fill all the bottles with sugar pills. This would save huge amounts of time and money, while having no effect at all on the outcome for patients.
Despite my lack of formal qualifications, I hope you will agree that I’m qualified intellectually to meet the rigours of your job.
18 August 2010. Astonished to receive by snail-mail a straight-faced acknowledgment of my application from NHS Tayside [download pdf]. They ask me to send four copies of my CV and fill in forms for Equal Opportunities and Fitness to Practise. Does this mean I’ve been short-listed? This gets more surreal by the minute.
The term ‘evidence-based medicine’ seemed to me, when I first heard it, utterly ludicrous. It still does. What’s the alternative? Guess-work based medicine?
Quacks are fond of using cuddly words like ‘holistic’ and ‘integrative’, partly, one suspects, in an attempt to gain respectability and to disguise some of their barmier views. See, for example, Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’.
Advocates of evidence-based medicine are often accused by quacks of being hard-hearted calculators who want to take the soul out of medicine. Nothing could be further from the truth in my view. But I don’t practise medicine so it seemed to me to be worth quoting two of the best definitions I know, both from people at the sharp end of medicine.
James Matthew May
James May is a general practioner in London. He is also chairman of Healthwatch, an organisation that was exposing health fraud long before the recent explosion in the ‘skeptical blogosphere’.
The following passage was written as comment (‘rapid reponse’) to an editorial in the British Medical Journal. The editorial itself was (in my view) silly and misguided (Closing the evidence gap in integrative medicine, by Hugh MacPherson, David Peters, and Catherine Zollman). It is best forgotten as soon as possible. But James May’s comment deserves to be preserved and publicised. The highlights in bold font are mine.
The use of the term ‘integrative medicine’ in your editorial seems to confuse more than clarify the problem of ‘holism’ in medicine. Complementary therapists for example often use the term ‘holistic’ to blur the boundaries between the therapies used and the practitioner’s interpersonal skills. It would be better, however, to keep these distinctions clear. Caring is different from curing. The point of RCTs is to establish how much of a treatment’s efficacy is independent of the ideas, concerns, and expectations of either the patient or the clinician. Using ‘multi-modal’ or ‘synergistic’ research methods is likely to confuse this important distinction.
‘Holism’ is not a multifaceted approach to curing, it is a mulitfaceted approach to caring. A truly holistic clinician will ‘cure sometimes, relieve often and comfort always’. Comforting may not produce a positive clinical outcome – but we should still do it. Historically speaking caring pre-existed effective medicine by millenia, but it was a principle motive for finding effective medicine. Caring therefore is not a subset of medicine, instead medicine is one of the tools used for caring. ‘Integrative medicine’ as a concept, however, blurs this boundary.
It has been wisely observed that ‘if we keep trying to measure what we value, we will end up only valuing what we can measure.’ This particular ‘evidence gap’ is therefore probably best left; filled instead by caring doctors.
Effective medicine is best measured with RCTs. Caring is not. ‘Integrative medicine’ therefore risks both damaging how we measure effective medicines (RCTs), as well as reducing caring to measurables. A better term for this might be ‘disintegrative medicine’.
Competing interests: Chairman of HealthWatch
Baum is a recently-retired cancer surgeon from UCLH. As well as being s surgeon with a strong interest in scientific medicine, he has been at the forefront of thinking about supportive or spiritual care of cancer patients. His 2009 Samuel Gee lecture is available in video, Concepts of Holism in Orthodox and Alternative Medicine. It is a masterpiece. The conclusion puts his view bluntly (again the emphasis is mine).
Holism in medicine is an open ended and exquisitely complex understanding of human biology that over time has lead to spectacular improvements in the length and quality of life of patients with cancer. This approach encourages us to consider the transcendental as much as the cell and molecular biology of the human organism. Alternative versions of “holistic medicine” that offer claims of miracle cures for cancer by impossible dietary regimens, homeopathy or metaphysical manipulation of non-existent energy fields, are cruel and fraudulent acts that deserve to be criminalized. Such “alternative” versions of holism are arid and closed belief systems, locked in a time warp, incapable of making progress yet quick to deny progress in the field of scientific medicine.