College of medicine
‘We know little about the effect of diet on health. That’s why so much is written about it’. That is the title of a post in which I advocate the view put by John Ioannidis that remarkably little is known about the health effects if individual nutrients. That ignorance has given rise to a vast industry selling advice that has little evidence to support it.
The 2016 Conference of the so-called "College of Medicine" had the title "Food, the Forgotten Medicine". This post gives some background information about some of the speakers at this event. I’m sorry it appears to be too ad hominem, but the only way to judge the meeting is via the track record of the speakers.
Quite a lot has been written here about the "College of Medicine". It is the direct successor of the Prince of Wales’ late, unlamented, Foundation for Integrated Health. But unlike the latter, its name is disguises its promotion of quackery. Originally it was going to be called the “College of Integrated Health”, but that wasn’t sufficently deceptive so the name was dropped.
For the history of the organisation, see
The conference programme (download pdf) is a masterpiece of bait and switch. It is a mixture of very respectable people, and outright quacks. The former are invited to give legitimacy to the latter. The names may not be familiar to those who don’t follow the antics of the magic medicine community, so here is a bit of information about some of them.
The introduction to the meeting was by Michael Dixon and Catherine Zollman, both veterans of the Prince of Wales Foundation, and both devoted enthusiasts for magic medicne. Zollman even believes in the battiest of all forms of magic medicine, homeopathy (download pdf), for which she totally misrepresents the evidence. Zollman works now at the Penny Brohn centre in Bristol. She’s also linked to the "Portland Centre for integrative medicine" which is run by Elizabeth Thompson, another advocate of homeopathy. It came into being after NHS Bristol shut down the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, on the very good grounds that it doesn’t work.
Now, like most magic medicine it is privatised. The Penny Brohn shop will sell you a wide range of expensive and useless "supplements". For example, Biocare Antioxidant capsules at £37 for 90. Biocare make several unjustified claims for their benefits. Among other unnecessary ingredients, they contain a very small amount of green tea. That’s a favourite of "health food addicts", and it was the subject of a recent paper that contains one of the daftest statistical solecisms I’ve ever encountered
"To protect against type II errors, no corrections were applied for multiple comparisons".
If you don’t understand that, try this paper.
The results are almost certainly false positives, despite the fact that it appeared in Lancet Neurology. It’s yet another example of broken peer review.
It’s been know for decades now that “antioxidant” is no more than a marketing term, There is no evidence of benefit and large doses can be harmful. This obviously doesn’t worry the College of Medicine.
Margaret Rayman was the next speaker. She’s a real nutritionist. Mixing the real with the crackpots is a standard bait and switch tactic.
Eleni Tsiompanou, came next. She runs yet another private "wellness" clinic, which makes all the usual exaggerated claims. She seems to have an obsession with Hippocrates (hint: medicine has moved on since then). Dr Eleni’s Joy Biscuits may or may not taste good, but their health-giving properties are make-believe.
Andrew Weil, from the University of Arizona
gave the keynote address. He’s described as "one of the world’s leading authorities on Nutrition and Health". That description alone is sufficient to show the fantasy land in which the College of Medicine exists. He’s a typical supplement salesman, presumably very rich. There is no excuse for not knowing about him. It was 1988 when Arnold Relman (who was editor of the New England Journal of Medicine) wrote A Trip to Stonesville: Some Notes on Andrew Weil, M.D..
“Like so many of the other gurus of alternative medicine, Weil is not bothered by logical contradictions in his argument, or encumbered by a need to search for objective evidence.”
This blog has mentioned his more recent activities, many times.
Alex Richardson, of Oxford Food and Behaviour Research (a charity, not part of the university) is an enthusiast for omega-3, a favourite of the supplement industry, She has published several papers that show little evidence of effectiveness. That looks entirely honest. On the other hand, their News section contains many links to the notorious supplement industry lobby site, Nutraingredients, one of the least reliable sources of information on the web (I get their newsletter, a constant source of hilarity and raised eyebrows). I find this worrying for someone who claims to be evidence-based. I’m told that her charity is funded largely by the supplement industry (though I can’t find any mention of that on the web site).
Stephen Devries was a new name to me. You can infer what he’s like from the fact that he has been endorsed byt Andrew Weil, and that his address is "Institute for Integrative Cardiology" ("Integrative" is the latest euphemism for quackery). Never trust any talk with a title that contains "The truth about". His was called "The scientific truth about fats and sugars," In a video, he claims that diet has been shown to reduce heart disease by 70%. which gives you a good idea of his ability to assess evidence. But the claim doubtless helps to sell his books.
Prof Tim Spector, of Kings College London, was next. As far as I know he’s a perfectly respectable scientist, albeit one with books to sell, But his talk is now online, and it was a bit like a born-again microbiome enthusiast. He seemed to be too impressed by the PREDIMED study, despite it’s statistical unsoundness, which was pointed out by Ioannidis. Little evidence was presented, though at least he was more sensible than the audience about the uselessness of multivitamin tablets.
Simon Mills talked on “Herbs and spices. Using Mother Nature’s pharmacy to maintain health and cure illness”. He’s a herbalist who has featured here many times. I can recommend especially his video about Hot and Cold herbs as a superb example of fantasy science.
Annie Anderson, is Professor of Public Health Nutrition and
Founder of the Scottish Cancer Prevention Network. She’s a respectable nutritionist and public health person, albeit with their customary disregard of problems of causality.
Patrick Holden is chair of the Sustainable Food Trust. He promotes "organic farming". Much though I dislike the cruelty of factory farms, the "organic" industry is largely a way of making food more expensive with no health benefits.
The Michael Pittilo 2016 Student Essay Prize was awarded after lunch. Pittilo has featured frequently on this blog as a result of his execrable promotion of quackery -see, in particular, A very bad report: gamma minus for the vice-chancellor.
Nutritional advice for patients with cancer. This discussion involved three people.
Professor Robert Thomas, Consultant Oncologist, Addenbrookes and Bedford Hospitals, Dr Clare Shaw, Consultant Dietitian, Royal Marsden Hospital and Dr Catherine Zollman, GP and Clinical Lead, Penny Brohn UK.
Robert Thomas came to my attention when I noticed that he, as a regular cancer consultant had spoken at a meeting of the quack charity, “YestoLife”. When I saw he was scheduled tp speak at another quack conference. After I’d written to him to point out the track records of some of the people at the meeting, he withdrew from one of them. See The exploitation of cancer patients is wicked. Carrot juice for lunch, then die destitute. The influence seems to have been temporary though. He continues to lend respectability to many dodgy meetings. He edits the Cancernet web site. This site lends credence to bizarre treatments like homeopathy and crystal healing. It used to sell hair mineral analysis, a well-known phony diagnostic method the main purpose of which is to sell you expensive “supplements”. They still sell the “Cancer Risk Nutritional Profile”. for £295.00, despite the fact that it provides no proven benefits.
Robert Thomas designed a food "supplement", Pomi-T: capsules that contain Pomegranate, Green tea, Broccoli and Curcumin. Oddly, he seems still to subscribe to the antioxidant myth. Even the supplement industry admits that that’s a lost cause, but that doesn’t stop its use in marketing. The one randomised trial of these pills for prostate cancer was inconclusive. Prostate Cancer UK says "We would not encourage any man with prostate cancer to start taking Pomi-T food supplements on the basis of this research". Nevertheless it’s promoted on Cancernet.co.uk and widely sold. The Pomi-T site boasts about the (inconclusive) trial, but says "Pomi-T® is not a medicinal product".
There was a cookery demonstration by Dale Pinnock "The medicinal chef" The programme does not tell us whether he made is signature dish "the Famous Flu Fighting Soup". Needless to say, there isn’t the slightest reason to believe that his soup has the slightest effect on flu.
In summary, the whole meeting was devoted to exaggerating vastly the effect of particular foods. It also acted as advertising for people with something to sell. Much of it was outright quackery, with a leavening of more respectable people, a standard part of the bait-and-switch methods used by all quacks in their attempts to make themselves sound respectable. I find it impossible to tell how much the participants actually believe what they say, and how much it’s a simple commercial drive.
The thing that really worries me is why someone like Phil Hammond supports this sort of thing by chairing their meetings (as he did for the "College of Medicine’s" direct predecessor, the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. His defence of the NHS has made him something of a hero to me. He assured me that he’d asked people to stick to evidence. In that he clearly failed. I guess they must pay well.
This article has appeared, in nearly identical form, on the UK Conversation . You can leave comments there or here.
A constitutional monarch is purely ceremonial and plays no part in politics. Well actually in the UK it isn’t quite as simple as that. The first problem is that we have no constitution. Things haven’t changed much since the 19th century when Walter Bagehot said "the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy… three rights—the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn."
These are not inconsiderable powers in a country which is meant to be run by elected representatives. But nobody knows how these powers are used: it is all done in secret. Well, almost all. Charles, Prince of Wales, has been unusually public in expressing his views. He told a conference at St James’s Palace “I was accused once of being the enemy of the Enlightenment” “I felt proud of that.” That’s a remarkable point of view for someone who, if he succeeds, will become the patron of that product of the age of enlightenment, the Royal Society.
I have no doubt that Prince Charles means well. He can’t be blamed for his lack of education. But his views on medicine date from a few centuries ago, and he has lost no opportunity to exploit his privileged position to proclaim them.
Euphemisms for quackery
He set up the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health (PFIH) to promote his views. ( “Integrated”, in this context, is, of course, just the latest euphemism for “alternative” or “quack”.) When the Foundation collapsed because of a financial scandal in 2010, it was replaced by the “College of Medicine”. The name changed, but not the people behind it. Initially this phoenix was to be named the “College of Integrated Health”, but by this time the prince’s views on medicine had become sufficiently discredited that the word “integrated” was quickly dropped. This might be thought less than frank, but it is just employment of the classic bait and switch technique, beloved by used car salesmen.
His views were well publicised in a PFIH publication, “Complementary Healthcare: a Guide for Patients”. That volume either omitted or misrepresented the evidence about the one question that matters most to patients – does the treatment work or not? It caused me to write a much shorter, but more accurate, version, the Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine. The PFIH guide was arguably a danger to public health. When, very properly, it was criticised by Edzard Ernst, a letter was sent from from the prince’s private secretary to Ernst’s vice-chancellor, Steve Smith. Instead of defending Ernst’s public spirited action, Smith instituted disciplinary proceedings against Ernst that lasted for a year. The prince had intervened directly in the affairs of the university. Steve Smith was rewarded with a knighthood in 2011.
None of this criticism has dimmed the prince’s enthusiasm for barmy medical ideas. He is well known to write many letters to government ministers to try to persuade them to adopt his ideas in a whole range of areas. In July 2013, the Minister of Health, Jeremy Hunt, visited the prince at Clarence House. The visit was reported to be to persuade the minister to defend homeopathy, though it was more likely to have been to press the case to confer a government stamp of approval on herbalists and traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners by giving them statutory regulation. This is a matter that was recently raised again in parliament by Charles’ greatest ally, David Tredinnick MP (Con, Bosworth) who got into trouble for charging astrology software to expenses. We shall never know what pressure was applied. A ruling of the Information Commissioner judged, reasonably enough, that there was public interest in knowing what influences were being brought to bear on public policy. But the Attorney General overruled the judgement on the grounds that “Disclosure of the correspondence could damage The Prince of Wales’ ability to perform his duties when he becomes King.” That, of course, is exactly what we are worried about.
Influence on politics
The prince’s influence seems to be big in the Department of Health (DH). He was given £37,000 of taxpayers’ money to produce his guide, and an astonishing £900,000 to prepare the ground for the setting up of the hapless self-regulator, the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC, also known as Ofquack). When NHS Choices (itself set up by DH to assess evidence) tried to rewrite its web page about that most discredited of all forms of quackery, homeopathy, officials in DH referred the new advice to Michael Dixon, the medical director of the Prince’s Foundation and, were it not for the Freedom of Information act, the DH would have caused inaccurate information to be provided. The DH has a chief medical officer and two scientific advisors, but prefers to take the advice of the Prince of Wales.
The Prince of Wales’ business, Duchy Originals, has been condemned by the Daily Mail, (of all places) for selling unhealthy foods. And when his business branched into selling quack “detox” and herbal nonsense he found himself censured by both the MHRA and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for making unjustifiable medical claims for these products.
Ainsworth’s homeopathic pharmacy is endorsed by both Prince Charles and the Queen: it has two Royal Warrants. They sell “homeopathic vaccines” for meningitis, measles, rubella and whooping cough. These “vaccines” contain nothing whatsoever so they are obviously a real danger to public health. Despite the fact that Ainsworth’s had already been censured by the ASA in 2011 for selling similar products, Ainsworth’s continued to recommend them with a “casual disregard for the law”. The regulator (the MHRA) failed to step in to stop them until it was eventually stirred into action by a young BBC reporter, Sam Smith, made a programme for BBC South West. Then, at last, the somnolent regulator was stirred into action. The MHRA “told Ainsworths to stop advertising a number of products” (but apparently not to stop making them or selling them). They still sell Polonium metal 30C and Swine Meningitis 36C, and a booklet that recommends homeopathic “vaccination”. Ainsworth’s sales are no doubt helped by the Royal Warrants. The consequence is that people may die of meningitis. In 2011, the MHRA Chief Executive Professor Kent Woods, was knighted.
It runs in the family
The Prince of Wales is not the only member of the royal family to be obsessed with bizarre forms of medicine. The first homeopath to the British royal family, Frederick Quin, was a son of the Duchess of Devonshire (1765-1824). Queen Mary (1865-1953), wife of King George V, headed the fundraising efforts to move and expand the London Homeopathic Hospital.
King George VI was so enthusiastic that in 1948 conferred the royal title on the London Homeopathic Hospital. The Queen Mother loved homeopathy too (there is no way to tell whether this contributed to her need for a colostomy in the 1960s).
The present Queen’s homeopathic physician is Peter Fisher, who is medical director of what, until recently was called the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (RLHH). In 2010 that hospital was rebranded as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM) in another unsubtle bait and switch move.
The RLHIM is a great embarrassment to the otherwise excellent UCLH Trust. It has been repeatedly condemned by the Advertising Standards Authority for making false claims. As a consequence, it has been forced to withdraw all of its patient information.
The patron of the RLHIM is the Queen, not the Prince of Wales. It is hard to imagine that this anachronistic institution would still exist if it were not for the influence, spoken or unspoken, of the Queen. Needless to say we will never be told.
The Queen and Peter Fisher
Observer 8 April 2007
The attorney general, while trying to justify the secrecy of Charles’ letters, said
“It is a matter of the highest importance within our constitutional framework that the Monarch is a politically neutral figure”.
Questions about health policy are undoubtedly political, and the highly partisan interventions of the prince in the political process make his behaviour unconstitutional. They endanger the monarchy itself. Whether that matters depends on how much you value tradition and how much you value the tourist business generated by the Gilbert & Sullivan flummery at which royals excel.
The least that one can ask of the royal family is that they should not endanger the health of the nation. If I wanted to know the winner of the 2.30 at Ascot, I’d ask a royal. For any question concerning science or medicine I’d ask someone with more education.
Here is some more interesting reading
Michael Baum’s “An open letter to the Prince of Wales: with respect, your highness, you’ve got it wrong”
Gerald Weissman’s essay Homeopathy: Holmes, Hogwarts, and the Prince of Wales.
Channel 4 TV documentary HRH “meddling in politics”
Observer April 2007 "Royals’ favoured hospital at risk as homeopathy backlash gathers pace. The Queen loves it. But alternative medicine centre’s future looks uncertain as more NHS trusts axe funding"
A constant theme of this blog is that the NHS should not pay for useless treatments. By and large, NICE does a good job of preventing that. But NICE has not been allowed by the Department of Health to look at quackery.
I have the impression that privatisation of many NHS services will lead to an increase in the provision of myth-based therapies. That is part of the "bait and switch" tactic that quacks use in the hope of gaining respectability. A prime example is the "College of Medicine", financed by Capita and replete with quacks, as one would expect since it is the reincarnation of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health.
One such treatment is acupuncture. Having very recently reviewed the evidence, we concluded that "Acupuncture is a theatrical placebo: the end of a myth". Any effects it may have are too small to be useful to patients. That’s the background for an interesting case study.
A colleague got a very painful frozen shoulder. His GP referred him to the Camden & Islington NHS Trust physiotherapy service. That service is now provided by a private company, Connect Physical Health.
That proved to be a big mistake. The first two appointments were not too bad, though they resulted in little improvement. But at the third appointment he was offered acupuncture. He hesitated, but agreed, in desperation to try it. It did no good. At the next appointment the condition was worse. After some very painful manipulation, the physiotherapist offered acupuncture again. This time he refused on the grounds that "I hadn’t noticed any effect the first time, because there is no evidence that it works and that I was concerned by her standards of hygiene". The physiotherapist then became "quite rude" and said that she would put down that the patient had refused treatment.
The lack of response was hardly surprising. NHS Evidence says
In fact it now seems beyond reasonable doubt that acupuncture is no more than a theatrical placebo.
According to Connect’s own web site “Our services are evidence-based”. That is evidently untrue in this case, so I asked them for the evidence that acupuncture was effective.
I’d noticed that in other places, Connect Physical Health also offers the obviously fraudulent craniosacral therapy (for example, here) and discredited chiropractic quackery. So I asked them about the evidence for their effectiveness too.
This is what they said.
Many thanks for your comments via our web site. In response, we thought you might like to access the sources for some of the evidence which underpins our MSK services:
Integrating Evidence-Based Acupuncture into Physiotherapy for the Benefit of the Patient – you can obtain the information you require from www.aacp.org.uk
The General Chiropractic Council www.gcc-uk.org/page.cfm
We have also attached a copy of the NICE Guidelines.
So, no Cochrane reviews, no NHS Evidence. Instead I was referred to the very quack organisations that promote the treatments in question, the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists, and the totally discredited General Chiropractic Council.
The NICE guidelines that they sent were nothing to do with frozen shoulder. They were the guidelines for low back pain which caused such a furore when they were first issued (and which, in any case, don’t recommend chiropractic explicitly).
When I pointed out these deficiencies I got this.
Your email below has been forwarded to me. I am sorry if you feel that that that information we pointed you towards to enable you to make your own investigations into the evidence base for the services provided by Connect Physical Health and your hospital did not meet with your expectations.
‘ ‘ ‘
Please understand that our NHS services in Camden were commissioned by the Primary Care Trust. The fully integrated MSK service model included provision for acupuncture and other manual therapy provided by our experienced Chartered Physiotherapists. If you have any problems with the evidence base for the use of acupuncture or manual therapy within the service, which has been commissioned on behalf of the GPs in Camden Borough, then I would politely recommend that you direct your observations to the clinical commissioning authorities and other professional bodies who do spend time evidencing best practice and representing the academic arguments. I am sure they will be pleased to pick up discussions with you about the relative merits of the interventions being procured by the NHS.
Mark Philpott BSc BSc MSc MMACP MCSP
Head of Operations, Community MSK Services
Connect Physical Health
35 Apex Business Village
Northumberland NE23 7BF
So, "don’t blame us, blame the PCT". A second letter asked why they were shirking the little matter of evidence.
In response to your last email, I would like to say that Connect does not wish to be drawn into a debate over two therapeutic options (acupuncture and craniosacral therapy) that are widely practiced [sic] within and outside the NHS by very respectable practitioners.
You will be as aware, as Connect is, that there are lots of treatments that don’t have a huge evidence base that are practiced in mainstream medicine. Connect has seen many carefully selected patients helped by acupuncture and manual therapy (craniosacral therapy / chiropractic) over many years. Lack of evidence doesn’t mean they don’t work, just that benefit is not proven. Furthermore, nowhere on our website do we state that ALL treatments / services / modalities that Connect offer are ‘Evidence Based’. We do however offer many services that are evidence based, where the evidence exists. We aim to offer ‘choice’ to patients, from a range of services that are safe and delivered by suitably trained professionals and practitioners in line with Codes of Practice and Guidelines from the relevant governing bodies.
Connect’s service provision in Camden is meticulously assessed and of a high standard and we are proud of the services provided.
This response is so wrong, on so many levels, that I gave up on Mr Philpott at this point. At least he admitted implicitly that all of their treatments are not evidence-based. In that case their web site needs to change that claim.
If, by "governing bodies" he means jokes like the GCC or the CNHC then I suppose the behaviour of their employees is not surprising. Mr Philpott is evidently not aware that "craniosacral therapy" has been censured by the Advertising Standards Authority. Well he is now, but evidently doesn’t seem to give a damn.
Next I wrote to the PCT and it took several mails to find out who was responsible for the service. Three mails produced no response so I sent a Freedom of Information Act request. In the end I got some
"Connect PHC provide the Community musculoskeletal service for Camden. The specification for the service specifically asks for the provision of evidence based management and treatments see paragraph on Governance page 14 of attached.. Patients are treated with acupuncture as per the NICE Guidelines (May 2009) for the management of low back pain … . .. Chiropractors are not employed in the service and craniosacral therapy is not provided as part of the service either."
Another letter, pointing out that they were using acupuncture for things other than low back pain got no more information. They did send a copy of the contract with Connect. It makes no mention whatsoever of alternative treatments. It should have done, so part of the responsibility for the failure must lie with the PCT.
The contract does, however, say (page 18)
The service to be led by a lead clinician/manager who can effectively demonstrate ongoing and evidence-based development of clinical guidelines, policies and protocols for effective working practices within the service
In my opinion, Connect Physical Health are in breach of contract
Another example of Connect ignoring evidence
The Connect Physical Health web site has an article about osteoarthritis of the knee
Physiotherapy can be extremely beneficial to help to reduce the symptoms of OA. Treatments such as mobilizations, rehab exercises, acupuncture and taping can help to reduce pain, increase range of movement, increase muscle strength and aid return to functional activities and sports.
There is little enough evidence that physiotherapy does any of these things, but at least it is free of mystical mumbo-jumbo. Although at one time the claim for acupuncture was thought to have some truth, the 2010 Cochrane review concludes otherwise
Sham-controlled trials show statistically significant benefits; however, these benefits are small, do not meet our pre-defined thresholds for clinical relevance, and are probably due at least partially to placebo effects from incomplete blinding.
This conclusion is much the same as has been reached for acupuncture treatments of almost everything. Two major meta-analyses come to similar conclusions. Madsen Gøtzsche & Hróbjartsson (2009) and Vickers et al (2012) both conclude that if there is an effect at all (dubious) then it is too small to be noticeable to the patient. (Be warned that in the case of Vickers et al. you need to read the paper itself because of the spin placed on the results in the abstract.). These papers are discussed in detail in our recent paper.
Why is Connect Physical Health not aware of this?
Their head of operations told me (see above) that
"Connect does not wish to be drawn into a debate [about acupuncture and craniosacral therapy]".
That outlook was confirmed when I left a comment on their osteoarthritis post. This is what it looked like almost a month later.
Guess what? The comment has never appeared..
The attitude of Connect Physical Health to evidence is simply to ignore it if it gets in the way of making money, and to censor any criticism.
What have Camden NHS done about it?
The patient and I both complained to Camden NHS in August 2012. At first, they simply forwarded the complaints to Connect Physical Health with the unsatisfactory results shown above. It took until May 2013 to get any sort of reasonable response. That seems a very long time. In fact by the time the response arrived the PCT had been renamed a Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) because of the vast top-down reorganisation inposed by Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act.
On 8 May 2013, this response was sent to the patient, Here is part of it.
I have received your email of complaint from the NHSNCL complaints department regarding your care.
You raise some very clear concerns and I will attempt to address these in order.
1) The fact that you felt pressurised into having acupuncture is a concern as everybody should be given a choice. As part of the informed consent relating to acupuncture you should have been told about the treatment, it’s [sic] benefits and risks and then you sign to confirm you are happy to proceed. I understand that this was the case in your situation but I have reinforced that the consent is important and must be adhered to by the provider Connect Physical Health. There are clear standards of clinical practice that all Chartered Physiotherapists must follow which I will discuss further with the Connect Camden team Manager Nick Downing.
I do disagree with you around acupuncture; there is no conclusive evidence for acupuncture in frozen shoulder but I have referenced a systematic review which concludes the studies were too small to draw any conclusions although shoulder function was significantly improved at 4 weeks (Green S et al. Acupuncture for shoulder pain. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2005; 18: CD005319). There is a growing body of evidence supporting the use of acupuncture and until such time as there is specific evidence against it I don’t think we would be absolutely against the practice of this modality alongside other treatments.
Strategy and Planning Directorate
This response raises more questions than it answers.
For example, what is "informed consent" worth if the therapist is his/herself misinformed about the treatment? It is the eternal dilemma of alternative medicine that it is no use referring to well-trained practitioners, when their training has inculcated myths and untruths.
There is not a "growing body of evidence supporting the use of acupuncture". Precisely the opposite is true.
And the statement "until such time as there is specific evidence against it I don’t think we would be absolutely against the practice of this modality alongside" betrays a basic misunderstanding of the scientific process.
So I sent the writer of this letter a reprint of our paper, "Acupuncture is a theatrical placebo: the end of a myth" (the blog version alone has had over 12,000 page views). A few days later we had an amiable lunch together and we had a constructive discussion about the problems of deciding what should be commissioned and what shouldn’t.
It seems to me to be clear that CCGs should take better advice before boasting that they commission evidence-based treatments.
Stories like this are worrying to the majority of physiotherapists who don’t go in for mystical mumbo-jumbo of acupuncture. One of the best is Neil O’Connell who blogs at BodyInMind. He tweeted
— Neil O'Connell (@NeilOConnell) June 10, 2013
It isn’t clear how many physiotherapists embrace nonsense, but the Acupuncture Association of Chartered Physiotherapists has around 6000 members, compared with 47,000 chartered physiotherapists (AACP), so it’s a smallish minority. The AACP claims that it is “Integrating Evidence-Based Acupuncture into Physiotherapy”. Like most politicians, the term “evidence-based” is thrown around with gay abandon. Clearly they don’t understand evidence.
12 June 2013
The Advertising Standards Authority has, one again, upheld complaints against the UCLH Trust, for making false claims in its advertising. This time, appropriately, it’s about acupuncture. Just about everything in their advertising leaflets was held to be unjustifiable. They’ve been in trouble before about false claims for homeopathy, hypnosis and craniosacral "therapy".
Of course all of these embarrassments come from one very small corner of the UCLH Trust, the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (previously known as the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital).
Why is it tolerated in an otherwise excellent NHS Trust? Well, the patron is the Queen herself (not Charles, aka the Quacktitioner Royal), She seems to exert more power behind the scenes than is desirable in In a constitutional monarchy
29 June 2013
I wrote to Dr Gill Gaskin about the latest ASA judgement against RLHIM. She is the person at the UCLH Trust who has responsibility for the quack hospital. She previously refused to do anything about the craniosacral nonsense that is promoted there. This time the ASA seems to have stung them into action at long last. I was told
In response to your question about proposed action:
All written information for patients relating to the services offered by the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine are being withdrawn for review in the light of the ASA’s rulings (and the patient leaflets have already been withdrawn). It will be reviewed and modified where necessary item by item, and only reintroduced after sign-off through the Queen Square divisional clinical governance processes and the Trust’s patient information leaflet team.
With best wishes
Dr Gill Gaskin
It remains to be seen whether the re-written information is accurate or not.
The rules for advertising
The Advertising Standards Authority gives advice for advertisers about what’s permitted and what isn’t.
Acupuncture The CAP advice
Craniosacral therapy The CAP advice
Chiropractic The CAP advice.
The time when I lose patience with quacks is when they make unjustified claims about serious diseases. Giving false hope to the desperate (often at a high price) is plain wicked. If the patient stops more effective treatment, it’s homicide. Homeopaths have been jailed for that. Sometimes it’s a result of wishful thinking. Sometimes it’s to make money. The latter is morally more despicable. Both are culpable.
One example was the Totnes (aka Narnia) to “offer real alternatives to the conventional approach to cancer health care“.
Another case, the Dove Clinic, was investigated in the Sunday Times, by Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Justin Stoneman: Clinics mislead patients over cancer ‘cure‘.
There is yet another cancer conference, Back2Health, coming up in April (remember that "integrative", in this context, is a euphemism for quackery).
The speakers are listed on the left, as they were when I first noticed the conference in December 2012. On the right are the speakers as of February 2013,
Spot the difference
18 December 2012
28 February 2013
Yes, the one respectable oncologist on the programme, Robert Thomas, has withdrawn from the meeting.
I came across Robert Thomas because it was pointed out to me that he spoke at a meeting of YesToLife, an organisation that advocates all sorts of treatments that are unsupported by evidence. That seemed like an odd thing for a respectable oncologist to be doing, so I wrote to him, to point out some of the bizarre beliefs of his fellow speakers. Most are familiar names in made-up medicine, but probably not widely known among real oncologists.
Professor Thomas seemed unaware of this because he told me
"Thank you for your email and pointing out the vitamin C issues which of course, as you say has no scientific basis and should be outlawed along with many other practices."
Nevertheless he thought it was too late to pull out of the YesToLife meeting, so went ahead.
After this Robert Thomas wrote to me again (18 December 2012) to ask for advice about another conference he’d been invited to speak at, the Back2health event. Again he seemed unaware of the reputations of his fellow speakers, just about all of whom have a track record of advocating treatments for which there is no good evidence. Many of them are purveyors of false hope, often at a high price. I’ll deal with only three of them.
Chris Woollams of CancerActive is also there. As readers of this blog will know, I accept he is an honest man and I do feel a great deal of sympathy for him having lost his daughter. This doesn’t mean I am any closer to accepting his views on cancer treatment.
Next to Thomas’s picture is Barbara Wren. She was secretly filmed by the BBC claiming "to have cured thyroid cancer by applying external compresses, half an hour with castor oil and half an hour with your own urine". You can’t get much barmier than that.
Then there is a nurse, Patricia Peat, who runs a private "integrative" cancer consultancy, Cancer Options. She’s a prominent supporter of YesToLife which, since at least February 8th 2013, has been promoting a video, "Cancer is Curable Now", which makes totally irresponsible claims (and is illegal in the UK under the Cancer Act, 1939). Among other baseless treatments she has advocated high dose Vitamin C.
“The first of these people is the proprietor of Cancer Options. Cancer Options is a private consultancy offering advice to cancer patients. It is run by Patricia Peat who is a qualified nurse. My dad went to see her and she told him the good news, if he followed her advice he could be tumour free in 3 to 4 years. She advised him to have intravenous vitamin C, to have oxygen therapy, heat therapy and to take a myriad of supplements.”
I have heard that the cost of these useless recommendations over a three months would have been £4,640, plus the considerable cost of moving to Brighton, to the Vision of Hope hospital. That includes, for example, a telephone consultation (£175), supplement pills (£400) and intravenous vitamin C (£3000). There is no good evidence that any of these would help the patient. Not only would this have destituted his family and taken the patient away from them: it would also have made his last days an unnecessary misery. For Christmas he would have been condemned to a vegan diet, no wheat, sugar or alcohol, and to live on five glasses of raw juice and two jars of sprouts a day (see "Would you kick a dying man" for a real life experience).
Patricia Peat appears prominently on another web site too, Self Help Cancer. There she’s partnered by Dr Chris Etheridge (an ex biochemist, turned herbalist, with no medical qualifications). On that site you’ll find every kind of barminess endorsed. It even takes seriously the notorious Burzynski clinic about which so much has been written, both here and in the USA.
Recommending a bit of foot massage or reiki as a way to relax distraught patients is harmless enough if you like that sort of thing. Recommending you to ignore real doctors is quite another. Patricia Peat is on record as saying (my emphasis).
"Also detoxification is as important as what goes in – the rapid removal of toxins from the body would be massively beneficial in reducing the side effects. If someone is on chemotherapy, its very important to get any herbal preparations checked out by a qualified practitioner, to make sure there are no interactions, with the chemotherapy. A lot of nutritional and herbal supplements are very strong, and it is dangerous to suppose that because they are natural, they can do no harm. Probably the worst person to ask about this is your oncologist "
There is, of course, no reason to think that "detoxification" is anything other than a figment of the imagination. There is no reason to think that (never-named) toxins are important, and no reason to think that the procedures get rid of anything.
If you want sound advice about diet, go to somewhere like the American Cancer Society. There you will find that most of the things that quack nutritionists love to sell you just don’t work. The ACS asks "Will a vitamin a day keep cancer away?". Their answer is
"Can popping vitamin pills prevent cancer? The simple answer is no, based on what we know so far. In fact, some vitamin supplements have even shown harm."
The journalist, John Diamond, described movingly the way that the alternative industry moved in on him when it became known that he had cancer. His book, Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations was never finished before he died. These extracts from the foreword to the book, by Richard Dawkins, sum it up.
"When the pathologist has read the runes; when the oracles of X-ray, CT scan and biopsy have spoken and hope is guttering low; when the surgeon enters the room accompanied by ‘a tallish man … looking embarrassed … in hood and gown with a scythe over his shoulder’, it is then that the ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ vultures start circling. This is their moment. This is where they come into their own, for there’s money in hope: the more desperate the hope, the richer the pickings. And. to be fair, many pushers of dishonest remedies are motivated by an honest desire to help. Their persistent importunings of the gravely ill, their intrusively urgent offers of pills and potions, have a sincerity that rises above the financial greed of the quacks they promote. "
"They are targets that deserve to be hit hard, targets whose neutralisation would leave the world a better place: cynical charlatans (or honest foolish dreamers) who prey on gullible unfortunates. And the best part is that although this gallant man is dead, his guns are not silenced"
Shortly before he died, John Diamond said something that I think is one of the most perceptive comments that I’ve ever read. Some of the blame for the rise of the profitable alternative industry lies with the hype of real medicine. It’s worth quoting at length.
"But we expected more. Hell, we’d been promised more. Just as we’d learned, rightly, to expect that the political system could be arranged to provide a roof over the head and food in the stomach of all of us, so, we believed, could the medical system be arranged to give us all health and happiness. It was our right, dammit.
And the medical establishment, flattered by all those pieces in the popular press describing the latest miracle cure which was just about —always just about — to arrive at the local surgery, joined in with the celebrations and connived with the scam. Indeed, if the boom in alternative medicine is anybody’s fault it’s that of orthodox medicine. It was the orthodoxy -helped by the media and our own vanity – which allowed us to believe that we could all be healthy and happy, that there was a pill for every problem and that if we died too early or too painfully it was an act of some agency other than capricious old God. The orthodoxy allowed us to expect
And the elsewhere we looked to was the alternative practitioners. They were only too willing to take our custom . . ."
I have no way of knowing whether the people at this conference are "cynical charlatans" or "honest foolish dreamers". I impute no motives. But I can say that their treatments are very expensive and for the most part they don’t work.
There is an interesting question about the extent to which charities like YesToLife function as charities, and the extent to which they act as agencies that channel desperate patients into the hands of private hucksters. I don’t pretend to know tha answer. I’d like to.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
1 April 2013. The Times contacted me shortly after this came out, about some of the (illegal) nonsense to be found on sale at Amazon. One of their journalists, Kat Lay, did a good write-up, and they contacted the MHRA and stirred it into action. [download pdf].
5 April 2013. I quoted some of Patricia Peat’s views on diet from a page on Woollams’ blog. I notice that the copyright conditions on that page changed
" This content may be copied, in full or in part", has been changed to " No content may be reproduced, in whole or in part".
It’s curious that there should be an attempt to ban the reproduction of content, of which he authors are presumably proud, and which appears on a public web site. Of course it is also baseless in law, because copyright law has always allowed reproduction of parts of any document for the purposes of fair comment or in the public interest.
20 May 2012
In the USA, the first amendment allows the most outrageous claims to be made. But when they do decide the law has been broken, they do something about it. Their law enforcement is not as pathetically impotent as in the UK.
A Dr Christine Donald treated patients with cancer with an expensive herbal concoction, from her Wellness Clinic in San Fernando Valley. She promised 60 – 80% success rate. she was trusted because she was also a Pentecostal minister.
She was convicted of four counts of mail and wire fraud, six counts of tax evasion and one count of witness tampering she was found guilty of in September 2011
She was sentenced to 14 years in jail and a fine of $1.2 million.
One wonders why that never happens in the UK
26 May 2013 I noticed another incredible assertion by Patricia Peat.
“One could be forgiven for thinking how does anyone manage to die from cancer when the answers to curing it are actually so simplistic and one dimensional.”
So that’s solved, then.
10 June 2013.
I have just come across a good source of information about all sorts of alternative cancer treatments. "CAM-Cancer" was originally funded by the European Commission (EC) within the Framework 5 Programme, it is now hosted by the National Information Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NIFAB) at the University of Tromsø, Norway.
“In causing NHS Choices to publish content that is less than completely frank about the evidence on homeopathy, the DH have compromised the editorial standards of a website that they themselves established”. . . “. . . they have failed the general public, by putting special interests, politics, and the path of least resistance (as they saw it) before the truth about health and healthcare.”
David Mattin, lately of NHS Choices
NHS Choices is usually a good source of information for the public. But there is one exception: the information they provide about alternative medicine is poor. A Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that the attempt of NHS Choices to rewrite their pages more accurately was censored by the Department of Health in conjunction with the late Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. The Department of Health (DH) has misled the public.
The earliest version of the homeopathy information page recorded by the Wayback Machine was November 12 2007. It was still there on December 5 2010. The comments were mostly critical. One said, quite correctly,
I find it most regrettable that the way NHS has covered this subject is to give uncritical voice to the claims of homoeopathy without giving readers the information they need to evaluate those claims. To refer readers to the websites of the British Homeopathy Association is like settling the question of the shape of planet by a reference to the website of the Flat Earth Society
There were a lot of complaints, and to the credit of NHS Choices, the page vanished. Throughout 2011, and up to October 2012 the information page on homeopathy read
Content on homeopathy has been removed from the website pending a review by the Department of Health policy team responsible for complementary and alternative medicines.
Homeopathy is not part of mainstream medicine. Instead it is defined as a complementary or alternative medicine. If you are considering using homeopathy, talk to your GP first.
For more information about homeopathy see the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy published on 8 February 2010 and the Department of Health response to that report published in July 2010 (PDF, 69KB).
Then, at the end of 2012, the page reappeared. It was a bit better than the original, but not much. Many of the comments criticise the misleading nature of the information (as well as the usual “it worked for me” comments). The “useful links” still has six links to flat-earth organisations like the Society of Homeopaths, and only one to a sensible source, the excellent pamphlet from Sense about Science. They do link at the end to the 2010 Science and Technology Committee Report: Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy (PDF, 1.61Mb), and to the Government Response to the Science and Technology Committee Report, Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy (PDF, 69kb) but no comment is made on the findings.
I wondered why the NHS Choices page, after an absence of almost two years, had returned in such an unsatisfactory form. So I asked them. After a reminder, I was told that my queries were being dealt with not by NHS Choices, but had been referred to Dr Sunjai Gupta “the DH official with responsibility for this area”. Dr Sunjai Gupta OBE is Deputy Director of Public Health Strategy and Social Marketing, Department of Health.
Dr Gupta is not obviously sympathetic to woo. It’s hard to tell since he doesn’t seem to have published much. But one is not reassured by an article that he wrote for the Journal of Holistic Healthcare. It appears straight after an article by fantasy herbalist, Simon Mills.
Despite assurances that I’d hear from Dr Gupta shortly, nothing happened. So I sent a request for the correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act (2000). Although the request was addressed to NHS Choices, a public body, strenuous efforts were made to divert it to the Department of Health. These were resisted. Nevertheless when, after a long delay, the material arrived, it came not from NHS Choices, but from DH, who had evidently vetted it,. The emails were rather shocking [download all].
A mail dated 1 December 2009 said
This is the most direct statement I’ve seen that, in the Department of Health, policy dictates evidence. NHS Choices is meant to provide evidence, but what they say has to be checked by DH to make sure they “don’t clash with any policy messages”.
The re-written page
The original version of the re-written page was sent to me by David Mattin, who worked for NHS Choices until September 2012. You can download the whole draft here. It is an enormous improvement on the original page. For example, it says
“Does it work?
Many independent experts would respond to this question ‘no, homeopathy does not work’
There is no good quality clinical evidence to show that homeopathy is more successful than placebo in the treatment of any type of condition.
Furthermore, if the principles of homeopath were true it would violate all the existing theories of science that we make use of today; not just our theory of medicine, but also chemistry, biology and physics.
This original draft was sent to Mattin on 29 January 2010. After editing it for length Mattin sent it to DH for approval. Over the next two years, DH removed much of the accurate content. Mattin’s own comments on this evisceration are reproduced below.
The DH emails
All the names have been redacted. Needless to say, nobody is willing to take responsibility. But the number of people who support magic medicine is really quite small so the main players were easy to identify.
During the nearly 2 year absence of the homeopathy page, dozens of changes were made by DH. It seems that the policy message with which the NHS Choices draft failed to comply were those of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, and its successor (after April 2010), the College of Integrated Health, now known as the College of Medicine.
The most reliable source in the country - and one of the most reliable in the world - is Professor Edzard Ernst, professor of Complementary Medicine at the Peninsular Medical School,
Ernst returned his suggestions in July 2010, but it seems that few of them survived the subsequent 18 months of revisions by DH.
On 2 December 2009, a mail from the NHS headquarters (Quarry House, Leeds) was sent to NHS Choices
This makes it perfectly clear that DH regards the Prince’s Foundation, and the equally flaky Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC: known on the web as Ofquack) as appropriate guides for public health policy. The fact of the matter is that regulation of magic medicine by the government has been a total disaster, because, it seems, DH regards the Prince of Wales as a reliable source.
On 29 December 2009, the Prince’s Foundation went on the attack.
On 10th January 2010, two more letters were sent to DH by the Prince’s Foundation. At 13.48 they wrote
And at 22.14 on the same day, it was followed up with
The references to Devon and to Thought Field Therapy, make it very obvious that these letters were written by Dr Michael Dixon OBE, who was medical director of the Prince’s Foundation, and who is now a director of the “College of Medicine”. And the object of Dixon’s bile is obviously Edzard Ernst (the quotation is from his book, Trick or Treatment).
I find it fascinating to see just how venomous quacks become when the evidence contradicts their views. The cuddly “holistic” veneer quickly vanishes.
It gets worse. On 21 January 2010, a mail from NHS Choices to DH said
The only person in the country who fits this description is the (in)famous George Lewith. It is simply mind-boggling that DH regards him as an appropriate person to advise on anything.
After that, NHS Choices kept asking DH to sign off the documents, and changes continued to be made. Almost two years later, DH were still stalling.
The admission that “We are a bit short of doctors within DH these days” is interesting.
A bit short of anyone capable of critical thinking would be more accurate.
The most interesting document that I got from DH was an intermediate draft of the rewritten page on homeopathy (undated). Download the document. Here are a couple of extracts.
It’s a story of two years of meddling and procrastination. The end result misinforms the public.
Right at the start, the NHS Choices draft says, reasonably enough
A House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos and that the principles on which homeopathv is based are “scientifically implausible”.
But a comment, added apparently by DH, says
Can we remove this statement? This report is really quite contentious and we may well be subject to quite a lot of challenge from the Homeopathic community if published.
What on earth? The DH seems to think that that its job is not to present the evidence, but to avoid challenges from the homeopathic community! And true enough, this piece is missing from the final version.
A bit later, the NHS Choices draft was censored again
“A 2010 Science and Technology Committee report said that scientific tests had shown that homeopathic treatments don’t work”
But again this doesn’t appear in the final version. The comment, apparently from DH, says
“The DH response to this report (point 24) doesn’t support this statement though”
That’s a gross distortion of point 24, which actually concludes
“The Government Chief Scientific Adviser cannot envisage scientifically credible proposals for funding for research into homeopathy in the future”
NHS Choices was not happy with the result
Shortly before the revised page was published, Paul Nuki, Editor in Chief of NHS Choicea, sent an email to DH.
Date: 7th September 2011
Time: 3:33:42 pm
I’ve been through the CAM articles and asked that we publish them asap as requested.
For the record, we will be publishing these pieces outside of the normal editorial process. Although originally signed off by a suitably qualified clinician, the time lapse and policy changes have been so substantial as to render that null and void. We also don’t have a formal
It doesn’t need much reading between the lines to see that he was unhappy with the result. It will be interesting to see whether the Information Standard people at the Royal Society for Public Health do anything about it.
The Department of Health has not just ignored evidence but actively opposed it.
That’s the only possible conclusion from the documents that I was sent. And it’s pretty shocking that the DH has preferred advice from the Prince’s Foundation and its handful of acolytes (in particular Michael Dixon and George Lewith) to the findings of the Science and Technology Select Committee and the views of the Chief Scientific Advisor.
In January this year, the Chief medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, said, in a rare outburst of candour
‘I’m very concerned when homeopathic practitioners try to peddle this way of life to prevent malaria or other infectious disease,” she said.
“I am perpetually surprised that homeopathy is available on the NHS.”
Dame Sally, who is England’s most senior doctor, concluded by remarking that homeopathy “is rubbish”.
So one part of DH is working to contradict another part. the Chief Medical Officer. Perhaps Sally Davies should have a word with Dr Gupta.
This all predates the advent of Jeremy Hunt (and known defender of homeopathy) as health minister. But the sympathies of some DH people are made obvious by the presence on the DH web site of an article “Personal health budgets: A new way of accessing complementary therapies?”. This astonishing piece confirms the worst fears that quacks will see personal health budgets as a commercial opportunity to peddle their wares. The article is by Jim Rogers of Lincoln University. What his paper does not mention is Rogers’ conflict of interest. He’s a homeopath, and he has a paper in the International Journal of High Dilution Research (yes, there is a journal for every form of make-believe). You can download a reprint of this paper. It advocates more research into homeopathic provings, something that even George Lewith seems to have given up on.
It’s about time that the DH started to listen to the Chief Medical Officer. As it is, some people at DH seem to prefer the advice of the Prince’s Foundation, and to actively suppress employees who prefer evidence to anecdote.
One thing is clear. The DH is an unholy mess. Parts of it are intent on producing policy-based evidence.
Comment by David Mattin, who edited the first draft for NHS Choices
David Mattin left NHS Choices in September, 2012. He edited the new version and lived through the two years of wrangling with DH during which much of the best content was eviscerated. He sent me this statement about the affair.
As an editor at NHS Choices, I viewed it as my job to present evidence-based information to the public. The article we prepared on homeopathy stayed true to that central purpose: it made clear to readers that there is no good quality evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any health condition, and also presented the broad scientific consensus that the supposed method of action of homeopathy is implausible.
What followed was a two year story of delay, and eventual suppression, of that article. My strong impression was of DH civil servants who lacked the courage, and, frankly, the energy to stand up to the criticism from special interest groups that they anticipated would arise because of the article; and that did indeed arise when a draft of the article and other draft content on complementary and alternative medicines fell into the hands of the Prince’s Foundation and other CAM groups.
The attitude of DH civil servants, broadly, was simply to tell us ‘we can’t say this about homeopathy, people will complain’. They seemed to have no interest in making an appraisal of the evidence on homeopathy themselves to see if what we were saying was actually true or not. We repeatedly pushed back with the message: ‘some people may very well complain, but if what we are saying about the evidence base is true – and it is – then we must simply weather those complaints, and stand by our content. Our duty is to supply our readers with the best information, not to please the homeopathy community.’ But these arguments were disregarded. The DH civil servants were almost entirely concerned with the politics of the situation – that is, the politics as they saw them – and the possibility that this article may create new work for them, and very little concerned with the evidence itself, or the presentation of this evidence to the public.
The whole episode is an insight into the way special interest groups can influence the workings of government and the public sector simply by making a lot of noise, and having a few powerful friends.
In causing NHS Choices to publish content that is less than completely frank about the evidence on homeopathy, the DH have compromised the editorial standards of a website that they themselves established, and that they fund. They have sold out the NHS Choices editorial team, who work tirelessly to fulfil their remit. And, most seriously, they have failed the general public, by putting special interests, politics, and the path of least resistance (as they saw it) before the truth about health and healthcare.
13 February 2013 The Guardian version of this story, written by Sarah Boseley, is Prince’s charity lobbied government to water down homeopathy criticism. It’s fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t name any names. There are some good comments though.
14 February 2013. The printed Guardian gave the story full 5 column-width coverage. [download print version]
And news has reached the USA: there’s an account of the affair on the Neurologica blog: Politics trumping science at the NHS.
On 14 February, the Guardian version was Editor’s Choice by lunchtime, and the Guardian web version already had 414 comments, mostly sensible (though this blog got far more referrals from twitter than from the Guardian)
And news has reached the USA: there’s an account of the affair on the Neurologica blog: Politics trumping science at the NHS.
15 February 2013. The Daily Mail had very fair coverage of the story.
The Guardian closed the comments on the story when it had got 642 comments, most of them very sensible. And this page got almost 6000 hits in 24 hours. The majority of the referrals came from Twitter rather than from the Guardian, despite the direct link to the page from the Guardian.
18 February 2013. The affair featured in BMJ News [download the reprint]. The item featured prominently on the BMJ news page.
19 February 2013 Only six days of this post, the NHS Choices page has been re-written again, in a much improved form. That looks like bloggers 1, DH 0. It is baffling that it’s left to bloggers, working for nothing, to extract a bit of sense from the highly-paid civil servants at the Department of Health. But at least they listened this time, which is a lot more than happens often. Paul Nuki, who runs NHS Choices, deserves congratulations. Of course the revised page still doesn’t call a spade a spade, but it gets close at times. I like the way it starts "Homeopathy is a ‘treatment’ based". Notice the quotation marks.
Incidentally, NHS Choices is outsourced to the (in)famous company, Capita. And the moderation of the comments on their site is outsourced again to Tempero, which describes itself as a "reputation management" company. Each of them creams off money meant of patient care. This discovery might explain why I and others have had comments rejected by NHS Choices several times. "Reputation management" is the antithesis of evidence. It is public relations, i.e. paid lying. That is quite wrong for a site that is meant to provide dispassionate information.
21 February 2013. Sadly a step backwards. Part of the improved page was removed. This bit.
The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has said there is no scientifically plausible way that homeopathy can prevent or cure diseases. She has made it clear she is particularly concerned about the use of homeopathy in developing countries as a so-called cure for malaria.
We can only speculate why this was removed, because it was true. In fact she accurately described homeopathy as "rubbish". Why she should not be quoted beats me.
The Scottish Universities Medical Journal asked me to write about the regulation of alternative medicine. It’s an interesting topic and not easy to follow because of the veritable maze of more than twenty overlapping regulators and quangos which fail utterly to protect the public against health fraud. In fact they mostly promote health fraud. The paper is now published, and here is a version with embedded links (and some small updates).
We are witnessing an increasing commercialisation of medicine. It’s really taken off since the passage of the Health and Social Security Bill into law. Not only does that mean having NHS hospitals run by private companies, but it means that “any qualified provider” can bid for just about any service. The problem lies, of course, in what you consider “qualified” to mean. Any qualified homeopath or herbalist will, no doubt, be eligible. University College London Hospital advertised for a spiritual healer. The "person specification" specified a "quallfication", but only HR people think that a paper qualification means that spiritual healing is anything but a delusion.
The vocabulary of bait and switch
First, a bit of vocabulary. Alternative medicine is a term that is used for medical treatments that don’t work (or at least haven’t been shown to work). If they worked, they’d be called “medicine”. The anti-malarial, artemesinin, came originally from a Chinese herb, but once it had been purified and properly tested, it was no longer alternative. But the word alternative is not favoured by quacks. They prefer their nostrums to be described as “complementary” –it sounds more respectable. So CAM (complementary and alternative medicine became the politically-correct euphemism. Now it has gone a stage further, and the euphemism in vogue with quacks at the moment is “integrated” or “integrative” medicine. That means, very often, integrating things that don’t work with things that do. But it sounds fashionable. In reality it is designed to confuse politicians who ask for, say, integrated services for old people.
Put another way, the salespeople of quackery have become rather good at bait and switch. The wikepedia definition is as good as any.
Bait-and-switch is a form of fraud, most commonly used in retail sales but also applicable to other contexts. First, customers are “baited” by advertising for a product or service at a low price; second, the customers discover that the advertised good is not available and are “switched” to a costlier product.
As applied to the alternative medicine industry, the bait is usually in the form of some nice touchy-feely stuff which barely mentions the mystical nonsense. But when you’ve bought into it you get the whole panoply of nonsense. Steven Novella has written eloquently about the use of bait and switch in the USA to sell chiropractic, acupuncture, homeopathy and herbal medicine: "The bait is that CAM offers legitimate alternatives, the switch is that it primarily promotes treatments that don’t work or are at best untested and highly implausible.".
The "College of Medicine" provides a near-perfect example of bait and switch. It is the direct successor of the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health. The Prince’s Foundation was a consistent purveyor of dangerous medical myths. When it collapsed in 2010 because of a financial scandal, a company was formed called "The College for Integrated Health". A slide show, not meant for public consumption, said "The College represents a new strategy to take forward the vision of HRH Prince Charles". But it seems that too many people have now tumbled to the idea that "integrated", in this context, means barmpottery. Within less than a month, the new institution was renamed "The College of Medicine". That might be a deceptive name, but it’s a much better bait. That’s why I described the College as a fraud and delusion.
Not only did the directors, all of them quacks, devise a respectable sounding name, but they also succeeded in recruiting some respectable-sounding people to act as figureheads for the new organisation. The president of the College is Professor Sir Graham Catto, emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Aberdeen. Names like his make the bait sound even more plausible. He claims not to believe that homeopathy works, but seems quite happy to have a homeopathic pharmacist, Christine Glover, on the governing council of his college. At least half of the governing Council can safely be classified as quacks.
So the bait is clear. What about the switch? The first thing to notice is that the whole outfit is skewed towards private medicine: see The College of Medicine is in the pocket of
Crapita Capita. The founder, and presumably the main provider of funds (they won’t say how much) is the huge outsourcing company, Capita. This is company known in Private Eye as Crapita. Their inefficiency is legendary. They are the folks who messed up the NHS computer system and the courts computer system. After swallowing large amounts of taxpayers’ money, they failed to deliver anything that worked. Their latest failure is the court translation service.. The president (Catto), the vice president (Harry Brunjes) and the CEO (Mark Ratnarajah) are all employees of Capita.
The second thing to notice is that their conferences and courses are a bizarre mixture of real medicine and pure quackery. Their 2012 conference had some very good speakers, but then it had a "herbal workshop" with Simon Mills (see a video) and David Peters (the man who tolerates dowsing as a way to diagnose which herb to give you). The other speaker was Dick Middleton, who represents the huge herbal company, Schwabe (I debated with him on BBC Breakfast), In fact the College’s Faculty of Self-care appears to resemble a marketing device for Schwabe.
Why regulation isn’t working, and can’t work
There are various levels of regulation. The "highest" level is the statutory regulation of osteopathy and chiropractic. The General Chiropractic Council (GCC) has exactly the same legal status as the General Medical Council (GMC). This ludicrous state of affairs arose because nobody in John Major’s government had enough scientific knowledge to realise that chiropractic, and some parts of osteopathy, are pure quackery,
The problem is that organisations like the GCC function more to promote chiropractic than to regulate them. This became very obvious when the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) decided to sue Simon Singh for defamation, after he described some of their treatments as “bogus”, “without a jot of evidence”.
In order to support Singh, several bloggers assessed the "plethora of evidence" which the BCA said could be used to justify their claims. When, 15 months later, the BCA produced its "plethora" it was shown within 24 hours that the evidence was pathetic. The demolition was summarised by lawyer, David Allen Green, in The BCA’s Worst Day.
In the wake of this, over 600 complaints were made to the GCC about unjustified claims made by chiropractors, thanks in large part to heroic work by two people, Simon Perry and Allan Henness. Simon Perry’s Fishbarrel (browser plugin) allows complaints to be made quickly and easily -try it). The majority of these complaints were rejected by the GCC, apparently on the grounds that chiropractors could not be blamed because the false claims had been endorsed by the GCC itself.
My own complaint was based on phone calls to two chiropractors, I was told such nonsense as "colic is down to, er um, faulty movement patterns in the spine". But my complaint never reached the Conduct and Competence committee because it had been judged by a preliminary investigating committee that there was no case to answer. The impression one got from this (very costly) exercise was that the GCC was there to protect chiropractors, not to protect the public.
The outcome was a disaster for chiropractors, wno emerged totally discredited. It was also a disaster for the GCC which was forced to admit that it hadn’t properly advised chiropractors about what they could and couldn’t claim. The recantation culminated in the GCC declaring, in August 2010, that the mythical "subluxation" is a "historical concept " "It is not supported by any clinical research evidence that would allow claims to be made that it is the cause of disease.". Subluxation was a product of the fevered imagination of the founder of the chiropractic cult, D.D. Palmer. It referred to an imaginary spinal lesion that he claimed to be the cause of most diseases. .Since ‘subluxation’ is the only thing that’s distinguished chiropractic from any other sort of manipulation, the admission by the GCC that it does not exist, after a century of pretending that it does, is quite an admission.
The President of the BCA himself admitted in November 2011
“The BCA sued Simon Singh personally for libel. In doing so, the BCA began one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially,”
As a result of all this, the deficiencies of chiropractic, and the deficiencies of its regulator were revealed, and advertisements for chiropractic are somewhat less misleading. But this change for the better was brought about entirely by the unpaid efforts of bloggers and a few journalists, and not at all by the official regulator, the GCC. which was part of the problem. not the solution. And it was certainly not helped by the organisation that is meant to regulate the GCC, the Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) which did nothing whatsoever to stop the farce.
At the other end of the regulatory spectrum, voluntary self-regulation, is an even worse farce than the GCC. They all have grand sounding "Codes of Practice" which, in practice, the ignore totally.
The Society of Homeopaths is just a joke. When homeopaths were caught out recommending sugar pills for prevention of malaria, they did nothing (arguably such homicidal advice deserves a jail sentence).
The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) is widely know in the blogosphere as Ofquack. I know about them from the inside, having been a member of their Conduct and Competence Committee, It was set up with the help of a £900,000 grant from the Department of Health to the Prince of Wales, to oversee voluntary self-regulation. It fails utterly to do anything useful.. The CNHC code of practice, paragraph 15 , states
“Any advertising you undertake in relation to your professional activities must be accurate. Advertisements must not be misleading, false, unfair or exaggerated”.
When Simon Perry made a complaint to the CNHC about claims being made by a CNHC-registered reflexologist, the Investigating Committee upheld all 15 complaints. But it then went on to say that there was no case to answer because the unjustified claims were what the person had been taught, and were made in good faith.
This is precisely the ludicrous situation which will occur again and again if reflexologists (and many other alternative therapies) are “accredited”. The CNHC said, correctly, that the reflexologist had been taught things that were not true, but then did nothing whatsoever about it apart from toning down the advertisements a bit. They still register reflexologists who make outrageously false claims.
Once again we see that no sensible regulation is possible for subjects that are pure make-believe.
The first two examples deal (or rather, fail to deal) with regulation of outright quackery. But there are dozens of other quangos that sound a lot more respectable.
European Food Standards Agency (EFSA). One of the common scams is to have have your favourite quack treatment classified as a food not as a medicine. The laws about what you can claim have been a lot laxer for foods. But the EFSA has done a pretty good job in stopping unjustified claims for health benefits from foods. Dozens of claims made by makers of probiotics have been banned. The food industry, needless to say, objects very strongly to be being forced to tell the truth. In my view, the ESFA has not gone far enough. They recently issued a directive about claims that could legally be made. Some of these betray the previously high standards of the EFSA. For example you are allowed to say that "Vitamin C contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue" (as long as the product contains above a specified amount of Vitamin C. I’m not aware of any trials that show vitamin C has the slightest effect on tiredness or fatigue, Although these laws do not come into effect until December 2012, they have already been invoked by the ASA has a reason not to uphold a complaint about a multivitamin pill which claimed that it “Includes 8 nutrients that can contribute to the reduction in tiredness and fatigue”
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). This is almost the only organisation that has done a good job on false health claims. Their Guidance on Health Therapies & Evidence says
"Whether you use the words ‘treatment’, ‘treat’ or ‘cure’, all are likely to be seen by members of the public as claims to alleviate effectively a condition or symptom. We would advise that they are not used"
"Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable"
"Before and after’ studies with little or no control, studies without human subjects, self-assessment studies and anecdotal evidence are unlikely to be considered acceptable"
They are spot on.
The ASA’s Guidance for Advertisers of Homeopathic Services is wonderful.
"In the simplest terms, you should avoid using efficacy claims, whether implied or direct,"
"To date, the ASA has have not seen persuasive evidence to support claims that homeopathy can treat, cure or relieve specific conditions or symptoms."
That seems to condemn the (mis)labelling allowed by the MHRA as breaking the rules.. Sadly, though, the ASA has no powers to enforce its decisions and only too often they are ignored. The Nightingale collaboration has produced an excellent letter that you can hand to any pharmacist who breaks the rules
The ASA has also judged against claims made by "Craniosacral therapists" (that’s the lunatic fringe of osteopathy). They will presumably uphold complaints about similar claims made (I’m ashamed to say) by UCLH Hospitals.
The private examination company Edexcel sets exams in antiscientific subjects, so miseducating children. The teaching of quackery to 16 year-olds has been approved by a maze of quangos, none of which will take responsibility, or justify their actions. So far I’ve located no fewer than eight of them. The Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (OfQual), Edexcel, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), Skills for Health, Skills for Care, National Occupational Standards (NOS), private exam company VTCT and the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.. Asking any of these people why they approve of examinations in imaginary subjects meets with blank incomprehension. They fail totally to protect tha public from utter nonsense.
The Department of Education has failed to do anything about the miseducation of children in quackery. In fact it has encouraged it by, for the first time, giving taxpayers’ money to a Steiner (Waldorf) school (at Frome, in Somerset). Steiner schools are run by a secretive and cult-like body of people (read about it). They teach about reincarnation, karma, gnomes, and all manner of nonsense, sometimes with unpleasant racial overtones. The teachers are trained in Steiner’s Anthroposophy, so if your child gets ill at school they’ll probably get homeopathic sugar pills. They might well get measles or mumps too, since Steiner people don’t believe in vaccination.
Incredibly, the University of Aberdeen came perilously close to appointing a chair in anthroposophical medicine. This disaster was aborted by bloggers, and a last minute intervention from journalists. Neither the university’s regulatory mechanisms. nor any others, seemed to realise that a chair in mystical barmpottery was a bad idea.
Trading Standards offices and the Office of Fair Trading.
It is the statutory duty of Trading Standards to enforce the Consumer Protection Regulations (2008) This European legislation is pretty good. it caused a lawyer to write " Has The UK Quietly Outlawed “Alternative” Medicine?". Unfortunately Trading Standards people have consistently refused to enforce these laws. The whole organisation is a mess. Its local office arrangement fails totally to deal with the age of the internet. The situation is so bad that a group of us decided to put them to the test. The results were published in the Medico-Legal Journal, Rose et al., 2012. "Spurious Claims for Health-care Products: An Experimental Approach to Evaluating Current UK Legislation and its Implementation". They concluded "EU directive 2005/29/EC is
largely ineffective in preventing misleading health claims for consumer products in
Skills for Health is an enormous quango which produces HR style "competences" for everything under the son. They are mostly quite useless. But those concerned with alternative medicine are not just useless. They are positively harmful. Totally barmy. There are competences and National Occupational Standards for every lunatic made-up therapy under the sun. When I phoned them to discover who’d written them, I learned that the had been drafted by the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Magic Medicine. And when I joked by asking if they had a competence for talking to trees, I was told, perfectly seriously, “You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that.”
That was in January 2008. A lot of correspondence with the head of Skills for Health got nowhere at all. She understood nothing and it hasn’t improved a jot.
This organisation costs a lot of taxpayers’ money and it should have been consigned to the "bonfire of the quangos" (but of course there was no such bonfire in reality). It is a disgrace.
The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) is supposed to ensure the quality of university courses. In fact it endorses courses in nonsense alternative medicine and so does more harm than good. The worst recent failure of the QAA was in the case of the University of Wales: see Scandal of the University of Wales and the Quality Assurance Agency. The university was making money by validating thousands of external degrees in everything from fundamentalist theology to Chinese Medicine. These validations were revealed as utterly incompetent by bloggers, and later by BBC Wales journalist Ciaran Jenkins (now working for Channel 4).
The mainstream media eventually caught up with bloggers. In 2010, BBC1 TV (Wales) produced an excellent TV programme that exposed the enormous degree validation scam run by the University of Wales. The programme can be seen on YouTube (Part 1, and Part 2). The programme also exposed, incidentally, the uselessness of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) which did nothing until the scam was exposed by TV and blogs. Eventually the QAA sent nine people to Malaysia to investigate a dodgy college that had been revealed by the BBC. The trip cost £91,000. It could have been done for nothing if anyone at the QAA knew how to use Google.
The outcome was that the University of Wales stopped endorsing external courses, and it was soon shut down altogether (though bafflingly, its vice-chancellor, Marc Clement was promoted). The credit for this lies entirely with bloggers and the BBC. The QAA did nothing to help until the very last moment.
Throughout this saga Universities UK (UUK), has maintained its usual total passivity. They have done nothing whatsoever about their members who give BSc degrees in anti-scientific subjects. (UUK used to known as the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals).
Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE), soon to become the PSAHSC,
Back now to the CHRE, the people who failed so signally to sort out the GCC. They are being reorganised. Their consultation document says
"The Health and Social Care Act 20122 confers a new function on the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (the renamed Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence). From November 2012 we will set standards for organisations that hold voluntary registers for people working in health and social care occupations and we will accredit the register if they meet those standards. It will then be known as an ‘Accredited Register’. "
They are trying to decide what the criteria should be for "accreditation" of a regulatory body. The list of those interested has some perfectly respectable organisations, like the British Psychological Society. It also contains a large number of crackpot organisations, like Crystal and Healing International, as well as joke regulators like the CNHC.
They already oversee the Health Professions Council (HPC) which is due to take over Herbal medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine, with predictably disastrous consequences.
Two of the proposed criteria for "accreditation" appear to be directly contradictory.
Para 2.5 makes the whole accreditation pointless from the point of view of patients
2.5 It will not be an endorsement of the therapeutic validity or effectiveness of any particular discipline or treatment.
Since the only thing that matters to the patient is whether the therapy works (and is safe), accrediting of organisations that ignore this will merely give the appearance of official approval of crystal healing etc etc. This appears to contradict directly
A.7 The organisation can demonstrate that there either is a sound knowledge base underpinning the profession or it is developing one and makes that explicit to the public.
A "sound knowledge base", if it is to mean anything useful at all, means knowledge that the treatment is effective. If it doesn’t mean that, what does it mean?
It seems that the official mind has still not grasped the obvious fact that there can be no sensible regulation of subjects that are untrue nonsense. If it is nonsense, the only form of regulation that makes any sense is the law.
Please fill in the consultation. My completed return can be downloaded as an example, if you wish.
Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should be a top level defender of truth. Its strapline is
"We enhance and safeguard the health of the public by ensuring that medicines and medical devices work and are acceptably safe."
The MHRA did something (they won’t tell me exactly what) about one of the most cruel scams that I’ve ever encountered, Esperanza Homeopathic Neuropeptide, peddled for multiple sclerosis, at an outrageous price ( £6,759 for 12 month’s supply). Needless to say there was not a jot of evidence that it worked (and it wasn’t actually homeopathic).
Astoundingly, Trading Standards officers refused to do anything about it.
The MHRA admit (when pushed really hard) that there is precious little evidence that any of the herbs work, and that homeopathy is nothing more than sugar pills. Their answer to that is to forget that bit about "ensuring that medicines … work"
Here’s the MHRA’s Traditional Herbal Registration Certificate for devils claw tablets.
The wording "based on traditional use only" has to be included because of European legislation. Shockingly, the MHRA have allowed them to relegate that to small print, with all the emphasis on the alleged indications. The pro-CAM agency NCCAM rates devil’s claw as "possibly effective" or "insufficient evidence" for all these indications, but that doesn’t matter because the MHRA requires no evidence whatsoever that the tablets do anything. They should, of course, added a statement to this effect to the label. They have failed in their duty to protect and inform the public by allowing this labelling.
But it gets worse. Here is the MHRA’s homeopathic marketing authorisation for the homeopathic medicinal product Arnicare Arnica 30c pillules
It is nothing short of surreal.
Since the pills contain nothing at all, they don’t have the slightest effect on sprains, muscular aches or bruising. The wording on the label is exceedingly misleading.
If you "pregnant or breastfeeding" there is no need to waste you doctor’s time before swallowing a few sugar pills.
"Do not take a double dose to make up for a missed one". Since the pills contain nothing, it doesn’t matter a damn.
"If you overdose . . " it won’t have the slightest effect because there is nothing in them
And it gets worse. The MHRA-approved label specifies ACTIVE INGREDIENT. Each pillule contains 30c Arnica Montana
No, they contain no arnica whatsoever.
It truly boggles the mind that men with dark suits and lots of letters after their names have sat for hours only to produce dishonest and misleading labels like these.
The Nightingale Collaboration.
This is an excellent organisation, set up by two very smart skeptics, Alan Henness and Maria MacLachlan. Visit their site regularly, sign up for their newsletter Help with their campaigns. Make a difference.
The regulation of alternative medicine in the UK is a farce. It is utterly ineffective in preventing deception of patients.
Such improvements as have occurred have resulted from the activity of bloggers, and sometime the mainstream media. All the official regulators have, to varying extents, made things worse.
The CHRE proposals promise to make matters still worse by offering "accreditation" to organisations that promote nonsensical quackery. None of the official regulators seem to be able to grasp the obvious fact that is impossible to have any sensible regulation of people who promote nonsensical untruths. One gets the impression that politicians are more concerned to protect the homeopathic (etc, etc) industry than they are to protect patients.
Deception by advocates of alternative medicine harms patients. There are adequate laws that make such deception illegal, but they are not being enforced. The CHRE and its successor should restrict themselves to real medicine. The money that they spend on pseudo-regulation of quacks should be transferred to the MHRA or a reformed Trading Standards organisation so they can afford to investigate and prosecute breaches of the law. That is the only form of regulation that makes sense.
The shocking case of the continuing sale of “homeopathic vaccines” for meningitis, rubella, pertussis etc was highlighted in an excellent TV programme by BBC South West. The failure of the MHRA and the GPC do take any effective action is a yet another illustration of the failure of regulators to do their job. I have to agree with Andy Lewis when he concludes
“Children will die. And the fault must lie with Professor Sir Kent Woods, chairman of the regulator.”
Much has been written on this blog about Dr Michael Dixon, and about the "College of Medicine", which is the direct inheritor of the mantle of the late, unlamented, Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. At the time of the foundation of the College it was stated that "The College represents a new strategy to take forward the vision of HRH Prince Charles".
Michael Dixon has also been chairman of the NHS Alliance since 1998. That was one of very few organisations to support Andrew Lansley’s Health Bill. No doubt he will be happy for
Crapita Capita to supply alternative nonsense at public expense.
Dr Dixon took offence to a review in The Times of Mark Henderson’s new book, The Geek Manifesto.
" . . .there was now, almost for the first time, a group of people who were not content to see claims made for discredited treatments without making everyone aware of the science that disproved those claims. And second, what they were doing had implications for public policy."
"The geeks represent, for me, one of the most encouraging recent developments in British public life."
This excellent review evidently upset Dr Dixon, because on 20th May, his letter appeared in the Times.
David Aaronovitch is right to argue for a robust scientific approach in medicine. However, he is not being logical or scientific when he says that if something is suspected to be placebo then it has no benefit and the NHS should not pay for it.
What about scientific research on remedies that many believe to be placebo? These frequently show that there is a benefit but this is confined to those who believe in the treatment given. Surely, in such cases, it would be logical to say that the treatment was beneficial albeit in a specific group of “believers”. From there, it would be good science to compare the safety costs of this supposed placebo remedy with its currently given alternative before deciding whether “believers” should be able to receive such a remedy on the NHS.
The problem here is that belief and mindset play an enormous part in healing – science needs to take account of this. Patients’ symptoms are frequently metaphors and effective treatment can often be symbolic and culturally dependent. The mind, in the right circumstances, can produce its own healing chemicals often mimicking those given in conventional medicine. Until science can explain healing in psychosocial as well as biomedical language, we must be cautious about “voting for the geeks” as Mr Aaronovitch suggests. It is far better surely that individual treatment should be tailored, within reason, to the patient and their beliefs and perspectives. Further more, might it not be wiser to direct NHS resources according to pragmatic trials of cost effectiveness and safety rather than a limited interpretation of science that excludes the effect of the mind?
Dr Michael Dixon
Chair of Council College of Medicine.
This letter seemed remarkable to me. It is very close to being an admission that alternative medicine is largely placebo. It called for a reply.
We have been here before. Many people have discussed the dubious ethics of deceiving patients by giving placebos while pretending they are no such thing. There is wide agreement that it is not only unethical, but also unnecessary. Kevin Smith has written a scholarly essay on the topic. Edzard Ernst wrote Mind over matter? Margaret McCartney, the Glasgow GP, and author of The Patient Paradox, has explained it. Some views of Dr Dixon’s approach are less flattering than mine. For example, from the USA, Steven Novella’s Dr. Michael Dixon – “A Pyromaniac In a Field of (Integrative) Straw Men”. And, from Majikthyse, Michael Dixon caught red-handed!, and Dr Aust’s Dr Michael Dixon is annoyed. The list is almost endless.
.Two replies were published in the Times on 26 May (and they were the lead letters -bold print). One from the excellent Evan Harris, and one from me.
Here they are as text.
Sir, Dr Michael Dixon’s letter (May 21) is fascinating. He is, of course, a well-known advocate of alternative medicine. Yet he seems now to believe that much alternative medicine is just a placebo. That’s something the geeks have been saying for years, and he appears, at last, to have accepted it.
That being the case, it follows that we have to ask whether placebos produce useful benefits, and whether it is ethical to prescribe them. Nobody denies the existence of placebo effects. But recent research has shown that they are usually both small and transient. Often they are not big enough to provide a useful degree of relief. For example, a recent paper on acupuncture in the British Journal of General Practice showed that it had a remarkably small placebo effect. And placebos have no effect at all on the course of cancer or infectious diseases.
There has been an admirable movement in medicine for doctors to be open and honest with patients. Prescribing of medicines that contain no active ingredient involves lying to patients. That is old-fashioned and unethical.
It is fair to ask why so many people seem to believe in alternative medicine, if even their placebo effects are small. The answer seems to lie in the “get better anyway” effect (known to geeks as regression to the mean). Most of the conditions for which placebos seem to work are things that wax and wane naturally. You take the “cure” when you are at your worst, and next day you are better. You would have been better anyway, but it’s hard to avoid attributing the improvement to whatever you took. That is why alternative medicine is advertised largely on the basis of anecdotal testimonials. And it is doubtless why Dr Dixon advocates “pragmatic” trials: that’s a euphemism for trials without a proper control group.
Psychosocial problems may indeed be very important for some patients. But deceiving such patients with dummy pills is not the proper way to deal with their problems.
D. Colquhoun, FRS Professor of Pharmacology, University College London
Sir, Dr Michael Dixon argues that the NHS should fund placebo treatments such as homeopathy (though he stops short of agreeing that homeopathy is a placebo) on the basis that they can offer limited help to those who “believe” in them. It is no part of modern ethical medical practice to deceive patients into thinking — or failing to disabuse them of the belief — that an inert substance or ineffective medicine has beneficial effects. This can not be justified by the hope — or even expectation — of deriving for that patient the limited psychologically based improvement in symptoms that may follow from the deployment of the placebo.
Pedlars of homeopathy for profit in the private sector will, alas, always seek to fool people into believing the hocus pocus of “memory of water” and the effects of infinite dilution and a lot of bottle-shaking. But doctors have responsibilities not to deceive their patients, even out of a paternalistic wish to assist them to manage their symptoms; and public policy demands that the NHS spends its resources only on treatments that work without deception in a cost-effective way.
Dr Evan Harris Oxford
The College of Medicine is well known to be the reincarnation of the late unlamented Prince of Wales Foundation for Integrated Health. I labelled it as a Fraud and Delusion, but that was perhaps over-generous. It seems to be morphing into a major operator in the destruction of the National Health Service through its close associations with the private health industry.
Their 2012 Conference was held on 3rd May. It has a mixture of speakers, some quite sound, some outright quacks. It’s a typical bait and switch event. You can judge its quality by the fact that the picture at the top of the page that advertises the conference shows Christine Glover, a homeopathic pharmacist who makes a living by selling sugar pills to sick people (and a Trustee of the College of Medicine).
Her own company’s web site says
The approaches are, of course, based on sugar pills. The claim is untrue and dangerous. My name for that is fraud.
When the "College of Medicine" started it was a company, but on January 30th 2012, it was converted to being a charity. But the Trustees of the charity are the same people as the directors of the company. They are all advocates of ineffective quack medicine. The contact is named as Linda Leung, who was Operations Director of the Prince’s Foundation until it closed, and then became Company Secretary for the “College of Medicine”.
The trustees of the charity are the same people who were directors of the company
- Dr Michael Dixon, general practitioner. Michael Dixon was Medical Director of the Prince’s Foundation until it closed down.
- Professor George Lewith, is Professor of Health Research in the Complementary Medicine Research Unit, University of Southampton. He was a Foundation Fellow of the Prince’s Foundation until it closed down. Much has been written about him here.
- Professor David Peters. is Professor of Integrated Healthcare and Clinical Director at the University of Westminster’s School of Integrated Health; He’s famous for allowing dowsing with a pendulum as a method of diagnosis for treatment with unproven herbal medicines,
He was a Foundation Fellow of the Prince’s Foundation until it closed down.
- Mrs Christine Glover is a pharmacist who sells homeopathic pills. She was a Foundation Fellow of the Prince’s Foundation until it closed down.
The involvement of Capita
According to their web site
"A Founder of the College of Medicine is Capita."
Still more amazingly, the CEO of the College of Medicine is actually an employee of Capita too.
"Mark Ratnarajah is interim CEO of the College of Medicine as well as Business Director at Capita Health and Wellbeing."
Within 9 years of graduating he set up in private practice in Harley Street. Five years later he set up Premier Medical, which, after swallowing a couple of rivals, he sold to Capita for £60 million. He is now recorded in a Companies House document as Dr Henry Otto Brunjes, a director of Capita Health Holdings Limited. This company owns all the shares in Capita Health and Wellbeing Limited, and it is, in turn, owned by Capita Business Services Limited. And they are owned by Capita Holdings Limited. I do hope that this baroquely complicated array of companies with no employees has nothing to do with tax avoidance.
Capita is, of course, a company with a huge interest in the privatisation of health care. It also has a pretty appalling record for ripping off the taxpayer.
It has long been known in Private Eye, as “Crapita” and “the world’s worst outsourcing firm”.
Capita were responsible for of the multimillion pound failed/delayed IT project for the NHS and HMRC. They messed up on staff administration services at Leicester Hospitals NHS Trust and the BBC where staff details were lost. They failed to provide sufficient computing systems for the Criminal Records Bureau, which caused lengthy delays. Capita were also involved in the failure of the Individual Learning Accounts following a £60M over-spend. And most recently, they have caused the near collapse of court translation services after their acquisition of Applied Language Services.
With allies like that, perhaps the College of Medicine hardly needs enemies. No doubt Capita will be happy to provide the public with quackery for an enormous fee from the taxpayer.
One shouldn’t be surprised that the College is involved in Andrew Lansley’s attempts to privatise healthcare. Michael Dixon, Chair of the College of Medicine, also runs the "NHS Alliance", almost the only organisation that supported the NHS Bill. The quackery at his own practice defies belief (some it is described here).
One would have thought that such a close association with a company with huge vested interests would not be compatible with charitable status. I’ve asked the Charity Commission about that. The Charity commission, sadly, makes no judgements about the worthiness of the objects of the charities it endorses. All sorts of dangerous quack organisations are registered charities, like, for example, Yes to Life.
Secrecy at the College of Medicine
One of the big problems about the privatisation of medicine and education is that you can’t use the Freedom of Information Act to discover what they are up to. A few private companies try to abide by that act, despite not being obliged to do so. But the College of Medicine is not one of them.
Capita They refuse to disclose anything about their relationship with Capita. I asked I asked Graeme Catto, who is a friend (despite the fact that I think he’s wrong). I got nothing.
"Critical appraisal" I also asked Catto for the teaching materials used on a course that they ran about "critical appraisal". Any university is obliged, by the decision of the Information Tribunal, to produce such material on request. The College of Medicine refused, point blank. What, one wonders, have they got to hide? Their refusal strikes me as deeply unethical.
The course (costing £100) on Critical Appraisal, ran on February 2nd 2012. The aims are "To develop introductory skills in the critical appraisal of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and systematic reviews (SRs)". That sounds good. Have they had a change of heart about testing treatments?
But, as always, you have to look at who is running the course. Is it perhaps a statistician with expertise in clinical trials? Or is it a clinician with experience in running trials? There are plenty of people with this sort of expertise. But no, It is being run by a pharmacist, Karen Pilkington, from that hotbed of unscientific medicine, the University of Westminster.
Pilkington originally joined the University of Westminster as manager for a 4-year project to review the evidence on complementary therapies (funded by the Department of Health). All of her current activities centre round alternative medicine and most of her publications are in journals that are dedicated to alternative medicine. She teaches "Critical Appraisal" at Westminster too, so I should soon have the teaching materials, despite the College’s attempts to conceal them.
Three people who ought to know better
Ore has to admire, however grudgingly, the way that the quacks who run the College of Medicine have managed to enlist the support of several people who really should know better. I suppose they have been duped by that most irritating characteristic of quacks, the tendency to pretend they have the monopoly on empathetic treatment of patients. We all agree that empathy is good, but every good doctor has it. One problem seems to be that senior medical people are not very good at using Google. They don’t do their homework.
Professor Sir Graeme Catto MD DSc FRCP FMedSci FRSE is president of the College of Medicine. He’s Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Aberdeen. He was President of the General Medical Council from 2002 to 2009, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of London and Dean of Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’ medical school between 2000 and 2005. He’s nice and well-meaning chap, but he doesn’t seem to know much about what’s going on in the College.
Professor Sir Ian Kennedy LLD, FBA, FKC, FUCL, Hon.DSc(Glasgow), Hon.FRCP is vice-president of the College. Among many other things he is Emeritus Professor of Health Law, Ethics and Policy at University College London. He was Chair of the Healthcare Commission until 2003, when it merged with other regulators to form the Care Quality Commission. No doubt he can’t be blamed for the recent parlous performence of the CQC.
Professor Aidan Halligan MA, MD, FRCOG, FFPHM, MRCPI Since March 200y he has been Director of Education at University College London Hospitals. From 2003 until 2005, he was Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, with responsibility for issues of clinical governance, patient safety and quality of care. He’s undoubtedly a well-meaning man, but so focussed on his (excellent) homelessness project that he seems immune to the company he keeps. Perhaps the clue lies in the fact that when I asked him what he thought of Lansely’s health bill, he seemed to quite like it.
It seems to me to be incomprehensible that these three people should be willing to sign a letter in the British Medical Journal in defence of the College, with co-signatories George Lewith (about whom much has been written here) and the homeopath Christine Glover. In so doing, they betray medicine, they betray reason, and most important of all, they betray patients. Perhaps they have spent too much time sitting on very important committees and not enough time with patients.
The stated aims of the College sound good.
"A force that combines scientific knowledge, clinical expertise and the patient’s own perspective. A force that will re-define what good medicine means − renewing the traditional values of service, commitment and compassion and creating a more holistic, patient-centred, preventative approach to healthcare."
But what they propose to do about it is, with a few exceptions, bad. They try to whip up panic by exaggerating the crisis in the NHS. There are problems of course, but they result largely from under-funding (we still spend less on healthcare than most developed countries), and from the progressive involvement of for-profit commercial companies, like Capita. The College has the wrong diagnosis and the wrong solution. How do they propose to take care of an aging population? Self-care and herbal medicines seem to be their solution.
It seems that the College of Medicine are aiding and abetting the destruction of the National Health Service. That makes me angry.(here’s why)
I can end only with the most poignant tweet in the run up to the passing of the Health and Social Care Act. It was from someone known as @HeardInLondon, on March 15th
"For a brief period during 20th century, people gave a fuck & looked after each other. Unfortunately this proved unprofitable." #SaveOurNHS
— HeardinLondon (@HeardinLondon) March 13, 2012
"For a brief period during 20th century, people gave a fuck and looked after each other. Unfortunately this proved unprofitable."
Unprofitable for Crapita, that is.
5 May 2012. Well well, if there were any doubt about the endarkenment values of the College, I see that the Prince of Wales, the Quacktitioner Royal himself, gave a speech at the College’s conference.
"”I have been saying for what seems a very long time that until we develop truly integrated systems – not simply treating the symptoms of disease, but actively creating health, putting the patient at the heart of the process by incorporating our core human elements of mind, body and spirit – we shall always struggle, in my view, with an over-emphasis on mechanistic, technological approaches.”
Of course we all want empathy. The speech, as usual, contributes precisely nothing.
12 June 2012. Oh my, how did I manage to miss the fact the the College’s president, Professor Sir Graeme Catto, is also a Crapita eployee. It’s over a year since he was apponted to Capita’s clinical governance board he says " In a rapidly growing health and wellbeing marketplace, delivering best practice in clinical governance is of utmost importance. I look forward to working with the team at Capita to assist them with continuing to adopt a best in class approach.". The operative word is "marketplace".
There’s been no official announcement, but four more of Westminster’s courses in junk medicine have quietly closed.
For entry in 2011 they offer
|University of Westminster (W50)||qualification|
|Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture (B343)||3FT Hon BSc|
|Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341)||4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci|
|Complementary Medicine (B255)||3FT Hon BSc|
|Complementary Medicine (B301)||4FT Hon MHSci|
|Complementary Medicine: Naturopathy (B391)||3FT Hon BSc|
|Herbal Medicine (B342)||3FT Hon BSc|
|Herbal Medicine with Foundation Year (B340)||4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci|
|Nutritional Therapy (B400)||3FT Hon BSc|
But for entry in 2012
|University of Westminster (W50)||qualification|
|Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture (B343)||3FT Hon BSc|
|Chinese Medicine: Acupuncture with Foundation (B341)||4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSci|
|Herbal Medicine (B342)||3FT Hon BSc|
|Herbal Medicine with Foundation Year (B340)||4FT/5FT Hon BSc/MSc|
At the end of 2006, Westminster was offering 14 different BSc degrees in seven flavours of junk medicine. In October 2008, it was eleven. This year it’s eight, and next year only four degrees in two subjects. Since "Integrated Health" was ‘merged’ with Biological Sciences in May 2010, two of the original courses have been dropped each year. This September there will be a final intake for Nutrition Therapy and Naturopathy. That leaves only two, Chinese Medicine (acupuncture and (Western) Herbal Medicine.
The official reason given for the closures is always that the number of applications has fallen. I’m told that the number of applications has halved over the last five or six years. If that’s right, it counts as a big success for the attempts of skeptics to show the public the nonsense that’s taught on these degrees. Perhaps it is a sign that we are emerging from the endarkenment.
Rumour has it that the remaining degrees will eventually close too. Let’s hope so. Meanwhile, here is another helping hand.
There is already quite a bit here about the dangers of Chinese medicine, e.g. here and, especially, here. A submission to the Department of Health gives more detail. There has been a lot on acupuncture here too. There is now little doubt that it’s no more than a theatrical, and not very effective, placebo. So this time I’ll concentrate on Western herbal medicine.
Western Herbal Medicine
Herbal medicine is just a branch of pharmacology and it could be taught as such. But it isn’t. It comes overlaid with much superstitious nonsense. Some of it can be seen in slides from Edinburgh Napier University (the difference being that Napier closed that course, and Westminster hasn’t)
Even if it were taught properly, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a BSc for several reasons.
First, there isn’t a single herbal that has full marketing authorisation from the MHRA. In other words, there isn’t a single herb for which there is good evidence that it works to a useful extent.
Second, the fact that the active principals in plants are virtually always given in an unknown dose makes them potentially dangerous. This isn’t 1950s pharmacology. It’s 1920s pharmacology, dating from a time before methods were worked out for standardising the potency of natural products (see Plants as Medicines).
Third, if you are going to treat illness with chemicals, why restrict yourself to chemicals that occur in plants?
It was the herbal medicine course that gave rise to the most virulent internal complaints at the University of Westminster. These complaints revealed the use of pendulum dowsing by some teachers on the course and the near-illegal, and certainly dangerous, teaching about herbs in cancer.
Here are a few slides from Principles of Herbal Medicine(3CT0 502). The vocabulary seems to be stuck in a time warp. When I first started in the late 1950s, words like tonic, carminative, demulcent and expectorant were common Over the last 40 years all these words have died out in pharmacology, for the simple reason that it became apparent that there were no such actions. But these imaginary categories are still alive and well in the herbal world.
There was a lecture on a categories of drugs so old-fashioned that I’ve never even heard the words: "nervines". and "adaptogens".
The "tonics" listed here seem quite bizarre. In the 1950s, “tonics” containing nux vomica (a small dose of strychnine) and gentian (tastes nasty) were common, but they vanished years ago, because they don’t work. None of those named here even get a mention in NCCAM’s Herbs-at-a-glance. Oats? Come on!
The only ‘relaxant’ here for which there is the slightest evidence is Valerian. I recall tincture of Valerian in a late 1950s pharmacy. It smells terrible,
According to NCCAM
Not much, for something that’s been around for centuries.
And for chamomile
None of this near-total lack of evidence is mentioned on the slides.
What about the ‘stimulants‘? Rosemary? No evidence at all. Tea and coffee aren’t medicine (and not very good stimulants for me either).
Ginseng, on the other hand, is big business. That doesn’t mean it works of course. NCCAM says of Asian ginseng (Panax Ginseng).
Thymoleptics – antidepressants are defined as "herbs that engender a feeling of wellbeing. They uplift the spirit, improve the mood and counteract depression".
Oats, Lemon balm, Damiana, Vervain. Lavender and Rosemary are just old bits of folklore
The only serious contender here is St John’s Wort. At one time this was the prize exhibit for herbalists. It has been shown to be as good as the conventional SSRIs for treatment of mild to moderate depression. Sadly it has turned out that the SSRIs are themselves barely better than placebos. NCCAM says
- There is scientific evidence that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Although some studies have reported benefits for more severe depression, others have not; for example, a large study sponsored by NCCAM found that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.
"Adaptogens" are another figment of the herbalists’ imaginations. They are defined in the lecture thus.
Well, it would be quite nice if such drugs existed. Sadly they don’t.
- The evidence for using astragalus for any health condition is limited. High-quality clinical trials (studies in people) are generally lacking.
Another lecture dealt with "stimulating herbs". No shortage of them, it seems.
Well at least one of these has quite well-understood effects in pharmacology, ephedrine, a sympathomimetic amine. It isn’t used much because it can be quite dangerous, even with the controlled dose that’s used in real medicine. In the uncontrolled dose in herbal medicines it is downright dangerous.
This is what NCCAM says about Ephedra
- An NCCAM-funded study that analyzed phone calls to poison control centers found a higher rate of side effects from ephedra, compared with other herbal products.
- Other studies and systematic reviews have found an increased risk of heart, psychiatric, and gastrointestinal problems, as well as high blood pressure and stroke, with ephedra use.
- According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is little evidence of ephedra’s effectiveness, except for short-term weight loss. However, the increased risk of heart problems and stroke outweighs any benefits.
It seems that what is taught in the BSc Herbal Medicine degree consists largely of folk-lore and old wives’ tales. Some of it could be quite dangerous for patients.
A problem for pharmacognosists
While talking about herbal medicine, it’s appropriate to mention a related problem, though it has nothing to do with the University of Westminster.
My guess is that not many people have even heard of pharmacognosy. If it were not for my humble origins as an apprentice pharmacist in Grange Road, Birkenhead (you can’t get much more humble than that) I might not know either.
Pharmacognosy is a branch of botany, the study of plant drugs. I recall inspecting powered digitalis leaves under a microscope. In Edinburgh, in the time of the great pharmacologist John Henry Gaddum, medical students might be presented in the oral exam with a jar of calabar beans and required to talk about their anticholinesterase effects of the physostigmine that they contain.
The need for pharmacognosy has now all but vanished, but it hangs on in the curriculum for pharmacy students. This has engendered a certain unease about the role of pharmacognists. They often try to justify their existence by rebranding themselves as "phytotherapists". There are even journals of phytotherapy. It sounds a lot more respectable that herbalism. At its best, it is more respectable, but the fact remains that there no herbs whatsoever that have well-documented medical uses.
The London School of Pharmacy is a case in point. Simon Gibbons (Professor of Phytochemistry, Department of Pharmaceutical and Biological Chemistry). The School of Pharmacy) has chosen, for reasons that baffle me, to throw in his lot with the reincarnated Prince of Wales Foundation known as the “College of Medicine“. That organisation exists largely (not entirely) to promote various forms of quackery under the euphemism “integrated medicine”. On their web site he says "Western science is now recognising the extremely high value of herbal medicinal products . . .", despite the fact that there isn’t a single herbal preparation with efficacy sufficient for it to get marketing authorisation in the UK. This is grasping at straws, not science.
The true nature of the "College of Medicine" is illustrated, yet again, by their "innovations network". Their idea of "innovation" includes the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital and the Royal London Hospital for Integrated medicine, both devoted to promoting the utterly discredited late-18th century practice of giving people pills that contain no medicine. Some "innovation".
It baffles me that Simon Gibbons is willing to appear on the same programme as Simon Mills and David Peters, and George Lewith. Mills’ ideas can be judged by watching 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. He too has rebranded himself as "phytotherapist" though in fact he’s an old-fashioned herbalist with no concern for good evidence. David Peters is the chap who, as Clinical Director of the University of Westminster’s ever-shrinking School of Quackery, tolerates dowsing as a way to select ‘remedies’.
The present chair of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy is Michael Heinrich. He, with Simon Gibbons, has written a book Fundamentals of pharmacognosy and phytotherapy. As well as much good chemistry, it contains this extraordinary statement
“TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] still contains very many remedies which were selected by their symbolic significance rather than their proven effects; however this does not mean that they are all ‘quack’remedies! There may even be some value in medicines such as tiger bone, bear gall, turtle shell, dried centipedes, bat dung and so on. The herbs, however, are well researched and are becoming increasingly popular as people become disillusioned with Western Medicine.”
It is irresponsible to give any solace at all to the wicked industries that kill tigers and torture bears to extract their bile. And it is simple untrue that “herbs are well-researched”. Try the test,
A simple test for herbalists. Next time you encounter a herbalist, ask them to name the herb for which there is the best evidence of benefit when given for any condition. Mostly they refuse to answer, as was the case with Michael McIntyre (but he is really an industry spokesman with few scientific pretensions). I asked Michael Heinrich, Professor of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy. Again I couldn’t get a straight answer. Usually, when pressed, the two things that come up are St John’s Wort and Echinacea. Let’s see what The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has to say about them. 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, their view can only be overoptimistic.
For St John’s Wort . NCCAM says
- There is scientific evidence that St. John’s wort may be useful for short-term treatment of mild to moderate depression. Although some studies have reported benefits for more severe depression, others have not; for example, a large study sponsored by NCCAM found that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression of moderate severity.
For Echinacea NCCAM says
- Study results are mixed on whether echinacea can prevent or effectively treat upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold. For example, two NCCAM-funded studies did not find a benefit from echinacea, either as Echinacea purpurea fresh-pressed juice for treating colds in children, or as an unrefined mixture of Echinacea angustifolia root and Echinacea purpurea root and herb in adults. However, other studies have shown that echinacea may be beneficial in treating upper respiratory infections.
If these are the best ones, heaven help the rest.
The original article, diplomatically, did not link directly to UCL’s Grand Challenge of Human Wellbeing, a well-meaning initiative which, I suspect, will not prove to be value for money when it comes to practical action.
Neither, when referring to the bad effects of disempowerment on human wellbeing (as elucidated by, among others, UCL’s Michael Marmot), did I mention the several ways in which staff have been disempowered and rendered voiceless at UCL during the last five years. Although these actions have undoubtedly had a bad effect on the wellbeing of UCL’s staff, it seemed a litlle unfair to single out UCL since similar things are happening in most universities. Indeed the fact that it has been far worse at Imperial College (at least in medicine) has probably saved UCL from being denuded. One must be thankful for small mercies.
There is, i think, a lesson to be learned from the fact that formal initiatives in wellbeing are springing up at a time when university managers are set on taking actions that have exactly the opposite effect. A ‘change manager’ is not an adequate substitute for a vote. Who do they imagine is being fooled?
The A to Z of the wellbeing industry
From angelic reiki to patient-centred care
Nobody could possibly be against wellbeing. It would be like opposing motherhood and apple pie. There is a whole spectrum of activities under the wellbeing banner, from the undoubtedly well-meaning patient-centred care at one end, to downright barmy new-age claptrap at the other end. The only question that really matters is, how much of it works?
Let’s start at the fruitcake end of the spectrum.
One thing is obvious. Wellbeing is big business. And if it is no more than a branch of the multi-billion-dollar positive-thinking industry, save your money and get on with your life.
In June 2010, Northamptonshire NHS Foundation Trust sponsored a “Festival of Wellbeing” that included a complementary therapy taster day. In a BBC interview one practitioner used the advertising opportunity, paid for by the NHS, to say “I’m an angelic reiki master teacher and also an angel therapist.” “Angels are just flying spirits, 100 percent just pure light from heaven. They are all around us. Everybody has a guardian angel.” Another said “I am a member of the British Society of Dowsers and use a crystal pendulum to dowse in treatment sessions. Sessions may include a combination of meditation, colour breathing, crystals, colour scarves, and use of a light box.” You couldn’t make it up.
The enormous positive-thinking industry is no better. Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, explains how dangerous the industry is, because, as much as guardian angels, it is based on myth and delusion. It simply doesn’t work (except for those who make fortunes by promoting it). She argues that it fosters the sort of delusion that gave us the financial crisis (and pessimistic bankers were fired for being right). Her interest in the industry started when she was diagnosed with cancer. She says
”When I was diagnosed, what I found was constant exhortations to be positive, to be cheerful, to even embrace the disease as if it were a gift. If that’s a gift, take me off your Christmas list,”
It is quite clear that positive thinking does nothing whatsoever to prolong your life (Schofield et al 2004; Coyne et al 2007; 2,3), any more than it will cure tuberculosis or cholera. “Encouraging patients to “be positive” only may add to the burden of having cancer while providing little benefit” (Schofield et al 2004). Far from being helpful, it can be rather cruel.
Just about every government department, the NHS, BIS, HEFCE, and NICE, has produced long reports on wellbeing and stress at work. It’s well known that income is correlated strongly with health (Marmot, M., 2004). For every tube stop you go east of Westminster you lose a year of life expectancy (London Health Observatory). It’s been proposed that what matters is inequality of income (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). The nature of the evidence doesn’t allow such a firm conclusion (Lynch et al. 2004), but that isn’t really the point. The real problem is that nobody has come up with good solutions. Sadly the recommendations at the ends of all these reports don’t amount to a hill of beans. Nobody knows what to do, partly because pilot studies are rarely randomised so causality is always dubious, and partly because the obvious steps are either managerially inconvenient, ideologically unacceptable, or too expensive.
Take two examples:
Sir Michael Marmot’s famous Whitehall study (Marmot, M., 2004) has shown that a major correlate of illness is lack of control over one’s own fate: disempowerment. What has been done about it?
In universities it has proved useful to managers to increase centralisation and to disempower academics, precisely the opposite of what Marmot recommends.
As long as it’s convenient to managers they are not going to change policy. Rather, they hand the job to the HR department which appoints highly paid “change managers,” who add to the stress by sending you stupid graphs that show you emerging from the slough of despond into eternal light once you realise that you really wanted to be disempowered after all. Or they send you on some silly “resilience” course.
A second example comes from debt. According to a BIS report (Mental Capital and Wellbeing), debt is an even stronger risk factor for mental disorder than low income. So what is the government’s response to that? To treble tuition fees to ensure that almost all graduates will stay in debt for most of their lifetime. And this was done despite the fact that the £9k fees will save nothing for the taxpayer: in fact they’ll cost more than the £3k fees. The rise has happened, presumably, because the ideological reasons overrode the government’s own ideas on how to make people happy.
Nothing illustrates better the futility of the wellbeing industry than the response that is reported to have been given to a reporter who posed as an applicant for a “health, safety, and wellbeing adviser” with a local council. When he asked what “wellbeing” advice would involve, a member of the council’s human resources team said: “We are not really sure yet as we have only just added that to the role. We’ll want someone to make sure that staff take breaks, go for walks — that kind of stuff.”
The latest wellbeing notion to re-emerge is the happiness survey. Jeremy Bentham advocated “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” but neglected to say how you measure it. A YouGov poll asks, “what about your general well-being right now, on a scale from 1 to 10.” I have not the slightest idea about how to answer such a question. As always some things are good, some are bad, and anyway wellbeing relative to whom? Writing this is fun. Trying to solve an algebraic problem is fun. Constant battling with university management in order to be able to do these things is not fun. The whole exercise smacks of the sort of intellectual arrogance that led psychologists in the 1930s to claim that they could sum up a person’s intelligence in a single number. That claim was wrong and it did great social harm.
HEFCE has spent a large amount of money setting up “pilot studies” of wellbeing in nine universities. Only one is randomised, so there will be no evidence for causality. The design of the pilots is contracted to a private company, Robertson Cooper, which declines to give full details but it seems likely that the results will be about as useless as the notorious Durham fish oil “trials”(Goldacre, 2008).
Lastly we get to the sensible end of the spectrum: patient-centred care. Again this has turned into an industry with endless meetings and reports and very few conclusions. Epstein & Street (2011) say
“Helping patients to be more active in consultations changes centuries of physician-dominated dialogues to those that engage patients as active participants. Training physicians to be more mindful, informative, and empathic transforms their role from one characterized by authority to one that has the goals of partnership, solidarity, empathy, and collaboration.”
That’s fine, but the question that is constantly avoided is what happens when a patient with metastatic breast cancer expresses a strong preference for Vitamin C or Gerson therapy, as advocated by the YesToLife charity. The fact of the matter is that the relationship can’t be equal when one party, usually (but not invariably) the doctor, knows a lot more about the problem than the other.
What really matters above all to patients is getting better. Anyone in their right mind would prefer a grumpy condescending doctor who correctly diagnoses their tumour, to an empathetic doctor who misses it. It’s fine for medical students to learn social skills but there is a real danger of so much time being spent on it that they can no longer make a correct diagnosis. Put another way, there is confusion between caring and curing. It is curing that matters most to patients. It is this confusion that forms the basis of the bait and switch tactics (see also here) used by magic medicine advocates to gain the respectability that they crave but rarely deserve.
If, as is only too often the case, the patient can’t be cured, then certainly they should be cared for. That’s a moral obligation when medicine fails in its primary aim. There is a lot of talk about individualised care. It is a buzzword of quacks and also of the libertarian wing which says NICE is too prescriptive. It sounds great, but it helps only if the individualised treatment actually works.
Nobody knows how often medicine fails to be “patient-centred.”. Even less does anyone know whether patient-centred care can improve the actual health of patients. There is a strong tendency to do small pilot trials that are as likely to mislead as inform. One properly randomised trial (Kinmonth et al., 1998) concluded
“those committed to achieving the benefits of patient centred consulting should not lose the focus on disease management.”
Non-randomised studies may produce more optimistic conclusions (e.g. Hojat et al, 2011), but there is no way to tell if this is simply because doctors find it easy to be empathetic with patients who have better outcomes.
Obviously I’m in favour of doctors being nice to patients and to listening to their wishes. But there is a real danger that it will be seen as more important than curing. There is also a real danger that it will open the doors to all sorts of quacks who claim to provide individualised empathic treatment, but end up recommending Gerson therapy for metastatic breast cancer. The new College of Medicine, which in reality is simply a reincarnation of the late unlamented Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, lists as its founder Capita, the private healthcare provider that will, no doubt, be happy to back the herbalists and homeopaths in the College of Medicine, and, no doubt, to make a profit from selling their wares to the NHS.
In my own experience as a patient, there is not nearly as much of a problem with patient centred care as the industry makes out. Others have been less lucky, as shown by the mid-Staffordshire disaster (Delamothe, 2010), That seems to have resulted from PR being given priority over patients. Perhaps all that’s needed is to save money on all the endless reports and meetings (“the best substitute for work”), ban use of PR agencies (paid lying) and to spend the money on more doctors and nurses so they can give time to people who need it. This is a job that will be hindered considerably by the government’s proposals to sell off NHS work to private providers who will be happy to make money from junk medicine.
Wilkinson. R & Pickett, K. 2009 , The Spirit Level, ISBN 978 1 84614 039 6
A footnote on Robertson Cooper and "resilience"
I took up the offer of Robertson Cooper to do their free "resilience" assessment, the company to which HEFCE has paid an undisclosed amount of money.
The first problem arose when it asked about your job. There was no option for scientist, mathematician, university or research, so I was forced to choose "education and training". (a funny juxtaposition since training is arguably the antithesis of education). It had 195 questions. mostly as unanswerable as in the YouGov happiness survey. I particularly liked question 124 "I see little point in many of the theoretical models I come across". The theoretical models that I come across most are Markov models for the intramolecular changes in a receptor molecule when it binds a ligand (try, for example, Joint distributions of apparent open and shut times of single-ion channels and maximum likelihood fitting of mechanisms). I doubt the person who wrote the question has ever heard of a model of that sort. The answer to that question (and most of the others) would not be worth the paper they are written on.
The whole exercise struck me as the worst sort of vacuous HR psychobabble. It is worrying that HEFCE thinks it is worth spending money on it.
An email yesterday alerted me to YesToLife. This outfit seemed to me to be so dangerous that a word of warning is in the public interest.
Their own description says “YES TO LIFE is a new charitable initiative to open up a positive future for people with cancer in the UK by supporting an integrative* approach to cancer care”. That sounds sort of cuddly but lets look below the surface.
As so often, the funding seems to have been raised as the result of the death of an unfortunate 23 year old woman. Instead of putting the money into real research, yet another small charity was formed. My correspondent pointed out that “I came across them at St Pancras Station on Friday afternoon — they had a live DJ to draw in the crowd and were raising funds through bucket collections”. No doubt many people just see the word ‘cancer’ and put money in the bucket, without realising that their money will be spent on promoting nonsensical and ineffective treatments.
The supporters list.
The list of supporters tells you all you need to know, if you are familiar with the magic medicine business, though it might look quite convincing if you don’t know about the people. Sadly the list starts with some celebrities (I didn’t know before that Maureen Lipman was an enthusiast foir quackery -how very sad). But never mind the air-head celebrities. The more interesting supporters come later.
- Dr Rosy Daniel of Health Creation is an old friend. After I complained about her promotion of some herbal concoction called Carctol to “heal cancer”, she was reprimanded by Trading Standards for breaching the Cancer Act 1939, and forced to change the claims (in my view she should have neen prosecuted but, luckily of her, Trading Standards people are notoriously ineffective). There is, of course not the slightest reason to to think that Carctol works (download Carctol: Profits before Patients?). Read also what Cancer Research UK say about carctol.
Dr Daniel is also well known because ran a course that was, for one year, accredited by the University of Buckingham. But once the university became aware of the nonsense that was being taught on the course, they first removed her as the course director, and then removed accreditation from the course altogether. She then tried to run the course under the aegis of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, but even they turned her down. Now it is running as a private venture, and is being advertised by YesToLife.
- Boo Armstrong, “Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and Founder and Executive Director GetWellUK”. The web site is out of date since the Prince’s Foundation shut its doors a year ago. She runs a private company, GetWellUK, that was responsible for a very poor study of alternative medicine in Northern Ireland. So she has a vested interest in promoting it. See Peter Hain and GetwellUK: pseudoscience and privatisation in Northern Ireland
- Professor George Lewith. This is beginning to look like the usual list of suspects. I’ve had cause to write twice about the curious activities of Dr Lewith. See Lewith’s private clinic has curious standards, in 2006, and this year George Lewith’s private practice. Another case study. The make up your own mind about whether you’d trust him.
- Dr Michael Dixon OBE, Chairman NHS Alliance and Medical Director The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. Again the job description is a year out of date. You can read about Dr Dixon at Prince of Wales Foundation for magic medicine: spin on the meaning of ‘integrated’. He seems to be a well meaning man for whom no new-age idea is too barmy.
In fact both Dixon and Lewith have moved to a reincarnation of the Prince’s Foundation known as the “College of Medicine” (actually it’s a couple of offices in Buckingham Street). See Don’t be deceived. The new “College of Medicine” is a fraud and delusion.
It seems to me incomprehensible that people such as Sir Graeme Catto, Sir Cyril Chantler and Sir Muir Grey are willing to be associated with people who behave like this.
- Charlotte Grobien, Managing Director, Give it Away. This seems to be a fund-raising organisation that has supported YesToLife. The lesson seems to be, never give money to fundraisers unless you know exactly where your money is going.
The Help Centre
YesToLife has a help centre. But beware, There is no medical person there. Just Traditional Chinese medicine (rather dangerous), acupuncture, osteopath and naturopathy (which means, roughly, do nothing and hope for the best).
There can be no better indication of the standard of advice to be expected from YesToLife than the fact they are advertising a lecture by Holford, with the enticing title "Say no to cancer"."Through learning about the effects of diet and nutrition, people with cancer or at risk of developing cancer can be empowered to say Yes to Life and No to Cancer". Would that it were so easy. It will cost you £15.00.
Just in case there is still nobody who has heard of Holford, he is the media nutritionist who has an entire chapter devoted to him in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science book, He has a whole website that has exposed his dubious advice, the excellent HolfordWatch. And you can find quite a lot about him on this blog. Try, for example, Patrick Holford’s CV: the strange case of Dr John Marks, and Response to a threatening letter from Mr Holford, or Holford’s untruthful and unsubstantiated advertisement
The treatments directory
Now we get to the truly scary bit of YesToLife, their treatment directory. Try searching for ‘cancer type’ and then "breast (metastatic)".. We find no mention of the advances in understanding of the genetics of breast cancer, nor ot real therapies like tamoxifen. What we find are four "alternative treatments".
- Neuroimmunomodulation Therapy It sounds impressive until you learn that its only proponent is a an 82 year old Venezuelan doctor with a clinic in Caracas. Even YesToLife doesn’t pretend that there is any evidence that it works
- Vitamin C Therapy The old chestnut cure-all Vitamin C Again even YesToLife don’t pretend there is any good evidence but it is still offered; treatment cost £3140.00 (what? Vitamin C is very cheap indeed)
- Dendritic Cell Therapy Said by YesToLife to be "well-researched", though that isn’t so for breast cancer (metastatic). Although possibly not as barmy as the other things that are recommended, it is nevertheless not shown to be effective for any sort of cancer,
- Gerson Therapy It is a sign of the extreme unreliability of advice given by YesToLife that they should still recommend anything as totally discredited as Gerson Therapy.Although YesToLife describes it as "well-researched" that is simply not true: there are no proper clinical trials. Cancer Research UK say
"Overall, there is no evidence to show that Gerson therapy works as a cure for cancer. "
"Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Gerson therapy can treat cancer. It is not approved for use in the United States. Gerson therapy can be very harmful to your health. Coffee enemas have been linked to serious infections, dehydration, constipation, colitis (inflammation of the colon), and electrolyte imbalances. In some people, particular aspects of the diet such as coffee enemas have been thought to be responsible for their death."
Recommended reading: The (Not-So-)Beautiful (Un)Truth about the Gerson protocol and cancer quackery, by David Gorski (breast cancer surgeon, writing in Science-based Medicine.
The information supplied by YesToLife is more likely to kill you than to cure you.
The next time you see somebody collecting for a "cancer charity" be very careful before you give them money.
November 2012. It gets worse.
I had an email from someone who was distressed because a friend was trying to raise £15,000 to cover the cost of treatments recommended by YesToLife. The treatment is high-dose intravenous Vitamin C infusion. This is pure quackery. There isn’t the slightest reason to think it will affect the course of cancer, or the wellbeing of the patient. It is exploitation of the desperate. My heart sinks at the thought that a “charity” can be quite so wicked.
The Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health shut down amidst scandal in April 2010. In July, we heard that a new “College of Medicine” was to arise from its ashes. It seemed clear from the people involved that the name “College of Medicine” would be deceptive.
Now the College of Medicine has materialised, and it is clear that one’s worst fears were well justified.
At first sight, it looks entirely plausible and well-meaning. Below the logo one reads
“There is a new force in medicine. A force that brings patients, doctors, nurses and other health professionals together, instead of separating them into tribes.”
"That force is the new College of Medicine. Uniquely, it brings doctors and other health professionals together with patients and scientists.”
It is apparent from the outset that the well-meaning words fall into the trap described so clearly by James May (see What ‘holistic’ really means). It fails to distinguish between curing and caring.
As always, the clue lies not in the words, but in the people who are running it.
Who is involved?
After a bit of digging on the web site, you find the names of the people on the Science Council of the “College of Medicine”, The preamble says
“Good medicine must be grounded in good science as well as compassion. The College’s Science Council brings a depth of knowledge from many senior figures.”
But then come the names. With the odd exception the “science council” is like a roll-call of quacks, the dregs left over from the Prince’s Foundation. The link (attached to each name) gives the College’s bio, My links tell a rather different story.
Professor Simon Gibbons A phytochemist with exaggerated ideas of what you can get from plants.
It seems that the "Scientific Council" of the College of Medicine could more properly be called an "Antiscientific Council".
There are a few gaps in this table, to be filled in soon. One can guarantee that a great deal more will appear about the College on the web, very soon.
The Governing Council of the College is equally replete with quacks (plus a few surprising names). It has on it, for example, a spiritual healer (Angie-Buxton King), a homeopath (Christine Glover), a herbalist (Michael McIntyre). Westminster University’s king of woo (David Peters), not to mention the infamous Karol Sikora. Buxton-King offers a remarkable service to heal people or animals at a distance.
Meanwhile, it seemed worthwhile to provide a warning that the title of the College is very deceptive. It hides an agenda that could do much harm.
It is, quite simply, the Prince of Wales by stealth.
28 October 2010
Professor Sir Graeme Catto, who has, disgracefully, allowed his name to be used as president of this “College” has said to me “There are real problems in knowing how to care for folk with chronic conditions and the extent of the evidence base for medicine is pretty limited”.
Yes of course that is quite true. There are many conditions for which medicine can still do little. There is a fascinating discussion to be had about how best to care for them. The answer to that is NOT to bring in spiritual healers and peddlers of sugar pills to deceive patients with their fairy stories. The “College of Medicine” will delay and pervert the sort of discussion that Catto says, rightly, is needed.
29 October 2010
I need a press card. I see that the BMJ also had a piece about the “College of Medicine” yesterday: Prince’s foundation metamorphoses into new College of Medicine, by Nigel Hawkes. He got the main point right there in the title.
As was clear since July, the driving force was Michael Dixon, Devon GP and ex medical director of the Prince’s Foundation. Hawkes goes easy on the homeopaths and spiritual healers, but did spot something that I can’t find on their web site. The “Faculties” will include
“in 2011, neuromusculoskeletal care. Two of the six strong faculty members for this specialty are from the British Chiropractic Association, which sued the author Simon Singh for libel for his disobliging remarks about the evidence base for their interventions.”
The College certainly picks its moment to endorse chiropractic, a subject that is in chaos and disgrace after they lost the Singh affair.
One bit of good news emerges from Hawkes’ piece, There is at least one high profile doubter in the medical establishment, Lord (John) Walton (his 2000 report on CAM was less than blunt, and has been widely misquoted by quacks) is reported as saying, at the opening ceremony
“I’m here as a sceptic, and I’ve just told my former houseman that,” he said. The target of the remark was Donald Irvine, another former GMC president and a member of the new college’s advisory council.”
31 October 2010. I got an email that pointed out a remarkable service offered by a member of College’s Governing Council. Angie Buxton-King, a “spiritual healer” employed by UCLH seems to have another web site, The Beacon of Healing Light that is not mentioned in her biography on the College’s site. Perhaps it should have been because it makes some remarkable claims. The page about distant healing is the most bizarre.
Absent Healing/Distant Healing
"Absent healing is available when it is not possible to visit the patient or it is not possible for the patient to be brought to our healing room. This form of healing has proved to be very successful for humans and animals alike."
"We keep a healing book within our healing room and every night spend time sending healing to all those who have asked for it. We have found that if a picture of the patient is sent to us the healing is more beneficial, we also require a weekly update to monitor any progress or change in the patients situation. Donations are welcome for this service."
I wonder what the Advertising Standards people make of the claim that it is “very successful”? I wonder what the president of the College makes of it? I’ve asked him.
Other blogs about the “College of Medicine”
30 October 2010. Margaret McCartney is always worth reading. As a GP she is at the forefront of medicine. She’s written about the College in The Crisis in Caring and dangerous inference. She’s also provided some information about a "professional member" of the College of Medicine, in ..and on Dr Sam Everington, at the Bromley by Bow Centre….
It is one of the more insulting things about alternative medicine addicts that they claim to be the guardians of caring (as opposed to curing), They are not, and people like McCartney and Michael Baum are excellent examples.
Prince of Wales to become honorary president of the “College of Medicine?”
Last night I heard a rumour that the Prince of Wales is, despite all the earlier denials, to become Honorary President of the “College”. If this is true, it completes the wholesale transformation of the late, unlamented, Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Medicine into this new “College”. Can anybody take it seriously now?
Text messages to Graeme Catto and Michael Dixon, inviting them to deny the rumour, have met with silence.
Herbal nonsense at the College
29 July 2011. I got an email from the College if Medicine [download it]. It contains a lot of fantasy about herbal medicines, sponsered by a company that manufactures them. It is dangeroous and corrupt.