Download Lectures on Biostatistics (1971).
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Michael Pittilo

This article has appeared, in nearly identical form, on the UK Conversation . You can leave comments there or here.

charles X2
The modern major-general

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.

Queen Fisher
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"


Western herbal medicine need not be mystical nonsense, but it usually it is, 

Plants often contain chemicals that have pharmacological actions, with all the possibilities for good and for harm that implies (see Plants
as medicines
).  It would be quite possible to teach about the plant constituents and their actions in an entirely scientific way, but it seems that this is not what courses in herbal medicine choose to do.  That is why they shouldn’t be called Bachelor of Science degrees.

We have recently revealed the ancient nonsense taught at Middlesex University in its "BSc (Hons)" degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine in Dangerous Chinese medicine taught at Middlesex University as well as similar dangerous gobbledygook from the University of Westminster: see Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients.

Western Herbal medicine does not talk about "knotted spleen Qi", but has an equally barmy mystical vocabulary of its own. They have in common a tendency to divide herbs into hot and cold, a crude and baseless classification that dates from a time when nothing was known about physiology or the causes of disease.

A recent post described the problems of finding out what exactly is taught on these courses: Not much Freedom of Information at University of Wales, University of Kingston, Robert Gordon University or Napier University

I lodged a Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act with Napier University Edinburgh on 10th August 2009. As almost always, it was refused, as was the internal review of my request.  The response to the internal review came from Gerry Webber BA (Hons) 0 PHil MBA MCMI AUA (Fellow). Despite all those impressive sounding letters, he argued with a perfectly straight face that it was perfectly all right for the university to teach this sort of stuff. He ended

“On public interest grounds, I have therefore concluded that, in respect of the commercially sensitive information requested, the public interest is better served in withholding the information you have requested than in disclosing it.”

Despite all those impressive sounding letters after Dr Webber’s name, here was a solemn letter, on the university letterhead, defending the teaching of pseudoscientific nonsense   The experience is surreal, but far from unique.

Although we won a judgement that compelled disclosure from the Information Commissioner for England and Wales, the Scottish law is slightly different so I had to appeal to the Scottish Information commissioner. [Download appeal]

A similar appeal was lodged for Robert Gordon’s University Aberdeen. They have already sent some homeopathy materials, and closed down the homeopathy course, as described at: Robert Gordon University stops its homeopathy course. Quackademia is crumbling.  Napier University followed the same pattern, but a bit more slowly.  They sent some of what I asked for without waiting for a formal judgement, after they had been contacted by the Scottish Information Commissioner. 

Napier also shut down the degree from which the slides, below, were used.  It is fascinating that so many places have done this shortly before what is taught is made public.  Before that time the courses are defended and advertised. no doubt by people who have never given a moment’s thought to what is taught.  In 2007, after my Nature article on the topic, the Glasgow Herald said

A spokeswoman for Napier University said it stood by the integrity of its BSc degrees.

“The BSc Herbal Medicine course uses an approach to teaching and training that we believe best prepares students for practice within a modern integrated healthcare system,” she said.

The university’s brochure for the course (still, carelessly, on the web at the time of writing), waxed lyrical about the herbal medicine course. Yet as soon as it becomes known what’s actually taught, the courses close.

What was taught on Napier’s Herbal Medicine “BSc”.

Materia medica starts with hot and cold herbs

napier 1

napier 2

Yes, but one of the problems is that very little is known about the therapeutic actions of herbs from "controlled enquiry". The material just isn’t there to fulfil this aim. To paraphrase their quotation,,you can call anything medicine, but plenty of people will argue with you if you can’t produce the evidence.

napier 3

This slide strikes me as pure pre-scientific gobbledygook. All herbs and all diseases seem to fall into the ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ class. The ‘argument’ is entirely circular. Pure pseudoscience (is that what the lecturer told them in response to the last question?).

napier 4

napier 5

What do all these conditions have in common? They are all "cold". How can anyone take this sort of baloney seriously?

napier 6

napier 7

This quotation appears to have no comprehensible meaning at all. It carries overtones of the great "detox" fraud, and so perhaps is useful justification for slimming the wallets of the gullible.

Now we come to a real herb.

napier 8

napier 9

There is some real chenistry in this slide. Unfortunately it simply isn’t known whether these chemicals have any useful function. Usually it isn’t known either what dose of them you are giving in tincture of valerian. When I worked in a pharmacy in the 1950s, you could still find tincture of valerian on the shelves of a normal pharmacy, but iit soon vanished as paople realised it wasn’t much use. Disappeared from normal medicine, that is. it is still alive and well among herbalists.

Notice too, the mention of "synergy". The perpetual excuse of herbalists for giving impure mixtures of chemicals is that they might act synergistically. They are undeterred by the fact that no such synergy has ever been demonstrated properly. I asked that question ot Liz Williamson. editor of Potter’s herbal Cyclopedia, but answer came there none.

I’d be interested to know what answer was given to the last question, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. I wouldn’t mind betting it didn’t include a critical description of isobol analysis.

So what does Valerian do?

napier 10

It seems, even from the lecture, that there is no unanimity that it does anything useful at all.

napier 11

napier 12

There is no worthwhile evidence to think it is useful for "generalises anxiety disorder" Let’s take another opinion.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is the branch of the US National Institutes of Health which has spent around a billion dollars of US taxpayers’ money on research into alternative medicine, For all that effort they have failed to come up with a single useful treatment. Clearly they should be shut down. Nevertheless, as an organisation that is enthusiastic about alternative medicine, it’s interesting to see what they have to say about valerian.

What the Science Says

  • Research suggests that valerian may be helpful for insomnia, but there is not enough evidence from well-designed studies to confirm this.
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to determine whether valerian works for anxiety or for other conditions, such as depression and headaches.

Even NCCAM don’t pretend that there is any good reason to think it’s good for anything. So, you might ask, why are students being taught to treat people with it?

Simon Mills on "hot and cold herbs"

Many of the slides refer to a book by herbalist Simon Mills. You can see a video of a talk he gave in which he ‘explains’ "hot and cold herbs". It strikes me as pure gobbledygook. Make up your own mind.


Now take the test

This is a question from a Napier University exam paper


Which constituents are responsible for the actions of saw palmetto?  Which actions would they be?  This is what The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says
about saw palmetto.

What the Science Says

  • Several small studies suggest that saw palmetto may be effective for treating BPH symptoms.
  • In 2006, a large study of 225 men with moderate-to-severe BPH found no improvement with 320 mg saw palmetto daily for 1 year versus placebo. NCCAM cofunded the study with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  • There is not enough scientific evidence to support the use of saw palmetto for reducing the size of an enlarged prostate or for any other conditions.
  • Saw palmetto does not appear to affect readings of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels. PSA is protein produced by cells in the prostate. The PSA test is used to screen for prostate cancer and to monitor patients who have had prostate cancer.

Magic Medicine

In the materials that I was sent, I see nothing to make me believe that herbalism is being taught as science. On the contrary, it all seems to confirm the definition given in the Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine.

herbal magic

Herbal medicine BSc degrees still  exist.

They are still running at the following universities.

The vice-chancellors are named because they are the people who must take responsibility for this sort of nonsense being taught in their universities.

University of East London (vice-chancellor from Feb 2010 is Patrick McGhee, who, in his previous job at University of Central Lancashire, did so much to prevent me from getting hold of their teaching materials, but then closed the courses anyway)

University of Lincoln (Vice chancellor, Professor Mary Stuart)

London Metropolitan University (vice-chancellor, (interim vice chancellor, Alfred Morris)

Middlesex University (vice-chancellor, Professor Michael Driscoll)

And, of course, the home of woo, the University of Westminster (vice-chancellor, Professor Geoffrey Petts). Their students are taught that Amethysts emit high Yin energy and that dowsing and pendulums can be used for diagnosis and treatment.

By the same token, we may congratulate Professor Dame Joan Stringer, vice-chancellor of Napier University Edinburgh for closing down the course from which these slides came. Perhaps now she should consider closing their ‘degrees’ in aromatherapy and ‘reflexology’


Yet another university has stopped its homeopathy course. The particular interest of this course was that it was being run at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, the vice-chancellor which was Michael Pittilo, until his recent premature death. Pittilo is the person who recommended to the government that herbalists and Chinese medicine practitioners should get honours degrees and be regulated like doctors. His report, was, in my opinions, disastrously bad

It recently emerged that this, very bad, advice would not be accepted by the Department of Health (DH), so the campaign against the Pittilo proposals, on this blog and elsewhere was successful. The alternative DH proposals look pretty silly, but we won’t really know until after the election exactly what will happen.

Robert Gordon University (RGU): is the ‘post-1992’ university in Aberdeen, as opposed the the University of Aberdeen (where my son is at the moment). Much of RGU does an excellent job, but like so many post-1992 universities they harm themselves by running courses in barmy alternative medicine. RGU ran an Introduction To Homeopathy module (saved 9 April 2010).

In July 2009, I asked RGU to see some samples of the teaching materials on this module, partly as part of the campaign against Pittilo’s proposals. I asked to see the powerpoints and handouts for three lectures, (1) evidence for homeopathy, (2) first aid remedies, and (3) allergies.

In September 2009, this request, made under the Freedom of Information Act (Scotland), was, as always, rejected by RGU, though they did tell me that the evidence lecture had been produced by a lecturer from The Faculty of Homeopathy and the other two had been produced by a local GP.

So, as usual, I asked for the mandatory internal review of the decision. In October, the review upheld the original decision, as they almost always do. I referred the decision to the Scottish Information Commissioner (the law is slightly different in Scotland) and they have still not responded.

But on 8 April 2010 I got a letter from RGU.

“The above course requested is no longer part of the School of Nursing and Midwifery’s provision, and it was cessated [sic] in Semester One 2009/10. This followed a formal review of all Nursing and Midwifery modules and their viability. In the light of this the university has decided to release the information.”

So yet another university has done the sensible thing. The course has been shut. Just for the record, I’ll reproduce a few of the slides from the lecture on “homeopathic remedies for allergies”.

Allergies can be dangerous, and occasionally lethal. To treat them with homeopathic pills, medicines that contain no medicine, is not just delusion, but a dangerous delusion which risks the lives of patients.

The "remedies" include nettles, sulphur, petroleum and arsenic.  They’d be pretty scary but in fact the pills contain, in most cases, not a jot of nettle, sulphur, petroleum or arsenic.  Homeopathic pharmacies stock thousands of bottles of identical sugar pills, each with a different label.

slide 5

slide 7

slide 8

slide 9

These dangerous delusions were being taught as fact in a UK university.  The shame of it..

Jump to follow-up

Every single request for information about course materials in quack medicine that I have ever sent has been turned down by universities,

It is hardly as important as as refusal of FoI requests to see climate change documents, but it does indicate that some vice-chancellors are not very interested in openness. This secretiveness is exactly the sort of thing that leads to lack of trust in universities and in science as a whole.

The one case that I have won took over three years and an Information Tribunal decision against the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) before I got anything.

UCLAN spent £80,307.95.(inc VAT at 17.5%) in legal expenses alone (plus heaven knows how much in staff time) to prevent us from seeing what was taught on their now defunct “BSc (Hons) homeopathy”. This does not seem to me to be good use of taxpayers’ money. A small sample of what was taught has already been posted (more to come). It is very obvious why the university wanted to keep it secret, and equally obvious that it is in the public interest that it should be seen.

UCLAN had dropped not only its homeopathy "degree" before the information was revealed, They also set up an internal inquiry into all the rest of their courses in magic medicine which ended with the dumping of all of them.

Well, not quite all, There was one left. An “MSc” in homeopathy by e-learning. Why this was allowed to continue after the findings of UCLAN’s internal review, heaven only knows. It is run by the same Kate Chatfield who ran the now defunct BSc. Having started to defend the reputation against the harm done to it by offering this sort of rubbish, I thought I should finish. So I asked for the contents of this course too. It is, after all, much the same title as the course that UCLAN had just been ordered to release. But no, this request too was met with a refusal

Worse still, the refusal was claimed under section 43(2) if the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That is the public interest defence, The very defence that was dismissed in scathing terms by the Information Tribunal less than two months ago,

To add insult to injury, UCLAN said that it would make available the contents of the 86 modules in the course under its publication scheme, at a cost of £20 per module, That comes to £1,720 for the course, Some freedom of information.

Because this was a new request, it now has to go through the process of an internal reviw of the decision before it can ne referred to the Information Commissioner. That will be requested, and since internal reviews have, so far, never changed the initial judgment. the appeal to the Information Commissioner should be submitted within the month. I have been promised that the Information Commissioner will deal with it much faster this time than the two years it took last time.

And a bit more unfreedom

Middlesex University

I first asked Middlesex for materials from their homeopathy course on 1 Oct 2008.  These courses are validated by Middlesex university (MU) but actually run by the Centre for Homeopathic Education. Thw MU site barely mentions homeopathy and all I got was the usual excuse that the uninsersity did not possess the teaching materials. As usual, the validation had been done without without looking at what was actually being taught. The did send me the validation document though [download it]   As usual, the validation document shows no sign at all of the fact that the usbject of the "BSc" is utter nonsense. One wonderful passage says

“. . . the Panel were assured that the Team are clearly producing practitioners but wanted to explore what makes these students graduates? The Team stated that the training reflects the professional standards that govern the programme and the graduateness is achieved through developing knowledge by being able to access sources and critically analyse these sources . . . “

Given that the most prominent characteristic of homeopaths (and other advocates of magic medicine) is total lack of critical ability, this is hilarious. If they had critical ability they wouldn’t be homeopaths. Hilarious is not quite the right word,  It is tragic that nonsense like this can be found in an official university document.

Middlesex, though it doesn’t advertise homeopathy, does advertise degrees in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Herbal Medicine and Ayurveda. On 2nd February 2010 I asked for teaching materials from these courses. Guess what? The request was refused. In this case the exemptions under FOIA were not even invoked but I was told that "All these materials are presently available only in one format at the University – via a student-only accessed virtual learning environment. ".  Seems that they can’t print out the bits that I asked for,  The internal review has been requested, then we shall see what the Information Commissioner has to say.

Two other cases are at present being considered by the Information Commissioner (Scotland), after requests under the Scottish FoIA were refused.  They are interesting cases because they bear on the decision, currently being considered by the government, about whether they should implement the recommendations of the execrable Pittilo report.

Napier University Edinburgh.  The first was for teaching material form the herbal medicine course at Napier University Edinburgh.  I notice that this course no longer appears in UCAS or on Napier’s own web site, so maybe the idea that its contents might be disclosed has been sufficient  to make the university do the sensible thing.

Robert Gordon University Aberdeen   The second request was for teaching material from the “Introduction to Homeopathy” course at the Robert Gordon University Aberdeen. The particular interest that attaches to this is that the vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon university is Michael Pittilo. The fact that he is willing to tolerate such a course in his own university seems to me to disqualify him from expressing any view on medical subjects.

Michael Pittilo, Crohn’s disease and Andrew Wakefield

Michael Pittilo has not been active in science for some time now, but Medline does show scientiifc publications for Pittilo RM, between 1979 anf 1998. Between 1989 and 1995 there are five papers published jointly with one Andrew Wakefield. These papers alleged a relationship between measles virus and Crohn’s disease. The papers were published before tha infamous 1998 paper by Wakefield in the Lancet (now retracted) that brought disgrace on Wakefield and probably caused unnecessary deaths.. The link between measles and Crohn’s disease is now equally disproved. 

The subject has been reviewed by Korzenik (2005) in Past and Current Theories of Etiology of IBD. Toothpaste, Worms, and Refrigerators

“Wakefield et al proposed that Crohn’s results from a chronic infection of submucosal endothelium of the intestines with the measles virus [Crohn’s disease: pathogenesis and persistent measles virus infection. Wakefield AJ, Ekbom A, Dhillon AP, Pittilo RM, Pounder RE., Gastroenterology, 1995, 108(3):911-6]”

"This led to considerable media interest and< public concern over use of live measles vaccine as well as other vaccines. A number of researchers countered these claims, with other studies finding that titers to measles were not increased in Crohn’s patients, granulomas were not associated with endothelium 49 , measles were not in granulomas50 and the measles vaccine is not associated with an increased risk of Crohn’s disease51–55 "

This bit of history is not strictly relevant to the Pittilo report, but I do find quite puzzling how the government chooses people from whom it wishes to get advice about medical problems.


I notice that the Robert Gordon university bulletin has announced that

“Professor Mike Pittilo, Principal of the University, has been made an MBE in the New Year Honours list for services to healthcare”.

That is a reward for writing a very bad report that has not yet been implemented, and one hopes, for the sake of patients, will never be implemented. I do sometimes wonder about the bizarre honours system in the UK.


On 16th February, the death of Michael Pittilo was announced. He had been suffeing from cancer and was only 55 years old. I wouldn’t wish that fate on my worst enemy.

It seems very reasonable to suggest that taxpayers have an interest in knowing what is taught in universities.  The recent Pittilo report suggested that degrees should be mandatory in Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. So it seems natural to ask to see what is actually taught in these degrees, so one can judge whether it protects the public or endangers them.

Since universities in the UK receive a great deal of public money, it’s easy.  Just request the material under the Freedom of Information Act.

Well, uh, it isn’t as simple as that. 

Every single application that I have made has been refused.  After three years of trying, the Information Commissioner eventually supported my appeal to see teaching materials from the Homeopathy "BSc" at the University of Central Lancashire.  He ruled that every single objection (apart from one trivial one) offered by the universities was invalid.  In particular, it was ruled that univerities were not "commercial" organisations for the purposes of the Act.

So problem solved?  Not a bit of it.  I still haven’t seen any of the materials from the original request because the University of Central Lancashire appealed against the decision and the case of University of Central Lancashire v Information Commissioner is due to be heard on November 3rd, 4th and 5th in Manchester. I’m joined (as lawyers say) as a witness. Watch this space.

UCLan  is not the exception.  It is the rule.  I have sought under the Freedom of Information Act, teaching materials from UClan (homeopathy), University of Salford (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of Westminster (homeopathy, reflexology and nutritional therapy), University of West of England, University of Plymouth and University of East London, University of Wales (chiropractic and nutritional therapy), Robert Gordon University Aberdeen (homeopathy), Napier University  Edinburgh (herbalism).

In every single case, the request for teaching materials has been refused. And that includes the last three, which were submitted after the decision of the Information Commissioner.  They will send things like course validation documents, but these are utterly uninformative box-ticking documents.  They say nothing whatsoever about what is actually taught.

The fact that I have been able to discover quite a lot about what’s being taught owes nothing whatsoever to the Freedom of Information Act. It is due entirely to the many honest individuals who have sent me teaching materials, often anonymously. We should be grateful to them. Their principles are rather more impressive than those of their principals.

Since this started about three years ago, two of the universities, UCLan and Salford, have shut down entry to all of their CAM courses. And Westminster has shut two of them, with more rumoured to be closing soon. They are to be congratulated for that, but is far from being the end of the matter. The Department of Health, and some of the Royal Colleges, have yet to catch up with the universities, The Pittolo report, which recommends making degrees compulsory, is being considered by the Department of Health. The consultation ends on November 2nd:  if you haven’t yet responded, please do so now (see how here, and here).

A common excuse: the university does not possess teaching materials (yes, really)

Several of the universities claim that they cannot send teaching materials, because they have no access to them. This happens when the university has accredited a course that is run by another, privately run, institution. The place that does the actual teaching, being private, is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

The ludicrous corollary of this excuse is that the university has accredited the course without checking on what is taught, and in some cases without even having seen a timetable.

The University of Wales

In fact the University of Wales doesn’t run courses at all. Like the (near moribund) University of London, it acts as a degree-awarding authority for a lot of Welsh Universities. It also validates a lot of courses in non-university institutions, 34 or so of them in the UK, and others scattered round the world. 

Many of them are theological colleges. It does seem a bit odd that St Petersburg Christian University, Russia, and International Baptist Theological Seminary, Prague, should be accredited by the University of Wales.

They also validate the International Academy of Osteopathy, Ghent (Belgium), Osteopathie Schule Deutschland,  the Istituto Superiore Di Osteopatia, Milan,  the Instituto Superior De Medicinas Tradicionales, Barcelona, the Skandinaviska Osteopathögskolan (SKOS) Gothenburg, Sweden and the College D’Etudes Osteopathiques, Canada.

The 34 UK institutions include the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine,  the Northern College of Acupuncture and the Mctimoney College of Chiropractic.

The case of the Nutritional Therapy course has been described already in Another worthless validation: the University of Wales and nutritional therapy. It emerged that the course was run by a grade 1 new-age fantasist. It is worth recapitulating the follow up.

What does the University of Wales say? So far, nothing. Last week I sent brief and polite emails to Professor Palastanga and to

Professor Clement to try to discover whether it is true that the validation process had indeed missed the fact that the course organiser’s writings had been described as “preposterous, made-up, pseudoscientific nonsense” in the Guardian.

So far I have had no reply from the vice-chancellor, but on 26 October I did get an answer from Prof Palastanga.

As regards the two people you asked questions about – J.Young – I personally am not familiar with her book and nobody on the validation panel raised any concerns about it. As for P.Holford similarly there were no concerns expressed about him or his work. In both cases we would have considered their CV’s as presented in the documentation as part of the teaching team. In my experience of conducting degree validations at over 16 UK Universities this is the normal practice of a validation panel.

I have to say this reply confirms my worst fears. Validation committees such as this one simply don’t do their duty. They don’t show the curiosity that is needed to discover the facts about the things that they are meant to be judging. How could they not have looked at the book by the very person that they are validating? After all that has been written about Patrick Holford, it is simply mind-boggling that the committee seems to have been quite unaware of any of it.

It is yet another example of the harm done to science by an unthinking, box-ticking approach.

Incidentally, Professor Nigel Palastanga has now been made Pro Vice-Chancellor (Quality) at the University of Wales and publishes bulletins on quality control. Well well.

The McTimoney College of Chiropractic was the subject of my next  Freedom of Information request to the University of Wales. The reasons for that are, I guess, obvious. They sent me hundreds of pages of validation documents, Student Handbooks (approx 50 pages), BSc (Hons) Chiropractic Course Document. And so on. Reams of it. The documents mostly are in the range of 40 to 100 pages. Tons of paper, but none of it tells you anyhing whatsover of interest about what’s being taught. They are a testament to the ability of universities to produce endless vacuous prose with
very litlle content.

They did give me enough information to ask for a sample of the teaching materials on particular topics. But I gor blank refusal, on the grounds that they didn’t possess them. Only McTimoney had them. Their (unusually helpful) Freedom of Information officer replied thus.

“The University is entirely clear about the content of the course but the day to day timetabling of teaching sessions is a matter for the institution rather than the University and we do not require or possess timetable information. The Act does not oblige us to request the information but there is no reason you should not approach McTimoney directly on this.”

So the university doesn’t know the timetable. It doesn’t know what is taught in lectures, but it is " entirely clear about the content of the course".

This response can be described only as truly pathetic.

Either this is a laughably crude form of obstruction of my request, or perhaps, even more frighteningly, the university really believes that its endless box-ticking documents actually provide some useful control of quality. Perhaps the latter interpretation is more charitable. After all, the QAA, CHRE, UUK and every HR department share similar delusions about what constitutes quality.

Perhaps it is just yet another consequence of having science run largely by people who have never done it and don’t understand it.

Validation is a business. The University of Wales validates no fewer than 11,675 courses altogether. Many of these are perfectly ordinary courses in universities in Wales, but they validate 594 courses at non-Welsh accredited institutions, an activity that earned them £5,440,765 in the financial year 2007/8. There’s nothing wrong with that if they did the job properly. In the two cases I’ve looked at, they haven’t done the job properly. They have ticked boxes but they have not looked at what’s being taught or who is teaching it.

The University of Kingston

The University of Kingston offers a “BSc (Hons)” in acupuncture. In view of the fact that the Pittilo group has recommended degrees in acupuncture, there is enormous public interest in what is taught in such degrees, so I asked.

They sent the usual boring validation documents and a couple of sample exam papers . The questions were very clinical, and quite beyond the training of acupuncturists.  The validation was done by a panel of three, Dr Larry Roberts (Chair, Director of Academic Development, Kingston University), Mr Roger Hill (Accreditation Officer, British Acupuncture Accreditation Board) and Ms Celia Tudor-Evans (Acupuncturist, College of Traditional Acupuncture, Leamington Spa).   So nobody with any scientific expertise, and not a word of criticism.

Further to your recent request for information I am writing to advise that the University does not hold the following requested information:

(1) Lecture handouts/notes and powerpoint presentations for the following sessions, mentioned in Template 3rd year weekend and weekday course v26Aug2009_LRE1.pdf

(a) Skills 17: Representational systems + Colour & Sound ex. Tongue feedback 11

(b) Mental Disease + Epilepsy Pulse feedback 21

(c) 18 Auricular Acupuncture

(d) Intro. to Guasha + practice Cupping, moxa practice Tongue feedback 14

(2) I cannot see where the students are taught about research methods and statistics. I would like to see Lecture handouts/notes and PowerPoint presentations for teaching in this area, but the ‘timetables’ that you sent don’t make clear when or if it is taught.

The BSc Acupuncture is delivered by a partner college, the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (CICM), with Kingston University providing validation only. As such, the University does not hold copies of the teaching materials used on this course. In order to obtain copies of the teaching materials required you may wish to contact the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine directly.

This completes the University’s response to your information request.

So again we see that Kingston has validated the course but has not seen a timetable, far less what is taught.  My reply was thus

Yes I am exceedingly unhappy about it.  The university attaches its name to the course so it must obviously be able to get the material simply by asking for it (I’m surprised that the university should endorse a course without knowing what is taught on it, but that’s another matter).

I request formally that you obtain this material.  If necessary please read this as a formal appeal.

I await with interest. In every single case so far, the internal review has merely confirmed the initial refusal.  It means a bit of a delay before the case goes to the Information Commisssioner’s Office.

Napier University Edinburgh

Napier University runs a "BSc (Hons) Herbal medicine". (brochure here).  Since herbal medicine is a subject of the Pittilo recommendations, there is enormous public interest in what they teach. So I asked, under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act (2002).  They sent quite quickly validation and accreditation documents, some examination papers, timetables and lecture lists.

The validation was the usual vacuous box-ticking stuff though it did reveal that the course “made extensive use of techniques such as tongue and pulse diagnosis”, which are well known phoney diagnosis methods, about as much use as a pendulum (as used at Westminster University).

As at Kingston University, the exam papers they chose to send were mostly "pretend doctor" stuff. One of them was

Discuss the herbal practitioner’s role in the management of IHD [ischaemic heart disease)

How one would like to see what the students said, and, even more one would like to see the model answer.  Amateurs who try to treat potentially serious conditions are a danger to the public.

So then we got to the interesting bit, the request for actual teaching materials.

I have looked at the material that you sent and I’d now like to make the following supplementary request

(A) Lecture notes/handouts and powerpoint slides for the following small smaple of lectures

HRB09102 Materia Medica 4
(1) Zingiber officinalis, Eleutherococcus senticosus, Valeriana officinalis
(2) Gelsemium sempervirens, Cimicifuga racemosa, Datura stramonium, Piscidia erythrina
(3) Betula pendula, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Ephedra sinica, Solidago virgaurea

Materia Medica 3 HRB08103
(1) Cardiovascular system
(2) Nervous system

Clinical Medicine and Diagnosis 4 (HRB09104)
(1) Neuro-sensory deficits, paraesthesiae, head pain

HRB09100 Materia Medica & Herbal Practice
Week 7  Compiling a therapeutic plan and prescription building

BSc Herbal Medicine : Materia Medica HRB07102
Week 3   History of Herbal Medicine Gothean tasting session
Week 10  Energetics  the basic concepts Ayurveda

Lastly, I can see nowhere in the timetable, lectures that deal with

Research methods, clinical trial design and statistics.
If such lectures exist, please send notes and powerpoints for them too

No prizes for guessing the result   Total refusal to send any of them.  To make matters worse, the main grounds for refusal were the very "commercial interests" which, after careful legal examination, the Information Commissioner (for England and Wales) had decided were invalid.  They say too that "The public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in its release".. It is hard to see how the public interest is served by concealing from the people who pay for the degrees what is taught on degrees that Pittilo wants to make compulsory. [Download the whole response]

The matter is now under internal appeal (read the appeal) and eventually we shall find out whether the Scottish Information Commissioner backs the judgement.

Robert Gordon University Aberdeen

This case has particular interest because the Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University is Professor Michael Pittilo, chair of the highly contentious steering group that recommended degress in CAM.  Robert Gordon University (RGU) does not teach herbal medicine or acupuncture. But they do run An Introduction to Homeopathy. All the degrees in homeopathy have closed. It is perhaps the daftest and most discredited of all the popular forms of Magic Medicine.  But Professor Pittilo thinks it is an appropriate subject to teach in his university.

So again I asked for information under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. They sent me quite quckly a list of the powerpoint presentations used on the courses [download it]. I asked for a small sample of the powerpoints.  And again the university did not possess them!

I should like to see only the following three powerpoint presentations in the first instance, please.

Please can you let me know also who produced the powerpoints.

(1) Evidence for homeopathy
(2) First aid remedies
(3) Allergies

I note that you will have to request them but since they are being offered as part of a course offered by RGU, so RGU is responsible for their quality, I presume that this should cause no problem.

The request was refused on much the same grounds as used by Napier University.  As usual, the internal review just confirmed the initial proposal (but dropped the obviously ludicrous public interest defence).  The internal review said

“it is mainly the quality of our courses (including course material) and teaching which has given us the position of "the best modern university in Scotland"

I am bound to ask, if the university is so proud of its course material, why is it expending so much time and money to prevent anyone from seeing a small sample of it?

My appeal has been sent to the Scottish Information Commissioner [download the appeal].

What are vice-chancellors thinking about?

I find it very difficult to imagine what is going through the heads of vice-chancellors who run courses in mumbo-jumbo.   Most of them don’t believe a word of it (though Michael Pittilo might be an exception) yet they foist it on their students. How do they sleep at night?

Recently the excellent Joe Collier wrote a nice BMJ blog which applauded the lack of respect for authority in today’s students, Joe Collier says good riddance to old-fashioned respect. I couldn’t resist leaving a comment.

I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing quite so unnerving as being addressed as “Sir”.

It is an advantage of age that you realise what second-rate people come to occupy very grand positions. Still odder since, if occasionally they are removed for incompetence, they usually move to an even grander position.

I guess that when I was an undergraduate, I found vice-chancellors somewhat imposing. That is, by and large, not a view that survives closer acquaintance.

Should teaching materials be open to the public?

There is only one university in the world that has, as a matter of policy, made all of its teaching material open to the public,  that is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  I can recommend strongly course 18.06, a wonderful set of lectures on Linear Algebra by Gilbert Strang.  (It is also a wonderful demonstration of why blackboards may be better than Powerpoint for subjects like this). Now they are on YouTube too.

A lot of other places have made small moves in the same direction, as discussed recently in Times Higher Education, Get it Out in the Open

Now the OU is working with other British universities to help them develop and share open course materials. In June, at the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the OU, Gordon Brown announced funding to establish the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education at the OU, as part of a £7.8 million grant designed to enhance the university’s national role.

The funding follows a separate grant of £5.7 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for universities across the sector to make thousands of hours of free learning materials available. 

Much material is available on the web, when individual teachers choose to place it there, but at the same time there is a move in the other direction. In particular, the widespread adoption of Moodle has resulted in a big decrease in openness. Usually you have to be registered on a course to see the material. Even other people in the university can’t see it. I think that is a deplorable development (so, presumably, does HEFCE).


I was told by the Univerity of Kingston that

“The course is one which the University has validated and continues to be subject to the University’s quality assurance procedures, such as internal subject reviews, annual monitoring and external examining”

The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that “quality arrurance procedures” work about as well in universities as they did in the case of baby Peter. No doubt they were introduced with worthy aims. But in practice they occupy vast amounts of time for armies of bureaucrats, and because the brain does not need to be engaged they end up endorsing utter nonsenes. The system is broken.

Resistance is futile.  You can see a lot of the stuff here

It is hard to keep secrets in the internet age. Thanks to many wonderful people who have sent me material. you can see plenty of what is taught, despite the desperate attempts of vice-chancellors to conceal it.  Try these links.

What is actually taught

Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed

Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help top stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself 

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients 

More make-believe from the University of Westminster. This time its Naturopathy
The last BSc (Hons) Homeopathy closes! But look at what they still teach at Westminster University.
The opposite of science
Bad medicine. Barts sinks further into the endarkenment.
A letter to the Times, and progress at Westminster
Nutritional Fairy Tales from Thames Valley University
Westminster University BSc: amethysts emit high yin energy

References for Pittilo report consultation
A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor

The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title)

Some follow up on the Times piece

The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense

One month to stop the Department of Health endorsing quackery.  The Pittilo questionnaire,

An excellent submission to the consultation on statutory regulation of alternative medicine (Pittilo report) 


Two weeks left to stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself. Email your response to tne Pittilo consultation to this email address HRDListening@dh.gsi.gov.uk

I’ve had permission to post a submission that has been sent to the Pittilo consultation. The whole document can be downloaded here. I have removed the name of the author. It is written by the person who has made some excellent contributions to this blog under the pseudonym "Allo V Psycho".

The document is a model of clarity, and it ends with constructive suggestions for forms of regulation that will, unlike the Pittilo proposals, really protect patients

Here is the summary. The full document explains each point in detail.

Executive Summary
Statutory regulation lends prestige, but needs to be balanced by a requirement for practitioners to be competent, as is the case for doctors and nurses. Regulation almost exclusively deals with conduct, but the unique risks posed by alternative medicine are not addressed by this. The harms which will arise from licensing practitioners who are not required to show evidence of competence and efficacy are:

  • Harm 1. Misdiagnosis of serious conditions.  Alternative practitioners offer to diagnose illnesses without proper training. This can lead to avoidable death, such as treating an ectopic pregnancy with ginger.
  • Harm 2. Withdrawal from treatment. Clients of alternative practitioners risk being encouraged to withdraw from life saving treatments in favours of treatments without evidence, as in the death of baby Gloria Thomas.
  • Harm 3. Harms arising from the nature of the alternative practice, but not covered by the regulatory framework, such as adulterated herbal remedies.
  • Harm 4.  Lack of informed consent. If alternative practitioners are not required to study or show evidence of efficacy, how can they inform patients of their options?
  • Harm 5. Equity. Doctors and nurses have to use evidence based methods, but it is proposed that alternative practitioners are not held to this standard. Is this fair? Health Minsters should ask themselves if they advocate withdrawing the requirement for evidence based treatment from doctors and nurses. If not, why not? And if not, why should alternative practitioners be treated differently?
  • Harm 6. Promotion of irrationality. If no evidence of efficacy is required, where do you draw the line? Witch doctoring is a ‘traditional practice’ in communities in the UK, and astrology is used by some herbal healers.
  • Harm 7. Opportunity Costs. If no evidence of efficacy is required of alternative medicine, significant sums will be wasted by individuals and by the NHS.
  • Harm 8. Reputational harms for UK Higher Education. UK Honours Degrees are based on the ability to think critically and to assess evidence. Alternative medicine Degree programmes do not require this. These positions are not compatible.
  • Harm 9.  Health care futures. We are making slow but steady progress on health indicators through the use of evidence based methods. Why should the requirement for evidence be abandoned now?

Instead, safe regulation of alternative practitioners should be through:

  • The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency
  • The Office of Trading Standards via the Unfair Trading Consumer Protection Regulations,
  • A new Health Advertising Standards Authority, modelled on the successful Cancer Act 1939.

The first two recommendations for effective regulation are much the same as mine, but the the third one is interesting. The problem with the Cancer Act (1939), and with the Unfair Trading regulations, is that they are applied very erratically. They are the responsibility of local Trading Standards offices, who have, as a rule, neither the expertise nor the time to enforce them effectively. A Health Advertising Standards Authority could perhaps take over the role of enforcing existing laws. But it should be an authority with teeth. It should have the ability to prosecute. The existing Advertising Standards Authority produces, on the whole, excellent judgements but it is quite ineffective because it can do very little.

A letter from an acupuncturist

I had a remarkable letter recently from someone who actually practises acupuncture. Here are some extracts.

“I very much enjoy reading your Improbable Science blog. It’s great to see good old-fashioned logic being applied incisively to the murk and spin that passes for government “thinking” these days.”

“It’s interesting that the British Acupuncture Council are in favour of statutory regulation. The reason is, as you have pointed out, that this will confer a respectability on them, and will be used as a lever to try to get NHS funding for acupuncture. Indeed, the BAcC’s mission statement includes a line “To contribute to the development of healthcare policy both now and in the future”, which is a huge joke when they clearly haven’t got the remotest idea about the issues involved.”

“Before anything is decided on statutory regulation, the British Acupuncture Council is trying to get a Royal Charter. If this is achieved, it will be seen as a significant boost to their respectability and, by implication, the validity of state-funded acupuncture. The argument will be that if Physios and O.T.s are Chartered and safe to work in the NHS, then why should Chartered Acupuncturists be treated differently? A postal vote of 2,700 BAcC members is under-way now and they are being urged to vote “yes”. The fact that the Privy Council are even considering it, is surprising when the BAcC does not even meet the requirement that the institution should have a minimum of 5000 members (http://www.privy-council.org.uk/output/Page45.asp). Chartered status is seen as a significant stepping-stone in strengthening their negotiating hand in the run-up to statutory regulation.”

“Whatever the efficacy of acupuncture, I would hate to see scarce NHS resources spent on well-meaning, but frequently gormless acupuncturists when there’s no money for the increasing costs of medical technology or proven life-saving pharmaceuticals.”

“The fact that universities are handing out a science degree in acupuncture is a testament to how devalued tertiary education has become since my day. An acupuncture degree cannot be called “scientific” in any normal sense of the term. The truth is that most acupuncturists have a poor understanding of the form of TCM taught in P.R.China, and hang on to a confused grasp of oriental concepts mixed in with a bit of New Age philosophy and trendy nutritional/life-coach advice that you see trotted out by journalists in the women’s weeklies. This casual eclectic approach is accompanied by a complete lack of intellectual rigour.

My view is that acupuncturists might help people who have not been helped by NHS interventions, but, in my experience, it has very little to do with the application of a proven set of clinical principles (alternative or otherwise). Some patients experience remission of symptoms and I’m sure that is, in part, bound up with the psychosomatic effects of good listening, and non-judgemental kindness. In that respect, the woolly-minded thinking of most traditional acupuncturists doesn’t really matter, they’re relatively harmless and well-meaning, a bit like hair-dressers. But just because you trust your hairdresser, it doesn’t mean hairdressers deserve the Privy Council’s Royal Charter or that they need to be regulated by the government because their clients are somehow supposedly “vulnerable”.”

Earlier postings on the Pittilo recommendations

A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor http://www.dcscience.net/?p=235

Article in The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title)

Some follow up on The Times piece

The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense

Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed

Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help top stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself  http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2007

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients  http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2043

One month to stop the Department of Health endorsing quackery.  The Pittilo questionnaire, http://www.dcscience.net/?p=2310


More boring politics, but it matters.  The two main recommendations of this Pittilo report are that

  • Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine should be subject to statutory regulation by the Health Professions Council
  • Entry to the register should normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours

For the background on this appalling report, see earlier posts.

A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor

The Times (blame subeditor for the horrid title), and some follow up on the Times piece

The Health Professions Council breaks its own rules: the result is nonsense

Chinese medicine -acupuncture gobbledygook revealed

Consultation opens on the Pittilo report: help stop the Department of Health making a fool of itself 

Why degrees in Chinese medicine are a danger to patients

The Department of Health consultation shuts on November 2nd.  If you haven’t responded yet, please do.  It would be an enormous setback for reason and common sense if the government were to give a stamp of official approval to people who are often no more than snake-oil salesman.

Today I emailed my submission to the Pittilo consultation to the Department of Health, at HRDListening@dh.gsi.gov.uk

The submission

I sent the following documents, updated versions of those already posted earlier.

  • Submission to the Department of Health, for the consultation on the Pittilo report [download pdf].
  • What is taught in degrees in herbal and traditional Chinese medicine? [download pdf]
  • $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures [download pdf]
  • An example of dangerous (and probably illegal) claims that are routinely made by TCM practitioners [download pdf]f

I also completed their questionnaire, despite its deficiencies. In case it is any help to anyone, this is what I said:

The questionnaire

Q1: What evidence is there of harm to the public currently as a result of the activities of acupuncturists, herbalists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners? What is its likelihood and severity?


No Harm



The major source of harm is the cruel deception involved in making false claims of benefit to desperate patients. This applies to all three.

In the case of herbal and TCM there is danger from toxicity because herbal preparations are unstandardised so those that do contain an active ingredient are given in an unknown dose. This is irresponsible and dangerous (but would not be changed by the proposals for regulation).

In addition TCM suffers from recurrent problems of contamination with heavy metals, prescription drugs and so on. Again this would not be the business of the proposed form of regulation.

Q2: Would this harm be lessened by statutory regulation? If so, how?




The proposed form of regulation would be no help at all. The HPC has already said that it is not concerned with whether or not the drug works, and, by implication, does not see itself as preventing false health claims (just as the GCC doesn’t do this). False claims are the responsibility of Trading Standards who are meant to enforce the Consumer Protection Unfair Trading Regulations (May 2008), though they do not at present enforce them very effectively. Also Advertisng Standards. The proposed regulation would not help, and could easily hinder public safety as shown by the fact that the GCC has itself been referred to the Advertisng Standards Authority.

The questions of toxicity and contamination are already the responsibility of Trading Standards and the MHRA. Regulation by the HPC would not help at all. The HPC is not competent to deal with such questions.

Q3: What do you envisage would be the benefit to the public, to practitioners and to businesses, associated with introducing statutory regulation?

Significant benefit

Some benefit

No benefit


This question is badly formulated because the answer is different according to whether you are referring to the public, to practitioners or to businesses.

The public would be endangered by the form of regulation that is proposed, as is shown very clearly by the documents that I have submitted separately.

In the case of practitioners and businesses, there might be a small benefit, if the statutory regulation gave the impression that HM and TCM had government endorsement and must therefore be safe and effective.

There is also one way that the regulation could harm practitioners and businesses. If the HPC received a very large number of complaints about false health claims, just as the GCC has done recently, not only would it cost a large amount of money to process the claims, but the attendant bad publicity could harm practitioners. It is quite likely that this would occur since false claims to benefit sick people are rife in the areas of acupuncture, HM and TCM.

Q4: What do you envisage would be the regulatory burden and financial costs to the public, to practitioners, and to businesses, associated with introducing statutory regulation? Are these costs justified by the benefits and are they proportionate to the risks? If so, in what way?


Not Justified


Certainly not justified. Given that I believe that the proposed form of regulation would endanger patients, no cost at all would be justified. But even if there were a marginal benefit, the cost would be quite unjustified. The number of practitioners involved is very large. It would involve a huge expansion of an existing quango, at a time when the government is trying to reduce the number of quangos. Furthermore, if the HPC were flooded with complaints about false health claims, as the GCC has been, the costs in legal fees could be enormous.

Q5: If herbal and TCM practitioners are subject to statutory regulation, should the right to prepare and commission unlicensed herbal medicines be restricted to statutorily regulated practitioners?




I don’t think it would make much difference. The same (often false) ideas are shared by all HM people and that would continue to be the same with or without SR.

Q6: If herbal and TCM practitioners are not statutorily regulated, how (if at all) should unlicensed herbal medicines prepared or commissioned by these practitioners be regulated?

They could carry on as now, but the money that would have been spent on SR should instead be used to give the Office of Trading Standards and the MHRA the ability to exert closer scrutiny and to enforce more effectively laws that already exist. Present laws, if enforced, are quite enough to protect the public.

Q7: What would be the effect on public, practitioners and businesses if, in order to comply with the requirements of European medicines legislation, practitioners were unable to supply manufactured unlicensed herbal medicines commissioned from a third party?

Significant effect

Some effect

No effect


European laws,especialliy in food area, are getting quite strict about the matters of efficacy. The proposed regulation, which ignores efficacy, could well be incompatible with European law, if not now, then soon. This would do no harm to legitimate business though it might affect adversely businesses which make false claims (and there are rather a lot of the latter).

Q8: How might the risk of harm to the public be reduced other than by orthodox statutory regulation? For example by voluntary self-regulation underpinned by consumer protection legislation and by greater public awareness, by accreditation of voluntary registration bodies, or by a statutory or voluntary licensing regime?

Voluntary self-regulation

Accreditation of voluntary bodies

Statutory or voluntary licensing


I disagree with the premise, for reasons given in detail in separate documents. I believe that ‘orthodox statutory regulation’, if that means the Pittilo proposals, would increase, not decrease, the risk to the public. Strengthening the powers of Trading Standards, the MHRA and such consumer protection legislation would be far more effective in reducing risk to the public than the HPC could ever be.  Greater public awareness of the weakness of the evidence for the efficacy of these treatments would obviously help too, but can’t do the job on its own.

Q10: What would you envisage would be the benefits to the public, to practitioners, and to businesses, for the alternatives to statutory regulation outlined at Question 8?

It depends on which alternative you are referring to. The major benefit of enforcement of existing laws by Trading Standards and/or the MHRA would be (a) to protect the public from risk, (b) to protect the public from health fraud and (c) almost certainly lower cost to the tax payer.

Q11: If you feel that not all three practitioner groups justify statutory regulation, which group(s) does/do not and please give your reasons why/why not?


Herbal Medicine



None of them. The differences are marginal. In the case of acupuncture there has been far more good research than for HM or TCM. But the result of that research is to show that in most cases the effects are likely to be no more than those expected of a rather theatrical placebo. Furthermore the extent to which acupuncture has a bigger effect than no-acupuncture in a NON-BLIND comparison, is usually too small and transient to offer any clinical advantage (so it doesn’t really matter whether the effect is placebo or not, it is too small to be useful).

In the case of HM, and even more of TCM, there is simply not enough research to give much idea of their usefulness,  with a small handful of exceptions.

This leads to a conclusion that DH seems to have ignored in the past. It makes absolutely no sense to talk about “properly trained practitioners” without first deciding whether the treatments work or not. There can be no such thing as “proper training” in a discipline that offers no benefit over placebo. It is a major fault of the Pittilo recommendations that they (a) ignore this basic principle and (b) are very over-optimistic about the state of the evidence.

Q12: Would it be helpful to the public for these practitioners to be regulated in a way which differentiates them from the regulatory regime for mainstream professions publicly perceived as having an evidence base of clinical effectiveness? If so, why? If not, why not?




It might indeed be useful if regulation pointed out the very thin evidence base for HM and TCM but it would look rather silly. The public would say how can it be that the DH is granting statutory regulation to things that don’t work?

Q13: Given the Government’s commitment to reducing the overall burden of unnecessary statutory regulation, can you suggest which areas of healthcare practice present sufficiently low risk so that they could be regulated in a different, less burdensome way or de-regulated, if a decision is made to statutorily regulate acupuncturists, herbalists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners?




As stated above, the.only form of regulation that is needed, and the only form that would protect the public, is through consumer protection regulations, most of which already exist (though they are enforced in a very inconsistent way). Most statutory regulation is objectionable, not on libertarian grounds, but because it doesn’t achieve the desired ends (and is expensive). In this case of folk medicine, like HM and TCM, the effect would be exactly the opposite of that desired as shown in separate documents that I have submitted to the consultation.

Q14: If there were to be statutory regulation, should the Health Professions Council (HPC) regulate all three professions? If not, which one(s) should the HPC not regulate?




The HPC should regulate none of them. It has never before regulated any form of alternative medicine and it is ill-equipped to do so. Its statement that it doesn’t matter that there is very little evidence that the treatments work poses a danger to patients (as well as being contrary to its own rules).

Q15: If there were to be statutory regulation, should the Health Professions Council or the General Pharmaceutical Council/Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland regulate herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners?




Neither. The GPC is unlikely to care about whether the treatments work any more than the RPSGB did, or the GCC does now. The problems would be exactly the same whichever body did it.

Q16: If neither, who should and why?

As I have said repeatedly, it should be left to Trading Standards, the MHRA and other consumer protection regulation.


a) Should acupuncture be subject to a different form of regulation from that for herbalism and traditional Chinese medicine? If so, what?




b) Can acupuncture be adequately regulated through local means, for example through Health and Safety legislation, Trading Standards legislation and Local Authority licensing?




(a) No -all should be treated the same. Acupuncture is part of TCM

(b) Yes


a) Should the titles acupuncturist, herbalist and [traditional] Chinese medicine practitioner be protected?

b) If your answer is no which ones do you consider should not be legally protected?




No. It makes no sense to protect titles until such time as it has been shown that the practitioners can make a useful contribution to medicine (above placebo effect). That does not deny that placebos may be useful at times. but if that is all they are doing, the title should be ‘placebo practitioners’.

Q19: Should a new model of regulation be tested where it is the functions of acupuncture, herbal medicine and TCM that are protected, rather than the titles of acupuncturist, herbalist or Chinese medicine practitioner?




No. This makes absolutely no sense when there is so little knowledge about what is meant by the ” functions of acupuncture, herbal medicine and TCM”.Insofar as they don’t work (better than placebo), there IS no function. Any attempt to define function when there is so little solid evidence (at least for HM and TCM) is doomed to failure.

Q20: If statutory professional self-regulation is progressed, with a model of protection of title, do you agree with the proposals for “grandparenting” set out in the Pittilo report?




No. I believe the Pittilo report should be ignored entirely. The whole process needs to be thought out again in a more rational way.

Q22: Could practitioners demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements and communicate effectively with regulators, the public and other healthcare professionals if they do not achieve the standard of English language competence normally required for UK registration? What additional costs would occur for both practitioners and regulatory authorities in this case?




No. It is a serious problem, in TCM especially, that many High Street practitioners speak hardly any English at all. That adds severely to the already considerable risks. There would be no reliable way to convey what was expected of them. it would be absurd for the taxpayer to pay for them to learn English for the purposes of practising TCM (of course there might be the same case as for any other immigrant for teaching English on social grounds).

Q23: What would the impact be on the public, practitioners and businesses (financial and regulatory burden) if practitioners unable to achieve an English language IELTS score of 6.5 or above are unable to register in the UK?

Significant impact

Some impact

No impact


The question is not relevant. The aim of regulation is to protect the public from risk (and it should be, but isn’t, an aim to protect them from health fraud). It is not the job of regulation to promote businesses

Q24: Are there any other matters you wish to draw to our attention?

I have submitted three documents via HRDListening@dh.gsi.gov.uk. The first of these puts the case against the form of regulation proposed by Pittilo, far more fluently than is possible in a questionnaire.
Another shows examples of what is actually taught in degrees in acupuncture, HM and TCM. They show very graphically the extent to which the Pittilo proposals would endanger the public, if they were to be implemented..

This post has been translated into Belorussian..

Chinese medicine and herbal medicine are in the news at the moment.  There is a real risk that the government could endorse them by accepting the Pittilo report.

In my view traditional Chinese medicine endangers people.   The proposed ‘regulation’ would do nothing to protect the public.  Quite on the contrary, it would add to the dangers, by giving an official stamp of approval while doing nothing for safety.

The government’s idea of improving safety is to make sure that practitioners are ‘properly trained’.  But it is the qualifications that cause the danger in the first place.  The courses teach ideas that are plain wrong and often really dangerous. 

Why have government (and some universities) not noticed this?  That’s easy to see. Governments, quangos and university validation committees simply don’t look.  They tick boxes but never ask what actually goes on.  Here’s some examples of what goes on for them to think about. They show clearly the sort of dangerous rubbish that is taught on some of these ‘degrees’.

These particular slides are from the University of Westminster, but similar courses exist in only too many other places.  Watch this space for more details on courses at Edinburgh Napier University, Middlesex University and the University of East London

slide 1

Just a lot of old myths. Sheer gobbledygook,

slide 2

SO much for a couple of centuries of physiology,

slide 7

It gets worse.

slide 8

Plain wrong.

slide 21

Curious indeed.  The fantasy gobbledygook gets worse.

slide 16

Now it is getting utterly silly. Teaching students that the brain is made of marrow is not just absurd, but desperately dangerous for anyone unlucky (or stupid) enough to go to such a person when they are ill.

Here’s another herbal lecture., and this time the topic is serious. Cancer.

Herbal approaches for patients with cancer.

I’ve removed the name of the teacher to spare her the acute embarrassment of having these dangerous fantasies revealed.  The fact that she probably believes them is not a sufficient excuse for endangering the public. There is certainly no excuse for the university allowing this stuff to be taught as part of a BSc (Hons).

slide 1

First get them scared with some bad statistics.

slide 2

No fuss there about distinguishing incidence, age-standardisation and death rates. And no reference. Perhaps a reference to the simple explanation of statistics at Cancer Research UK might help? Perhaps this slide would have been better (from CDC). Seems there is some mistake in slide 2.

cance death rates

Straight on to a truly disgraceful statement in slide 3

slide 3

The is outrageous and very possibly illegal under the Cancer Act (1939).  It certainly poses a huge danger to patients.  It is a direct incentive to make illegal, and untrue claims by using weasel words in an attempt to stay just on the right side of the law. But that, of course, is standard practice in alternative medicine,

slide 11

Slide 11 is mostly meaningless. “Strengthen vitality” sounds good but means nothing. And “enhancing the immune system” is what alternative medicine folks always say when they can think of nothing else. Its meaning is ill-defined and there is no reason to think that any herbs do it.

The idea of a ‘tonic’ was actually quite common in real medicine in the 1950s. The term slowly vanished as it was realised that it was a figment of the imagination. In the fantasy world of alternative medicine, it lives on.

Detoxification, a marketing term not a medical one, has been extensively debunked quite recently.  The use of the word by The Prince of Wales’ company, Duchy Originals recently fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority, and his herbal ‘remedies’ were zapped by the MHRA (Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority).

And of course the antioxidant myth is a long-disproved hypothesis that has become a mere marketing term. 


slide 16

“Inhibits the recurrence of cancer”!   That sounds terrific. But if it is so good why is it not even mentioned in the two main resources for information about herbs?

In the UK we have the National Library for Health Complementary and Alternative Medicine Specialist Library (NeLCAM), now a part of NHS Evidence.  It was launched in 2006.  The clinical lead was none other than Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, and the Queen’s homeopathic physician. The library was developed with the School of Integrated Health at the University of Westminster (where this particular slide was shown to undergraduates). Nobody could accuse these people of being hostile to magic medicine,

It seems odd, then, that NeLCAM does not seem to thnk to think that Centella asiatica, is even worth mentioning.

In the USA we have the National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine (NCCAM), an organisation that is so friendly to alternative medicine that it has spent a billion dollars on research in the area, though it has produced not a single good treatment for that vast expenditure. But NCCAM too does not even mention Centella asiatica in its herb list. It does get a mention in Cochrane reviews but only as a cosmetic cream and as an unproven treatment for poor venous circulation in the legs.

slide 21

What on earth is a “lymph remedy”. Just another marketing term?

especially valuable in the treatment of breast, throat and uterus cancer.

That is a very dramatic claim. It as as though the hapless students were being tutored in doublespeak. What is meant by “especially valuable in the treatment of”? Clearly a desperate patient would interpret those words as meaning that there was at least a chance of a cure. That would be a wicked deception because there isn’t the slightest reason to think it works. Once again there this wondrous cure is not even mentioned in either NELCAM or NCCAM.  Phytolacca is mentioned, as Pokeweed, in Wikipedia but no claims are mentioned even there. And it isn’t mentioned in Cochrane reviews either. The dramatic claims are utterly unfounded.

slide 23

Ah the mistletoe story, again.

NHS Evidence (NeLCAM) lists three completed assessments. One concludes that more research is needed. Another concludes that “Rigorous trials of mistletoe extracts fail to demonstrate efficacy of this therapy”, and the third says “The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak”.

NCCAM says of mistletoe

  • More than 30 human studies using mistletoe to treat cancer have been done since the early 1960s, but major weaknesses in many of these have raised doubts about their findings (see Question 6).
  • Very few bad side effects have been reported from the use of mistletoe extract, though mistletoe plants and berries are poisonous to humans (see Question 7).
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved mistletoe as a treatment for cancer or any other medical condition (see Question 8).
  • The FDA does not allow injectable mistletoe to be imported, sold, or used except for clinical research (see Question 8).

Cochrane reviews lists several reviews of mistletoe with similar conclusions. For example “The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak”.

Anthroposophy is one of the highest grades of fantasy you can find.  A post on that topic is in the works.

slide 25

Indicated for cancers  . . . colon/rectal, uterine, breast, lung“. A cure for lung cancer? That, of course, depends on how you interpret the weasel words “indicated for”. Even Wikipedia makes no mention of any claims that Thuja benefits cancer. NHS Evidence (NeLCAM) doesn’t mention Thuja for any indication. Neither does NCCAM. Nor Cochrane reviews. That is not the impression the hapless students of this BSc lecture were given.  In my view suggestions that you can cure lung cancer with this tree are just plain wicked.

slide 27

Pure snake oil, and not even spelled correctly, Harry Hoxsey’s treatment centres in the USA were closed by court order in the 1950s.

slide 28

At least this time it is stated that there is no hard evidence to support this brand of snake oil.

slide 30

More unfounded claims when it says “treated successfully many cancer patients”. No references and no data to support the claim.  It is utterly unfounded and claims to the contrary endanger the public.

slide 31

Gerson therapy is one of the most notorious and unpleasant of the quack cancer treatments. The Gerson Institute is on San Diego, but their clinics are in Mexico and Hungary. It is illegal in the USA. According to the American Cancer Society you get “a strict low-salt, low-fat, vegetarian diet and drinking juice from about twenty pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. One glass of juice is consumed each hour, thirteen times a day. In addition, patients are given several coffee enemas each day. Various supplements, such as potassium, vitamin B12, pancreatic enzymes, thyroid hormone, and liver extracts, are used to stimulate organ function, particularly of the liver and thyroid.”. At one time you also got several glasses of raw calf liver every day but after infections killed several people] carrot juice was given instead.

Cancer Research UK says “there is no evidence to show that Gerson therapy works as a cure for cancer”, and “The Gerson diet can cause some very serious side effects.” Nobody (except perhaps the Price of Wales) has any belief in this unpleasant, toxic and expensive folk-lore.

Again patients are endangered by teaching this sort of stuff.

slide 36

And finally, the usual swipe at vaccines. It’s nothing to do with herbalism. but just about every alternative medicine advocate seems to subscribe to the anti-vaccination lobby.. It is almost as though they have an active preference for things that are known to be wrong. They seem to believe that medicine and science are part of an enormous conspiracy to kill everyone.

Perhaps this dangerous propaganda might have been ameliorated if the students had been shown this slide (from a talk by Melinda Wharton).

Wharton slide 2
Click to enlarge

Left to people like this, we would still have smallpox, diphtheria. tetanus and rabies,  Take a look at Vaccine-preventable diseases.

This is the sort of ‘education’ which the Pittilo report wants to make compulsory.

Baltimore smallpox, 1939
Smallpox in Baltimore, USA, 1939. This man was not vaccinated.


This selection of slides shows that much of the stuff taught in degrees in herbal medicine poses a real danger to public safety and to public health.

Pittilo’s idea that imposing this sort of miseducation will help safety is obviously and dangerously wrong. The Department of Health must reject the Pittilo recommendations on those grounds.


Jump to follow-up

The much-delayed public consultation on the Pittilo report has just opened.

It is very important that as many people as possible respond to it.  It’s easy to say that the consultation is sham. It will be if it is left only to acupuncturists and Chinese medicine people to respond to it. Please write to them before the closing date, November 2nd 2009. The way to send your evidence is here.

There is a questionnaire that you can complete, with the usual leading questions.  Best do it anyway, but I’d suggest also sending written evidence as attachment too. I just got from DoH the email address where you can send it. They said

if you have material you wish to send which you can’t easily “shoehorn” into the questionnaire, please send it to the following mailbox:


Here are three documents that I propose to submit in response to the consultation.I ‘d welcome criticisms that might make it more convincing. Use any parts of them you want in your own response.

  • Submission to the Department of Health, for the consultation on the Pittilo report [download pdf].
  • What is taught in degrees in herbal and traditional Chinese medicine? [download pdf]
  • $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures [download pdf]
I’ve written quite a lot about the Pittilo report already, in particular A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor, and in The Times (see also the blog version).

Intriguingly, these posts are at number 2 in a Google search for “Michael Pittilo”.


Briefly, the back story is this.

It is now over a year since the Report to Ministers from “The Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK” [download the report].

The chair of the steering group was Professor R. Michael Pittilo, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. The reason thet the report is so disastrously bad in its assessment of evidence is that it was written entirely by people with vested interests.

The committee consisted of five acupuncturists, five herbalists and five representatives of traditional Chinese medicine (plus eleven observers). There was not a single scientist or statistician to help in the assessment of evidence. And it shows: The assessment of the evidence in the report was execrable. Every one of the committee members would have found themselves out of work if they had come to any conclusion other than that their treatment works, Disgracefully, these interests were not declared in the report, though they are not hard to find. The university of which the chair is vice-chancellor runs a course in homeopathy, the most discredited of the popular forms of alternative medicine. That tells you all you need to know about the critical faculties of Michael Pittilo.

The two main recommendations of this Pittilo report are that

  • Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine should be subject to statutory regulation by the Health Professions Council
  • Entry to the register normally be through a Bachelor degree with Honours

Let’s consider the virtue of these two recommendations.

Regulation by the Health Professions Council (HPC) breaks their own rules

For a start, this should be ruled out by the HPC’s own rules, which require “Practise based on evidence of efficacy” as a condition for registration. Since there is practically no “evidence of efficacy”, it follows that the HPC can’t regulate acupuncture, herbal and Chinese medicine as Pittilo recommends. Or so you’d think. But the official mind seems to have an infinite capacity for doublespeak. The HPC published a report on 11 September 2008, Regulation of Medical Herbalists, Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioners.

The report says

1. Medical herbalists, acupuncturists and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners should be statutorily regulated in the public interest and for public safety reasons.

2. The Health Professions Council is appropriate as the regulator for these professions.

3. The accepted evidence of efficacy overall for these professions is limited, but regulation should proceed because it is in the public interest.

In other words, the HPC simply decided to ignore its own rules, Its excuse for doing so is that regulation would protect “public safety” . But it simply would not do that. It is ell known that some Chinese herbs are adulterated with dangerous substances, but laws against that already exist. Trading Standards are much more likely to take appropriate action than the HPC. The Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) already deals with the licensing of herbal medicines. and, despite the fact that it recently betrayed its trust by allowing them to be labelled in a misleading way, they are the people to do it, not the HPC.

The Pittilo report (page 11) says

In future, it is hoped that more Government funding can be allocated to research into traditional/herbal medicines and acupuncture and that grants will become available to encourage practitioners to undertake postgraduate research work.

So they are asking for more government money.

In March 2007, the Chinese Government pledged to spend over $130 million over the next five years on research into the effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine. It is to be hoped that this money will be targeted effectively to evaluate TCM.

It seems to have escaped the notice of Pittilo that roughly 100 percent of trials of Chinese medicine done in China come out positive. Elsewhere, very few come out positive,(see Vickers et al., 1998, Controlled Clinical Trials, 19, 159-166: download reprint) The Department of Health would be unwise to rely on Chinese research. Remember that modern acupuncture was not so much a product of ancient wisdom, but rather it stems from nationalist propaganda by Mao Tse-Tung, who needed a cheap way to keep the peasants quiet, though he was too sensible to use it himself.

The HPC report (page 5) cites these with the words

” . . . a lack of evidence of efficacy should not prevent regulation but that the professions should be encouraged and funded to strengthen the evidence base.”

This sentence seems to assume that the outcomes of research will be to strengthen the evidence base. Thus far, precisely the opposite has been the case. The Pittilo group has apparently not noticed that the US National Institutes of Health has already spent a billion dollars on research in alternative medicine and failed to come up with a single effective treatment. There are better ways to spend money on health. See, for example $2.5B Spent, No Alternative Med Cures found. .An enornous amount of research has already been done and the outcomes have produced no good treatments,

The proposed regulation would endanger the public, not protect it.

The excuse given by the HPC for breaking its own rules is that it should do so to protect the public.

Likewise Ann Keen, Health Minister, said:

“Patient safety is paramount, whether people are accessing orthodox health service treatments or using alternative treatments”

So first we need to identify what dangers are posed by acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.

  • Acupuncture is fairly safe. Its biggest danger lies in the unjustified claims that are routinely made for what can be achieved by being impaled by needles. This poses a danger that people may use acupuncture in place of treatments that work
  • Herbal medicines are unstandardised, so even the very few that may work are dangerous to patients because the dose of active principle is unknown and varies from one batch to another. Taking a herbal medicine is a bit like swallowing a random number of tablets, False health claims pose a danger to patients too, when they cause patients to avoid treatments that work.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine is probably the most dangerous. Like the other two, the medicines are unstandardised so the dose is never known. False health claims abound. And in addition to these dangers, many cases have been found of Chinese medicines being adulterated with poisonous substances or with conventional drugs.

The form of regulation proposed by Pittilo would do little or nothing to protect the public from any of these dangers.

The proposals accept the herbal and Chinese medicine as traditionally practised. Nothing would be done about one of the major dangers, the lack of standardisation. That is a problem that was solved by pharmacologists in the 1930s, when international standards were set for the biological activity of things like tincture of digitalis, and assays were devised so that different batches could be adjusted to the same potency. Now, 80 years later, it is being proposed by Pittilo that we should return to the standards of safety that existed at the beginning of the last century. That is a threat to public safety., but the proposed regulation would do nothing whatsoever to protect the public from this dangerous practice. On the contrary, it would give official government sanction to it.

The other major danger is that patients are deceived by false health claims. This is dangerous (as well as dishonest) because it can cause patients to avoid treatments that work better, The internet abounds with claims that herbs can cure anything from diabetes to cancer. Many are doubtless illegal, but regulators like the HPC have traditionally ignored such claims: they are left to Trading Standards, Advertising Standards and the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) to deal with. The MHRA already also has responsibility for monitoring side effects. The HPC would not do this.

The analogy with chiropractic and the GCC

The foolishness of allowing statutory regulation for unproven treatments has recently been illustrated quite dramatically by the case of chiropractic. Chiropractors have had statutory regulation by the General Chiropractic Council, which was established by the Chiropractors Act of 1994. The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) recently decided to sue the science writer, Simon Singh, for defamation when he cast doubt on some of the claims made by chiropractors, in particular their claims to be able to cure colic and asthma in children. That led to close examination of the claims. In fact there is no reason to think that spinal manipulation works for asthma, or that it works for colic. In fact there is quite good evidence that the claims are false. The result was that about 600 well-justified complaints have been lodged with the GCC (enough to bankrupt the GCC if the complaints are dealt with properly).

The point of this story is that the statutory regulator had nothing whatsoever to prevent these false health claims being made. Two of the complaints concern practices run by the chair of the GCC. Worse, the GCC actually endorsed such claims. The statutory regulator saw its duty to defend chiropractic (apart from a handful of cases of sexual misdemeanours), not to protect the patient from false health claims. The respectability conferred by statutory regulation made false health claims easier and endangered the public. It would be a disaster if the same mistake were made again.

On 11th December 2008 I got a letter form the HPC which said

in our opinion a lack of evidence of efficacy would not impede our ability to set standards or deal with complaints we receive. The vast majority of cases we consider are related to conduct.

But perhaps that is because they haven’t tried “regulating” quacks before. Now that the public is far more conscious about health fraud than it used to be, one can predict confidently that the HPC would be similarly overwhelmed by a deluge of complaints about the unjustified health claims made by acupuncturists, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. There is no shortage of them to complain about.

The education problem

The Pittilo report recommends that the entry level for registration should be a bachelors degree with honours. At first sight it seems reasonable to ask that practitioners should be ‘properly qualified’, but when one looks at what is actually taught on these degrees it becomes clear that they endanger, rather than protect, the public,

There are two very big problems with this recommendation.

Firstly, you can’t have a bachelors degree with honours until after you have decided whether or not there is anything useful to teach. If and when any of the subjects under consideration and shown to work to a useful extent, then it would be quite reasonable to establish degrees in them. Even the report does not pretend seriously that that stage has been reached. The proposal to set up degrees in subjects, at least some of which are quite likely to have no more than placebo value, is self-evidently nonsense,

The time for degrees, and the time for government endorsement by statutory regulation, is after the therapies have been shown to work, not before.

The absurdity of thinking that the public will be protected because a practitioner has a degree in, say, acupuncture, is shown with startling clarity by a recently revealed examination paper in acupuncture’

You can download the entire exam paper. Here are a few highlights from it.


So students, in 2009, are being taught the crudest form of vitalism.


Teaching of traditional Chinese medicine is just as bad. Here are two slides from a course run by the University of Westminster.

The first ‘explains’ the mysterious and entirly mythical “Qi”.

TCM slide 2

So “Qi” means breath, air, vapour, gas, energy, vitalism. This is meaningless nonsense.

The second slide shows the real dangers posed by the way Chinese medicine is taught, The symptoms listed at the top could easily be a clue to serious illness, yat students are taught to treat them with ginger. Degrees like this endanger the public.

TCM slide 1

There are more mind-boggling slides from lectures on Chinese medicine and cancer: they show that what students are being taught is terrifyingly dangerous to patients.

It is entirely unacceptable that students are being taught these ancient myths as though they were true, and being encouraged to treat sick people on their basis.  The effect of the Pittilo recommendations would be to force new generations of students to have this sort of thing forced on them.  In fact the course for which this exam was set has already closed its doors.  That is the right thing to do.

Here’s another example. The course leader for “BSc (Hons) Herbal Medicine” at the Univsrsity of Central Lancashire is Graeme Tobyn BA. But Tobyn is not only a herbalist but also an astrologer. In an interview he said

“At the end I asked her if I could cast her horoscope. She threw up her hands and said, ‘I knew this would happen if I came to an alternative practitioner.”

“I think the ruler of the ascendant was applying to Uranus in the ninth house, which was very pertinent.”

This would be preposterous even in the life style section of a downmarket women’s magazine,  The Pittilo report wants to make degrees run my people like this compulsory. Luckily the Univerity of Central Lancashire is much more sensible and the course is being closed.

The matter is, in any case, being taken out of the hands of the government by the fact that universities are closing degrees in complementary medicine, including courses in some of those under discussion here, The University of Salford and the University of Central Lancashire have recently announced the closure of all the degree programmes in complementary and alternative medicine. The largest provider of such degrees, the University of Westminster has already shut down two of them, and the rest are being assessed at the moment. It is likely that the rest will be closed in the future.

The revelation that Westminster had been teaching its first year students that “amethysts emit high yin energy” and that students had been taught to diagnose disease and choose treatments by means of a dowsing pendulum, showed very clearly the sort of utter nonsense that undergraduates were being forced to learn to get a ‘bachelors degree with honours’. It stretches credulity to its limits to imagine that the public is protected by degrees like this. Precisely the opposite is true. The universities have recognised this, and shut the degrees. One exception is Professor Pittilo’s own university which continues to run a course in homeopathy, the most discredited of all the popular types alternative medicine.

A simpler, more effective and cheaper way to protect the public

I must certainly agree with the minister that protection of the public is an important matter. Having established that the Pittllo recommendations are more likely to endanger the public than protect them, it is essential to suggest alternative proposals that would work better.

Luckily, that is easy, because mechanisms already exist for dealing with the dangers that were listed above. The matter of adulteration, which is serious in traditional Chinese medicine, is a matter that is already the responsibility of the Office of Trading Standards. The major problem of false claims being made for treatment is also the responsibility of the Office of Trading Standards, which has a statutory duty to enforce the Unfair Trading Consumer Protection Regulations of May 2008. These laws state, for example, that

“One of the 31 commercial practices which are in all circumstances considered unfair is “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illnesses, dysfunction or malformations”

The monitoring of false claims, and of side effects of treatments, is also the responsibility of the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA).

Rather than setting up complicated, expensive and ineffective ‘regulation’ by the HPC, all that need to be done is to ensure that the MHRA and/or Trading Standards have the funds to enforce existing laws. At the moment, they are not being implemented effectively, so I’d recommend that responsibility for enforcing the law against false health claims be transferred entirely to the MHRA, which has much more expertise in such matters than Trading Standards This would be both cheaper and more effective than the present system in which the responsibility is divided between the two organisations in an unclear way.

This proposal would protect the public against unsafe and adulterated treatments, and it would protect the public against false and fraudulent claims. That is what matters. It would do so more effectively,
more cheaply and more honestly than the Pittilo recommendations. There would be no reduction in patient choice either, There is no proposal to ban acupuncture, herbal medicine or traditional Chinese medicine. All that is necessary is to ensure that they don’t endanger the public.

Since the root of the problem lies in the fact that the evidence for the effectiveness is very weak. the question of efficacy, and cost-benefit ratio, should be referred to NICE. This was recommended by the House of Lords Report (2000). It is recommended again by the Smallwood report (sponsored by the Prince of Wales Foundation). It is baffling that this has not been done already. It does not seem wise to spend large amounts of money on new research at the moment, in the light of the fact that the US National Institutes of Health has already spent over $1 billion on such research without finding a single useful treatment.

The results of all this research has been to show that hardly any alternative treatment are effective. That cannot be ignored.


Recent events show that the halcyon days for alternative medicine are over. When the Pittilo report first appeared, it was greeted with derision in the media. For example, in The Times Alice Miles wrote

“This week came the publication of the Report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK. Otherwise known as twaddle.”

In the Independent, Dominic Lawson wrote

So now we will have degrees in quackery.

What, really, is the difference between acupuncture and psychic surgery?

People will no doubt continue to use it and that is their right and their responsibility. But if the government were to accept the recommendations of the Pittilo report it would be seen, quite rightly, as being anti-scientific and of posing a danger to the public.

Fortunately there is a better, and cheaper, way to protect the public.


Margaret McCartney’s blog in the Financial Times puts rhw view of a GP with her usual sense, humour and incisiveness.

“This report would, if implemented, create lots more nonsense exam papers funded by a lot more public money – and would produce practitioners without the absolutely crucial skill of how to assess evidence and reject or use it appropriately”

The Times has covered the story (with some interesting comments) Consultation on how to regulate complementary and alternative therapies

Times Higher Education UK-wide consultation on CAM regulation is launched Excellent response from Andy Lewis.

The Sun has by far the best coverage up to now, Jane Symons writes “Regulating quacks helps them prey on gullible patients

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