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Chinese medicine – DC's Improbable Science

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.The University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) is the first place I asked to see teaching materials that were used on its homeopathy “BSc” course. The request was refused, and subsequent internal appeals were refused too, Clearly UCLAN had something to hide.

UClan-logo

An appeal to the information commissioner took almost two years to be judged, but the case was won. The eventual decision by the Information
Commissioner rejected all the grounds that UClan had used to evade the Freedom of Information Act.

UClan appealed against the judgement and I still haven’t got the stuff but that hardly matters now, because the course in question shut its doors. In any case, plenty of stuff from similar courses has leaked out already.

Meanwhile, in September 2008, UCLAN announced an internal review of all its courses in magic medicine, The review seemed to be genuine. For a start they asked me to give evidence to the review (something that no other university has done). They also asked Michael Eslea to give evidence. He is the UCLAN psychologist, whose magnificent open letter probably tipped the authorities into holding the review.

Just in case it is useful to anyone, here is a copy of the written evidence that I sent [download pdf],

Report of the Working Party on the Review of issues associated with Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine

1. Introduction

As a consequence of concerns expressed by some colleagues within the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) Dr Malcolm McVicar, Vice Chancellor appointed a working party to review the issues associated with the University offering courses in Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine.

MEMBERSHIP:

Eileen Martin (Chair)                Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Faculty of Health and Social Care 
Professor Gordon Bromage      Head of Centre for Astrophysics
Professor Malcolm Edmunds    Emeritus; Built and Natural Environment
Professor Doris Schroeder        Director of Centre for Professional Ethics
Elaine Austin                               Project Manager, Faculty of Health and Social Care


The report was the subject of a special meeting of UCLAN’s Academic Board on 9th July 2009. The following resolutions were passed.

Resolutions

R1    That further minor revisions be made to the report prior to publication on the University’s website;

R2   That the University refrain from offering any practitioner-qualifying courses in Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine until such disciplines have achieved statutory regulation status;

R3    That the University consider offering a limited number of postgraduate research studentships (leading to Masters by Research of PhD) to suitably qualified UCLan students and staff in these disciplines. They should have interdisciplinary supervisory teams to facilitate development of a broad range of research skills and to contribute to the generation of knowledge in CAM;

R4   That the University consider how more interdisciplinary teaching can be achieved, where appropriate, within both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching to facilitate greater exposure to subject expertise and different paradigms.

Resolutions 1, 3 and 4 say very little. Resolution 4 sounds thoroughly relativist. We are talking about medicine, about treating sick patients. There is only one “paradigm”. That is to find treatments that are as effective and safe as possible. There aren’t two sorts of medicine, regular and alternative. There is just medicine that works and medicine that doesn’t work. It’s a good illustration of DC’s rule number 2, “never trust anyone who uses the word paradigm”.

Resolution 2 is the really interesting one, because none if the topics, Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, is subject to statutory regulation.

If taken literally, resolution 2 means that all the UCLan courses in alternative medicine will close their doors. Bafflingly, this inevitable conclusion is not stated explicitly.

At least resolution 2 means that homeopathy, already closed, will stay closed. It is never likely to get statutory regulation.

For practical purposes, we can ignore for the moment the obvious fact that statutory regulation of nonsense subjects results only in nonsense. The only forms of alternative medicine that have got “statutory regulation” at the moment are chiropractic and osteopathy. The public has not been safeguarded by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). The GCC, on the contrary, has endangered the public by allowing false health claims to be made with impunity. Perhaps the members of the review committee had not noticed that the Simon SIngh affair has resulted in almost 600 complaints being made to the GCC? The faith of the review in statutory regulation is clearly misplaced.

The Pittilo report is critical for what happens next

Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine are not subject to statutory regulation at present, so one would suppose that these degrees will close their doors too. However the infamous Pittilo report has proposed that they should become regulated by the Health Professions Council (HPC). The many problems of the Pittilo report have been documented here, in “A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor“. There was also a high-profile critique of the report in The Times (and on this blog).

The HPC has, as one of its criteria for regulation, “evidence-based practice”. Disgracefully, the HPC has already shown its willingness to ignore its own rules and to act as statutory regulator for Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal medicine. This rather disgraceful behaviour is documented in “Health Professions Council ignores its own rules: the result is nonsense“.

The UCLAN report seems to assume that the recommendations of the Pittilo report will be accepted. But the long-awaited consultation has still not opened. We can be sure that when it does, the opposition to it will be very strong indeed.

The report in full

Here are a few comments on the report itself.    Download the full report (as of July 15th).

i have to say that when I visited Preston to give evidence, my views seem to be treated seriously, even sympathetically, so it was a great disappointment to see the outcome. So what’s wrong? The major disaster is declared early in the report.

Section 2, Context

The debate is centred on a number of key themes which relate to:-

1. The quality of and/or absence of an evidence base to support claims of the efficacy and benefits of such treatments, linked to issues of public safety/protection and professional regulation.

Sounds good. What matters about any sort of medicine is whether or not it works and whether it is safe. It therefore verges on the incredible that we read in section 4.1

“conclusions from research into the efficacy of the various CAM’s are outside the remit of this report.”

The whole point about CAM is that there is very little evidence that any of it works. So the review committee decided to ignore the most important problem of the lot.  I can’t see how any rational decision can be made without first deciding whether the treatment is better than placebo.  That, surely, is the main question, and it was dodged.

UCLAN has failed to grasp the nettle, just as the Department of Health has also consistently failed to do so.

Section 4,1  Efficacy   This section repeats the assertion, absurd to my mind, that it is possible to judge CAM courses while declining to assess whether they work or not.

Section 4.2 Role of Universities in Society.

There is universal agreement that critical thinking is crucial to the idea of a university, but the judgement of whether CAM teaches critical thinking is simply fudged. Again the report fails to grasp the nettle.

“Disagreements about critical thinking within CAMs arises because some will argue that such substantiation and assessment can occur within the discipline, whilst others will argue that the methodology for substantiation, that is evidence provision, is universal. As a result, the latter will demand that evidence is provided using methods from one field (e.g. randomised controlled trials) for use in another.”

Sadly, the report dodged the crucial judgement once again. The most obvious characteristic of every form of alternative medicine is their total lack of critical self-appraisal. It is very sad that the review committee could not bring itself to say so.

Section 4.4   Nomenclature of degrees

Recommendation
The nomenclature of courses, leading to a professional as well as an academic award, should reflect the professional route; for example Bachelor with Honours in Complementary Medicine, B Comp. Med.(Hons) or B Acupuncture (Hons).

This sounds to me like another truly pathetic fudge. What on earth is solved by changing the name of the degree? You’d still be teaching students the same load of gobbledygook and then letting them loose on sick people, whether you call it a Bachelor of Science, a Bachelor of Arts, or, as is recommended here, a Bachelor of nothing whatsoever.

Well, I suppose there is a (doubtless unintended) irony in calling CAM degrees “Bachelor of nothing whatsoever”.

Section 4.4   Ethical, non-harm and economic considerations

This section list a lot of reasons why teaching alternative medicine should be unethical. but nevertheless manages to conclude that

” . . . it is not unethical to offer courses in Homeopathy, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine at a university.”

I find the logic by which this bizarre conclusion was reached quite impossible to follow. Like much of the rest of the report this conclusion seems to stem from a reluctance to grapple with the really important questions, like ‘does it work or not?’.

Despite this the recommendation is perhaps the most interesting of all.

Recommendation
• The University refrains from offering any CAM courses until such disciplines have achieved statutory regulation status.”

This recommendation was accepted, and passed as a resolution at Academic Board. If it is implemented now, than there will be no more alternative medicine degrees next year at the University of Central Lancashire. If and when this happens, the University must be congratulated on its return to rational medicine.

Follow-up

Michael Eslea, UCLAN’s hero in resisting nonsense from the inside, has posted on this topic.

17 July 2009. It seemed odd that that no announcement was made about the future if the remaining CAM courses at UCLAN. So I asked deputy Vice-Chancellor Patrick McGhee for clarification. After a couple of days, I got this response.

From: CTheobald@uclan.ac.uk

To: d.colquhoun@ucl.ac.uk
Subject: uclan clarification

Hi David,

I have been asked to respond to your question below on the running of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine at UCLan. It is correct to assume that UCLan will not be taking any new entrants onto these programmes until further notice.

Best Wishes

Chris

Chris Theobald
Corporate Communications
University of Central Lancashire

So the report may have been disappointing, but it has done the job. As several people have pointed out in comments, it would be asking too much to expect a university to say “sorry we just noticed that we have been running junk-science courses for years”. But they have done the right thing anyway.